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The Riches of Lampang
Northern Thailand’s Historic Second City
Lampang is the second city of the Khon Muang or Thai people of the Northern Principalities, being, after Chiang Mai, the largest, richest and most populous city of the north. Isolated from Lamphun and Chiang Mai to the west by the Doi Khun Tan mountains, from Phayao to the east by the massive bulk of Doi Bussaracum, and from Phrae to the south-east by the Doi Khun Kiat range, the valley of Lampang is broad and fertile. As a consequence, Lampang—valley, city and people—has developed a distinctive style and culture of its own; still muang, to be sure, but the regional accent is different to that of Chiang Mai, the people do not decorate their houses with the distinctive crossed galae used so widely in the northern capital, and Burmese cultural influence was strong much more recently than in Chiang Mai.
In times past the difficult, densely forested mountains surrounding Lampang made the principality difficult to reach. A journey from Chiang Mai to Lampang could take several days on foot and elephant back, though now a broad concrete superhighway has cut the time it takes to travel between the two cities to about one and a half hours.
Lampang, like the capitals of so many of the northern principalities, is an ancient town—older, for example, than Ayutthaya and even Chiang Mai, though little enough evidence of that past survives. Legend recounts that a son of Queen Chamadevi of Lamphun founded the city in the 9th century AD; as such it was a Mon tributary statelet. As far as we know, Lampang itself was at that time called Klang Nakhon, or “Central City”, and it had four fortified dependencies, one of which—Phra That Lampang Luang—survives to the present day.
Lampang became part of the Lan Na Kingdom after its conquest by Phaya Mangrai in around 1286, though in reality the difficult terrain between Chiang Mai and Lampang permitted the rulers of the latter principality a considerable degree of autonomy in local matters. Nevertheless, both during the Lan Na period and subsequently, under Burmese hegemony, the two cities shared similar and related fates.
Today the oldest part of Lampang, where the most interesting historical monuments are to be seen, lies to the north of the River Wang, whilst the modern commercial town is to be found on the south bank. For this reason the old part of the city is known locally as Wiang Neua, or the “Northern Town”. Here the visitor will find Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao, the most important temple in the city, supposedly founded by the first ruler of Lampang. The central chedi, which is around 50 metres high, is believed to enshrine a hair of the Buddha. For some years this eminent temple housed the famous Emerald Buddha, palladium of the Thai Kingdom, long since moved to Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok. Of particular interest is a Burmese-style mondop, or square-shaped relic chamber, which was built in 1909 by Burmese artisans in typical Mandalay style. Links with nearby Burma were in fact particularly strong in the late 19th century, as Lampang was then a major logging centre, and Burmese—often, in fact, Shan—migrants flooded into the city to partake of the wealth teak created. At least a dozen Buddhist temples were sponsored and largely constructed by these relatively wealthy migrants, and their legacy lives on today both in the unusual, distinctively Burmese temple architecture, and in the temples themselves—at least four local wats continue to have Burmese abbots.
Wiang Neua is noted for several other old temples—notably Wat Suchada and Wat Hua Kuang—as well as for the numerous, well-preserved old houses and quiet back lanes which distinguish the quarter from the more boisterous, commercial district south of the river across Ratchada Bridge. Here, along Boonyawat and Rawp Wiang Roads, busy markets and shophouses stay open all day and much of the night, offering a wide variety of goods from local foodstuffs to imported Japanese and Korean consumer goods. The area is not without historical interest, however. On busy Rawp Wiang Road stands Ho Amok, an octagonal bastion, just about all that remains of the former city fortifications.
Another area worth a visit in the southern city is kat kao, or the “Old Market”, located by the bank of the River Wang just off Tipchang Road. At the turn of the century this now quiet area was a seething centre of trade, the town's main market, and the home of many wealthy tradesmen. Many of their houses remain, an unlikely mix of wooden housing in Chinese, Burmese, Western and Northern Thai styles—the latter often indicated by a fan motif on the fronton. In times past the Old Market was an important destination for mule caravans from Yunnan and the Shan States, seething with Chinese Haw, Burmese, Shans, Lao and the indigenous Khon Muang. Today it is a quiet backwater, its mules and bullock carts replaced by the air-conditioned buses and heavy lorries flowing along nearby Pahonyothin Road, the all-weather route which links Bangkok with Lampang and all points north.
Lampang is unique amongst the cities of the north in that the horse-drawn carriage still survives; indeed, so unusual is this that the pony and cart has become a sort of unofficial symbol of the city. Because of this, and because visitors to Lampang—Thai and foreigners alike—like to take a ride in a pony and trap along the banks of the River Wang, it now seems likely that this unusual form of transportation will survive and even flourish.
Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang
The most beautiful temple of Lampang—indeed, many would argue in the whole of north Thailand—is to be found in Ko Kha District, some twenty kilometres southwest of the city. Wat Lampang Luang—literally, the Great Temple of Lampang—was originally a wiang, or fortified temple, protected by massive earthen ramparts. First established in Mon times, during the time of the Kingdom of Haripunchai, the tall central chedi is believed to contain a genuine Buddha relic and is widely revered by Thai people as a whole, as well as the Khon Muang in particular.
On important religious holidays, notably at Songkran (the traditional Thai New Year) and at Loy Krathong, each November full moon, Wat Prathat Lampang Luang attracts huge crowds of devout worshippers both from Lampang and from more distant provinces. Particularly venerated is the Phra Kaeo Don Tao, a jasper Buddha image believed to be possessed of great mystic power.
In architectural terms, Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang is the most elegant and best preserved Lan Na temple to be found anywhere in the north. The central viharn, featuring a triple-tiered wooden roof supported my massive teak pillars, is thought to be the oldest wooden building in Thailand. Early 19th century murals from the Buddhist jatakas, or life stories, are painted on wooden panels within the viharn. The lintel over the main entrance to the compound is worthy of notice, featuring an impressive intertwined dragon relief—once common in northern Thai temples, but rarely seen today.
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media