Well, more accurately what we enjoyed visiting most in Lamphun was Wat Chama Devi (or Thewi). Without meaning to be rude, and while being a pleasant-enough spot, the small, sleepy, provincial town of Lamphun isn’t exactly the tourist epicentre of northern Thailand.
However in an earlier Mon, Dvaravati period incarnation as Haripunchai it was indeed the most important city of the northern region. Historians don’t seem too sure but the city appeared on the map during the late seventh century, but it probably existed as a minor chiefdom even earlier than that, when it was captured by Chama Devi, princess and daughter of the king of Lavo (Lopburi). Under her guidance Haripunchai developed into a major northern outpost of the Dvaravati civilisation of the Chao Phraya valley.
The temple, also known as Wat Kukut, was reputedly built during the reign of Chama Devi’s son in the early eighth century and the old Mon-style chedi is said to contain the ashes of the great queen herself.
The Lopburi dynasty then continued to reign at Haripunchai, despite attacks from various Angkor kings, until the mid-13th century when it was finally captured by the Lanna king Mengrai after he’d established his new capital at nearby Chiang Mai. Despite being much older than its neighbouring cities of Chiang Mai, Phayao and even Chiang Saen, little remains today apart from some city walls and a moat — and Wat Chama Devi houses the best examples of Dvaravati period architecture with its two ancient chedis.
The brick city walls resemble those of Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, but note the Mon planned irregular shaped towns where defensive walls fitted into the terrain rather than being rigidly geometric, as with Lanna or Khmer cities. Major temples were also often located outside the city walls — Wat Chama Devi is located a distance to the west of the oval-shaped old city centre constructed along the banks of the Ping River.
Most of the wat consists of recent constructions and indeed there’s a brand new museum — we assume dedicated to the famous Queen — situated in the grounds which hasn’t even opened yet so we can’t tell you what’s inside.
The main viharn building did contain some interesting murals, consisting mainly of historical scenes from the life of Chama Devi rather than the usual life of Buddha ones.
Set in pleasant grounds with some lush plant life and even a couple of spectacular drums on display (see below) it made for an interesting diversion that we enjoyed far more than the better known and more prestigious Wat Prathat Haripunchai, the main temple of the central part of town. We also had Wat Chama Devi completely to ourselves, whereas the latter was heaving with local tourists and vendors.
While I’m not sure it warrants an overnight stay — though there are plenty of options if you wish to stay over — it certainly makes for a good afternoon out. Note Lamphun is only 26 km from Chiang Mai and by bike or motorcycle it’s a great trip along the tree-lined Old Lamphun Road. We however paid 600 baht for a taxi/songthaew for the afternoon.
By Mark Ord.
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