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Ban Tha Kan, Chiang Mai

Village defies time by Suthon Sukphisit, Bangkok Post

It was reported in a recent thesis by Acharn Surapol Dumrikul from the Fine Arts Department of Chiang Mai University that they are excavating the ancient city of Wiang Tha Kan, in the village of Ban Tha Kan, Chiang Mai. When we read something like this, it is an opportunity to look into the past that should not be missed, in the same way we would not want to miss a movie everyone is talking about.

Leaving Chiang Mai, I drove about 13 kilometres along highway 108 to Mae Sariang in Mae Hong Son then turned left at Amphur San Pa Tong onto route 1015 to Lamphun. About two kilometres from San Pa Tong I saw signs for Wiang Tha Khan.

The minute I entered the town I realised I had found a completely authentic, old- fashioned Northern Thai village. It seemed to belong to completely different era in which the pace of life was slower and the town was embued with a gracious charm that has all but vanished elsewhere.

It is hard to believe such a place still exists, especially when one's mind is still racing from a stay in the increasingly busy Chiang Mai.

Most of the houses in Ban Tha Kan are sturdy wooden structures. The property around them is kept cool and shady by the many longan trees, and most of the yards are surrounded by simple woven bamboo fences. One feature that enhances the atmosphere is the many rice storage silos.

In the past, these silos were found adjoining houses in every village throughout the North, but in recent vears they have all been moved to the gardens of the wealthy, or decorate restaurants, museums and souvenir shops. They are small and portable, and villagers were willing to part with them for a low price.

But in Ban Tha Kan they are still used for their original purpose. Yet Ban Tha Kan's link with the past extends beyond its present-day appearance. The village itself is an antique with a history stretching back far into the past. Its name, Ban Tha Kan, is a comparatively recent variation of the original name Phan Na Tha Kan, as it is known in ancient court and temple histories.

Not many references to Phan Na Tha Khan survive, but one script mentions that King Mengrai, the original founder of Chiang Mai 700 years ago, brought a bo tree from Sri Lanka and planted it at Phan Na Tha Kan.

Following Burmese invasions of the North, Phan Na Tha Kan was abandoned.

In other historical records it is written that King Kawila revived Chiang Mai of Chiang Mai during the Rattanakosin period (around the 1780s), after driving out the Burmese in battles that extended for about 10 years. There are records that he even recruited soldiers from Rama I's army in Bangkok.

At the same time, King Kawila brought Phan Na Tha Kan back to life by moving Thai Lue people in from Chiang Mai of Yong (now part of Shan State in Myanmar). Records seem to indicate he wanted to build farming and religious communities to increase his political and economic power in the North.

That accounts for what is known about the history of Phan Tha Na Kan, but much of the rest of its past remains a mystery. No evidence has come to light to explain when the settlement was founded, or by whom.

However, traces of its ancient past survive. Visitors entering the village will see the ruins of two old chedi set in a large open area surrounded by remnants of a brick wall that once must have enclosed a temple compound. Both chedis have been restored by the Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Education and the work has been done in the department's usual way, with nothing about it to cause special excitement. But a closer look at the architectural style of the two structures suggests they were built during the Hariphunchai (also known as Haripunjaya) period, and therefore predate Chiang Mai.

The ancient Mon capital of Hariphunchai (in present-day Lamphun province) flourished for a period of more than 500 years, during which time it was prosperous and powerful. Therefore it is thought Phan Na Tha Kan was a small town under the control of Hariphunchai, according to Dr Suraphol.

This supposition conforms with records kept by the Ministry of Education during its examination and restoration of the two chedi. During the dig they found ceramic images in the Hariphunchai style that seemed to confirm the town was established during the time Hariphunchai's influence was at its height more than 700 years ago.

When I reached the point where I caught my first glimpse of the two chedi, I knew I had come to the right village. To see the excavation work being done on the old city of Tha Kan or Wiang Tha Kan, I had to walk around the town on a hard dirt road. The ancient site occupies an area 750 metres long and 500 metres wide. Remnants can still be seen including a pair of earthen city walls, one inside the other. Between them is a deep moat still able to hold water after more than 700 years. Along the wall are tall trees that give deep shade, with some stretches that are almost dark.

Encountering something so ancient and, until now, so undisturbed made me slow my pace, and sent shivers up my spine, and many questions arose in my mind. Why did these structures survive in such good condition? Remnants of ancient city walls are very rarely so perfectly preserved.

From the wall, I moved on to the interior of the old city, following a narrow path that passed through longan orchards. I came to a steep hill covered with weeds, and found a gigantic bo tree that had so many branches and leaves that it made the entire hill feel dark and eerie.

From there, I proceeded to an open area where trees had been cut down. I found worn old bricks, high in some places, low in others. The high part was the ruin of a chedi, broken off about half way up. There was a pile of earth next to the brick ruins, the result of excavations made to reveal parts of the structures that had sunk into the ground.

As the day of my visit was a holiday, no officials or workers were on the site. None of the local villagers were there either. When I climbed up onto the brick structure, I could see the contours of the ruins. In one hole the base of a chedi could be seen clearly, and I immediately knew I was standing inside an ancient wat.

Further on, I came upon four more ruined piles of bricks of this kind, all of them silent and deserted, and questions arose again. Who built them? When? And after the original city of Phan Na Tha Kan was abandoned when its inhabitants fled elsewhere, what was it about the old structures that kept the new Thai Lue villagers who moved in from disturbing or demolishing them? They could have used the land for farming, or to build houses.

And now that the beauty of these extraordinary ruins has been recognised and publicised, who is going to look after them? The answer is the Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Education. Will they make it the victim of yet another of their notorious Disneyland-style fireworks sites? Let us sincerely hope not.

According to Mr Suwit Athit, head of the Local Administrators' Group, the villagers see the hill with its ancient ruins as sacred. Mr Arthit said: "The Thai Lue people are very devout in their religion. They are very much aware of the intention of the people who lived here in the past to build a temple to help people elevate their minds and spirits. For that reason, demolishing what was built, and doing it for personal gain, would mean destroying the good intentions of people in the past. Doing something like that might cause bad things to happen to the people responsible.

"People around here are in no hurry to violate these old sites. Some people who don't realise what they are damage the sites accidentally. Sometimes they plant longan bushes inside the areas of the ancient city. Later, when they find out what they've done, they don't have any bad feelings about cut- ting the bushes down.

"And there's another thing. This is an ancient site that contains evidence of things as they were in the past, and this evidence is of historical value. We don't want to damage anything like that. When the Ministry of Education came to restore the two old chedi, many people heard about our village, including HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who came to visit. We feel very honoured by her interest in the village.

"Before she arrived, we cleaned up the area to make it look attractive, and we received some favourable mention for it. The media said nice things about us. We want to take good care of the things that people have praised here.

"On important days, like the birthdays of Their Majesties the King and Queen, we will trim the grass and weeds around the ancient structures to make them look clean and presentable. Those who don't take part in cutting grass and weeds will help by preparing food and drinks for those who do. We think that these days will help to develop our village."

That day, as I left Ban Tha Kan and was heading back to Chiang Mai, I had the feeling that the place I had left behind was still cool and fragrant with the air of the past, and the sincerity and faith of the people who lived among the old ruins. But there were questions, too. How, for example, would the villagers maintain and manage the treasures they possessed, and what could be done to ensure that the situation turned out well?

Assoc Prof Srisakara.Vallibhotama, a former lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture of Silapakorn University, said that in the past the original inhabitants of Chiang Mai had a place to live and a means to protect themselves against decline.

"It was a sacred power they possessed," he said, "and everyone respected it equally. They all worked together to build their temple, and they all followed religious observances and made offerings. These religious activities gave them comfort and peace of mind. They led virtuous lives and shared a common system of ethics.

"The temple was not the only area shared by everyone. There were the forests and the swamps. They believed that there were spirits governing what happened in the house and in the forest. Fear of these spirits, and of things that were unacceptable to society, inspired the code of rules by which people lived and functioned. It was an acceptance of local powers that took the form of sacred power.

"And it was very different from the situ-ation today, when the power comes from governance. People use this power in ways that are right and ways that are wrong. They use the law to define what is right and what is wrong. And that's where deterioration has taken place. The government doesn't pay attention to the structure of regional society, as it was in the past.

"And the animist beliefs that were once so influential are now used in the wrong way. To attract tourists, for example. It's wrong to use these ancient monuments as tourist bait. If a continuity were encouraged of their original purpose, as places of reverence and sacred power, there would be no worries about their being properly cared for."

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