Ancient Moated Sites in Northern Thailand

When traveling down highways and going by Google Maps satellite view, over time I noticed a lot of little circular water rings around sizeable pieces of land, mainly in northeastern Thailand, but also on north central and northwestern Thailand, most of which looked very ordinary otherwise as regards vegetation and human occupancy. These are mainly off the beaten track. This captured my curiosity, so I researched it and this is what I found:

These are usually of age 1000 to 3000 years old, according to scientific analysis. They were moated settlements, whereby the moats were used for defensive or/and water storage and irrigation purposes. It is fairly clear that some were designed for defense, whereas others were designed for water storage, but they could perform both roles.

There is no written nor oral history of the vast majority of these. Their existence is known only because they were recognized due to aerial photography and/or later satellite images. Various human artifacts have been dug up which help characterized them. However, they were not Tai settlements.

The Thai word "mueang", also romanized as "muang" (Thai: เมือง), which currently is used to denote a central district in Thailand, actually has its origin in the Tai language as a word which meant a settlement with a moat and an authority. In Tai, it was originally Mu'Ang, with the Mu maybe similar to the "Moo" in what's now "Muban" as in village. When the Tais conquered a land, they brought their language which merged with the local language to various extents.

However, the Tai people and culture took over the country only in the vacuum created after the collapse of the Khmer empire, apparently starting around the 1200s A.D., sweeping down from the north, so the moat settlements were not Tai but of the preceding indigenous people. However, the Tai were a migratory people who initially had a political system based around villages, each controlled by a family or allied friend, forming alliances. It was only after expansion to Ayuthaya and then a nationwide kingdom that the Tais had to switch to a much different administrative system.

Therefore, these moated sites were occupied by another culture, not the Tai culture. Many have Dvaravati and other kinds of artifacts found buried within. Whatever the case, the Tais assimilated into the local culture, so that the culture of these moated settlements is largely still here, albeit speaking more of the Tai language. This is also borne out in DNA statistics. However, there is very little surviving documentation or stories of most of these settlements. It comes down to archaeological digs and what they might find which survived natural decay in the tropics.

The largest number of these moated sites apparently is in northeastern Thailand.

Most were probably located next to a major stream whereby a trench was dug around them to complete the encirclement. However, many of those streams have since changed course so that there's no nearby stream next to them anymore. (You can also see in satellite view many long lakes which look like they were part of a stream before, but the stream changed course.)

Many of the moats have been partially filled in by silt, and are partially marshes now, or used as low elevation land for agricultural purposes.

You can also find some moats in modern cities and towns, which may have a much more recent history. Some of these have been partially restored and maintained nicely. They may be in the town center, enclosing just a very small part of the town, as it has spread out in modern times, or now just a park or preserve.

Driving into these areas, you typically wouldn't know you were driving on a bridge over a moat unless you noticed it on satellite view. The water under the bridge or raised road often looks a lot like part of a calm stream or a small lake. On the inside may be a normal town and no landmarks or signs to indicate that anybody knows they are living in an ancient moated settlement. They may know, but it's not as if it's made into a tourist attraction at all. Some moated areas have a rather ordinary looking sign somewhere noting there is a small archaeological dig area, and some are preserved and off limits to development but they may appear to be just places of no development rather than anything very special.

However, you can stop and sit and try to imagine life in those times, at each location. They're usually embedded in rural agricultural areas with small communities, which makes it easier to imagine life in those times. Not far away, if not on the spot, you can observe the manual labor in the fields, slow easygoing lifestyle, and farmers markets where you can interact with the locals.

Some have been found to be old iron smelting locations. However, the artifacts tend to be more practical iron items for working the land and living, rather than weaponry, though both sorts can be found.

The area generally does not have the appearance of a part of the world with a lot of conflict over time, relatively speaking. There were conflicts and battles, but seemingly a lot less than in other parts of the world, and it seems to have avoided major warrior conquest and genocide sorts of upheavals. It seems to have been more of a network of small city states which traded with each other. Some academics believe this relatively low conflict area may be the foundation of Thai culture having more of a compromising and negotiating nature, as well as being more hospitable to foreigners.

Of course, there were major migrations in the area, of the Tai people, Khmers, and others, but it seems to have been more of an assimilation than a wiping out and replacement of ethnicity.

External links:

The chronology of the Iron Age moats of Northeast Thailand

by W. E. Boyd and R. J. McGrath, in the journal Antiquity, dated 2001.

"Notes on two types of moated settlement In Northeast Thailand"

in the Journal of the Siam Society

 > Domestic Travel for Leisure > Ancient Moated Sites in NE

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