Lamphun is one of the most ancient cities in Thailand, dating back at least to the 8th century C.E. when it was the center of the Mon kingdom of Haripunjaya.
The city lies along the west bank of the Mae Kuang River, about 26km south of Chiang Mai. The old city center forms an oval shape, oriented NE to SW, about 1km long by 500m wide, moated on all sides. There was formerly a wall as well, but this is long gone, though sections have been re-built at the NE and NW city gates, with an extended section by the river. Walls and Moat are typical of cities from this time as it was an era of warring city states
The town is very quiet, but well worth a visit for the ancient temples of Wat Phrathat Haripunchai, Wat Mahawan, Wat Phra Yuen and Wat Chamathevi. The Phra Borommathat Chedi (shown right) is one of the most revered Buddhist structures in Northern Thailand
Most people visit Lamphun from Chiang Mai. By train it takes about 30 minutes, with 2 trains early morning, and two return trains in the evening. The station is some 2km from the town center, but song thaews (baht bus - pickup truck with two rows of seats) wait at the station.
Bus services run from Chang Puak Bus terminal in Chiang Mai, north of Chang Puak Gate, and a blue bahr bus service runs from just south of Narawat bridge on the east side of the river. The journey takes around 30 minutes. Many people also hire cars or motorcycles from Chiang Mai.
Buses and baht busses stop at the rear entrance to Wat Phrathat Haripunchai. Return bus to Chiang Mai can be found outside the Lamphun Museum, opposite the west gate of Wat Phrathat.
Walking is a good way to tour Lamphun, but samlors (bicycle taxis) are recommended for visiting Wat Phra Yuen, Wat Chamathevi, and the Ku Chang shrine.
Map of Lamphun
Haripunjaya: a history of Lamphun
According to the Jinakalamalini, a 16th century chronicle, written in the Pali language, Haripunjaya was founded by the rishi (hermit) Vasudeva, known in Thai as "Suthep", who gave his name to the famous hilltop shrine of Doi Suthep near Chiangmai:
In the Year 1204 of the Buddhist era, at the full moon of the month of Pagguna, the hermit Vasudeva founded the city of Haripunjaya. Two years later, Cammadevi came from Lawapura and reigned at Haripunjaya.
The year 1204 B.E.(Buddhist Era) corresponds to 661 C.E. (i.e. B.E. - 543 years), though modern scholars suggest 750 C.E. as a more likely date for the foundation of the city. "Cammadevi" is the Mon form of Chammathevi. Lawapura (city of the Lawa) was the Mon name for modern Lopburi, once part of the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati. Curiously, another early Pali chronicle, the Cammadevivamsa, uses the modern name Lamphun for the city.
Her memory is still much revered in Lamphun with references to her all over the city, from the Chamathevi memorial (pictured right) to Wat Chamathevi - one of the oldest temples in northern Thailand.
Legends of Chamathevi
In the Wiharn of Wat Chamathevi is a mural which depicts a princely gentleman in a turban, throwing a spear from a mountain top towards a distant walled town. The mountain is Doi Suthep west of Chiang Mai, the town is Lamphun, the prince is the Lawa Chieftain Khun Luang Wilanga and the hat is the subject of the story.
The legend tells that King Wilanga wooed Queen Chamathevi for many years without success. Eventually she was compelled to promise marriage, but only on the condition that he prove himself by throwing three spears into the center of Lamphun from the top of Doi Suthep.
The Three Spears
When his first spear reached the target, the queen, fearing he might win the challenge, made him a turban from her own sarong, claiming it would give him strength for the next attempts. Weakened by traces of menstrual blood in the fabric, the prince threw the second spear short and lost the contest.
One version of the story says that he threw the third spear straight up in the air and was killed by it as it returned to earth. In any case the queen retained her city.
version of the story is much more decorous. Because of her many meritorious deeds, the gods presented the queen with a splendid white elephant (commemorated in the Ku Chang Chedi) which she presented to her two sons Mahayasa and Indaravara as a war mount:
"It was then that the barbarian king Bilanka approached with 80,000 soldiers, in the hope of taking Haripunjaya. Then Mahayasa mounted on the elephant's shoulders, and Indaravara on the middle of the back, with the Mahout behind. Surrounded by a multitude of soldiers they made a sortie from the western gate of the city. The barbarian king, seeing the tusks of this white elephant as if lit up by a red glow, feared for his life and fled the field of battle, his comrades dispersing in all directions.
" (translation from the French version of George Coedes by current author)
The unfortunate King Wilanga is still remembered by the Lawa as the last king of their people. As late as the 1990's, Dr. Christian Goodden heard stories of him in a Lawa village near Mae Sariang, on the Burma border (see his book Three Pagodas
). The Lawa Guardian Spirits of Chiang Mai are still honored every year in a buffalo slaughter at Bahn Pa Chi, near Doi Suthep.
End of Haripunjaya
Haripunjaya flourished as a political and cultural center until 1275 when it was conquered by King Mengrai, ruler of the northern Tai kingdom of Lan Na and founder of Chiang Mai. Lan Na itself, however, acquired much of its Buddhist culture from the Mon peoples of the conquered city.
Wat Phrathat Haripunchai
Lion at the Gate
Wat Phrathat Haripunchai is one of the most famous (and most holy) temple complexes in the north. It is said to have been founded by queen Chamathewi in the grounds of her palace, sometime in the 8th century CE.
The temple grounds are quite extensive, with many interesting structures. I find it a most peaceful place, even compared with the temples of Chiang Mai. Last time I was there, I saw only three or four tourists - there was a tour bus parked outside, but perhaps these vsitors were elsewhere, buying souvenirs.
Buses from Chiang Mai drop off passengers at the rear entrance to the temple, on Inthayongyot Road, though this tour starts at the main gate on the opposite, south-easterly side.
I noticed last time I visited that if you face the temple from in front of the lion gates, the spires of the gate arch, the main Wiharn and the central Chedi almost line up, but not quite. The skills of the Lan Na temple builders were extraordinary, so I suspect that the cause of the mis-alignment may be seismic rather than human - the area around Chiang Mai is, after all, on the same fault line that triggered the tsunami of December 2004; the curtailing of the Suwana Chedi at Wat Chamathevi and Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai were also due to earthquakes.
Directly behind the splendid Lion Gates is the central Wiharn which contains Phra Chao Thongtip, an enormous Chiang Saen style Buddha figure that is only just contained by the Wiharn.
To the left of the Wiharn is a sala which houses a reclining Buddha, and to the right the Bell Tower with a smallish bell, and more noticeably, an enormous bronze gong.
Behind the central Wiharn is the ancient much revered Chedi, Phra Borommathat Haripunchai pictured earlier in the page, the religious center of the temple. The Tourism Authority of Thailand gives the height of the chedi as 46m and places the origin about a thousand years ago, with a major restoration in the 15th century giving it its present shape.
At each corner of the square pedestal are curious Mon style Buddha figures and in the center of each side a shrine to the Buddha. The area around the shrines is fenced off and notices request women not to enter the enclosed section. Many Thais make merit at the shrines, and for good luck may walk around the chedi three times clockwise.
At the eastern end of the complex is the Wiharn Phra Chao Than Cai and next to it the temple museum. The Wiharn houses a crowned Lanna style Buddha figure (Phra Chao Than Chai) with a line of yellow robed Buddhas standing behind. On the walls are a series of murals, including graphic representations of heaven and hell.
Phra Chao Tanchai
To the right of the Wiharn is an old red-brick stepped chedi, similar in style to the Suwana Chedi at Wat Chamathevi. Seated Chiang Saen style Buddha figures are placed at each corner, but I particularly like the small figure of a smiling Chinese monk, sitting on the southerly side, fingering his beads.
Finally, to the south of the Chedi is a Mondop covering a large Buddha footprint set.
Amulet Phra Rot Luang
This Haripunchai period temple is just outside the old city, on Chamathewi Road which is also the way to Wat Chamathewi. Turn left from the back entrance of Wat Phra That, then right at the first intersection. Walk a few hundred meters through the western gates and across the ring road. The wat is on the right hand side.
Wat Mahawan was founded possibly as early as the 8th century, though there have been extensive rebuildings and renovations since. It is said that queen Chamathevi herself placed here a black stone Buddha with a Naga hood. This Buddha, originally from Lopburi is known as the Phra Rod Luang and has been the model for numerous amulets, which are much sought after in the amulet markets.
Viharn, Wat Mahawan
The temple features a beautiful Lanna style Wiharn with a small but spectacular naga staircase and a large seated Buddha image within, together with the black Phra Rot Luang image which measures 17" by 38".
According to a notice in the temple grounds, the original Chedi housed a large number of amulets (normally 84000 to match the 84000 teachings of the Buddha) in its reliquary chamber, but this was broken into and plundered, so eventually a new Chedi was built over the original structure.
The bell tower, set in a small garden to the north of the Wiharn, is very attractive, and a small Mondop to the right houses a number of black stone copies of Phra Rod Luang.
Wat Chamathevi is located about 1 km west of Wat Mahawan, just before the Lamphun Hospital. A samlor to the temple should be about 20 Baht, and for the return, there are always samlors waiting outside the hospital.
This temple also dates back to the 8th century C.E. and is notable for its two Haripunchai Chedis:
The Suwana Chedi is said to have been founded by Queen Chamathevi, though it is known to have been extensively restored in the early 13th century by the Haripunchai king Savvadhisiddhi. Legend says that the queen's ashes are enshrined within.
This stepped square Chedi, of laterite covered with stucco, has a three tier base, 15.34m wide, surmounted by 5 more tiers, each of the four sides of which contains 3 standing Buddha figures.
Many of the figures are in good condition, showing the typical Mon features of broad face and curved, connected eyebrows, and thin transparent robe. All undamaged statues feature the abhaya mudra (right hand raised, dispelling fear) and enough of the decorative stucco surround remains to show the high quality of the original work.
The spire however is missing, giving the temple its alternative name of Wat Ku Kut (Ku = burial place, memorial chedi, Kut = stump, cutoff).
The Ratana Chedi, was probably built in the 12th Century. This chedi is octagonal in section, 11.6m high with a 4.4m diameter brick base.
A single tier of Mon style Buddha figures were placed in each side of the octagon, but these are much damaged and the tower has lost its spire.
The Wiharn contains a superb seated bronze Buddha and several smaller ones. The side walls are decorated with large murals illustrating the life of Queen Chamathevi, including the Wilanga story referred to in the introduction. The columns and rear wall are decorated with multi-colored glazed tiles.
The white stupa behind the Suwana Chedi commemorates Phra Kru Ba Sirichai, a monk famous for organizing the renovation of many temples, including this one, and in a small garden by the front wall is a large and very lifelike statue of a bull.
Ku Chang Ku Ma
Out in the countryside about 1.5 km NE of the city moat lie two very old brick stupas probably Mon in origin. The location is very lonely, out in the fields and forest, but is very popular with local devotees. Unless you are prepared to walk back it is better to retain your samlor, as you are very unlikely to find a free one out there.
Follow the narrow road (Chittawong Phan Rangsan Rd.) northeast along the banks of the river for about 1km. Go through the first crossroads (to the right is a bridge over the river), then after about 300m take a lane to the left marked Thanon Ku Chang. The site is on the right after about 300m.
Local legend says that the two stupas mark the burial places of Queen Chamathevi's war elephant (Ku Chang) and her son's horse (Ku Ma), and therefore carvings of Horses and elephants are left as offerings at the small shrine in front. Ku Chang is cylindrical without a spire; little is left of the original stucco. Ku Mah is bell-shaped on a square base.
Rather more impressive than the average public monument, the Chamathevi shrine is located in the south west corner of the old moated city. As well as a statue of the queen (pictured in the section on Queen Chamathevi) there is a large Khmer style gopura (temple entrance) and wall to the rear of the enclosure. The wall has a frieze relief depicting scenes from the history of Lamphun.
Wat Sri Boon Rueng
Hindu influence is still very evident in Lamphun especially in the temple murals. Examples from Wat Sri Boon Rueng include a mermaid (sometimes Queen Chamathevi was depicted as a mermaid) and a Kinnari - a creature from Hindu mythology, half woman, half bird.
Wat Sri Boon Rueng is located about 150m south of the north-east gate of the city on the Inthayongyot Road. Apart from the rather attractive murals, this temple features a shrine to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin).
The Museum, constructed in Lan Na style, is located opposite the western entrance to Wat Phrathat. It has a small but interesting collection of objects from the Mon and later periods. It is also right next to the bus stop for Chiang Mai.