Not a whole lot of visitors to Thailand have heard of Lampang, even if it’s just a 90 minute drive from Chiang Mai. Once home to a thriving teak trade in the 19th and 20th centuries, the city has been in a slump ever since that industry dried up. Some locals even blame the whole thing on a curse. While once home to many international businessmen, the city hardly even gets international tourists nowadays. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to do or see, though. Far from it. Learn why this city of 60,000 people is one of northern Thailand’s hidden gems.
Modern-day visitors to Lampang can find both traditional Lanna and Burmese architecture from the town’s heyday as a trading hub, in addition to unique temples as old as 800 years. Even if you’re the type to easily get “templed out,” believe me when I say that Lampang contains some of the most unique temples you’ll find anywhere in Thailand. In the 1400’s, Lampang was even briefly the home of the Phra Kaew, the palladium of Thailand that’s currently enshrined in Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
Lampang is often described as what Chiang Mai was like 20 or 30 years ago. Though I like Chiang Mai how it is now, this description piqued my interest. And after my trip to Lampang, I would have to agree. Lampang really does seem like a quieter, slower-paced version of its bigger brother. But that works out in both good ways and bad. All in all, though, Lampang is well worth going out of your way for during your time in northern Thailand. Below are some of the main attractions you’ll want to see and experience over a two or three day trip.
The House of Many Pillars
Built in 1895, the House of Many Pillars, or Ban Saonak, as it’s locally known, remains one of Lampang’s most significant landmarks. The structure is a combination of Lanna (northern Thai) and Burmese architecture, as it was originally the home of a wealthy Burmese businessman and his family. The house is entirely built out of teak, and, as the name suggests, is held up by numerous pillars: 116 of them, in fact.
As mentioned above, Lampang experienced a long era of prosperity thanks to the flourishing teak industry in the 19th and 20th centuries. The town acted as a hub for many traders from China and Burma, and still retains a number of cultural and architectural influences from its neighbors. Not only is the House of Many Pillars an architectural marvel, but it’s a symbol of the town’s bygone heyday. It’s deeply cherished both by those nostalgic for the town’s past as well as those who wish to see Lampang one day prosper again.
The interior of Ban Saonak features all sorts of antiquities, ranging from lacquerware to clothing to old record players. Walking around the interior, it’s easy to get the feeling that the family seen in the portraits could return home at any moment.
Easily reachable from the city center, the House of Many Pillars provides an insightful glimpse of not just an affluent family, but of Lampang’s relatively recent history. Expect to spend around a half an hour here, and you can also relax with a complimentary drink and snack which is included in the entry fee.
Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao & Wat Suchadaram
The Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao temple complex is arguably the most important landmark in central Lampang. After all, the temple was originally built back in 1436 for the very purpose of hosting the Phra Kaew statue, also known as the Emerald Buddha. Today the carving is considered the palladium of Thailand and is enshrined in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Though it only lasted for a few decades, the fact that Lampang was once home to this extremely important relic is perhaps its most significant claim to fame. You can learn a lot more about Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao and the journeys of the Emerald Buddha right here.
Confusingly, Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao is home to not just one but two separate legends involving an “Emerald Buddha.” The other revolves around a woman named Mae Suchada who gifted a watermelon to a monk. But when the monk cut it open, he discovered a large green stone inside. Frightened by her sorcery, the townsfolk went to the extreme measure of beheading Mae Suchada, and Lampang is still believed to be cursed by her to this day. Mae Suchada even has her own temple in the same complex known as Wat Suchadaram.
You can find Wat Suchadaram at the opposite end of the complex from the main Phra Kaew Don Tao temple. It’s an elegant, smaller building that was built more recently in 1804. And as for the other Emerald Buddha? Depending on which version of the legend you hear, it was either carved out of the green stone, or it transformed on its own. In any case, that Emerald Buddha is now enshrined at a temple called Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. Continue below to learn more.
There are plenty of interesting details – both small and large, to observe while walking around the temple complex. As mentioned, you can learn more about the main temple which used to house the Phra Kaew statue here.
Wat Chedi Sao Lang
Though a little out of the way, a temple called Wat Chedi Sao Lang is another one of Lampang’s highlights. The temple contains 20 white chedi, or pagodas, in its courtyard. You can even walk around in between them if you so desire.
Supposedly, each chedi contains hairs of monks from India who once came to the region to spread the teachings of Buddhism about 2,000 years ago.
Aside from the usual structures you’d expect to find at a Thai temple, Wat Chedi Sao Lang also features a strange museum. In addition to dozens of miniature Buddha images, there’s even a gun collection on display. Meanwhile, stacks of old computers and television sets take up much of the first floor. I even came across a robed monk chanting mantras as part of a blessing for a local couple, all while being surrounded by walls of 1980’s era PC’s!
And that’s not all at this quirky temple. In addition to statues from both Chinese and Hindu mythology, nearby the pagodas you can even find an ’emaciated Buddha’ statue.
Wat Chedi Sao Lang is about a 40 minute walk from the center of the Old Town. If it’s too hot, you should consider hiring a horse-drawn carriage, as there aren’t many other transport options available (see below).
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is an absolute must-visit for anyone spending time in Lampang. Inconveniently, though, the temple is a good 30 minute drive outside the city. To make matters worse, Lampang lacks any bus routes to the temple, one of its most significant tourist destinations. Without any ridesharing services available in the city either, the only way to get there directly from the center of town is with an expensive taxi ride.
With all that considered, and with all of the other interesting temples to see in central Lampang, is it really worth the time, money and effort to go and see this one? The answer is yes.
It’s not so easy to explain in a few words exactly what makes Wat Phra That Lampang Luang so special, as it contains so many different structures. The variety of things to see, of course, is one aspect of what makes it so fascinating. Additionally, the temple grounds maintain a rustic, traditional feel that you won’t find at most other temples nowadays. Supposedly, Wat Phra That Lampang Luang remains very much as it was hundreds of years ago.
Constructed back in the 13th century, Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is widely recognized by Thais as one of the country’s most important temples. One legend has it that the Buddha himself even visited the site a few thousand years back.
One of the most unique features of the temple can be found inside a small chapel known as Soom Phra Baht. And before going any further, I should mention that only males are allowed to enter this one particular structure.
Stepping inside and closing the door, the light that shines through the hole in the door produces a live reflection of the temple’s main chedi, except in reverse. While at first it seems like some kind of modern technology is secretly being used somewhere, this is a natural phenomenon referred to as a ‘pinhole image,’ or ‘camera obscura.’ It has to do with the way light gets reflected when going through small openings. Structures built specifically for camera obscura date as far back as the 16th century, though it’s unclear exactly when this little room was constructed.
The temple is also highly significant locally due to being the home of the ‘other’ Emerald Buddha image that was originally kept in Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao. As mentioned above, this statue was supposedly found inside of a watermelon. As far as I know, there aren’t any explanations as to why it looks exactly like the famous Phra Kaew Morakot image now enshrined in Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
It’s also unclear exactly why the “Watermelon Buddha” switched temples, but significant Buddha images moving from place to place is a relatively common occurence in Thailand.
The ‘watermelon Buddha’ is kept in an area near the northwest edge of the complex, and not in one of the main prayer halls as one might expect. The image is kept behind bars in what looks to be its own little jail cell and it’s only taken out for special ceremonies once or twice a year. You can get a closer view of larger replicas being kept nearby, revealing even further how closely this local version resembles its more famous twin brother.
The temple even survived a Burmese takeover in the 18th century, as well as the subsequent battle in which the Thais successfully took it back. If you look closely, you may even be able to spot bullet holes left over from the incident.
Furthermore, the temple complex also features a massive old Bodhi tree that requires dozens of stick to hold up its many branches. There are just so many unique things to see around the temple complex and you could easily spend an entire afternoon here. This is the temple to take your friends who normally get bored at temples.
As mentioned, the easiest (and possibly only) way to get here is by private taxi. Since they can’t be flagged down from the street in Lampang, get your hotel to book you one. Just expect to pay up to 500 baht total for the trip there and back. I’d recommend saving Lampang Luang for your final day, and then having your driver take you from the temple straight to the bus terminal.
There are a few other things you might want to experience during your time in Lampang. Another one of the town’s unique characteristics is the prevalence of horse carriage rides as a means to get around. This is very rare for Thailand, and considering the city’s lack of normal transportation methods like taxis or even tuk tuks, you may want to give it a try.
Another enjoyable activity is simply walking along the Wang River. There aren’t many places to sit riverside and enjoy a meal or coffee, but much of the riverside is walkable nonetheless.
On the way to Wat Chedi Sao Lang, you might pass an old city wall reminiscent of the one in Chiang Mai. Apparently, this wall was built hundreds of years ago around an old city called Khelong Nakorn which overlapped part of what makes up modern-day Lampang.
Another popular activity is the Lampang night market taking place on Saturday and Sunday nights on Talat Gao Road. While it may not compare with the walking streets of Chiang Mai, it’s still a nice place to grab some food if you happen to be in town on a weekend. There’s also an eye-catching colorful bridge at the edge of the market.
The main way to get around northern Thailand is by bus, and a company called Greenbus has routes connecting most of Lanna’s major cities. A normal-sized bus is how I returned to Chiang Mai. But on my way to Lampang from Chiang Mai’s Arcade bus terminal, I asked someone where the bus to Lampang was, and they directed me over to an unmarked minivan that was already full of passengers (roughly 10 people) that was just about ready to go. Since it all happened so fast, I’m not even sure who the operator was, but it only cost about 70 baht for the 90 minute ride.
I stayed at a hotel called Regent Lodge Lampang, nearby the Wang River. Lampang is divided into two sections: the old part (north of the river) and the new part (south of the river). While Regent Lodge is south of the river, it’s an easy walking distance from the bridge, making many of Lampang’s main attractions reachable by foot.
Since Lampang gets virtually no foreign tourists, you’ll have a hard time finding restaurants with English menus. Another good point of Regent Lodge Lampang is that they have a restaurant with an English menu on site. There’s also an option for a breakfast buffet.
THE DOGS: This is a problem shared by many other smaller cities in Thailand, but one of the worst things about Lampang is its large population of unfriendly dogs. These mean dogs aren’t necessarily stray either. In most cases, they’re someone’s unsocialized pet that views all strangers as enemies.
Throughout one of the days I spent on foot, I had dogs run right up to me and growl or bark on no less than seven occasions. It was even an issue in the Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao temple complex. This constant issue kind of ruins the supposedly “laid-back” vibe of the town. From my personal experience in Thailand, Lampang and Ayutthaya are the two worst cities for mean dogs. At least I wasn’t bitten!
LACK OF TAXIS OR UBER: Lampang has no tuk-tuk’s, no taxis you can hail down from the street, and no ridesharing services like Uber or Grab. And don’t expect any English route information whatsoever at a local bus stand. Aside from a horse carriage, one of the only options is a songthaew, the red shared passenger vehicles that are common throughout Thailand.
Even these songthaews, though, are a rare sight to see driving around. Therefore, your only real options are to rent a motorbike or bicycle, or simply walk. Fortunately, most of the places mentioned above are walkable – at least for those who don’t mind spending all day on foot.
One place you won’t be able to walk from is the bus terminal, which is just out of the city center. When I arrived, I was surprised to see that the red songthaews would be my only option to get to my hotel. Since nobody else on my bus from Chiang Mai needed to use one, the drivers quoted me a ridiculously high price, as I’d be riding alone. I negotiated a much lower price, but it was still pretty expensive. Arriving at my hotel, the staff said I could’ve gotten a ride for 50 baht. But considering how songthaews have a monopoly over transport in the city, and the drivers seem content to just wait for the next bus to arrive, it’s difficult to negotiate when both parties know you have no other options. Hopefully Uber comes to this city soon!
As mentioned, regular taxis do exist, but they can only be arranged through your hotel and they’re very expensive.
NO COFFEESHOPS AND AN UNDEVELOPED RIVERSIDE: When first reading about Lampang, I pictured taking things slow and getting some work done at riverside cafes in the evenings. But I soon discovered that no such cafes exist in Lampang. The entire riverside, for the most part, remains completely undeveloped.
Even within the town, I walked by several coffee shops that were shuttered up. I thought it might’ve been some kind of holiday, but they were all still closed the following day, and then again the next. In fact, I didn’t see a single open coffee shop in three days – truly bizarre coming from neighboring Chiang Mai, perhaps one of Asia’s best cities for coffee.
Is this a deal breaker? No. But you should be aware before you go that unlike Chiang Mai, you can’t just take your computer somewhere and get some work done. That means you’ll end up spending a lot of time cooped up in your hotel.