Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Beyond Haripunchai—Excursions Out of Lamphun

                                      by Jim Goodman

ruins at Ko Klong, Chamadevi's birthplace
       The attractions that lure and enchant visitors to Chiang Mai—ancient monuments, old temples, mountains, caves, waterfalls, ethnic minority communities and craft villages—can also be enjoyed just south, on day excursions to Lamphun Province.  The two provincial capitals are only about 30 km apart and less than an hour’s travel time, whether by train or any of the three roads.  Lamphun’s old city is like a smaller version of Chiang Mai, surrounded by moats, and a river on one side, and bounded by remnants of old walls, with entry gates in the four directions.
Black Stone Buddha, Wat Mahawan
Ku Kai, the chedi for Chamadevi's  rooster
       The city is actually much older than Chiang Mai, founded as the capital of a Mon state in the 7th century and named Haripunchai.  Its first ruler was Queen Chamadevi, originally born near here, but later raised in the royal court of the Mon state of Lavo, today’s Lopburi.  Though Chamadevi was a real historical person, myth and legend have embellished the details of her life.  Her cult has persisted down to contemporary times and a visit to old Haripunchai largely consists of sites associated with the ancient queen.
ruined chedi at Wat Ko Klong
Wat Tan Kok, Wiang Tha Kan
       This includes Wat Haripunchai, originally built in 1044 on the grounds of Chamadevi’s former palace.  Its main gilded chedi was erected a century later, right over the queen’s bedroom.  Just outside the west gate of the old town, Wat Mahawan, a temple noted for its amulets, houses a black stone Buddha image the queen brought up from Lavo.  Further west lies Wat Chamadevi, (a.k.a. Wat Kukut) first constructed the same year, with its two early 13th century brick chedis still standing.  The smaller one contains Chamadevi’s ashes.  The new viharn features vivid wall murals of scenes from her life and times.
Wat Mae Klang Wiang, Wiang Tha Kan
       Elsewhere in Lamphun, the Chamadevi Park occupies the southwest corner of the old town.   North of the moats, a splendid mixture of styles marks the reconstructed Wat Sanpayangluang, her cremation site.  East of the old town, the interior walls of the ordination hall of Wat Prayeun, one of her favorite temples, are covered with paintings of events in Chamadevi ‘s life.  And northeast of the city are ancient chedis built to house the remains of Chamadevi’s elephant, horse, rooster and cat—a phenomenon unique in the country.
       Well, she was certainly a phenomenal woman, the most accomplished in Thailand’s history.  From Lavo, contingents of artisans, doctors, astrologers, merchants, teachers and 500 monks accompanied her.  She subdued the local Lawa, established a firm foundation for the state and in late middle age abdicated in favor of the elder of her twin sons.  The younger one then founded Lampang, northern Thailand’s second oldest city. 
Wat Ku Mai Dang, Wiang Tha Kan
       Her dynastic line died out in the early 11th century and a killer epidemic forced the population to relocate for several years in Lower Burma.  Upon their return, the new dynasty continued to honor Chamadevi and its first kings built Wats Haripunchai and Kukut.  The state repelled three Khmer invasions in the 12th century and remained at peace until finally subdued by Mengrai of Lanna in the late 13th century.
       Besides the ancient relics in and around Lamphun city, other vestiges of the Mon state are within the vicinity.  Chamadevi’s birthplace, Ko Klong village, is about ten km west of Pasang, the next town south of Lamphun.  Within the village’s temple grounds stand the ruins of three brick and laterite religious buildings, built in the 9th century and renovated 14th-15th centuries under the Kingdom of Lanna.  A bit of the stucco decoration remains, but none of the sculptures, nor the upper parts of the buildings, but each is in a different style.  Another one stands on an island in the middle of a pond outside the compound walls.  Originally it stood on a small mound next to the Ping River.  But centuries later the river changed course and left the monument surrounded by a pool.
Buddha image, Wat Mae Klang Wiang
Tai Yong temple--Wat Pasang Ngam
       There’s no building in the village claiming to be Chamadevi’s natal home.  The peculiarity of the village, though, is that its residents are Mon, not Thai, descendants of ancestors from the Haripunchai era.  And they use the Mon language when speaking at home and within the community,
winding thread in Don Luang
       A more impressive set of ruins from old Haripunchai lies west of Lamphun at the former satellite town of Wiang Tha Kan, over the boundary in Sanpatong district of Chiang Mai Province.  Founded over a thousand years ago and abandoned after the Burmese conquest of Lanna mid-16th century, the ruins are spread out over quiet rural neighborhoods.  A portion of the city moat remains. 
       Most of the ruins are just brick foundations, but a few have full sized chedis in fairly good condition.  The one at Wat Ku Mai Dang looks ready to topple over with the next earth tremor, though.  In front of one of the two chedis at Wat Mae Klang Wiang, a Buddha statue displays traits common to Mon-Khmer sculpture--very thick lips, for example, different from Thai Buddhas.  There’s an information center next to this site and a small museum with ceramics and other trade items from 13th-14th century China, indicating the town’s continuing prosperity after its absorption into the Kingdom of Lanna.
Don Luang house with loom
Don Luang street lamp
       By the time Mengrai learned of the existence of Haripunchai, its governing dynasty had changed.  Instead of Mon, the ruling family was from the Tai Yuan community, which had grown throughout the 13th century.  Mengrai was also Tai Yuan and thus had natural allies in the government.  They eventually invited him in, so Mengrai conquered the city by subterfuge rather than combat.
       It was a more sophisticated city than Mengrai had ever imagined.  He decided to make it his kingdom’s religious center and modeled his own capital Chiang Mai on the layout of Haripunchai.  He and his successors patronized the monks there and sponsored new temples and renovations of old ones.  With the conquest of Lanna in the mid-16th century Haripunchai lost its special status and became just another small town run by a Burmese vassal.
the Black Bridge in Lamphun
       When King Kawila of Lampang launched his campaign to evict the Burmese from northern Thailand, chaos soon swept the region.  Lamphun citizens joined sporadic rebellions against their Burmese overlords, but the latter responded by forcing people to leave the cities.  Kawila finally expelled the Burmese garrison from Chiang Mai in 1774, but by then it was a deserted city and would remain so for another two decades.
       In 1796, 500 years after Mengrai founded the city, Kawila officially re-established Chiang Mai as the capital of a resurrected Kingdom of Lanna, though as a vassal of Siam.  Burmese forces still controlled parts of the north and it took several years to kick them out completely.   Moreover, the re-born kingdom faced a severe under-population crisis.  People had fled the towns and villages and taken refuge in remote hills and forests.  Kawila had just settled people in Chiang Mai again, but Chiang Rai, Phayao, Fang and Lamphun were still empty.
       After Kawila’s forces had driven the Burmese out of Lanna territory entirely, he embarked on a new campaign to increase its population and make it an economically viable state.  Besides transferring people from Lampang and further south and enticing refugee farmers out of the hills and forests, he also organized raids into northeast Burma to capture people, not territory, and resettle them in Lanna.  Craft specialists were a high priority.
pasting gold leaf onto the Buddha's footprint
        The 1805 expedition targeted Muang Yong, a river town in northeast Burma’s Kengtung state.  Lanna forces removed 10,000 residents to relocate them in and around Lamphun.  The people were Tai Lu from Xishuangbanna, but after their removal became known as Tai Yong.  Linguistically and culturally they were similar to the Tai Yuan.  Their dialects, and that of the Tai Khoen in Kengtung, were close to the Kham Muang of Northern Thailand and used the same alphabet.  Their religious traditions were the same, as was their general way of life.  Their assimilation in their new home would prove easy.
       Nobody chronicled exactly how the Muang Yong operation proceeded.  Did Lanna soldiers round up the people at gunpoint, so to speak, and take them to Lanna as POW’s?  Or were they persuaded by arguments, promises or rewards?  The Tai Yong were able to bring their town’s guardian deity images with them and later install them in a temple in Pasang district.  So how do we label this episode, as abduction or as migration?
Wat Phra Phutthabat Tak Pha
       The Tai Yong live mostly in Pasang district, where they are famous as weavers, the skill that got them brought here originally.  Nowadays villages like Don Luang, four km south of Pasang, and Nong Ngeuak, a few km further, boast of a high reputation for their textiles, made on old-fashioned handlooms, mainly from locally cultivated cotton.  Both men and women are involved with the weaving process—spinning, winding thread and weaving.  Some produce silk cloth, with a unique pattern of small raised flowers on the surface of the fabric.
       Throughout the 19th century the market for Pasang textiles was largely confined to a few northern provinces.  With the construction of a railway line and highway connecting Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the early 1920s this expanded, first to Bangkok and eventually to other parts of the country.  Lamphun quickly became integrated with the country, while the burgeoning teak trade brought a new prosperity.  The Black Bridge, on the railway line just south of the Lamphun station, is the most visible vestige of that era.
Buddha images inside Tham Luang Pha Wiang
       A century later, good roads now connect Lamphun city with all of its rural attractions as well.  One of the most popular locally is Wat Phutthabat Tak Pha, about six km south of Pasang.  It lies in a quiet valley and marks the spot where the Buddha, on a mission with some of his followers to spread the new religion, allegedly stopped here to wash his robe.  A pair of his (larger than life) footprints marks the spot inside the temple erected over it.
       The temple buildings are 20th century constructions, but the site has been venerated since ancient times.  The monks and novices there now are from a Burmese Buddhist sect and wear red robes instead of yellow.  A gilded chedi stands atop the hill behind the compound, with a staircase in front of 467 steps.  But those who want to enjoy the mountain scenery have the option of taking a vehicle up the road to the summit.  Devotees come at any time to honor the footprints by sticking leaves of gold onto them.  The compound is especially crowded the 23rd day of the 8th lunar month, the festival for bathing the footprints.
at the mouth of Tham Luang Pha Wiang
       Further south down Highway 106, past the small town of Ban Hong, mountains dominate the landscape.  Chedis grace the crests of ridges and a turn 15 km past Ban Hong leads to Tham Luang Pha Wiang, the province’s best cave.  It contains several chambers with interesting stalactites and stalagmites.  The most impressive is the large stalagmite at the cave’s mouth, resembling a giant tooth.  A few small shrines and a bell are at the mouth as well, while the next chamber inside contains a row of Buddha images, for Thais traditionally consider natural caves holy places.
       Closer to Lamphun, to its southwest, on the summit of the hill Doi Tha Hin, is another rural attraction—the Golden Rock. .  It has the same name as the more famous one in southeast Myanmar and resembles it, but is actually two big gilded rocks on a cliff atop the hill, with a small chedi on top.  A couple of Buddha ‘footprints’ are in the vicinity, indicating a local belief that the Buddha passed this way. 
       Only a single monk lives there and it is several km from the nearest village.  Yet it is certainly worth a visit, especially in good weather.  The turnoff from the rural road is an easy ride of three km.  From the foot of the hill it’s 15 minutes walk to the summit.  The stairway is lined with statues of devotees and near the top are large statues of the 3rd century monk Upakhu, with his hand in his begging bowl, and a seated Buddha.  Around the corner is the shrine itself, the improbably balanced boulders and a broad view of the countryside.     
the Golden Rock on Doi Tha Hin
side view of the Golden Rock
     The Golden Rock is scarcely mentioned in Lamphun tourist literature, perhaps because, like Tham Luang Pha Wiang, it’s a little far for a quick excursion.  The same can be said for other more distant sights in the province, like the Karen village of Mae Khanat, the woodcarving village in Mae Tha district and the railway tunnel at Doi Khuntan.  But for anyone with the time and interest to discover the special features of northern Thailand history and culture, Chiang Mai is a good start, but not enough.  Lamphun’s culture was not only earlier, it laid the foundations of civilization for the entire north.

shrine of the Golden Rock, Doi Tha Hin

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