Off the beaten track

Discover Buddhism and the easy pace of life in Lamphun

Connected to the southeast of Chiang Mai, Lamphun is geographically larger than many other provinces. Yet to many it seems like a tiny spot in the Kingdom, and is virtually invisible on the tourist trail. It's a pity travellers do not know what they are missing.

Wat Phra That Hariphunchai is one of the Kingdom’s most important temples. The temple’s golden pagoda, believed to contain relics of the Lord Buddha, has long been considered the official symbol of the province. Legend has it that the temple and the pagoda were built in the 9th century during the reign of King Arthitayarat, the 30th ruler of Hariphunchai. Over the past centuries, the pagoda has undergone several renovations and its present form is said to be the result of a makeover during times of King Mengrai of Lanna.

Lamphun was home to the Hariphunchai kingdom, which dates back to 7th century AD _ more than 600 years before Chiang Mai was established.

According to stone inscriptions engraved with ancient Mon characters, potteries and other artefacts, as well as religious monuments, the Hariphunchai kingdom was first ruled by a queen, Phra Nang Chamma Thewi.

The archaeological evidence also shows that during the reigns of her 44 descendants before Hariphunchai was overshadowed and fell to the rising Lanna ruler Phraya Mengrai, who founded Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, the ancient kingdom was bustling.

It was a major centre of Theravada Buddhism in what is now northern Thailand, and enjoyed trade and cultural connections with contemporary kingdoms such as Lavo (Lop Buri), Bagan (which is now Myanmar) and the Khmer empire.

The Ku Kut pagoda of Wat Chamma Thewi (see cover photo) and the Hariphunchai National Museum, located within walking distance from Wat Phra That Hariphunchai, Lamphun's most respected temple, are must-see places for those interested in the past glory of this humble northern province.

The temples are just some examples of Lamphun's many religious sites. In fact, the province was the hometown and the final resting place for several of Thailand's revered monks. Khruba Sivichai, who led the public effort to build the mountain road to the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, was also born here.

Closer to the present, before Highway 11, which provides easier access between Lampang and Chiang Mai, was completed about 35 years ago, travellers from Bangkok and other provinces further south heading to Chiang Mai needed to use Highway 106, which splits westward from Highway 1 at Thoen in Lamphun.

Pa Sang, a Lamphun town, was a popular stop for tour buses loaded with passengers who needed a good break after a long ride. With the constant flow of customers, shops selling blankets, shirts and other local products made of hand-woven cotton sprouted up in Pa Sang. In those days, Chiang Mai's now popular handicraft town of San Kamphaneg was still unheard of.

To enhance their lure to visiting shoppers, many Pa Sang shops hired attractive local women as attendants. It was no surprise that back then Pa Sang was known nationwide as the ''home of beauties''.

Even luk thung legend Suraphon Sombatcharoen wrote and sang a popular song called Monrak Pa Sang in praise of the town's attractive ladies.

And the beauty of Pa Sang women was not just a rumour. Many of the town's shops attendants won beauty pageants, both at local and national levels. Some even won the coveted Miss Thailand crown. Among them was Suchira Srisomboon, who won the crown in 1954.

These days, if you drop in at houses or community museums, one of the common items you'll see on display is old photographs of the family's grandma when she was a beauty queen.

Unlike its more commercialised neighbour, life in Lamphun moves at an easy pace. People's gentle and genuine hospitality are found everywhere. Chic yet unpretentious restaurants and coffee shops for chilling out are available, although not in great numbers.

It won't be soon before Lamphun will shine on the tourist map. But why wait till then to include it in your next travel itinerary.

TRAVEL INFO

Lamphun has a small airport but no commercial airline flies there. However, buses and trains connect Bangkok to the northern province. Another option is to fly to Chiang Mai, and either hire a taxi or take a bus or a train from there.

Lamphun’s lesser-known attraction, the Ban Phor Liang Muen’s Terracotta Arts Park is a place shutterbugs and Facebook addicts, always looking to take unique photographs, would enjoy. Located west of the town, off the Lamphun-San Pa Tong Road not far from Rim Ping Market, the park welcomes visitors who come in groups free of charge. Here, apart from enjoying the pottery and terracotta bas-reliefs on display and on sale in the vast garden featuring a wide variety of Thai flowering plants, you can also visit the factory to learn how these items are made. Visit www.artterracotta.com.

If you wish to try your hand at making Phra Rod amulets visit Wat Phra Yuen on the other side of town. The activity is part of a fund-raising campaign to renovate the temple’s old structures. You can choose to take home the amulets, or leave it at the temple so they can be cached together with hundreds of those made by other people. The real highlight of Wat Phra Yuen, however, is its Bagan-style stupa that enshrines standing Buddha images.

Not far from the western city moat, on the same road that leads to Wat Chamma Thewi, you’ll find Wat Mahawan, another temple that dates back to the Hariphunchai period. The most important object of worship here is Phra Rod, the stone Buddha image believed to have been brought from Lop Buri by Queen Chamma Thewi. Centuries-old amulets featuring the same style of Buddha were also discovered at the temple. Known as Phra Rod Wat Mahawan amulets, they are one of the benchaphakhi, the five types of Buddha amulets considered to be the most popular among Thais.

This roofed bridge spanning the banks of the Kuang River connects Wat Phra That Hariphunchai to the Yong community of Ban Wiang Yong. The walkway beneath the roof is flanked by shops selling handcrafted souvenirs and other locally-made products.

Despite the fact that Pa Sang has long passed its heyday as a shopping centre for cotton materials and other handicrafts, villages around the town, as well as those in other parts of Lamphun, continue to produce their handmade merchandise in large numbers. Ban Don Luang is an example. Families in the community produce clothes, bags, dolls and a wide variety of items made of hand-woven cotton, which they sell to retail and wholesale buyers. Did you know that many of the handicrafts on sale at the famous Ban Thawai and those ‘walking streets’ in Chiang Mai come from Lamphun?

Just a short walk from the royal temple over a bridge to the other side of the Kuang River you’ll find Wat Ton Kaew and its folk museum, which is in the Yong community. This ethnic group relocated from Muang Yong in the Shan State during the early Rattanakosin Period when Lanna, which Lamphun had been a part of since the time of King Mengrai, was freed from more than two centuries of Burmese occupation. The Yong are admired for their success in preserving their cultural identity, language, food, clothes and architectural style.

This rarely seen photo of Her Majesty the Queen in a graceful costume made with Lamphun silk brocade is displayed at the showroom of Pensiri Thai Silk (www.pensirithaisilk.com), where several masterpieces of the hand-woven fabric known as pha mai yok dok Lamphun are exhibited. The province’s silk brocade is famous for intricate and elegant designs. In several communities, including Ban Wiang Yong, the art is very much alive as villagers form groups to produce the highly-prized material. The silk brocades in the smaller photo are some of their works.

To many Lamphun is synonymous with the longan. And that is not only because the province is one of the two main producers of the fruit (the other being Chiang Mai), but also because many believed Lamphun’s longan is the best. The fruit is in season from July to September. However, it can be preserved in a dried form for consumption throughout the year. Dried longan can be eaten as a snack or used to make beverages, and added to cake and savoury dishes such as khao soi , the northern-style curry noodle.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Pongpet Mekloy
Position: Travel Editor