Lamphun is easily one of Thailand’s most historically significant cities. Before the establishment of the Lanna Kingdom, another kingdom called Haripunchai had long been the dominant force in Northern Thailand. Established in the 7th century by a queen from Lopburi, Haripunchai was a major cultural center where religion and the arts thrived for centuries. For whatever, reason, though, very few visitors bother to venture to Lamphun, Haripunchai’s ancient capital, despite it being an easy day trip from Chiang Mai.
As many of the city’s original temples, which long predate those of Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, are still standing, Lamphun is a must-visit destination for history and temple lovers. But for everyone else? If you’re only in Chiang Mai for a week or less, you might want to give Lamphun a pass for now. But who knows – after reading more about the ancient capital below, you may decide to make the short, one-hour journey from Chiang Mai to see it for yourself.
The Chama thewi Monument
Visiting Lamphun by bus (read more on how down below), there’s no better place to start than at the monument dedicated to Queen Chama Thewi, the first ruler of Lamphun. Here you can also find a historical overview of Lamphun’s past and recent history, accompanied by beautifully carved bas-reliefs.
Below we’ll summarize the contents of the carvings. There are multilingual plaques below each one for you to read during your visit, but I’ve also added some additional background information here and there.
A Brief History of Lamphun
In ancient times, before the founding of Haripunchai, the land was inhabited by a people known as the Lawa. They were animists, and therefore worshipped the spirits of nature. But one day, a devastating flood wiped all their homes away.
A hermit sage named Vasudeva then decided to establish a new city there. Long before, it had been prophesied by the Buddha himself that a great Buddhist city would emerge at that location.
Vasudeva then coordinated with other sages he knew, who had made their homes in various regions, to help build his new city. Once it was finally complete, one of the sages suggested that Vasudeva invite Chama Thewi, a princess from Lopburi, to come and rule his town.
And by sailing up the river, she arrived with a group of monks and scholars. Upon her arrival, Chama Thewi was coronated as queen. She had already been pregnant then, and soon gave birth to twin sons. One would be her successor, while the younger son would found the city of Lampang.
Centuries later, a king named Adicca came into the possession of relics of the Buddha himself (more on this story in the ‘Phra That Haripunchai’ section below). This was just as the Buddha himself had predicted. Adicca went on to build a great number of pagodas and wonderful temples throughout Haripunchai, and Theravada Buddhism prospered during his reign.
Later, a king named Suppasit took the throne. His son, the heir apparent, decided to become a Buddhist monk while waiting for his time to rule. This would establish a tradition of princes becoming monks that would become prevalent all over Thailand for many years to come.
This king built Wat Mahawan and also restored the chedis of Wat Chama Thewi. The classic Haripunchai-style Buddha image was also established during his reign.
Later on, in the 13th century, King Mangrai founded the Lanna Kingdom, just north of Haripunchai. While he wanted to take over the ancient kingdom, which was still thriving by that point, he didn’t dare conquer it directly. And so he attempted to do so by trickery.
He used the help of a mole named Aye Fa, who arrived in Haripunchai and became the king’s minister. As he shared the same ethnic background as that of the king, the king felt that he could trust him. Aye Fa then encouraged a number of reforms intended to anger the people, such as levying higher taxes. He also volunteered to meet with angry citizens in the king’s place, though in reality, he just sent them away. He even forced the citizens to dig a new canal.
Aye Fa then secretly told Mangrei to come and attack, knowing that the citizens of Lamphun would not help their king. Thus, Haripunchai was taken over by invaders for the first time in its history. Haripunchai culture has greatly influenced the Lanna Kingdom, but Lamphun would never become a major political center again.
The wall carvings and central door are clearly an imitation of Khmer art and architecture. They’ve been remarkably well done, especially the door. But the decision to copy Khmer art here is an interesting one. Not only does Haripunchai long pre-date the foundation of the Khmer Empire, but they were one of the only kingdoms to resist Khmer rule.
Lopburi, Haripunchai’s sister state, fell to the Khmer, and so did almost all of what makes up modern Thailand. But Haripunchai remained independent until the conquests of Lanna’s King Mangrai. So why use a Khmer art style instead of a traditional Haripunchai one? It’s a mystery, but it only goes to show the lasting legacy of Khmer art and architecture, even in those few regions they were unable to conquer.
Phra Rod Wat Mahawan
Walking north past the shrine, keep going until you reach Mukda Road and turn left, going over the moat. This road will take you all the way to Wat Chama Thewi, one of the city’s main attractions. On the next corner, though, you’ll pass a temple on your right-hand side that’s worth a quick stop at.
Wat Mahawan is said to date back to the 7th century during the reign of Queen Chama Thewi. Structurally speaking, it’s your standard Thai temple. You’ll find a viharn, chedi, ubosot and Ho Trai (where manuscripts are kept). What the temple is mainly known for is the image inside its viharn.
Inside the temple you’ll find the Phra Rod image, which is named after the sage Narada. The son of Brahma, Narada is a major character is the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics as well as the Hindu puranas. According to local mythology, it was Narada himself who sculpted this image.
This particular image has since been replicated as a popular Thai amulet, which is supposed to bring its wearers good luck and protection from harm. When it was originally unearthed below the temple (excavators had read about its whereabouts in an ancient manuscript), hundreds of other votive tablets were found underground with it.
Wat Chama Thewi
Also known as Wat Ku Kut, Wat Chama Thewi was named after the original queen herself. It was built, however, in the 12th century, several hundred years after her reign. Around a fifteen minute walk from the city center, it’s not the most accessible Lamphun temple. It is, however, widely considered one of the most important in Thailand when it comes to classical architecture.
The temple is most known for its Suwanna chedi, now synonymous with the ancient civilization of Haripunchai. These chedis usually consist of five tiers that are all square-shaped. Each tier then contains a series of three niches for standing Buddha images. Overall, these chedis are quite rare nowadays in Thailand, and Wat Chama Thewi is one of the finest examples of this style of ancient architecture.
The Mahapol chedi, as it’s known, is made of laterite and stands at 21 meters high. Supposedly, it was built to mark a victory over Lopburi, Haripunchai’s former sister state which was then a vassal of the Khmer Empire. This is one of only 5 such chedis in Thailand, with one other being at Phra That Haripunchai, also in Lamphun (more below).
The other chedi at Wat Cham Thewi is, rather uniquely, octagonal, and was the first octagonal chedi ever built in Thailand. It’s known as the Ratana chedi and was constructed out of brick. Eight standing Buddha images can be found in its lower niches.
The viharn itself is obviously a more recent construction, though it does contain some interesting transparent Buddha images, one of which is a replica of the Emerald Buddha. Behind the main altar is a mural of a man throwing a javelin from the top of a hill. According to legend, a rival king named Viranga once wanted to marry Chama Thewi, but she wasn’t so keen on the idea. She told him that he had three attempts to throw a javelin from the top of a hill (likely Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep) into Lamphun’s city limits.
Though Chama Thewi had gifted him a talisman, little did he know that she’d smeared it with her own menstrual blood, thus diminishing its power. An overconfident Viranga ultimately fell short, ending up with nothing more than a broken heart. Notably, this attitude toward menstruation explains why certain spots at Thai temples sometimes bar women from entering, though no such places exist at Wat Chama Thewi itself.
Outside, notice the goose on top of the roof. This is a common feature of Mon temples and is meant to represent Hamsa, the mythical mount of Hindu deities Brahma and Varuna.
There are a few other interesting (and clearly modern) structures to check out around the temple complex. In addition to a little shrine to Chama Thewi in the back, closer to the entrance there’s a neat structure that resembles a log cabin. Notice the unique array of decorations inside.
Haripunchai National Musuem
Heading back into the city center from Wat Chama Thewi, you’ll pass by the Haripunchai National Museum. For those with a special interest in Haripunchai’s history and sculpture art, it’s worth a look around for 45 minutes or so. Be aware that there is a 100 baht entry fee for foreigners.
Upon entry, the first section you’ll come across contains examples of Haripunchai-style Buddha images. You’ll also find certain temple parts from around the city that help demonstrate common features of Haripunchai temple architecture.
One of the more interesting pieces is a standing bronze Buddha image whose body is mostly missing. Displayed in a glass case in the center of the room, with no legs, arms or neck, it more closely resembles a contemporary art piece than an ancient statue.
The bottom floor, meanwhile, houses ancient inscriptions found throughout the region, along with a brief summary of their meaning. It’s these inscriptions, along with surviving palm leaf manuscripts, that historians use as the basis for their knowledge of Haripunchai’s history.
Wat Phra That Haripunchai
Wat Phra That Haripunchai, arguably Lamphun’s most important temple, appropriately takes center stage in the middle of the old city. In fact, the site of this temple is said to be the location of the queen’s former royal palace. The highlight of the large temple complex is its central golden spire, which is said to hold an ancient relic of the Buddha himself. The story of how this relic arrived in Haripunchai is described in an ancient Chiang Mai manuscript called the Jinakalamali.
According to the text, it all began with bird poop. That’s right – when King Adicca was out one day, a crow dropped its droppings right on top of his head. Furious, the king was determined to kill all the crows in his kingdom. But just as he was giving out the order, that same crow came back and pooped in his mouth! Yes, that’s really how the story begins.
The king grew even more enraged, and when his men brought him the first crow they’d caught, he was determined to kill it. But he was advised by his ministers to wait. And while the crow was trapped in a cage, the king had a dream where divinities told him that he must get to know that crow. And to do so he must have a young child grow up with it side by side.
The king followed the advice, taking a local infant to live with the crow for seven years. The child learned to speak the crow language, and the crow one day told the child about a great relic kept in the Himalayas. The crow then had his great grandfather, the king of the crows, bring the relic from the Himalayas all the way to Haripunchai, after which King Addicca installed it in the golden chedi.
This temple is also home to another one of the five Suwanna chedis in all of Thailand, the others being in Sukhothai, Nan and Chiang Mai. As opposed to the laterite chedi at Wat Chama Thewi, this one if made of brick and most of its niches are now empty.
Wat Phra That Haripunchai also has a unique bell tower, or ho rakhang in Thai terminology. It’s red and made of wood, and more closely resembles a sala (open pavilion) than it does a typical bell tower.
Walking around the complex, there are numerous viharns to explore. The main one was rebuilt in 1917 and houses a Buddha image cast in the 15th century. Most of the buildings represent the Lanna architectural style, as Lamphun has been part of Lanna society for the past 700 years or so.
If you have limited time in Lamphun, this is probably the site you’ll want to dedicate the most time for. Take your time exploring the beautiful complex, which rivals any other major temple in Northern Thailand.
There’s even a small free museum to check out. And if you’re lucky, you may encounter one of the friendly resident monks who enjoys practicing his English with foreign visitors. Leaving the temple, you’ll be able to take a rest in a cafe/coffee shop just across the street.
Wat Phra Yuen
All of the following locations are outside the limits of the original walled city, but are worth the visit if you still have the time. Wat Phra Yuen is as far east of the old city as Wat Chama Thewi is west. It’s also known for its chedi, but this one happens to be different from any other in Lamphun.
This is another temple believed to have been built by Queen Chama Thewi herself. It was gradually renovated and expanded by subsequent kings, with a few locally significant Buddha images having been brought here as well.
After the temple remained deserted for some time following one of the Thai-Burmese wars, a new pagoda was built in the Pagan (Bagan, Myanmar) style. This is actually quite fitting.
Around a thousand years ago, a large number of Haripunchai natives had to leave the city due to a cholera epidemic. They fled south to the kingdom of Thaton, in the upper part of the Malay Peninsula. In the year 1057, King Anawrattha of Pagan invaded Thaton, taking many of its residents as captives. It was largely these captives, who originally came from Lamphun, that built Pagan’s innumerable pagodas. This also helps explain the great influence which the Mon language has had on Burmese script.
Ku Chang Ku Ma
Head northwest for awhile until you reach Ku Chang Ku Ma. This pair of chedis is yet another landmark which dates back to this city’s founding. Only this time, it’s not a temple. Ku Chang is a chedi built in remembrance of a special white elephant owned by Queen Chama Thewi.
The elephant, according to legend, had special powers that could repel anyone who stood in front of its tusks. The ancient chronicles state that it one held back an invading army of 80,000 men! The chedi in its honor is shaped like a cylinder and supposedly houses the elephant’s tusks.
Ku Ma, in the shape of a bell, enshrines the horse of one of the queen’s twin sons. You can also see statues of this horse at the Queen Chama Thewi monument mentioned above.
Wat Sanpanyang Luang
By this point, you may already be experiencing a major case of temple fatigue. But the last spot on our list, southwest of the twin brick chedis, is one of the most interesting destinations in all of Lamphun. For whatever reason, it’s also one of the more obscure. But whatever you do, be sure not to give this overlooked temple a miss.
Wat Sanpanyang Luang was originally a Hindu shrine of some sort. However, it was converted to a Buddhist temple as far back as 531 AD by monks traveling from Burma. This is according to the official signboard at the temple, but if true, it would make it the oldest temple in Lamphun, not to mention all of Northern Thailand. Later, Queen Chama Thewi restored the temple during her reign.
What makes the temple really special is its decoration, which fuses Hindu and Buddhist imagery. A lot of it seems to be fairly recent, and was apparently constructed under the direction of the present abbot. In many ways, it feels like a more classical version of Chiang Rai’s White Temple.
From Wat Sanpanyang, you’re just a short walk from the main road, or 106. There’s no need to return to the bus station – simply stand by the road and flag down a minivan or blue songthaew heading in the direction of Chiang Mai. If they have an open seat, they’ll let you in and you can pay after boarding. If you fail to find one for whatever reason, you’re also not too far from the train station.
From Chiang Mai:
From Chiang Mai, you can take a minibus from Bus Terminal 1 (Chang Phueak station) which is north of the Old City, while the same buses also depart from Warorot Market. You can pay on the bus (around 20 baht) and the journey only lasts about an hour.
To get to either of those places from wherever you’re staying in Chiang Mai, the best option is to flag down a red songthaew. Tell the driver ‘Chang Phueak’ or ‘Warorot Market,’ whichever is easier for you to get to, and the ride there should only cost 30 baht.
Lamphun is also connected to the railway line and is situated in between the Chiang Mai and Lampang stops. If going as a day trip, there’s no real reason to get there by rail unless you happen to be staying close to the railway station, of course.
Getting back to Chiang Mai doesn’t require a return to the bus station where you got dropped off. As mentioned above, simply head out to the main road (106) which leads directly to Chiang Mai. Both minivans as well as blue-colored songthaews go to Chiang Mai, so simply flag one down. In my experience, I had one drive right past me for some reason, but the second one stopped and I got back with no issues.
Lamphun is also just about an hour from Lampang. In addition to the train, you should also be able to find songthaews and minivans leaving from Lampang’s main bus station.
Lamphun is very close to Chiang Mai, yet hardly has any tourism industry of its own. That’s why you’re much better off staying in Chiang Mai than trying to find somewhere in Lamphun itself.
If you’re just in Chiang Mai for a short time, staying in the Old City is a good idea. If you look at a map of the city, you will spot a square surrounded by water. Staying anywhere within or just outside of the square would be fine, as you can easily get around the Old City on foot. Most of Chiang Mai’s prominent temples and other historical sites are located here.
The other best area to stay in is called ‘Nimman.’ This is a reference to the general area around Nimmanhaemin Road. Basically, if you’re within walking distance of Maya shopping mall, you’re in Nimman. This is where you’ll find a lot of Chiang Mai’s trendy cafes and restaurants, while new shopping complexes are popping up all the time. At the same time, though, there’s no shortage of cheap, local eats. Furthermore, the location is conveniently located in between Doi Suthep and the Old City.
All the locations mentioned above can be seen on foot, though it does require a lot of walking. There are not many public or private transport options in town, though you may encounter a motorbike taxi or traditional rickshaw.
With the exception of the National Museum, all the locations mentioned above are free to enter.
Chiang Mai is the transport hub of the north and can be reached in a number of ways. The easiest would be to simply fly. Thailand has plenty of budget airlines, and it’s easy to find a one-way ticket from Bangkok (usually DMK airport) for just around 1,000 baht (roughly $30).
You can also easily reach Chiang Mai by bus from virtually any city in Thailand. Chiang Mai is also connected to the rail system, meaning you can get there directly by train from Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok and other cities.