Exploring Lamphun

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First published 11th April, 2007

The ancient city of Lamphun, founded by the legendary Thai queen Chamadewi, is just 30 kilometres from Thailand's northern capital of Chiang Mai. Along the way, we pass through a shady avenue of sacred trees blessed with Buddhist orange swathes and offerings, planted by the Prince of Chiang Mai in 1899.

Lamphun's founder Chamadewi was a princess of the Mon- a dominant tribe in Central Thailand's Lopburi. Aware of her pedigree and enterprising character, Buddhist monks invited her to become the first ruler of Haripunchai- present-day Lamphun around 661 AD.

A heavily pregnant Chamadewi left her husband and headed north with her retinue of monks, doctors and scholars but gave birth to two sons by the banks of the Kwang River and the intrepid queen ordered that a moated city be constructed there.

Chamadewi was an acknowledged beauty with many suitors seeking her hand including Viranga, a local king who accepted her challenge of hurling three javelins from Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai to Haripunchai's border. Viranga lost the bet- and his life- when through her guile and magic arts the wily Chamadewi caused the third javelin to pierce his heart.

Pictures of Lamphun, Thailand

Chamadewi established an early Buddhist culture and during her reign was regarded as a model of beauty, diplomacy and benevolence. Her dynasty survived until the 11th Century and during this time Haripunchai prospered as a centre for learning and trade.

The kingdom's downfall came in the person of one King Mengrai who captured the city-state in 1281, and after using it as his capital for fifteen years, transferred his seat of power to Chiang Mai.

Lamphun's main temple Wat Phra That Haripunchai can be accessed from the road running south from Chiang Mai but we turn left after crossing the northern moat and continue south, taking in views of the river and rural farmland.

Near the river we enter the temple compound through its main entrance protected by two ferocious guardian lions or singhas, and we are in Chamadewi's realm.

This wat is the most impressive temple, dating from 1044 and built on the ruins of an ancient royal palace. Its splendid 50 metre high Lanna-style chedi, covered in gold leaf, soars above its base which contains religious relics, claimed by some to be from the Buddha. The nine-tiered umbrella at the very top of the spire is believed to be made from over six kilograms of pure gold.

If you think you've seen it before you almost have- it was the model for the famous must-see Wat Phra That Doi Suthep back in Chiang Mai. But as the original, this one is regarded as a major religious site in Northern Thailand.

Pictures of Lamphun, Thailand

Inside the compound several saffron-robed monks go silently about their daily activities, and there is a feeling of peace and timelessness from the surroundings.

A stroll around the temple grounds reveals some gems. Tucked in one corner is an ancient wat. Near the chedi a well-preserved library perches on a high platform protecting it from termites and floods, but the most curious building is a Shan-style tower housing a bell and an enormous bronze gong, the largest in Northern Thailand.

Along the street leading away from the river the Lamphun National Museum yields helpful information on the former city's history including important images from the surrounding temples and fine examples of Haripunchai art.

Our final stop is at Wat Chamadewi, the temple which pays homage to the city's founder. This has two chedis, the only remains of the Mon Dvaravathi Buddhism of which Queen Chamadewi was an adherent.

The smaller Ratana Chedi, leaning slightly as if weary from standing over the centuries, is octagonal with niches containing standing Buddhas. The other larger stepped Mahapol Chedi dating back to the 10th Century was once gold capped but now, bereft of its crowning glory, is known as Wat Ku Kut- the Topless Chedi.

Pictures of Lamphun, Thailand

Its most charming features are the 60 tiered niches on all four sides, each containing a standing Buddha. Garbed in exquisitely carved diaphanous robes, the Buddhas gaze out in perpetual blessing from their niches of richly worked stucco.

This is the very heart of Lamphun, since legend has it that Queen Chamadewi's ashes are buried beneath.

Lamphun is a living legacy to this remarkable monarch who was the first woman to be chronicled in Thai history and it is a peaceful haven in its own right, worlds away from the bustle of modern Chiang Mai.

Because Lamphun is so close to Chiang Mai it is ideal for a self-organised half-day exploration. It can be visited both by hired car or motorbike or by public bus from the Nawarat Bridge terminus in Chiang Mai.

John Rowell is an Australian freelance travel writer who has had a love affair with Asian culture for many years. Particular interests include the history, culture and cuisine of the countries he visits. You can read more of his travel writing here.

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