One of the oldest towns in Thailand, Chiang Saen is set beautifully on the bank of the Mekong River. The town was founded in 1328 by Saenphu, the grandson of King Mengrai, as a powerful fortification with many temples. There is evidence, however, from some of Chiang Saen’s monuments, that suggests the town may be much older. In 1558, Chiang Saen was captured by the Burmese. It was liberated by King Rama I in 1804, who burned it to the ground to prevent its recapture. The present town was established in the early 1880s. Today, Chiang Saen is a quiet and peaceful settlement boasting an impressive number of monuments that survived the razing. The Fine Arts Department in Bangkok lists 66 ruins inside the walled town and 75 beyond.
The largest temple in Chiang Saen is Wat Phra That Chedi Luang. Its 190-ft (58-m) octagonal chedi, built between the 12th and the 14th centuries, is a classic Chiang Saen (more commonly known as Lanna) structure Beside the temple is a small market selling textiles and souvenirs made by the Thai Lue, an ethnic minority from China who came to the area in the 18th century. Also nearby is the Chiang Saen National Museum, with a collection of stone carvings from the Lanna period, Buddha images, and artifacts relating to hill-tribe culture.
The town’s most attractive temple is Wat Pa Sak (“teak forest temple”), located outside the old walls to the west. The monument consists of seven separate ruined structures set among teak trees, which give the wat its name. The chedi, built in 1295, is the oldest in town. It is carved with flowers and mythological beasts.
On a hill to the northwest of Chiang Saen is Wat Phra That Chom Kitti, which may date from 10th century. The temple has little of architectural interest, it gives fine views of the town and the Mekong.
Just south of Chiang Saen is the hilltop Wat Phra That Pha Ngao. This temple, with a white pagoda, offers stunning views of the river and the Golden Triangle region.