Many regard Lamphun as an extension of its more populous neighbour, Chiang Mai, perhaps because the two are only 26km apart. They are linked by a modern highway, but motorists who are not in a hurry prefer taking the old scenic route.
Phra That Hariphunchai is one of the top destinations in Lamphun.
Celebrated as one of the most beautiful stretches of road in Thailand, this is a two-laner lined on both sides by towering dipterocarps _ what Thais call ton yang na. Planted during the reign of King Rama V (1868-1910), these magnificent trees have now grown to a truly impressive size.
"They give great shade," said my guide, Idthipath Lertchaisak, "but what tells you immediately that you're in Lamphun is the sight of the yellow flowers of the khee lek [cassod] tree; they are dotted along both sides of the old road."
Lamphun is the smallest province in the North and also _ or so Idthipath boasts _ the oldest kingdom in these parts. The Mon city-state of Hariphunchai (aka Haripunjaya) was founded there in the 7th century AD (early 9th century, some historians suggest) by Chamma Thewi (aka Camadevi), a daughter of King Chakaratti of Lavo (now Lop Buri). She was reportedly accompanied from Lavo by a force of 5,000 soldiers plus 500 traders and 500 "monks and philosophers".
Hariphunchai was regarded as the first civilisation to hold sway in the North because it was an important centre of Theravada Buddhism, had a thriving artistic and cultural scene and engaged in trade with major states such as the Khmer and Chinese empires as well as with Lavo, far to the south.
A bronze statue on Rop Muang Nai Road erected to the memory of Queen Chamma Thewi.
Queen Chamma Thewi founded a dynasty that lasted until the middle of the 11th century. Lamphun was invaded by Phraya Mengrai, founder of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, in the 13th century and became a semi-autonomous entity in a confederation of muang (city-states) called Lanna which was only fully absorbed into Siam in the late 19th century.
Fortunately, some artefacts from that earlier civilisation, mostly inscriptions in stone, have survived and are now on display at the Hariphunchai National Museum in the centre of Lamphun town, along with exhibits from the later Lanna period.
There are several other attractions in the vicinity. One not to be missed is Wat Phra That Hariphunchai, a temple commissioned by King Athitayarat, the 30th ruler of Hariphunchai. The highlight is a glittering, 46m-high golden pagoda, a line-drawing of which is now used as the official seal for the province. The stupa is believed to house relics of the Lord Buddha and the temple itself is one of the most respected in the whole country.
A short walk from its main entrance is a bridge which spans the Kuang River. The bridge has a roof and, from a distance, looks rather like a small market because on each side of its pedestrian walkway are little shops selling souvenirs and other local products. Stroll across and you come to Wat Ton Kaeo, another interesting temple in whose compound a group of elderly people carry on the local cotton-weaving tradition, creating lengths of brocade and other beautiful fabrics for sale.
Another popular tourist spot on the western side of town is Wat Mahawan, a temple dating back to Queen Chamma Thewi's reign which has been accorded royal status. The main attraction here is Phra Rod Luang, a Buddha statue which the queen is said to have brought with her all the way from her father's realm in Lavo.
Last but not least is a temple named after the first ruler herself. Located about 850m west of Wat Mahawan, Wat Chamma Thewi has a greatly revered stupa called Ku Kut within which the queen's ashes are believed to have been interred.
"This step-pyramid-style pagoda is thought to be more than 1,300 years old and to have undergone numerous restorations," said my guide, adding that the architecture of Ku Kut is unique displaying, as it does, artistic styles popular in Hariphunchai and the Mon-speaking Dvaravati civilisation in general as well as influences from the kingdom of Srivichai (Srivijaya), a powerful empire far to the south based on the island of Sumatra.
Lamphun is not a large town and it's easy to see the main sights just by renting a bicycle and cycling around at your own pace. A more convenient option, best appreciated if you can understand Thai, is to go to Wat Phra That Hariphunchai and jump onto what the locals call a rot rang. This is an open-sided bus with rows of comfortable seats which, for an all-in fee of 50 baht, takes tourists to nine local landmarks, mostly temples. There's a guide on board who hops off at the various stops to conduct brief tours of each venue. The trip ends at the starting point.
"A day is all you need to see the main attractions here," Idthipath said. "It's a quiet place, but it definitely has its charms and for a small town it's very rich in history and culture."
About 60 images of the Buddha in a standing posture were carved into the four sides of this pagoda at Wat Chamma Thewi. Its official name is Chedi Suwan Chang Kot, but the locals call it Ku Kut and it is believed to be the final resting place of the cremated remains of Queen Chamma Thewi, Lamphun’s first ruler.
Located on Inthayongyot Road, almost opposite Wat Phra That Hariphunchai, the Hariphunchai National Museum takes care of more than 2,000 ancient artefacts discovered throughout the province. It was founded in 1927 by the last chao (titular ruler) of Lamphun and today comprises three separate buildings. The main exhibition hall showcases prehistoric items like pottery and tools as well as a human skeleton whose discovery has been taken to indicate that there were people living in Lamphun more than 2,500 years ago. The exhibits also include ancient beads, Buddha heads from the Dvaravati period, bronze and wooden Buddha images from the Lanna era plus tools and other objects used in the later Rattanakosin period. The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday from 9am to 4pm (closed on Mondays, Tuesdays and public holidays). Call 053-511-186 or visit www.thailandmuseum.com/ hariphunchai for more information.
Wat Mahawan Wanaram houses a highly revered Buddha statue that was cherished by Queen Chamma Thewi, first ruler of Hariphunchai. She believed that the statue protected her and her troops during the seven-month journey they made from her father’s kingdom in Lop Buri north to Lamphun where she founded her new realm. Carved from stone, the image is called Phra Rod Luang and it has been placed in a position of honour, right in front of the principal Buddha image in the temple’s prayer hall.
In the compound of Wat Ton Kaeo, a temple in Lamphun’s Wiang Yong neighbourhood, there is a corner set aside for a group of local pensioners who spend their free time weaving cotton brocade. The province is famous for this hand-woven fabric, known as pha fai yok dok , in which various details of the pattern are raised slightly above the surface of the material. Now in her 80s, Bualai Chaiwongsri says she has been weaving since she was 15 and she still shows up at the workshop here on a regular basis. She said it was the brainchild of the temple’s abbot, Phra Khru Phaisan Theerakhun, who wanted to do something to preserve the traditional skills of the Yong, people who migrated from Muang Yong in the Shan states, in what is now Myanmar, in the early Rattanakosin period. It was the abbot who raised the money to open the weaving centre. The place is open to the public and if you see any designs that you particularly like, ask the weaver in question if she has any more examples stored at home. Typically, the asking price for a 1.8m-long piece of pha fai yok dok starts at 900 baht.
Lamphun is also well known for its silk brocade which is called pha mai yok dok . It comes in various patterns and the place I was recommended to source it from was the Institute of Hariphunchai Hand-woven Fabric. Set up by Lamphun’s Provincial Administration Organisation, the institute is located on a 5-rai plot of land in town and maintains a small museum with a collection of old fabric designs. There is an open-air hall here where local women weave silk every day and the fruits of their labour are on sale in the on-site gift shop. I was told that the institute can arrange extra hospitality for large group tours in the form of an outdoor buffet dinner of traditional northern cuisine or a more formal khantok -style feast at which diners are entertained by various cultural performances native to the North.
Just a short walk from the back gate of the Hariphunchai National Museum, there is a community museum, Phiphithaphan Chumchon Muang, which is operated by Lamphun Municipality. The aim was to preserve the old building which now houses the museum. Built in 1912 during the reign of the last chao (titular ruler) of Lamphun, this U-shaped, two-storey mansion was the residence of Prince Ratchasamphanthawong and his wife, Princess Songlah, who was a daughter of the ninth chao of Lamphun. In the years following the end of World War II, the house was used as a school for the teaching of subjects through Chinese. Later it was renovated and converted into a restaurant and a radio station. The upper storey is constructed entirely of wood, the ground floor of brick and concrete. The latter houses the museum which is a fascinating repository of everyday and household items, some last used more than 60 years ago. Exhibits include a collection of matchboxes, an absorption refrigerator (which was powered by paraffin), a cast-iron stove, likenesses of previous owners of the house and period photos of the town of Lamphun. The museum is located on Wang Sai Road. It is open daily from 9am to 4pm and there is no admission fee. For more details, call 053-511-500.
This mechanic is fixing an old performances native to the North. imported bicycle for resale. He works at a shop called Inthaphanit on Inthayongyot Road, opposite Wat Phra That Hariphunchai. Among the items for sale are some classics made in the United Kingdom. The mechanic told me that two-wheelers of this vintage were now hard to find and the shop even gets customers who have travelled all the way from Bangkok. One of these beauties will set you back in the region of 40,000 to 50,000 baht. ‘‘That’s a reasonable price,’’ he assured me, ‘‘because these bikes are real classics and very durable; they were built to last.’’
One of the local dishes you should definitely try while visiting Lamphun is kuaytiew moo tun lamyai , a noodle soup containing pork that has been stewed with longans, a fruit widely grown in this region. You can sample it at a restaurant which takes its name from this dish. It’s not too far from Wat Phra That Hariphunchai, just cross Khua Mung Tha Sing bridge, opposite the temple, and continue walking for another 50m. Established 16 years ago, the restaurant says longan is one of the ‘‘secret ingredients’’ used to enhance the flavour of its noodle soup; another is some unnamed ‘‘Chinese herbs’’. Hunt around in your bowl and you should find a chunk or two of boiled longan. The restaurant is open daily from 9am to 3pm. Call 053-511-240 for more details.
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- Writer: Karnjana Karnjanatawe