My husband and I are two penny-pinchers who managed to save up and fly from San Francisco to Thailand. But what happened when we arrived in Chiang Mai and found that many of the city’s popular attractions were out of our budget?
We went underground.
Wiang Kum Kam is one of Chiang Mai’s hidden attractions, buried from years of flooding because of its low-lying location. Someone discovered ancient tablets near the site in 1984 and archeologists dug up what was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, long before Chiang Mai.
But the city was too large for us to see it all by foot in one day, so we had two options: horse and carriage or bicycle. I read online that visitors could rent bikes at the information center for dirt cheap, 20 THB or so, and take a self-guided tour or dish out 200 THB for a carriage ride. No brainer.
A songtaew dropped us off at that front of Wat Chedi Liam where we battled a pushy saleswoman (carriage rides) for directions to the information center. Finally, we hopped into a second songtaew and arrived at the center only to step right into another hurdle: NO BIKES. According to the front desk clerk, all bikes were corroded from the big 2011 flood.
I eyed the coppery bikes, lined up against the side of the building as the pitter patter of horse hooves passed by carrying a family of four middle-aged farangs.
“How about we ride around the parking lot,” I said to the clerk. “Just to make sure.”
The clerk held her breath, hesitant. But Russ had already wheeled a squeaky bike from the side of the building and onto the lot. Turns out, the old bike rolled smoothly across the pavement and the brakes worked fine. With only an hour and 30 minutes before closing and five-miles worth of land to cover, the clerk let us take the bike tour for free!
“But you must hurry,” she said, quickly pulling out two maps.
She pointed out a dirt road, entering the lost ancient city. We waved thanks and took off.
Wiang Kum Kam temples spread across a quaint town called Chang Kam–speckling the slew of Thai-style homes with its gargantuan ruins. The city was still and untroubled, save from the occasional sound of hoof trotting from carriage tours. Russ and I obeyed the map, stopping at every temple including:
Wat Chang Kham–where we saw the remains of Wat Kan Thom, named after the artisan Kan Thom who built the temple.
Wat E-Khang–which used to be deserted and overrun by monkeys. The word “Khang” means monkey in Northern Thai.
Wat Chedi Liam–the main temple, still occupied by Buddhist monks.
And so on. We saw eight temples in one hour and 30 minutes’ time.
Back at the information desk, we exchanged bikes for our passports, and returned the map. Since Wiang Kum Kam is deep in southern Chiang Mai, Russ and I knew drivers would charge a grip to take us to Sahataya Mansion, our apartment, up in north Chiang Mai near Nimmanhaemin Road. And so we chose to walk until our legs numbed before using our last breaths to hail a songtaew. By then it was sunset. Call it a romantic way to end the evening.