Thursday, May 18, 2017

Excursions in the Mountains of Peru

                                                       by Jim Goodman

highlands pasture near Chinchero
       While Peru can boast of many distinct ecological zones, the country can be divided into three basic geographical areas.  The east consists of the lowland jungles and rivers of the Amazonian region.  The west coast is mostly desert, with cities and towns sited in the narrow strips of fertile land along the rivers that tumble down from the highlands.  Dividing this very arid region from the lush vegetation of the Amazon River system is the longest mountain range in the world, crossing the borders of six countries--the Andes.  For most travelers, the main attraction in Peru, where they will spend the most time in their journey, will be the mountains. 
       That’s where cities have the most scenic locations; such as Puno, next to Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, very near the volcano El Misti, and Huaraz, in full view of the highest peaks in Peru.  Besides scenery, the Peruvian Andes are also famous for cities associated with the Inca Empire, like Cusco, Cajamarca, Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Machu Picchu.  Moreover, in the mountains travelers can observe the lifestyles of the Native Americans, descendants of the people who were living here long before the Spanish Conquest.
Huascarán, Peru's highest peak
       Three of the five highest mountains in Peru stand just north of Huaraz, 407 km north of Lima, on the Santa River after a slow ascent across a barren, dry set of foothills, with snow peaks towering beyond them.  Huaraz is a small, quiet city at 3091 meters altitude, all but bereft of old buildings, for it had to be completely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1970. 
       The central market square is the most interesting part of town, especially in the mornings, when Indians from nearby villages come to shop.  On a clear day one can easily see the two peaks of Peru’s highest mountain—Huascarán.  The southern peak, the nearer one, rises to 6768 meters (22.205 feet), while the north peak is only slightly smaller, at 6654 meters. 
crafts shop in Chuquibambilla
       Peru’s third highest mountain—Huandoy—reaches 6428 meters.  It stands north of Huascarán, due east of the town of Caraz, 67 km north of Huaraz.   Yet another massif—Alpamayo—is just a little further north.  At 5947 meters, it is the country’s fifth tallest peak.  Huascarán Mountain is a World Heritage Site and national park, containing 296 lagoons and 663 glaciers, offering plenty of hiking and climbing routes, with the bonus of condors flying overhead and wild vicuñas scampering on the slopes.
       For those with more limited time and ambition, a popular day trip is to Llanganuco, an easily accessible picturesque lagoon between Huascarán and Huandoy.  The excursion includes a stop at Yungay, also on the Santa River, directly west of Huascarán, famous as the site of one of the greatest natural disasters to befall the country.
       In 1970 a violent earthquake at Huascarán caused an avalanche that unleashed 80 million cubic feet of ice, mud and rock hurtling down the mountain at speeds of 280-335 km per hour, burying nearly all of Yungay and a nearby village.  About 20,000 people died.  The same number perished in Huaraz that day, as the earthquake demolished 90% of the city.
ruins of the Viracocha Temple in Raqchi
       Earthquakes are a common nemesis in Peru.  The major ones make international headlines, but there are tremors somewhere in the mountains quite regularly.  However, they are not so frequent as to scare off tourists.  Cities like Arequipa, Puno and Cusco host crowds all year round.  And bus journeys through the Andes from Puno to Cusco give travelers a view not only of the majestic scenery, but the lifestyle of its inhabitants, past and present.
       The distance from Puno to Cusco is 380 km, about five and half hours by car. The bus takes longer, for it stops at several places of tourist interest.  The first, 152 km from Puno, is Chuquibambilla, an experimental breeding station for alpacas and vicuñas.  It is also a handicraft production center, full of shops selling locally made textiles, ceramics, stone carvings and silver jewelry.
Quechua woman, Raqchi
village near Ollantaytambo
       Another 50 km further the road comes to La Raya.  At 4335 meters altitude, it is the highest point on the route, with a clear view of Chinboya, a snow peak of 5489 meters height.  From here the road begins a slow descent following the Vilcanota River, which later, as it flows closer to the Inca heartland near Cusco, becomes the Urubamba River.  In contrast to the rather drab, barren landscapes of the route until La Rasa, the scenery turns greener, with more forests on the slopes and long stretches of farms along the river.
the Urubamba River Valley
       The next major stop is Raqchi, 125 km from Cusco, 3475 meters altitude, and the first site on the journey representative of Inca culture.  Raqchi was a major Inca administrative center, featuring a spacious temple to the Creator God Viracocha.  The temple was 92 meters long and 25.5 meters wide, with walls 15 meters high.  It also had the largest roof in the Inca Empire. 
       The Spanish destroyed most of the temple when they conquered the city.  The roof is gone, but sections of three of the walls remain.  The lowest meter or so consists of stone blocks of irregular shape, fitted together to make a solid base resistant to earthquakes, a technique also employed in Cusco and other Inca cities.  The rest of the walls are made of adobe.  Subsidiary buildings, stone storehouses and royal baths lie in the vicinity, along with circular buildings with conical roofs that the Incas used to store corn and quinoa, to distribute in times of shortages.
the rooftops of Cusco
       Raqchi’s other attraction is its inhabitants, predominantly Quechua Indians, descendants of those who lived there in Inca times.  The women dress in the traditional ensemble:  long, bulky black skirt, long-sleeved red jacket, with bands of largely blue appliqué and embroidery on the lower sleeves, lapel and cuffs, and a large, circular, flat hat. 
       The last major stop on the route is at Andahuaylillas, a colonial era village 45 km from Cusco.  A quiet and pretty mountain village, its fame is due to its church.  The Jesuits built it from 1570-1606, deliberately choosing a traditional Inca sacred site.  On the outside it is just a modest village church, with whitewashed walls and a bit of decoration around the entrance.  Step inside and it’s the most spectacular and richly decorated church interior in the country, featuring baroque murals on the walls and a lavish use of gold leaf and silver on the altar, ceilings and rafters.  The furnishings are so valuable that local villagers volunteer for guard shifts 24 hours a day.
woman with her llama in Cusco
village woman in Limatambo
       The final stop is Cusco, the most beautiful city in the mountains and most popular tourist destination in Peru.  It lies in a valley at 3360 meters altitude, surrounded by hills, and is home to 350,000 people.  It is justly renowned for its colonial era churches, plazas and houses with carved wooden balconies.  But traces of its original Inca identity remain in some walls and foundations that feature the interlocking stone boulders Inca architects devised as defense against earthquakes.
the Inca city of Pisac
       Descendants of the Incas still live in villages near Cusco and some live in the city and work in the markets.  Others come to visit or shop, bringing their llamas to carry the goods.  The women dress similarly to those in Raqchi, but wear a smaller hat, also round, but shaped more like an upturned saucer. Indian women in towns north of Cusco also favor this style, but to the east, as in Limatambo, women favor a very different, and mixed, style of hat—derbies, tall top hats, and hats resembling those worn by Canadian mounted police.
       For those who can tear themselves away from the charms of Cusco, the next excursion will be what’s called The Sacred Valley of the Incas.  The route goes northeast of Cusco 32 km to Pisac, 3040 meters, on the river at the point where its name changes from Vilcanota to Urubamba.  The town holds market day on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, largely consisting of stalls selling handicrafts and souvenirs for the tourist crowds. 
the ruins of Pisac
       The town dates its founding to 1570, after the Spanish destroyed the original Inca city on the adjacent mountain.  Residents tend farms along the river, but originally the people constructed a long line of terraces climbing up the mountain, moving topsoil from the lower levels to the higher ones.  The terraces are still there, but too many recent earthquakes have rendered then too unstable to use anymore.
       On the slopes above these terraces, around the mid-15th century, the Incas built a fortified city.  A road takes visitors up to a point where it’s a short walk on a narrow mountain trail to the biggest set of ruins.  No intact buildings are left, but lots of foundations, walls, streets and gates, plus an extensive palace on a lower spur, indicating that Pisac was an important city back then.
Quechua boys in Ollantaytambo
       From Pisac the road continues along the Urubamba River another 55 km to Ollantaytambo.  Unlike contemporary Pisac, whose inhabitants live far from the historic city, Ollantaytambo was not destroyed and its original layout, of straight streets intersected at right angles, is still intact.  So are the ancient stone terraces flanking the city, though no longer in use.  The mountain next to the town features a huge carving of the head of the god Viracocha, as well as a few temples on the cliff.
       The road up the Urubamba Valley ends here and day-trippers then return to Cusco via Chunchero.  Further up the valley, but only accessible on foot or by train (the usual option), 80 km from Cusco, is Machu Picchu, the fabled Lost City of the Incas.  Starting near Ollantaytambo, the trek takes four to five days.  The early train from Cusco gets there in an hour and a half, but from the station along the Urubamba River one has to take a vehicle up a zigzag road, with a dozen sharp turns, that itself is an engineering achievement.
Machu Picchu in the morniung
       Whether on foot or by road, the entrance is slightly above the ruins, which lie at 2430 meters height, on a flat spur next to the cliffs of Machu Picchu Mountain and its smaller companion Huayna Picchu.  To the Incas who first built the city in the 1440s, the site had obvious security advantages.  The sides were very steep, affording a clear view of anything approaching it.  Access was only by a couple of suspension bridges between mountains, which could be dismantled if necessary.  The mountain behind the city was virtually impassable.  Springs above the city provided the water sources and terraces along the mountainsides grew more than enough food to feed its population.
       Other, more mystical considerations influenced the choice.  To the Incas, the shape of Machu Picchu Mountain resembled a crouching puma.  The hill jutting out slightly from the face of the mountain appeared to have a pair of ears at the top and a snarling mouth below, like the head of the puma.  To make the resemblance even more obvious, Inca stone masons crawled up the mountain and chiseled out of the rock a pair of eyes.     
stairway and water channel, Machu Picchu
valley view from Machu Picchu
       The long spur in front of the mountains seemed to be in the shape of a cayman—a South American reptile similar to a crocodile.  The Incas built their temples and administrative buildings on this stretch of land.  The peasants lived outside this area, near their terraces, in simple one- or two-story houses with sloping thatched roofs, models of which have been recreated in recent decades. 
houses and terraces, Machu Picchu
       Enemies never tested Machu Picchu’s defenses.  The city stayed aloof from the Spanish Conquest wars, but was abandoned around 1572, possibly because of a smallpox epidemic.  The Spanish never found it and vegetation swept over the ruins undisturbed until discovered by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.  He actually misidentified it as the Lost City of the Incas, meaning Vilcabamba, the hastily constructed last capital of the Inca emperors, further upriver. 
       The Spanish destroyed Vilcabamba but Machu Picchu, far more sophisticated a settlement, was soon recognized as something quite different.  Excavators cleared away the jungle, partially restored about 30% of the buildings and so now the city is easy to explore.  It became a World Heritage Site in 1983 and has been Peru’s major tourist attraction for decades.  Visitors numbered 400,000 in 2000.
       That’s a lot of people walking on paths in an area that is seismically shaky to begin with.  Worried that the area could not withstand such pressure indefinitely, authorities in 2011 restricted the number of visitors to 2500 a day.  Hopefully, this will help preserve the area.  After all, it was not built anticipating the presence of ten thousand people a day treading on its trails.  As for the lucky 2500 each day, they can continue to revel in what is the gem of the Andes, with a blend of scenery and mystery and an example of how man can transform even the most rugged, remote environment into a viable place to live.
ruins of the Inca city, Machu Picchu
                                                                        * * *        

for more on Puno and Lake Titicaca, Ollantaytambo and Cusco, see under Peru in the Online Articles page

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Arequipa: the White City

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

the Convent of Santa Catalina
       After the conquest of the Inca Empire, Francisco Pizarro sent delegations across Peru to establish new cities and consolidate his acquisitions.  On 15 August 1540, a group of Spanish colonists under Garcí Manuel de Carbajal, established the new city of Arequipa in the far south of Peru.  It was partly a relocation of a coastal town called Villa Herosa de Carnana that had not been successful.  Settlers there suffered from fever and other illnesses and so sought a healthier, more hospitable location.
       Lying in a broad river valley at 2328 meters altitude, the new site was only sparsely settled by Native Americans and the Spanish had no trouble evicting then to make room for themselves.  Dominating the northeast skyline 17 km away was the 5825 meters-high mountain they called El Misti, a still-active volcano (last eruption 1985) in a near perfect conical shape.
the founding of Arequipa
       The original houses were made of mud mixed with sticks and had thatched roofs.  The first residents were nearly all Spanish, who viewed their city as an outpost of Spanish civilization, of which the Catholic religion was a key ingredient.  In fact, they founded the city on Assumption Day, an important date in the Catholic calendar.  With that in mind, the city’s settlers began constructing the Basilica Cathedral the same year of the city’s foundation.
       Besides the rich agricultural lands in the vicinity, Arequipa enjoyed a cool, temperate climate, with daytime temperatures all year in the low 20s C. and nights 12-15 degrees cooler.  It was also close to mines that were just beginning to be exploited.  Arequipa’s location put it on the trade routes to Bolivia and Chile and when the colonial silver trade developed the city began to prosper.  In that sense, it was a good site for an ambitious town.  But what its founders probably didn’t know is that it is also in a seismically active zone.  El Misti and the other volcanoes in the vicinity never erupted often enough or forcefully enough to threaten the city.  But earthquakes have wrecked Arequipa many times throughout its history.
Plaza de Armas, central Arequipa
       The first devastating quake struck young Arequipa in 1583, knocking down practically every building in the city.  Construction of the Cathedral had to start all over again.  Two more earthquakes in the first years of the 17th century impeded reconstruction and the Cathedral was not finally completed until 1656.  It survived the next major quake in 1687.
       With its obvious vulnerability to seismic disturbances, Arequipa needed a different building material.  From then on churches, public buildings and private homes began using sillar, a sturdy volcanic stone; soft, lightweight and weatherproof.  Because sillar has a white color, Arequipa became known as the White City.  Sometimes it is a cream color, other times nearly pink or a gray-white, and some buildings in more modern times have been painted red, orange and other colors.  But in bright, sunny weather, and Arequipa gets more than 300 such days a year, it’s the white buildings, in all shades, that dominate urban architecture.
carved church facade
Plaza de Armas building
       The Spanish designed the city as a checkerboard grid of 56 blocks.  The original layout is still in place in downtown Arequipa.  A few blocks were given over entirely to churches, monasteries and convents and became miniature cities within the city.  The Plaza de Armas dominated the urban center and today is still one of Arequipa’s main attractions.  It also makes a convenient landmark, for other sites in the city can be reckoned as so many blocks in a certain direction from the Plaza de Armas.
lanterns at Plaza de Armas
      Flanked on one side by the Basilica Cathedral and on the other three sides by two-story buildings in the classic colonial style, with arched colonnades, the Plaza is an open-air park in the middle of the city.   Its decorations include tall palm trees, a garden, a three-tiered fountain and ornamental street lanterns.  A few of the buildings are restaurants, where diners can indulge in their meal while enjoying the view from a balcony table
       Arequipa’s colonial-era buildings, while in the general Spanish style, differ from those of other cities in the country.  The high, vaulted roofs are rounder, more open space is incorporated into the design and more decoration on the exterior facades, for the volcanic stone was easy to carve.  The result was what became known as the “Arequipa School” of Peruvian architecture.
the Monastery of San Francisco
       This was not the only element distinguishing Arequipa from the rest of the colony.  It was also a bastion of stalwart support for the Spanish Crown.  Even as anti-colonial sentiment began spreading in South America, Arequipa remained loyal.  In 1805 the Spanish monarchy recognized this and awarded it the title City of the Faithful. Its distance from other Peruvian cities insulated it from the propaganda of the liberation movements.  And when José de San Martín’s army took Lima in 1821 and declared Peru’s independence, Arequipa remained under Spanish colonial administration until the Battle of Ayacucho in December 1824 destroyed the imperial army and confirmed Peru’s independence.
typical iron door on an Arequipa church
the Church of La Merced
       Loyalty to the Crown and the Spanish version of civilization also implied a strong and fervent commitment to the Catholic religion.  Pious pioneer residents began building the Basilica Cathedral right after the city’s foundation.  In the second half of the 16th century they erected more—the Church of St Augustine, the Church of La Merced, the Church of Santa Marta (Arequipa’s patron saint), the Monastery of San Francisco and the Convent of Santa Catalina.   When earthquakes damaged all or part of these churches, the people patiently restored them.
Catholic procession in Arequipa
       Unlike Cusco, Arequipa was not previously an Inca town and so it didn’t have leftover foundations of interlocking stone boulders that the Incas had used to stabilize their buildings against earth tremors.  Cusco architects originally ignored these foundations and built on fresh grounds in the European style.  After a major earthquake leveled an important church, they rebuilt it over the foundations of the original Inca temple.  It survived all subsequent earthquakes.
       Arequipa didn’t have that option and didn’t import the Inca idea.  The people simply reconstructed the churches in the way that they originally stood.  And they continued building more churches.  When the Jesuits (Society of the Company of Jesus) arrived in the early 17th century they commissioned their own Church of the Company, close to the Plaza de Armas.  Other churches went up in the following century, like the Church of Yanahuara and the Church of St. Michael the Archangel.
nun's residence, Convent of SantaCatalina
       Common to all these churches was the use of the white volcanic stone sillar.  Mud-brick like that used in some of the poorer houses was unacceptable for a House of God anyway, while wood was scarce in this part of Peru.  While the towers and steeples varied in size and shape, they all had high, vaulted ceilings, with walls sometimes decorated with religious paintings.  A couple of churches became famous for details of their interiors, like the altar of the Church of the Company, entirely encrusted with gold leaf, and the lifelike, graceful statue of the Virgin of Mercedes in the Church of La Merced.
chapel courtyard, Convent of Santa Catalina
       Church exterior walls were also embellished with low-relief carvings of various kinds.  Often these were religious scenes, but could sometimes be ornate royalist imagery, lush vegetation or carved animals.  Sillar’s soft quality made it easy to carve.  And local artisans devoted more of their time and skill to embellish the beauty of the churches than ever they did regarding purely secular buildings.
       In colonial Arequipa, it was the custom for families of the nobility to send their second son to a monastery or their second daughter to a convent for a life of religious service to the Church.  Sons generally went to San Francisco Monastery, while the most prestigious place for the daughters was the Convent of Santa Catalina.  A rich Arequipa widow, Maria de Guzman, founded the convent in 1579.  It was enlarged the following century to an area of 20,000 square meters, filling the entire block. 
       With its residential quarters, colonnaded walkways, gardens, fountains, parks, museum, library and dining halls, it was like a miniature city inside Arequipa.  And it was a Forbidden City as well, off-limits to outsiders until 1970.  The convent’s restrictions extended to what kind of people they allowed to enroll.  Santa Catalina was only for the rich nobility.  Each family had to pay a dowry of 2400 silver pesos, today equivalent to about $150,000, for the daughter to enroll.  The woman had to bring with her a statue, a painting, a lamp and some clothes.  (They weren’t required to wear nun’s habits.)
dining hall, Convent of Santa Catalina
       Their principal duty was the daily recitation of the Divine Office.  Also known as the Liturgy of the Hours, this entailed attendance in the chapel to recite or chant prayers considered appropriate for that particular hour of the day or night.  They wore a black veil at such sessions.
       Other than that, they were free to enjoy the convent’s facilities, admire the paintings, browse in the library, walk in the parks and dine in style.  They just had to stay within the walls of the compound and not wander the streets of the city.  Being upper-class women, they made their residence as comfortable as possible.  Besides the required items, they brought with them imported china, rugs and silk curtains, as well as servants and slaves.  At its peak, Santa Catalina Convent had 450 residents.  But only a third were nuns; the rest servants and slaves.
       Because it was sealed off from normal communications with the rest of the city, the convent aroused intense speculation about what really went on within its walls.  People alleged the nuns were not celibate and even got pregnant.  Lady Rumor insisted that the skeleton of an infant had been found inside a wall during a post-earthquake renovation.  That it wasn’t true didn’t stop people believing it.
colonial-era building in the historic center
       In 1871 Pope Pius IX appointed an abbess to reform the convent.  The dowries went back to Spain and all the servants and slaves were freed and given the option to stay as nuns or to leave.  By now, though, well into the Republican era, the tradition of committing the second son or daughter to a religious life was weak.  The convent never regained its colonial-era status and by the time it opened its gates to tourists and the outside world, only 20 nuns lived in a small, still-secluded part of the compound.
       Arequipa in the Republican era played a very different role in the country than in colonial times.  It always felt itself to be in cultural and political competition with Lima, founded five and a half years earlier.  Due to the twists and turns of post-Independence politics, Arequipa actually served as Peru’s capital 1835-1883.  Thereafter it promoted regionalism and tried to carve out its own way into the future.  Resistance to the dictates of Lima even led to occasional insurrections.
       By this time the silver trade had finished.  Arequipa’s new prosperity became based on camelid products:  rugs, ponchos, scarves, sweaters and so on from the wool of upland alpacas and vicuñas.  It suffered another major earthquake in 1863 but, as before, the people repaired the damage and carried on.  A railway opened in 1871 and the city began to grow beyond the original 56 blocks. 
       Even after the capital reverted to Lima, Arequipa continued to make its own distinct cultural achievements.  Noted Peruvian scientists, like Pedro Paulet, one of the first to study rocket propulsion, hailed from Arequipa.  So did many painters, composers, poets and writers, the most famous being novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a Nobel Prize winner. 
modern house in Arequipa
       Several city institutions promote cultural activities.  The Symphonic Orchestra of Arequipa, set up in 1939, performs the compositions of its native sons and preserves the local musical traditions, both classical and vernacular.  Universities frequently host cultural events ranging from painting and photography exhibitions to indigenous folk music shows.  The city remains as strongly conscious of its cultural heritage as it is of its architectural achievements.
       Politically and culturally, the city still maintains its rivalry with Lima, though the capital is now several times larger than Arequipa.  With a population approaching 900,000, Arequipa is Peru’s second biggest city, as well as its second most industrialized and commercialized.  Steel and cement production are the dominant industries.  The wool trade is still going strong and in recent decades tourism has played a growing role in the local economy.  In 2000 Arequipa’s historic center won recognition as a World Heritage Site.  After Cusco and Lima, Arequipa is the third most visited destination in the country.
       With majestic El Misti in plain view, Arequipa’s location alone would draw tourists.  (They can even take a two-day hike to the top of the crater.)  Yet the city itself is full of beautiful buildings, old and new.  And the churches, emblems of its society’s religious fervor, particularly stand out; painstakingly and lovingly restored after every earthquake, and as white as the hosts of Holy Communion.

El Misti volcano
                                                                        * * *    


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mon to Monkeys: The Evolution of Lopburi

                                                             by Jim Goodman

the 12th century Khmer monument Prang Sam Yot
       The small town of Lopburi, about three hours north of Bangkok, began its existence around the 6th century as Lawo, part of the Mon state of Dvaravati that dominated central Thailand long before any Thais lived there.  At that time the sea levels were higher and reached further inland than today.  Lawo lies beside a river connected to the Menam Chao Phya, the main waterway through this part of the country, and it conducted trade with Indian merchants via the Gulf of Thailand.
        In the 8th century Lawo’s ruler, at the invitation of Mon missionary monks, dispatched his daughter Chamadevi to rule as Queen of the new city of Haripunchai, today’s Lamphun, in northern Thailand, three months journey by boat.  Lawo officials, merchants, artisans and five hundred Theravada monks accompanied her.  She subdued the local Lawa population and created a replica of the Lawo realm.  This was the furthest extension north of Mon civilization and it lasted until its conquest by King Mengrai of Lanna in the late 13th century.
Prang Khaek
       Lawo itself, and most of the Menam Chao Phya Valley, fell in the early 11th century to invading Khmer armies of the expanding Angkor Empire.  How much destruction Lawo suffered at this time is not recorded, but Lopburi’s relics today do not include any Mon structures.  The oldest relic in Lopburi is Prang Khaek, in the center of town.   
       The prang is a typical Khmer monument like an upright cylinder, tapered towards the top, with a blunt end.  It sort of resembles a bomb or a bullet, though such things didn’t exist in Angkor times.  It was usually, but not always, erected behind a viharn, or main assembly hall.  The prangs of Prang Khaek stand close together and are not very tall, with the remains of the viharn close by.  Though they have lost much of their exterior decorations, considering they have stood there over a thousand years, they’re in pretty good shape.
ancient Lopburi Buddha
       More impressive, and in better condition, are the three towers of Prang Sam Yot, dating from the 12th century, on a small mound near the railroad tracks at the eastern edge of town.  Connected by a building along their bases, standing a little apart from each other, the trio of prangs, originally intended as a display of Khmer power, has become the ionic image of contemporary Lopburi.
       At the time of Prang Sam Yot’s construction, Lawo was the most important western outpost of the Angkor Empire.  Suryavarman II, who commissioned the building of Angkor Wat, used Lawo as a base to control the former Mon states and try to extend Angkor’s frontiers.  But the last Mon state, Haripunchai in the north, successfully resisted three Khmer invasions.
chedis at Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat
       The first of these was not actually a battle, but rather a contest to see which side could excavate a reservoir faster.  Haripunchai won and the Khmer forces retreated.  Apparently this was not a once-and-for-all verdict, though, as Suryavarman II launched two more invasions.  They both failed and Haripunchai remained independent until Mengrai’s conquest.
       In the 13th century the mighty Angkor Empire began to decline and its hold over its most distant provinces weakened.  Taking advantage of this, the Siamese ruler of Sukhothai, in western central Thailand, renounced his allegiance in 1238, defeated a Khmer force sent from Lawo, and established an independent state.  
       For the time being, Lawo remained under Khmer control and it still enjoyed prestige among its neighbors.  In 1254 the teenaged Prince Ngammueang, of the small northern state of Phayao, went to Lawo for his studies.  There he met and befriended fellow student Prince Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai. 
the 'watermelon chedi
Khmer and Ayutthaya style chedis
        Four years later Ngammueang became King of Phayao and in 1279 Ramkamhaeng ascended the throne at Sukhothai.  The two friends later formed an alliance with King Mengrai of Lanna, not against the Khmer, who were no longer a serious threat, but against the Mongols.  They also helped Mengrai design and lay out his new capital at Chiang Mai, founded in 1296.
sculptures on the central prang
Ayutthaya style chedi
       Ramkamhaeng greatly expanded Sukhothai’s territories, including the absorption of Lawo.  He was the kingdom’s last strong ruler, though, and after his death in 1300 Sukhothai went into decline.  By mid-14th century the new Kingdom of Siam, founded in Ayutthaya in 1350, began challenging its pre-eminence.   In 1438 Ayutthaya extinguished Sukhothai’s last vestiges of autonomy and annexed its territory.  
       Lawo became Lopburi and to restore its prestige the Ayutthaya Court sponsored the construction of Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat in the 14th-15th centuries.  Just opposite the train station today, it is a large compound containing numerous old monuments.  Khmer influence dominates the architecture, from the tall central prang behind the ruined viharn, to the many subsidiary prangs in the courtyard.
ruins of King Narai's palace
       The prang is not the only type of chedi here, however.  A few are in the Ayutthaya style, resembling an inverted bell, with the upper part tapering to a sharp point.  Another features a watermelon shape for its upper tier, without any crown surmounting it.  Sukhothai-style chedis, with a vertical rectangular block just below the crown, are absent.  But the existing sculptures, on the central prang and other chedis, reflect the Sukhothai style.  This is especially true of the occasional Walking Buddha, an image first created in Sukhothai.
       In the 17th century, under the reign of King Narai (1656-1688), Lopburi became the most important city in the country.  When Narai became king, Western powers were already locked in fierce competition over their commercial ambitions in the Far East.  Having supplanted the Portuguese as the dominant naval power in the region, the Dutch were the most aggressive.  When Auytthaya objected to the terms of the trade agreement the Dutch offered, which gave the latter monopoly on prime exports as well as extraterritoriality—the right of its citizens to be free from arrest for violations of local law, the Dutch blockaded the mouth of the Menam Chao Phya River. 
the reception  hall of King Narai's palace
       Without a navy of his own to expel the Dutch, Narai had to agree to the Dutch terms.  The event had two important effects.  It left Narai with the feeling that Ayutthaya, now a large city, was vulnerable to a naval attack.  So he moved to Lopburi, about 55 km northeast.  At first it was just a winter capital, but eventually Narai spent most of his time there.
       The other effect of the successful Dutch blockade was to convince Narai to seek an ally from the Western countries against the Dutch.  He didn’t trust the English, so he opted for an alliance with the French.  In 1862 he gave permission to French Jesuit priests to settle in Ayutthaya.  Their main goal was to convert the king to Catholicism.   Though Narai expressed an intellectual interest in Catholicism, as well as Islam, he never intended to abandon Theravada Buddhism, his own faith and that of his subjects.  Yet French hopes for his conversion persisted throughout his reign.
palace wall to King Mongkut's compound
       Some of the Jesuit missionaries were also architects and engineers and assisted Narai in turning Lopburi into a proper royal city.  For some time (the construction date is uncertain) a large reservoir had lain about eight km east of the city, catching and storing the runoff from the Prabat Hills.  French engineers constructed an underground aqueduct with lead pipes to convey water from the reservoir to the palace.  French architects designed the fortifications, as well as the palace and other secular buildings and the European influence is evident in the use of brick rather than wood as the basic building material, plus the wide windows and general look.  Lopburi became known as the Versailles of the East.
       In 1673 the French sent an ecclesiastical mission to Lopburi, with letters to King Narai from King Louis XIV and Pope Clement IX.  In 1680, still seeking an ally against the Dutch, Narai sent a diplomatic mission to France.  But it got lost at sea somewhere near Madagascar.  The French responded to the effort by dispatching a commercial mission to Lopburi two years later.
Phaulkon's house
Khmer Buddha in the palace compound
       King Narai’s closest advisor at this time was Constantine Phaulkon, the most remarkable of the scores of European adventurers who sought fame and fortune in the Far East that century.  A Greek islander by birth, Phaulkon arrived in Siam as an employee of the British East India Company n 1675.  In his late 20s, already a polyglot who also spoke English, Portuguese and French, Phaulkon learned to speak fluent Thai within a few years and served as a translator in the company’s dealings with the Siamese Court.
       Phaulkon’s talents eventually came to the attention of the Siamese Court and in 1681 he began working directly for King Narai, serving as interpreter during negotiations with the French mission of 1682.  Phaulkon rose quickly in Narai’s favor, received the title Phra Chao Wichayen and became Narai’s chief minister.  He had his own mansion in the diplomatic quarter and entertained lavishly.  He also converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism and shared the French priests’ ambition to turn Siam into a Catholic country.  
modern chedi at Wat Manee Choklakham
temple dancer in the Lopburi ruins
Diplomatic missions traveled back and forth between Siam and France the next few years, resulting in the alliance Narai had long sought.  Though he did not convert to Catholicism, Narai allowed the French to build forts and station troops in Bangkok.  Phaulkon helped achieve this, though in loyalty to his patron he insisted on terms that put the French garrison under Narai’s direct command.
       Nevertheless, the very idea of stationing foreign troops on Siam’s territory outraged conservative factions at the Court.  In 1688 Narai fell seriously ill.  The leader of the Court dissidents, Phra Petracha, staged a coup, arrested and executed both Phaulkon and Mom Pi, Narai’s adopted son and heir, whom Phaulkon had persuaded to become Catholic. 
       Narai died soon afterwards and Petracha assumed the throne, abandoned Lopburi and expelled the French.  Versailles of the East fell into ruins, though parts of the palace, its walls, gates and reception hall, as well as the houses built for Phaulkon and foreign ambassadors, still remain.  Only its shell stands today, yet Phaulkon’s house is the oldest extant private house in Thailand, mainly because it was built of brick and stucco and not more perishable wood.
stars of contemporary Lopburi
       Since Lopburi was no longer the seat of royal government, many of its residents returned to Ayutthaya and the once glorious city reverted to a small town.  It regained a little of its importance in the mid-19th century when King Mongkut (Rama IV 1851-1868) chose to make Lopburi one of his summer homes.  Rather than restore the ruins of Narai’s palace, he added a new walled compound to the rear of the original and erected his own quarters there, as well as other buildings, including one for his concubines, two-story white houses with balconies and sloping tiled roofs.
       Mongkut’s successor did not maintain the Lopburi residence and gave the new palace to Lopburi for use as its City Hall.  Another building became a museum.  Lopburi vanished from official thoughts until Marshal Pibul Songram, who ruled Thailand 1938-1947, decided to establish a military base in its eastern suburbs.
       The final phase in Lopburi’s development began in the last decades of the century in the role of tourist destination.  Naturally, its historic relics made it worth a visit, but it became more popularly known as the City of the Monkeys.  Great numbers of these creatures congregate around the railroad tracks on the eastern side of town.  Dozens of them hang out around Prang Sam Yot, though they don’t seem to enter the Si Rattana Mahathat compound. 
guesthouse in the monkey heartland
       They are the species called crab-eating macaque.  Lopburi doesn’t have enough crabs for so many monkeys, of course, so they feed on seeds, fruits, flowers, bird eggs and whatever else they can scavenge, including the sandwiches and noodles of unsuspecting tourists who dine too close to them.  Hotel staff guides and agencies warn visitors not to give food to the monkeys, or eat anything near them, and keep a firm grip on their cameras, cell phones and shoulder bags.
       Local mythology says that Hanuman, Rama’s Monkey General in the Hindu epic Ramayana, came here in ancient times and the monkeys today are his descendants.  Because of the religious connection, the city never tried to expel them.  Since 1989, thanks to the initiative of a local businessman, every November the city stages a Monkey Buffet Festival.  Residents lay out thousands of kilograms of fruits, seeds and other snacks for the monkeys to feast upon. 
       Intended to boost tourism, it did just that.  Now Lopburi is a popular excursion, especially as a day trip from Ayutthaya or Bangkok.  That’s actually sufficient time to see the historical sights, all of them within walking distance of the town center.  As for the unique presence of over 3000 monkeys, that will be a bonus for every traveler, and for those who’ve never been in an environment dominated by so many ‘creatures of the wild,’ perhaps a reason to stay longer.

Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat
                                                                        * * *