One of the smallest and most traditional of Thailand’s provincial capitals, Lamphun has no shopping malls or superstores, no ‘walking streets’, no tuk tuks, not even a cinema and barely a single building over four storeys. It also sees very few tourists.
Yet this quiet backwater was once one of the region’s most important towns. A powerful Mon city state, formerly known as Haripunchai and established by a Queen Chama Devi in the seventh century, Lamphun was strategically placed between Bagan to the west, the Nanchao kingdom to the north and the Khmer dominated Mon states of central Thailand.
Lamphun city has a Chama Devi road, temple, stupa, monument, restaurant; Chama Devi this, Chama Devi that, the woman’s ubiquitous. So who was she exactly? Well, a seventh century semi-legendary queen, and like many similar figures it’s impossible to say how much we think we know today is true. It begins with some odd stuff like being born in a lotus flower, and then she was adopted, raised and married off by the king of Lavo, a Mon city state (and modern Lopburi). For whatever reason, she left him and moved north with some followers to settle in the Ping valley.
The story gets a bit weird at this point as it involves a magical city, the virgin birth of twins, struggles with local Mon tribes and a run in with a local king whom she supposedly defeated by fashioning him a hat out of her underwear. But the queen found time to establish the city of Haripunchai and is considered today (at least by locals if not historians) to be responsible for the construction of the original city wall, moat and most of the old town’s Buddhist temples.
There is of course a monument to the lady, and while the Chama Thewi Monument is not exactly one of the town’s premier tourist spots, if you do want to pay respect to the lady this monument is set in a small park is located in the far southwest corner of the old town on the moat road. It’s probably more interesting to watch the devotes than look at the monument itself. It’s remarkable how much respect the queen still receives after some 1,400 years.
Many religious sites from this period remain, so for history and temple buffs Lamphun is certainly worth a visit, but a word of warning: if you aren’t interested in temples, don’t bother because there’s frankly not much else to do.
Yes, there are a couple of decent national parks in the further-flung mountainous stretches of the province but they’re really too far to be practical to visit from town. So the town is ideal as a day trip from nearby Chiang Mai with, at a pinch, an overnight there to soak up Lamphun’s increasingly rare small town feel, or as a stop on your way down to Lampang. Locals are friendly, good accommodation options are on offer and, as usual, you’ll find plenty of excellent Thai food.
The compact old walled town, still known as Nakorn Haripunchai, is bordered by the Kuang river on the east side and moats on the other three. There’s a local museum, a huge traditional style market and some of the wats are spectacular. The city walls form an irregular rectangular shape, unlike Chiang Mai old city’s neat square and also unlike Chiang Mai, and of particular note to cyclists and motorbike riders, both the inner and outer roads on either side of the moat are two-way. This is confusing and potentially dangerous if you’ve got used to their larger neighbour’s more logical one-way system.
The city’s main hospital is on Chama Thewi Road, next to the wat; the main post office is in the old town towards the northern end of the main street, while the police station is on the same Lamphun Chiang Mai Road, slightly north of the old town.
Banks and ATMs are scattered along the moat road. Finally, the new riverside tourist information office isn’t functioning so you’ll have to make do with the small booth in the Wat Phra That Haripunchai car park. Staff were helpful but there was no English language information when we visited.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 10th October, 2016.