Languid Lamphun: Thailand’s Oldest City

The historic town of Lamphun, if not definitively the oldest city in Thailand, must certainly be a contender for the title "longest continually inhabited settlement". The ancient fortified city was founded, according to legend, in 660 AD, almost six centuries before the nearby city of Chiang Mai, and fully 1,122 years before the Thai capital was moved to Bangkok. Historians, who question the date given by the annals, fix the founding of the city in about 950 AD—yet even by these punctilious standards, Lamphun is old indeed.

At the peak of its power and influence, Lamphun was better known as the capital of the Kingdom of Haripunchai. Established by Buddhist monks from Lopburi, under the legendary Queen Chamadevi, Haripunchai flourished as a centre of Mon culture and influence until its eventual conquest by King Mangrai of Lan Na, in 1281—long after the demise of the more southerly Mon Kingdom of Dvaravati.
Today the quiet, provincial town of Lamphun, located just 26 kilometres south of Chiang Mai, is generally visited as an enjoyable and rewarding excursion from the northern capital. Tranquil, lotus-filled moats and some of the most distinguished historical architecture in Thailand combine to attract both Thai and overseas visitors.

Unusually for these modern times, one of the great pleasures of a visit to Lamphun is the actual journey from Chiang Mai. The traveller should head south along the old road—Highway 106—avoiding the busy new superhighway. This road, which once ran directly between Chiang Mai Gate and Lamphun's northern "Elephant Crush" Gate, is steeped in history. From the Chiang Mai suburb of Nong Hoi south, for a distance of 12 kilometres—as far as the Chiang Mai-Lamphun provincial boundary—the road is lined by lofty 30-metre high yang trees, interspersed with fruit orchards, small farms and paddy fields.

En route the road passes through the quiet village of Saraphi, renowned for its basketry and bamboo furniture products. Numerous shops selling these goods stand beside the tree-lined road. Between the yang trees and fruit orchards are frequent signs for garden restaurants—quiet, rural venues, set back off the road and much appreciated by local people and visitors alike.

Little remains of Lamphun's ancient city walls, though the heart of the Old City is still surrounded to the north, west and south by well-preserved moats. To the east, the shallow, slow-flowing waters of the River Kuang once provided protection in times of war, but now offer shady banks, a boating park for children, and a peaceful place to fish.

Those interested in the history and layout of Lamphun should begin with a visit to the informative and well-maintained provincial museum. Here there are displays of various fine bronzes, stuccoes and terracottas from Mon times, including masks and carvings of figures with the fierce eyes and enigmatic grin which are the hallmark of Haripunchai Art.

Starting at the museum may be the sensible way to begin a tour of Lamphun, but—truth to tell—few people, even dedicated antiquarians, will have such strength of mind. For directly opposite, on the east side of Inthayongyot Road, the city's main street, eclipsing every other monument in Lamphun, stands the splendid Wat Phra That Haripunchai. This magnificent temple, unequalled in north Thailand except, perhaps, by Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, was founded in 1044 by King Athitayaraj of Haripunchai on the site of Chamadevi's royal palace. Legend has it that the queen's personal quarters are enclosed in the main 46-metre high Lan Na-style chedi, covered in copper plates and topped by a gold umbrella—it's a nice story, but if true Chamadevi's quarters must have been rather cramped.

In addition to an impressive but modern viharn, built in 1925 and housing the important Phra Chao Thongtip Buddha image, the temple complex also includes the unusual stepped-pyramid Suwanna Chedi, dating from 1467, one of very few surviving example of Dvaravati architecture. Nearby hangs a giant bronze gong, claimed to be the largest in the world. By any standards, Wat Phra That Haripunchai is a remarkable structure, to be treasured—like Kipling's "winking wonder", the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon—not only by the Thais, but by humanity in general.

As in any tour of ancient Thailand, the visitor faces the possibility of "temple fatigue"—after all, neighbouring Chiang Mai boasts 121 temples within the city limits, and many more beyond. Even so, at least one more Lamphun temple is essential viewing, and in its own way it is as important as Wat Phra That Haripunchai. This is Wat Chamadevi, better known locally as Wat Ku Kut. Named after Lamphun's founder and most famous ruler, this temple lies on the western side of town, about one-and-a-half kilometres from the moats down the road to Sanpathong Village.

Wat Chamadevi is the site of the two oldest surviving monuments in Lamphun, both brick chedis decorated with stucco figures of the Buddha, dating from 1218, and considered to be the finest surviving examples of Haripunchai—indeed, Mon—architecture in Thailand. The larger of the two, Chedi Suwan Chang Kot, is a stepped pyramid 21 metres high, thought to have been modelled on a similar dagoba in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. Nearby there is another chedi of smaller proportions but equal style. This structure, the Ratana Chedi, is said to contain the ashes of the great queen herself.

At the southern end of Inthayongyot Road, near the banks of the encircling moat, may be seen the striking statue of Queen Chamadevi. This remarkable ruler, who was instrumental in the spread of Buddhism and of Mon culture in the region more than one thousand years ago, is one of the heroines of Thai history. By all accounts she was both determined and ingenious, so it comes as no surprise that to this day the women of Lamphun are considered strong-willed and proud because of her influence.

Twelve kilometres south of Lamphun, further along Highway 106 en route to the small provincial towns of Li and Thoen, the visitor will find the village of Pasang noted for its cotton weaving, lamyai orchards, and beautiful girls. By some accounts the girls of Pasang are the loveliest in all Thailand. They certainly caught the attention of one former French ambassador, who noted that they are ‘fair with wide almond eyes, slender and supple, providing many prize-winners for beauty contests’.

A journey of a further nine kilometres leads to Wat Phra Phuttabaat Taak Pha, perhaps better known to aficionados of the Rambo movies as the temple where Sylvester Stallone is found in retreat at the beginning of the film Rambo III. The temple is characterised by a footprint said to have been left by the Buddha when he stopped to dry his clothes. Views of the surrounding countryside, and especially of the Ping River valley, are spectacular from the temple mount.