Lopburi is famous for its Khmer monuments and also for the troops of Macaques who roam the streets of the old part of the city.
It lies on the east bank of the Lopburi River, about 155km north of Bangkok. A moat on the other three sides gave the old city center an oval shape, similar to that of Lamphun and Nakhon Pathom, both old Mon settlements. Remains of the earthworks are still visible today on Google Earth - Latitude 14.80 degrees, Longitude 100.62 degrees.
Mother and Baby
Lopburi is easily accessible from Bangkok by train or road. Several northern line trains stop there every day, the journey taking between 2 hrs 15m and 3 hours, depending on the train.
Regular bus services run from the Northern Bus Terminal in Bangkok, Mini Buses run from the Victory Monument near the Skytrain station - this trip takes 90 mins to 2 hrs.
Most of the monuments are within walking distance of the Railway Station, and this is an excellent way to explore Lopburi, but do beware of the monkeys. Alternatively, there are always Baht buses around.
Feed Monkey 10 Baht
As you arrive at the station, one of the first things you might see is a huge statue of a monkey at the end of the platform. Fortunately the living ones are not so big, but they more than make for their size with their general nuisance value. They get everywhere in the city, especially around Phra Prang Sam Yod and the Phra Gan Shrine where they practice diving in the pool.
They are also great thieves - watch out for your camera, small bags, glasses, hats and anything else monkey-portable. At the Phra Prang Sam Yod shrine they have bags of nuts for sale - "Feed Monkey 10 Baht" - at your peril.
City of the Lawa
Early chronicles and inscriptions refer to Lopburi as "Lawo" or "Lawapura" from the Pali language - "city of the Lawa", the Lawa being one of the ancient peoples who inhabited what is now central Thailand, before the rise of the Tai* kingdoms, and whose descendants still inhabit many villages in the North of modern Thailand.
But it was a closely related people, the Mons, who founded one of the first recognizable civilisations in central Thailand. This was the Buddhist Dvaravati civilisation which flourished around the central plains of Thailand between the 6th and 9th centuries, C.E. and left coins and inscriptions to record their presence from the 5th century on. A selection of coins and Buddhist Lopburi from this period can be found in the Narai National Museum.
At the beginning of the 10th century in the time of Suryavarman I, Lopburi was absorbed into the Angkorean empire, and from this period date some of the most significant remains in the city, including Prang Khaek, Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat, and Phra Prang Sam Yot (below).
The word Tai is used rather than Thai, so as to distinguish inhabitants of modern Thailand from the many related Tai speaking peoples, who are spread across much of South East Asia.
Tai speaking peoples are found from Assam (northeast India) in the west, to North Vietnam in the East: most notably in Laos, Thailand, the Shan states of Burma, Southern Yunnan and other parts of South East China.
Rise of the Tai
The decline of the Angkorean empire coincided with the rise of major Tai kingdoms at Chiang Mai under King Mengrai, and Sukhotai under King Ramkhamhaeng, Lopburi being absorbed into the latter.
As Sukhotai declined in the 14th century, Lopburi was absorbed into the Tai kingdom of Ayutthaya which had arisen in the central plains of the Chao Phrya valley. One of Ayutthaya's most notable monarchs, King Narai the Great (1656-1688) designated Lopburi as his second capital, constructing a great palace whose remains are one of the principal attractions of the old city.
This was the time of the Greek Adventurer Constantine Phaulkon, who became one of the king's top advisers. Under his Thai name of Chao Phraya Vichayen, Phaulkon's (Thai) name is remembered in Vichayen Road and Vichayen House, both just north of the remains of King Narai's Palace.
It is also one of the better documented episodes in Thai history. The rise of Phaulcon and his subsequent assassination is recorded in many western sources as well as in the Thai chronicles. The story involved rivalries within the court, and international rivalries between the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese, and the British East India Company.
Maurice Collis' Siamese White, a biography of Samuel White, a British adventurer (i.e. pirate) and protégé of Phaulcon, gives a real taste of the times and a lot of historical background.
After the death of King Narai, the town was abandoned for almost 170 years until the great 19th century King, Rama IV, ordered the restoration of the palace and subsequently used it as a summer palace.
Though many of the buildings in the extensive grounds of the palace, are still in ruins, the central Chantarapisarn pavilion was dedicated as the Lopburi Museum, and some years later the name was changed to the King Narai National Museum.
Grounds of King Narai's Palace (Narai Museum)
Chad Edmonds (www.chadedmonds.com) wrote in to tell me that the fee to visit the Palace grounds and museum has gone up from 20 Baht to 150 Baht, but the museum is nevertheless quite interesting, containing more than 1800 items of historic interest.
Khmer Monuments in Thailand
From the 9th to the 12th centuries C.E. and the reigns of Jayavarman II to Suryavarman II, much of central and eastern Thailand was part of the Khmer empire. The Khmer Monuments at Lopburi, Phimai, Phanom Rung, and elsewhere bear testimony to the Khmer presence in Thailand, and the outstanding quality of Angkorean architecture.
Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat, to give it its full name, is one of the larger historical sites in Lopburi, but sadly one of the less well preserved. Founded in the 13th century, the temple has been renovated, and added to, several times since, most notably during the reign of King Narai. One of the better preserved parts of the complex is the central Prang, part of the original foundation.
Phra Prang Sam Yod
Phra Prang Sam Yod (sam yod = "three towers") dates from the 12th century, around the time of the Angkorean emperor Jayavarman VII. Jayavarman was a Mahayana Buddhist and so the three towers are thought to represent the Buddha (central) with the bodhisatvas Avalokitesvara (see note on Mahachai Railway Page
) and Prajnaparamita on each side.
Phra Prang Sam Yod
Probably the oldest of the Khmer Shrines, dating from the 10th century C.E., Prang Khaek is Hindu rather than Buddhist. The three conical towers (prang) which may represent the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Siva and Vishnu, are typical of Khmer architecture in this period and can be found at several other sites in Thailand, and most notably at Angkor Wat itself.
The old monument sits on a traffic island, in the middle of a busy street, just north of the King Narai Museum.