by Jim Goodman
Just a hundred kilometers from Chiang Mai, its major sites can be done in a day-trip, even when combined with a stop in the elephant camp on the way. Overnight excursions are also popular, especially weekends, with their evening street markets. Fridays the venue is Cultural Street, in Wiang Neua, the oldest part of the city. Saturdays and Sundays it’s on Kad Kong Ta, along the river, a street featuring splendid, century-old houses built by merchants from the teak wallah years.
While exploring these neighborhoods, visitors get a feel for the city’s antiquity. Many of the old town temples date from the Kingdom of Lanna era, 14th-17th centuries, while the Kad Kong Ta houses, Burmese-style temples, clock tower and railway line and station represent Lampang’s special prosperity in the golden years of the teakwood business. But these are just part of Lampang’s history, for it is the second oldest city in all of Lanna, established many centuries before Thais had even begun living in Northern Thailand
The first city was Haripunchai, now called Lamphun, founded in the 7th century and ruled by Queen Chamadevi, the most remarkable and accomplished woman in Thailand’s history. Although no contemporary written records exist, no scholar challenges the fact that Chamadevi was a real historical person, even if her life story has been embellished by legend.
While still a baby she was supposedly grabbed by an eagle that flew to Doi Suthep. The hermit Wasuthep, after whom the mountain was eventually named, harried the bird into dropping her into a pond, where a lotus flower sprouted to receive her. Wasuthep raised the girl, named her Vi, taught her martial arts as well as other lessons of life and at her puberty divined her future. Discovering she was destined to rule a new state, he decided to send her down to the Mon state of Lawo, today’s Lopburi, to be properly trained for this role. He dispatched her on a boat all the way down to Lawo, which took a few months, with a pair of monkeys as companions, said to be the origin of contemporary Lopburi’s large monkey community.
Lawo’s rulers assumed her surprise arrival to be an auspicious event. They adopted her into the royal family, renamed her Chamadevi, and after a few years formally installed her as a princess. She was already quite beautiful then and aroused marriage suits from princes in other Mon states. When she refused one offer the suitor led an attack on Lawo in order to seize her. Chamadevi aroused Lawo troops and allies and led the successful counterattack. She did get pregnant later by a lover who enrolled in a monastery afterwards. Meanwhile, Wasuthep up north decided it was time for Chamadevi to return to administer the newly laid out city of Haripunchai.
Chamadevi left Lawo by boat, a journey that took several months, and after being ceremonially installed as Haripunchai’s sovereign, a week later she gave birth to twin boys, Mahantayot and Anantayot. She sponsored Theravada Buddhism as the state religion and several years later she mortally defeated the local Lawa chieftain Viranka, taking his domain under Haripunchai’s jurisdiction, yet diplomatically arranged for her sons to marry Viranka’s two daughters.
Chamadevi then pushed south, over the Kuntan Mountain Range, and founded Khelang, today’s Lampang. Khelang, 70 km south of Haripunchai, lies on the Wang River and was an important post on the trade routes to other Mon states. Its layout was in the shape of a conch, surrounded by walls and moats, just like Haripunchai. After abdicating as queen, leaving Mahantayot as Haripunchai’s sovereign, she retired to Khelang, where her other son Anantayot was the ruler. At the age of 89 she died in Khelang and her son had the corpse taken to Haripunchai for the cremation.It also bore the brunt of three Khmer attacks in the 12th century. Haripunchai repulsed all of them and the victorious Mon king, head of the only Mon state not to be absorbed by Angkor’s expansion into central Thailand, built the golden chedi at Wat Haripunchai over what was Chamadevi’s original residence, and the chedis at Wat Chamadevi. An earthquake flattened the latter, but in the early 13th century they were rebuilt The smaller of the two contains her ashes.
By then Tai Yuan had begun emigrating to Haripunchai and in the mid-13th century they were able to overthrow the Mon dynasty and install a Tai Yuan sovereign. Later that century King Mengrai of Lanna conquered the city with the local royal family’s cooperation and Khelang was soon absorbed as well, its name subsequently changed to Lakhon. Still, the city retained its local autonomy and prospered enough to afford new temples, many still extant, in the classic Lanna style.
The legacy of Lampang’s Haripunchai era is not very visible. The city does have a Chamadevi shrine and a few famous temples nearby, like Wat Phra That Sadet, Wat Pang Yong Khok and Wat Lampang Luang, are restorations of ones originally founded in Chamadevi’s time. Within today’s city limits the oldest extant relic is the stump of a brick chedi in the grounds of Wat Don Tao, first built by King Anantayot in the early 8th century. More extensive ruins are at Wat Muen Khruen, from the early 13th century, just outside Pratu Ma, the northeastern gate. The tapered, bell-shaped chedi has been restored but otherwise only the foundations of other buildings remain from a compound built three generations before the Lanna conquest.
A few other temple ruins augment Lampang’s historical atmosphere. In the heart of the old Wiang Neua quarter stands a relatively well preserved compound gate called Ku Chao Ya Suta, built in the late 14th century. It is embellished with full relief sculptures over the arch and on the sides and is the entrance to Wat Kak Kaeo, where only the foundations of the other buildings remain.
Similarly, at Wat Pa Phrao, constructed in the mid-15th century, also outside Pratu Ma in the same neighborhood as Wat Muen Khruen, only the chedi still stands and it’s missing its upper spire. Its name can be translated as ‘place of the coconuts’. It was outside the city walls, so may well have originally been, along with the older Wat Muen Khruen, a kind of forest temple. A third abandoned ruin, in Wiang Neua, is the big but dilapidated chedi of Wat Umong, the only surviving remnant, tucked inside a crowded residential neighborhood.
Other temples erected in the Lanna era are still is use, renovated in a manner that reflected the original design, of wooden buildings without the addition of paint or plaster, with roofs of dark tiles. Wat Pathuton in a quiet part of Wiang Neua is an outstanding example, featuring fine carvings on the doors, classic Lanna viharn and a black chedi with gold embellishments. It was named after one of the city’s former gates and part of the old city wall flanks its courtyard.
Even more interesting is Wat Pong Yang Khok, southwest of the city past Lampang Luang. According to the origin legend, Chamadevi was on her way to Lampang Luang when her elephant suddenly stopped and bowed. The queen decided to spend the night there and prayed for a miraculous sign. Then a halo of Buddha relics flashed over an anthill. Chamadevi ordered a temple built over the anthill.
The rather small viharn here is named after Chamadevi and renovated five hundred years ago. The tall and wide building behind it, called the ‘castle’, went up around that time and now serves as the monks’ quarters. A statue of Chamadevi stands outside on a pedestal across the street. Within the compound is also a small shrine to the elephant that bowed to the Buddha, originally constructed, like the viharn, in 710. Another shrine features a portrait, behind the Buddha image, of Po Thip Chang, the Lampang hero who freed the city from Burmese rule in the 18th century.
A similar origin story narrates the founding of Wat Lin Hai, also in the same area. An elephant carrying a Buddha relic from India stopped to bow at this site. In 1683 a prince from Kengtung in northeast Myanmar, sponsored the construction of the temple here. The viharn is in classic Lanna style and the entry gate features wonderful stucco sculptures. The temple’s museum contains many antique artifacts, household goods, jewelry and sculptures
As the southern part of the Kingdom of Lanna, Lampang was a target for attacks by Ayutthaya, which captured the city in 1515, but later withdrew. The Burmese Kingdom of Ava conquered Lanna in 1558, but left local rulers as autonomous governors. In 1660 King Narai of Ayutthaya marched his armies north and expelled the Burmese from most of Lanna. But when Ayutthaya withdrew after Narai’s death, Ava reasserted control and installed its own governors.
Still, Lampang was a long way from Ava and never fully resigned to foreign rule. Revolts broke out periodically and in 1732, led by native Po Thip Chang, Lampang recovered its autonomy, which Ava reluctantly recognized and it was a quarter century before Ava re-imposed its rule. In 1767 Ava destroyed Ayutthaya, but the survivors regrouped and founded a new state, the Kingdom of Siam, its capital on the Chao Phaya River, and began challenging an Ava in retreat just fifteen years later.
Lampang under its ruler Kawila declared independence from Ava and made an alliance with Siam. Ava attacked and besieged Lampang for three months in 1783, until an army from Siam relieved the city and drove the Burmese from the area. Kawila’s forces continued to push Ava out of northern Thailand and re-established the state of Lanna as a vassal of Siam. (From then on Lakhon became officially known as Lampang.) Yet the Burmese threat persisted for another couple decades and one of the first tasks of the new government in Lanna was to strengthen its cities’ defenses.
Lampang rebuilt its walls but these gradually disappeared as peace endured, the threat ended and the city expanded. In recent years Pratu Ma, the Horse Gate, was reconstructed and on each end of it some remnants of the original mounds, bricks and moat remain in place. Near the river in Wiang Nuea is the Ho Amok Tower, erected in 1808 and designed to support cannons along the top. It was never used for defensive action but was left as a legacy of a bygone yet important historical era.
Over the course of the 19th century Lanna gradually lost its autonomy and became fully integrated with Siam, politically and economically. By 1900 Lampang was prospering, thanks to the launching of the teak business. Loggers cut trees in the forest. Elephants dragged out the logs and formed them into rafts at the riverside. These rafts floated down the Wang River to its junction with the Chao Phaya and then on to Bangkok.
Thai people living near the forests were at that time unwilling to work in them, so the logging captains encouraged immigration from Burma, then a British colony. As a result many Burmese-style temples appeared in the city, especially across the river from the old town. With their very different architectural features they add to the city’s variety as well as represent a distinct historical period.
Likewise, so do the houses constructed for the teak wallahs. Most of them still house descendants of the original owners, like the mansions along Kad Kong Ta. The grandest of them is Baan Sao Mak, the House of Twenty Pillars, in a neighborhood nearby, which now serves as a museum, with a fascinating array of antique furniture inside. A short stroll from Wat Pratuphong stands the old two-story house that belonged to Louis Leonowens, the husband of Anna of Anna and the King of Siam fame. Not much is left of the furnishings, but in the yard is one of the early 20th century trucks used to transport teak logs and other displays of the trade.
The final legacy of the teak trade period is the Lampang train station, which opened in 1916 to connect the city with Bangkok, 642 km south. Logs moved much more expeditiously after that. By then Chiang Mai was into the business, too, so construction began to extend the line. The Kuntan Mountains Range was in the way, so workers created a tunnel through it and then two double-span bridges across streams; the White Bridge just north of the tunnel and the Black Bridge beside Lamphun. Chiang Mai railway station opened in 1921.
The logging business has ceased, but Lampang today reflects its commercial success in other trades and industries, including tourism. For visitors Lampang has many relics from throughout its history, waiting to be appreciated. After all, the city has been continuously inhabited for nearly 1400 years.