Monday, December 26, 2016

Teak and Temples in Old Lampang

                                                              by Jim Goodman
the Wang River running through Lampang
       When the British annexed Lower Burma in the early 19th century they began organizing the teakwood business.  An excellent, durable hardwood, with natural oils that make it impervious to water and termites, teak was an ideal building material.  Vast forests dominated by teak trees existed in both Burma and northern Thailand.  As the British took over the rest of the country they further developed the trade and extended business operations into northern Thailand.
       British companies leased forests from local autonomous rulers in the north and set up bases mainly in Chiang Mai and Lampang, 100 km south.  Lying along the Wang River in a broad plain, Lampang is surrounded by mountains, then full of forests that were a prime source of teak.  But while local authorities were quite willing to grant foreigners forest concessions, local people did not want to work in them.  So the British brought in workers from Burma, especially Shan, which not only affected the makeup of the population, but also introduced new cultural influences.  The city today features several Burmese-style temples, around half of those in northern Thailand.
the walled compound of Wat Lampang Luang
       Lampang is actually the second oldest city, after Lamphun, in northern Thailand.  The younger son of Queen Chamadevi of the recently established Mon state of Haripunchai, as Lamphun was then called, founded the city in the 9th century.  Because of the intervening Khuntan Mountains between the two cities. Lampang enjoyed a great measure of autonomy and indeed, there is scarce mention of the city in Haripunchai chronicles. 
       To protect itself from invasions, Lampang established bastions on all the routes leading into it.  When Mengrai of the Kingdom of Lanna conquered Haripunchai, including distant Lampang, these bastions were abandoned.  But one of them, about 18 km northeast, became the site of Wat Lampang Luang, one of the most venerated temples in northern Thailand.  Sitting on an artificial mound and surrounded by walls, it looks like a fortified temple compound.
18th century mural, Viharn Luang
19th century mural, Viharn Luang
       The Buddha himself is said to have visited the site and left a hair as remembrance, which was then housed in a shrine that eventually became a chedi, twice enlarged in the 15th century, that now stands 45 meters tall.  The Viharn Luang in front of it has a classic Lanna triple roof and an ornate, gilded housing for the main Buddha image. 
19th century scene, Lampang Luang mural
       The wooden interior walls feature painted frescoes of the Jataka Tales, a collection of stories of previous incarnations of the Buddha. Some of them date from the 18th century, the oldest in northern Thailand.  These are rather crude portraits, with fewer details and colors than the larger array of early 19th century murals.  Besides veneration of the Buddha, scenes depict kings at their courts, soldiers assembling for war, royalty at leisure and rivers full of fish and mythical creatures. 
       The original mid-15th century viharn (main prayer hall) has been replaced since then, though probably in the original style, as have most of the buildings.  But one of them, Viharn Nam Tam, built in the beginning of the 16th century, open-sided with a triple roof, has never been rebuilt and is the oldest extant original temple in the north.  
Viharn Nam Tam
       Within Lampang city itself, the most important temple in the Kingdom of Lanna times was Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao.  Built over a previous Mon temple in the 14th-15th centuries, it was the original home of the Emerald Buddha, considered Thailand’s most powerful guardian image. In 1434 lightning struck a chedi in Chiang Rai province and revealed a damaged Buddha image.  The abbot found that underneath the exterior stucco was an image of green jade.  The King of Lanna wanted it moved to Chiang Mai, but the elephant carrying it three times detoured to Lampang.  So it stayed in Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao until 1468, when King Tilokaraj removed it to Chiang Mai.   A century later it was taken to Laos and eventually Siamese troops captured it in Vientiane and took it to Bangkok, where it remains.
Po Thip Chang at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao
       As the southernmost part of Lanna, Lampang occasionally suffered when wars between Ayutthaya and Lanna took place mainly in Lampang province.  Lanna itself began disintegrating in the mid-16th century and Burmese armies captured Chiang Mai in 1558 with scarcely any resistance.  Lampang fell under Burmese rule, too, but as in the days when it was part of Lanna, Lampang’s administration still enjoyed a fair measure of autonomy.  There were occasional revolts against bad Burmese governors, but these didn’t last long.  The various principalities in the north never coordinated their actions.
       In the 18th century, Burmese control began to weaken, even as it revved up for a showdown with Ayutthaya.  In 1732 a Lampang hunter named Po Thip Chang led an attack on the garrison that had been set up at Wat Lampang Luang and killed the commander.  Such was the politics of the day, though, instead of organizing a reprisal, the Burmese king confirmed Po Thip Chang as autonomous ruler of Lampang.  In return, until his death in 1757, the Lampang ruler could be relied upon to aid the Burmese forces suppressing revolts in other places.
Baan Sao Nak teak house
       Burma conquered and destroyed Ayutthaya in 1767.  But in the north, sporadic revolts had already been intensifying and now they picked up, with a little more coordination than previously.  The nominal King of Chiang Mai and King Kawila of Lampang, the second successor to Po Thip Chang, faced with a Lanna devastated by revolts and reprisals, sandwiched between two more powerful states, decided the best way to get rid of the Burmese was to agree to ally with and be vassals of Siam. 
       In 1774 a combined Siamese-Lanna force expelled the Burmese from Chiang Mai.   But after barely surviving a Burmese counter-attack the following year, Kawila abandoned the city and removed what remained of the population to Lampang.  When Rama I, who had commanded the Siamese troops in the taking of Chiang Mai, ascended to Siam’s throne in 1782, he appointed Kawila as King of a restored Lanna.  
Baan Sao Nak interior
       But Chiang Mai was still deserted and the Burmese still in the north.  Kawila spent the next couple decades on expeditions to capture people from northeast Burma to resettle them in Lanna.  He officially re-established Chiang Mai as Lanna’s capital in 1796 and finally expelled the last Burmese from Chiang Saen in 1802.
       Kawila was one of Lampang’s ‘Seven Brothers,’ or Chao Chet Ton, the dynasty that ruled Lanna until its final absorption into Thailand.  Another of the original Seven Brothers became prince of Lampang.  As it was still several days’ journey from Chiang Mai to Lampang, he also was a practically autonomous ruler.
the viharn at War Pong Sanuk
       Lampang was the second most important city in revived Lanna.  Chiang Mai’s population only began exceeding Lampang’s in the mid-19th century.  By then the teak business had made it one of the two northern cities with a significant foreign population.  The smaller portion of this was Western, primarily British, some of whom ran the city offices and some of whom spent many days in the forests supervising the logging.  Every December the British community celebrated Christmas together, alternating between Chiang Mai one year and Lampang the next.  (This became easier after 1919, when the railway line, which only reached Lampang three years earlier, was extended to Chiang Mai.)
       The other foreign communities were those who came in with the teak trade—Burmese, Shans and even Indians.  They worked both in the cities and the forests and some Burmese entrepreneurs became quite wealthy from the business.  One of Lampang’s most popular attractions today is Baan Sao Nak, the House of Many Pillars, built in 1895 by a Burmese Mon trader. 
Wat Sei Long Muang
       Altogether 116 pillars support the house’s four connected, Lanna-style buildings, with a Burmese-style verandah in front.  All the original furniture remains on display—beds, tables, chairs, cabinets full of lacquer ware, brass and silver bowls, utensils and porcelain, partition screens, a steam presser for creasing pants and a couple of early 20th century gramophones.
       Other Burmese merchants around this time sponsored construction of temples for their community.  The Burmese have been Theravada Buddhist at least as long as the Thai, but these temples introduced new architectural elements distinct from existing Lanna-style structures.  The most obvious is the tall, thin, multi-tiered, ornate tower over the entrances or on the roofs.  The shape of the viharn—assembly hall—could also vary, making a tour of Lampang’s temples interesting for the diversity of shapes and styles.
Wat Chedi Sao
       Built in 1886, Wat Pong Sanuk rests, like Wat Lampang Luang, on a manmade mound rising above the immediate neighborhood.  Besides a gilded chedi, the compound features a three-story viharn in an unusual cruciform shape.  The viharn at War Sri Long Muang, completed in 1912, lies on a horizontal axis, with a very wide roof over a triple entrance and three-tiered towers on either side of the central one.  The building is unlike any other temple in northern Thailand.  And the central Buddha image, of course, is very much in the Burmese style.
old house on Kad Kokng Ta
       A third Burmese temple from this period is Wat Sri Chum, in the southern part of the city.  U Myaung Gyi, also known as Big Boss, of mixed Burmese and Shan descent, sponsored its construction and helped pay to bring in skilled carpenters and craftsmen from Mandalay to build it, which was completed in 1901.  Both the viharn and the smaller ordination hall feature typical Burmese/Shan roofs, different from the angled, layered roofs of Thai temples, plus ornamented towers of receding tiers.  The viharn has two side entrances, with elaborately carved filigreed screens just above the entry staircases.
       In 1992 fire consumed the viharn.  Basing their work on photographs of the original, Burmese and Thai artisans tried to build an exact replacement.  They got close, but the tower over the rear entrance is somewhat higher than the original and the exterior walls that were once an attractive pale yellow are now bright white.  A large donation box, a postal receptacle and a few other small structures now stand between the entry staircases.  And the filigreed screens above them have been gilded.  Nevertheless, it’s still the finest Burmese temple in Lampang.
horse-carts station in Lampang
       Burmese architectural elements also crept into the original Lanna-style temples in Lampang.  An example is Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao, where a Burmese tiered tower stands at the entrance, just in front of the old Mon-style chedi.  After this temple, the best known is Wat Chedi Sao, on the north side of the Wang River.  Sao in northern Thai dialect means ‘twenty’ and that many white chedis with gilded tops stand in the courtyard.  It also has, unusually for a Theravada temple, a statue of a multi-armed Guan Yin, the Mahayana Buddhist Goddess of Compassion.  Wat Koh, on the south bank of the Wang River, contains buildings in the northern Thai style, but also a very Burmese-style small shrine in the rear of the compound, full of interior wall murals.
Kad Kong Ta Street
       The other influence on Lampang that came out of colonial Burma was that of the British teak wallahs themselves.  Lampang’s central clock tower went up at this time, replicating a feature the British introduced into cities in Burma.  The teak wallahs spent a lot of time in the forests supervising the work.  Their crews first girdled the trees so that they would die slowly while still standing and cut them down one to two years later.  Trained elephants hauled the logs out of the forest and shaped them into rafts on the riversides.  The logs floated downriver to Bangkok, staying in the water up to three months. 
       Coming home out of that environment, they wanted homes that were spacious and comfortable.  Kad Kong Ta, in the northern part of old Lampang, was a favorite neighborhood and today the old teak wallah homes, largely converted to other uses like restaurants and lodges, are another of the city’s highlight attractions. They are a mix of northern Thai and European styles, but in general so evocative of the teak trade’s heyday that the city chose the neighborhood as its ‘Walking Street’ on Saturday nights, wherein the street fills with stalls selling handicrafts and other merchandise, northern foods are on offer and musicians play Lanna tunes.
horse-cart in the streets of Lampang
       The other enduring legacy of the British presence is the horse-cart, also previously introduced in Burma and still in use in Maymyo, or Pwin U Lwin, a hill station near Mandalay.  Lampang is the only city in Thailand one can still take a horse-cart to get around.  They ‘re actually cheaper than taxis and a much more interesting ride. 
       It’s amazing that they have survived this long, for the teak wallahs left a few generations ago and tourism didn’t take off until recent decades.  But now that Lampang is drawing more attention as an excursion for travelers in northern Thailand, the future of the horse-cart looks rosy.  They are a throwback to an archaic age, the city’s halcyon days of yore.  They are an appropriate vehicle for a relaxed exploration and enjoyment of the Mon, Lanna, Burmese and British legacies of Lampang’s fascinating heritage.
the original Wat Sri Chum, 1989
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