Lopburi, one of Thailand’s oldest cities, is also one of its most unique. It’s been continually inhabited for thousands of years by cultures like the Dvaravati and the Khmer. A king of Ayutthaya even took a liking to the town, moving his residence there and renovating the monuments. What makes Lopburi so different is that the ancient ruins are not in an isolated historical park, but right in the center of a bustling city. A city that also happens to be populated by a large number of monkeys! With most of its main sites easily walkable from the train station, Lopburi makes for the perfect stopover day trip.
Lopburi: A Brief History
Historical records indicate that Lopburi, formerly known as Lavo, was first named after Lahore, Pakistan, probably by a king from that region. The town was officially established in the 6th century AD, though prehistoric peoples inhabited the area as far back as a few thousand years ago.
Lopburi first rose to prominence in Dvaravati Period, which lasted until the 10th century, and remnants of that era can still be found today. Many of these foundations, though, were later altered and expanded upon by the Khmer. Lavodayapura, as the Khmer called it, became part of their empire in the 10th century, just as they were also starting to build their more intricate temples in the Angkor region.
Lopburi gained its independence for a period of time, before being brought back into the Khmer fold again. Much of what makes up modern-day Thailand, in fact, was retaken by the late 12th century Khmer ruler Jayavarman VII, who ruled out of Angkor Thom. Supposedly, Marco Polo even visited the town around this time.
Khmer control over the region finally started to wane after the Kingdom of Sukhothai’s independence in 1238. Lopburi was then a vassal state of Sukhothai until the emergence of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. In the mid-1300’s, Ayutthaya became the dominant force in the region, even overtaking Sukhothai and its various outposts.
Lopburi had been allied with Ayutthaya since day one, but it was always considered as a second city. That is, until the reign of King Narai who ruled from 1656 – 1688. Narai took a special liking to the town, even taking up residence there for most of every year throughout his reign. He was responsible for renovating a lot of the former Khmer temples in the center of town, and he also built some grand new structures which you can still go visit.
King Narai’s reign was considered to be one the most prosperous times in the Ayutthaya Kingdom’s history. At the time, relations with foreign powers – especially the French – were never stronger. But after Narai’s death, power shifted back to the city of Ayutthaya, with most foreign contacts being cut off for good. And Lopburi was also left mostly abandoned until the 1800’s, until King Rama IV took it upon himself to do some renovation of his own.
Despite being so close to Ayutthaya, the two cities are very different. While many of the temples around Ayutthaya are a mix of Khmer and Sukhothai style influences, many of Lopburi’s temples are 100% Khmer. But regardless of which era of Thai history you’re looking for, you’ll be able to find it in Lopburi.
A Day Around The Ruins
The main sites of Lopburi are all concentrated in a small area. Even more convenient is that they’re all easily walkable from the train station. In fact, ruins are pretty much the first thing you’ll see when exiting the train!
That makes Lopburi the perfect stopover when travelling from Ayutthaya to northern Thailand by train, or vice versa. And you have the option of keeping your luggage at the train station so you don’t have to lug it around with you. The following itinerary can be carried out in several hours, completely on foot.
Even if you’ve started to get “templed out” after touring Ayutthaya or Sukhothai, Lopburi is a very different experience. Not only is the architecture itself unique, but the old temples are scattered throughout the middle of a city and not landscaped “Historical Parks.”
Its fascinating history aside, nowadays Lopburi is also known as “The City of Monkeys.” The local townspeople are very accommodating to their local primate population, making sure they’re well-fed and happy. Luckily, that means they’re mostly pretty laid back and used to humans. However, macaques are naturally a pesky bunch, and will steal from you if given the opportunity.
If you’re not a big fan of monkeys, though, they’re pretty much only concentrated in one particular area: at and around Phra Prang Sam Yod, or “The Monkey Temple.” They also roam some of the nearby streets. Turn the corner, though, and they’ll be gone. There are really only a couple of ruins sites where you’ll need to be on your guard, so don’t let the idea of monkeys turn you off from Lopburi’s fascinating history and ruins.
Out of the sightseeing spots listed below, the following places each have admission fees of 50 baht: Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat, Phra Prang Sam Yod (Monkey Temple) and the Wichayen Ambassadors House. Everywhere else is free.
There is also a combo ticket for 150 baht which includes those three locations in addition to the Kraison Siharat Palace. As is often the case with combo tickets in Thailand, they like to throw in at least one place that’s way out of the way and that most people never visit. In this case it’s the Siharat Palace, which is at least an hour’s walk from the train station. With that in mind, there’s no point in buying a combo ticket unless you plan to make it out there.
If the Lopburi Museum is open during your visit, it costs 150 baht, but they should let you walk around the ruins for free.
Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat
Almost directly outside the train station is the impressive Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat. At first glance, it’s easy to see that this was once a gigantic temple. When it was actually built, however, is somewhat up for debate. Some sources say the 12th century, while others say the 14th. Regardless of when construction started, though, there’s no doubt that it was gradually renovated and added to throughout various eras.
The large vihara, or prayer hall, for example, was built by King Narai in the 1600’s. Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahthat, then, serves as a great introduction to the layered history and architectural styles of Lopburi.
The Monkey Temple
‘The Monkey Temple,’ or Phra Prang Sam Yod, is arguably Lopburi’s most popular landmark. The hordes of monkeys climbing all over the temple walls and the main Buddha statue make this one of the most photogenic spots in all of Central Thailand.
As always with macaques, you’ll need to keep your guard up, as these monkeys will try to grab small objects, and especially food, if given the opportunity. Fortunately, the monkeys are fed by the town at regular intervals so they don’t get too aggressive with tourists.
While the architectural style of the Monkey Temple is clearly Khmer in origin, there seems to be some debate over when it was actually constructed. A number of sources, including the city’s own brochure, indicate that it was built during the early 1200’s, during the reign of Jayavarman VII, the “Great Builder” of the Khmer Empire.
However, it could be considerably older. The temple was built using the basic ‘Trimurti’ shape, representing the three prominent deities of Hinduism: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (the tallest tower representing Shiva). This classical Trimurti style was one of the simpler, earlier temple layouts of the Khmer Empire, used long before the reign of Jayavarman VII. In Angkor, it’s used by temples built in the 10th century, which also happens to be right around the time of the first wave of Khmer rule in Lopburi.
Phra Kan Shrine
Located in the center of a roundabout, the relatively recent structure of Phra Kan Shrine (1951) sits atop ruins which actually date back several hundred years. They could even be from the Dvaravati period, which predates the arrival of the Khmer.
Inside the shrine, you’ll find a rare and site for Thailand: a golden Vishnu statue. Supposedly, the head was missing upon its discovery, so the head from a Buddha statue was added. It turned out to be a pretty good fit!
It’s also possible that the statue was not Vishnu, but the Khmer ruler Jayavarman VII, who often sent statues of himself as a multi-armed being to his empire’s many outposts. Regardless, locals highly revere the shrine and its statue and it remains a popular spot for prayers and offerings.
There are benches and street vendors surrounding the shrine, which also attracts plenty of playful monkeys. Nowhere near as many as just across the street, though.
Wat Nakhon Kosa
Just south of the shrine is another interesting temple called Wat Nakhon Kosa. It was first built way back in the Dvaravati Period, then added to by the Khmers, and then expanded again during the Ayutthaya Period. The temple itself is named after a man named Kosathibodi, one of King Narai’s officials, who’s credited with carrying out the restoration.
Today, the temple is not in the best of shape, although you can still get a good idea of its former size and structure. The carving of a standing Buddha can still be seen clearly on the side of the prang.
Prang Khaek is widely regarded as one of the oldest Khmer structures in Lopburi. It’s estimated to have been built in the 10th century, and just like the Monkey Temple, it features three prangs representing the Hindu Trimurti. Like with many other Lopburi temples, some additional parts were later added by King Narai.
Prang Khaek is a very small but interesting temple to visit, as it’s right in the city center surrounded on all sides by traffic and shops. It’s a major change of atmosphere from the relatively secluded ruins of Ayutthaya.
The Wichayen Ambassadors' House
This is a large, well-preserved structure that gets surprisingly little attention from tourists. At least that means you’ll get the ruins to yourself. The story behind the Ambassadors’ House also represents one of the more fascinating aspects of Lopburi’s time under the rule of King Narai.
During Narai’s rule, the Ayutthaya Kingdom had very close relationships with a number of foreign powers, namely the French and Persians. He had a large Ambassador’s House built to house the many foreign envoys visiting his kingdom. The Ambassadors’ House is notable for its European-influenced architecture.
One of the King’s closest advisors, a Greek man named Constantine Phaulkon, became a permanent resident of the Ambassadors’ House. A former merchant, Phaulkon was fluent in many languages and first became acquainted with Narai after serving as his translator. Eventually, he started working in the treasury and became so close with the king that he was even promoted to be his prime counsellor. Controversy arose when other members of the king’s cabinet suspected that the Greek Phaulkon was plotting to overtake the throne of the Siamese kingdom.
Whether this was actually true, or merely jealousy (and to some degree xenophobia) on the part of others in the king’s cabinet is up for debate. In any case, at a time when King Narai was sick and vulnerable, his foster brother Pra Phetracha staged a coup to capture and execute Constantine Phaulkon. The king’s appointed heir, Phra Pui, also became a victim, as it was feared he might rule as a figurehead with Phaulkon holding the real power.
Phetracha the usurper then became the next king of the Ayutthaya. He aggressively purged foreigners from the kingdom, and Ayutthaya remained relatively isolated from the West until its eventual demise in 1767 at the hands of Burma.
Phra Narai Ratchanivet
King Narai, who preferred Lopburi over Ayutthaya, lived in the city for 8 months out of the year, and he needed a place to stay live. Like his Ambassadors’ House, Narai ordered his palace to be built using a fusion of French and Thai architecture. It was completed in 1677 after a dozen years of construction. As subsequent rulers shifted the seat of power back again to Ayutthaya, the palace was left abandoned and unused after Narai’s death.
It wasn’t until the 1800’s, under the reign of King Rama IV, that serious reconstruction and preservation efforts were carried out. Rama IV even built brand new lodgings for himself to stay in during official visits to the town.
Today, in addition to the ruins of this once grand palace, the grounds of Phra Narai Ratchanivet are also home to the Lopburi Museum. The museum houses various artifacts from Lopburi’s history, many of them found at the sites of the ruins around town. Unfortunately, the museum is only open five days a week (closed Mon. & Tues.), and it happened to be closed during my visit. I was, however, allowed to walk around the ruins of the old palace for free.
There’s still more to see in Lopburi, much of which you can still fit into a single day along with the sites mentioned above. If the Lopburi Museum is open during your visit, then you should take advantage and check it out. But if you prefer to do more wandering, you can take a walk along the Lopburi River.
Situated on a small island in the middle of the river, is the towering stupa of Chedi Luang Por Wat Monkhan. The modern temple is not nearly as interesting as the ruins in the center of town, but it makes for a nice little walk if you still have some time to kill before your train departs.
There are still some more ruins to be discovered, if that’s more your thing. On the other side of town, southeast of the train station, is Wat San Paolo, a Catholic church built by King Narai, who’s rumored to have been Catholic himself. Way further east is a pavilion built by Narai called Phra Thinang Yen, which he used as both a guest reception hall and also as an eclipse viewing spot! If you want to go see it, you’d have to take a taxi there and back, as it’s over an hour walk from the train station area.
But even in the center of the Old City, you’ll come across many more smaller ruins, often by accident. Walking around town, you’ll likely pass by places like Wat Bandai Hin, Wat Indra and Wat Puen. The city has done a good job of providing bilingual informational plaques even next to the smallest and least-visited ruins.
While not all that remarkable on their own, it’s discovering these small ruins in the center of a bustling city that make wandering through Lopburi such a fun and unique experience. Even if you’ve been to Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, Lopburi maintains a very distinct feel and atmosphere. It’s absolutely worth a stop to break up your train journey across Thailand, or even as a day trip from Bangkok.
Lopburi is on the main central rail line that runs in between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It’s only about an hour train ride north of Ayutthaya. From Ayutthaya, simply get a ticket and hop on the train headed in the direction of Chiang Mai. Since the ride is so short, all you need is a basic third class seat which costs under 20 baht.
There’s something you should keep in mind about the timetable, though. I intended to ride the 9:48am train, only to be told that it was an express train that would not stop in Lopburi. I then had to wait a couple hours until around noon for the next local train. (Luckily, this still gave me enough time to see everything above.)
It would be wise to ask someone at Ayutthaya Station about this. There are still some web sites that say the 9:48am train does indeed go to Lopburi, so I can’t say for sure that none of them ever do.
Considering the layout of the town, Lopburi is much more doable as a day trip from Bangkok than Ayutthaya would be. You can ride there from Bangkok via Hua Lamphong station. The ride is around 2 and a half hours though, so try to get an early start.
If you want eventually want to head up to the ruins of Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet, you’ll want to take the train to Phitsanulok. From there you can take a bus to either of those towns. (Not many people realize, though, that Phitsanulok has some ruins of its own).
It’s possible to stay in Lopburi, but most people tend to pass through before or after a stay in nearby Ayutthaya. As that’s what I did, here are my tips for staying in Ayutthaya:
Staying somewhere on the island is the best idea. Typically when I travel, I try to find the cheapest place I can get that has the bare minimum of a private room with my own private bathroom. I ended up finding a good deal at San Snook Place.
The room was spacious, clean and quiet. It was a little bit far of a walk from the ruins (15 – 20 minutes or so) but otherwise just what I needed. Just be sure to ask for a receipt if you pay the bill in advance.
If you stay off the island, staying right by the train station would not be a bad idea.