Rapscallion monkeys swing over the rooftops and climb on ancient ruins. After dark, they snatch food off dinner tables or scratch at hotel windows. Even at the train station, monkeys run amok. Monkeys, a bit of history and more monkeys: welcome to Lopburi.
History buffs will enjoy learning about Lopburi’s glory days as a stronghold of the Ayutthaya kingdom from the 14th to 18th centuries, and earlier when it oversaw much of present-day Thailand under the name Lavo (short for Lavapura), a branch of the Khmer empire from the 11th to 13th centuries. Ancient palaces and impressive monuments join an exceptional museum in the riverside old town. But for many, it’s the monkeys that make Lopburi irresistible.
A folktale holds that the mythical King Rama gifted the city to Hanuman, the noble monkey warrior and “son of the wind” who helped Rama rescue his wife Sita in the Ramayana epic. Today the line between “venerable descendants of Hanuman” and “mischievous pests” is a thin one. While generally docile and used to humans, the simians do occasionally bite, especially if a mother feels that her babies are under threat.
The monkeys congregate at Phra Prang Sam Yod and San Phra Kan shrine, where officials feed them at 10:00 and 16:00 daily. They also hang from power cables and scamper over the train tracks that run straight through the old town. Keep food and valuables secure when you’re out and about -- it’s all fun and games until Curious George dashes off with your camera.
A clutch of historical sites makes Lopburi fascinating even if the monkeys freak you out. Most attractions are clustered close together near the train station amid a warren of colourful streets. After getting your fill of history, wander over to the Lopburi River to stroll along lanes lined with old wood houses before watching men dip huge nets into the water to catch their dinners.
Travellers often hit Lopburi for only a few hours, hopping off the train for long enough to snap photos of monkeys and ruins before continuing up to Sukhothai or Chiang Mai. A few budget hotels and guesthouses provide beds for backpackers in the old town, but Lopburi is thin on more cushy accommodation.
Those with time to spare could take day trips to some of Lopburi province’s vast sunflower fields, which paint the countryside yellow from November to January. One of the largest stretches at the foot of Khao Chin Lae, a 240-metre-high limestone massif festooned with more than 40 rock climbing routes. Pop into Noom’s Guesthouse to rent equipment and arrange a trip.
Temple enthusiasts might venture south over the border into Saraburi province to explore the ornate Wat Phra Phutthabat, or strike west into tiny Singburi to see ancient reliefs at Wat Lai and a 46-metre-long reclining Buddha image at Wat Phra Non Chaksi. There’s also Wat Khao Wongkot, a forest temple with a large bat cave located 20 kilometres north of Lopburi town.
Every year during the last week of November, Lopburi comes together around the San Phra Kan shrine to offer bushels of fruit and other foods to the simians as part of the annual Monkey Buffet. This quirky festival also includes parades, folk performances and plenty of monkeying around.
Try to avoid passing through Lopburi on Mondays and Tuesdays, when the fabulous Somdet Phra Narai National Museum is closed.
Lopburi town is located 130 kilometres north of Bangkok and only 60 kilometres north of Ayutthaya. It’s the capital of Lopburi province, which is quite large by Central Thai standards. Much of the province’s central and northern areas boast limestone cliffs and rolling sunflower farms, while rice cultivation dominates the southern section.
Set in the province’s far southern reaches, Lopburi town is closely related to other ancient cities in the Chao Phraya River basin, such as Singburi, Ang Thong, Suphanburi and Ayutthaya. Defined by flowing waterways and fertile paddies, this general area was a cradle of Mon/Khmer and later Siamese/Thai civilisation stretching back well over a thousand years.
With a population of around 30,000, modern Lopburi town is divided into two sections. The old town hugs the east bank of the Lopburi River, while a newer section stretches for several kilometres to the east around a couple of large traffic circles. Narai Maharat Road (Highway 311) connects the two areas.
Most travellers don’t venture beyond the old town unless hitting the bus station, which is two kilometres east of the train tracks and just south of the Sri Suriyothai traffic circle off Narai Maharat. Another large traffic circle is found two kilometres further east, encircling a statue of King Narai the Great at the junction of 311 and Route 1 (Phahonyothin Road), which shoots southeast to Wat Phra Phutthabat and Saraburi.
Centrally located in the old town on Na Phrakan Road, the train station serves as a handy reference point. One of the largest historical sites, Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, is located directly across from the train station, while other key sites like San Phra Kan shrine and Phra Prang Sam Yod are found a few hundred metres further north within sight of the tracks.
At the centre of the old town and a five-minute walk west of the train station sprawls Narai Ratchaniwet Palace, a huge complex of ruins and historic buildings set behind three-metre-high white-plaster walls. This is also where you’ll find the excellent National Museum.
Unlike the historical parks in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, which for the most part are clearly set aside from the rest of the cities, Lopburi’s historical sites blend into a tangle of streets -- such as Ratchadamnoen and Sorasak -- lined by mostly unimpressive concrete shophouse buildings. Local life mixes with drab mid-20th century architecture, ancient ruins, mischievous monkeys and quite a few travellers in a way that makes Lopburi one of a kind.
We highly recommend walking 15 minutes west from the train station to the Lopburi River. A charming village runs along narrow Petracha Road in the southwest corner of the old town, around Wat Choeng Tha and Wat Kawi Kawitsararam. From here you could stroll north along Phra Ram Road and hang a left into a venerable village along Tha Khun Nang Road on the way to a bridge running west to an unusual riverside chedi at Wat Mani Chonlakan.
Lopburi’s Mueang Narai Hospital is located on Route 1, two kilometres southeast of the King Narai traffic circle and seven kilometres from the old town. There’s also the Lop Buri Hospital situated just east of the same traffic circle, while the police station is located just southwest of it. Banks and ATMs dot the city, with several visible from the train station.
Open from 08:30 to 16:30, the local Tourism Authority of Thailand office is inconveniently located five kilometres east of the old town in the provincial hall complex off Narai Maharat, just northwest of the King Narai traffic circle.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 7th September, 2016.