Searching for temple ruins in Wiang Kum Kam

Hunting for remnants of centuries old wats in the city of Wian Kum Kam

If you fancy yourself as an urban explorer, modern day Indiana Jones and you’re into “ancient ruins” you should check out Wiang Kum Kam if you’re ever in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I stumbled across this area quite by accident. I had just gotten back to my room after my afternoon dental appointment and needed to get my mind off the nagging discomfort. I had pretty much walked everywhere around the hotel and it was time I ventured further. A quick Google search of temple ruins (or something along those lines led me to Wiang Kum Kam.

With only the knowledge (from Google) that Wang Kum Kam was the previous capital of the Lanna Kingdom before being abandoned and moved to present day Chiang Mai due to adverse river conditions and war.  Then in the 1990’s ruins of temples were being discovered in the jungles and excavated from under mud deposits. So I booked a Grab taxi for $150 TBH and off I went to the Wat Chang Kam, I thought this was the only one of note that was excavated and preserved.

The taxi driver arrived at Wat Kan Thom, I got so excited because I saw ruins as well as newer structures so this must be the place, right? Well, kind of but at first glance the name is different.  The driver stopped the car and asked me to wait, he came back after speaking to someone and told me the Visitor’s Center was about 5 minutes away, sounds like an important place to go even though I really wanted to stay. The parking lot of the Visitor’s center was pretty big and there were plenty of horse carriages and really long, golf cart looking tour vehicles. Inside the Visitor’s office (this is the only structure you can walk into) I was met with surprise (I was the only non local person there). I was quickly given a map and ushered into a room where I watched a 5 minute video on the history of Chiang Mai / Wiang Kum Kam. The video was pretty interesting, a bit too short for a history “lesson” I thought. Anyways, when the video was done, I was ushered back outside and asked which mode of tour transport I preferred and I told them I preferred to walk. The look on their faces should have tipped me off there was an issue but since there was a language barrier, I just thanked them and left.

Statue of King Mangrai founder of Wiang Kum Kam and subsequently Chiang Mai

Free map of Wiang Kum Kam from the Visitor’s Center

In hindsight I should have taken one of the tour vehicles I can’t remember the cost but it wasn’t much. I just really preferred not to be rushed when looking at stuff. Do yourself a favor and take the ride. By walking, you will not be able to see everything, not by a long shot. I walked 3 hours (including photography time but excluding travel time to get to the first wat) and only found 3 wats/ruins each day (I actually didn’t know I was in Wiang Kum Kam twice until I was looking for photos for this post). I had Googled for old/ancient wats in Chiang Mai after my dental visits and took a Grab taxi to the nearest one that I hadn’t been to yet (as usual, I’m just winging it, haha).  Anyways, there are 29 dots on the map that I got from the visitors center! So even by cycling I don’t think you can get to all of them, they are quite far apart even though it doesn’t seem that way by looking at the map. Although I’m not the greatest map reader, I’m pretty sure I’m not that bad either but for some reason somethings just weren’t adding up. I found “extra” roads, couldn’t find some roads etc. Also, some wats have more than one name and the name on the map might not be the same as whats on Google maps so I couldn’t really use that either and thus making my adventure all the more fun. If uncertainty isn’t enough to make things interesting, how about a bit of danger? You’re walking around in a neighborhood you’ll find no sidewalks most of the time, forested/jungle areas, farms with horses, chickens and dogs. There are lots of dogs! Some friendly, some not so much. Some fenced in and some aren’t. On more than one occasion while walking I had to fend of some not so nice dogs with my 1/2 extended tripod. Those buggers followed me about a block before coming in closer for the bite. I’m relatively sure I would have gotten bitten if I didn’t swing my tripod at them (I didn’t hit the dogs but could have, they were that close). On other occasions while setting up my tripod for a selfie at one of the ruins, there were a couple dogs right next to my leg and I didn’t know until I stood up, ready to get into my shot. Even though some of the ruins weren’t much to look at (if you’re just looking) but for me, being there, seeing it and imagining what it was like, was pretty cool. Plus there are info signs for you to read at the site and some even have a QR code you can scan for more info.

If you’re not into wat’s and religious/cultural history then this excursion probably won’t be for you. But for me, I had a lot of fun. If I ever get back to Chiang Mai, I’ll definitely go back and take the tour ride and then find a way (most likely Grab taxi) to get to any wat/ruin I find more interesting.

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Review of Yungang Grottoes. Datong, China

Yungang Grottoes
Shanxi Province, Datong.

Yungang Grottos is a UNESCO World Heritage site just outside the city of Datong. While you can catch a bus directly to the site you may want to consider a taxi. While the bus is significantly cheaper, it also take longer to get there. Plus, finding the bus stations/stops might be a challenge. Well, for us it was, we didn’t notice any obvious signage or anything indicative of a bus stop (like a numbers), also we didn’t notice any bus station like building. Anyways, if you can afford the time it is much cheaper by public transport. If you choose to go by taxi, you can either go one way (probably cheaper initially) or the taxi driver may offer you a higher price and then will wait for you in the parking area until you’re done. This may be better because your fare is already negotiated and you won’t get ripped off by the second taxi taking you back (I haven’t had experience with that, only read reviews saying fares are higher on the return trip because the drivers know there’s no other option for you). Also, since payment is made when you return from the outing, you’re guaranteed a ride back. From Datong Hotel, front desk got us a taxi for 200 yuan (this is a bit on the steep side, I think). The ride was roughly 40 minutes driving fast. Remember to take a picture of the taxi, driver and license plate so you can find the guy easier when you’re done at the Grottoes.

Just inside the traffic gate at the Yungang Grottoes.

At the Grottoes, you get dropped off at the parking area and you have to walk into the “scenic area”. There are street vendors with drinks and stuff, as well as people (quite aggressively) trying to sell “discount” tickets. Not sure what the deal is but if you can understand whats being said maybe you can get a deal. We did buy drinks from street vendor. I picked Pepsi, at least what I thought was Pepsi. You can see it in the photo but the coloration was a lot lighter than in the photo. I threw it out right after the photo. From the parking area roughly 50 meters away you’ll see a traffic gate/building structure (the background structure in the photo). Go through the gates and keep going straight! Right after passing through the gate/building there is a way to go left with lots of stuff to see, restaurants etc. That’s the exit plaza. To get to the entrance where the ticket office is, keep going straight, you’ll see stairs. Going up the stairs the ticketing office is in the building on the left. Tickets were 125 Yuan. If you like postcards, don’t crumple the ticket because you can tear off the stubs and the remainder is a postcard. We got there at 13:30 and they closed at 17:00. We barely finished it. We could have spent more time looking at things the last hour but we rushed the grottoes knowing we’d run out of time. Not knowing that there is a park area and that the exit was a ways off.

The first section after you buy your tickets and enter the “Grottoes” is a plaza of sorts with temples, a pagoda, some stone art. You’ll pass an Art Gallery too. After getting past all of that, you’ll cross a bridge before getting to the Grottoes section.

View of Yungang Temple after crossing the bridge to the Grottoes.

The first set of caves at the Yungang Grottoes.

The main paths are pretty much smooth and easy to walk. For the grottoes that are higher, there are wooden stairs and platforms built for access. Inside however is a mix. Some have wooden walkways, some do not and some caves were empty.

Wooden stairs and platforms at the Yungang grottoes

Some caves at the Yungang grottoes were empty but perhaps weren't before.

There is temple on top of the cliff (was under repairs at the time) accessible by an almost hidden (by trees) stairway path. The view from up there is pretty cool and you can see how big this “park” really is. Behind this building is a path that goes somewhere, being pressed for time we didn’t venture that far. Some of the caves were enclosed for their protection, some of which were unavailable for entry.

Temple on top of a cliff at the Yungang Grottoes.

Building built to protect the cave from further deterioration.

Like I said earlier we almost didn’t finish the Grottoes section, but we for sure didn’t get to see most of the park area because we got picked up by an extended golf cart and taken to the exit area because we wouldn’t make it on time for closing. We had to pay 5 yuan each for the ride.  If you can’t walk the entire grounds, you can take the tour cart. It doesn’t go into where the actually caves are though. You may want to budget a bit more time if you like to take lots of photos (like me) because some of the closed areas may be open when you go and also for the park area after the grottoes area. There were games and stalls and stuff.

A large stone buddha carved into a cliff at the Yungang Grottoes.

A large stone buddha carved into a cliff at the Yungang Grottoes.

Once you exit the grottoes, the exit plaza has a whole bunch of stalls for you to buy souvenirs. Lots of cool stuff, remember prices can be negotiable. I got 20 yuan off just for picking up a silver bracelet after asking for the price. If you plan to buy the black bead bracelets keep this in mind, once you exit the traffic gates to get to the parking area where your taxi should be waiting, there are a lot of old ladies selling those bracelets at 3 for 10 yuan but I got offered as high as 7 for 10 yuan. These old ladies are aggressive! They will put the bracelets in your hand on your arm wherever they can and refuse to take them back. Once you buy from one you will get swarmed. They will prevent you from closing the taxi door even (our driver was of no help in shooing them away) eventually though they gave up.

All in all,  in our opinion, the Yungang Grottoes is worth the entrance fee. I think I could spend an additional 3 hours in there. Our only regret is rushing and not finishing the park as well as not trying the food. Although you may not want to if you have nut allergies (specifically peanuts) I saw and smelled a lot of peanuts at the exit plaza area.

For more of my photos taken in and around Datong, visit my Datong Album on Flickr.

Thanks for your support!

Thank you, Lydia, for your purchase of the “No Worries” postcard and for your continued support.