Unlike neighbouring Chiang Mai, Lampang province has little in the way of fancy resorts or stylish restaurants to entice sybarites and well-heeled visitors. Small as it is peaceful, this northern province is a haven for culture buffs and disciples of the slow life. Rich in cultural heritage and proud of its glory days, Lampang is a destination that cries out to be discovered.
“Lampang has a reputation as a quiet northern town,” says my local guide as we make our way to Baan Sao Nak. “In fact, Lampang is very rich. The province earned a fortune from the teak and tobacco industries in bygone days. But the rich mostly left to live in big cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Stroll or cycle through the city and you’ll be amazed by the heritage buildings, the old wooden houses and temples.”
In fact, Lampang was first to enjoy much of the progress that came from Bangkok, the capital, to Thailand’s North. The railway, for example, arrived at Lampang in 1915 and the service to the North ended here for almost 10 years before extending to Chiang Mai through the Khun Tan Tunnel. The Bank of Thailand also opened a branch here to attract business in the North. The Public Relations Department built a television broadcasting station in Lampang, making the province a gateway of information.
Baan Sao Nak, the “house of many pillars”, offers a picture of the wealth of Lampang’s teak barons. Built in 1895 by rich and respected Burmese log trader, Maung Chan Ong, the traditional wood house boasts 116 square teak pillars. It served as the family home for decades before being turned into a local museum. The entire house is furnished with mildly interesting Burmese and Thai antiques and pays testament to the lavish life of Lampang.
“When the British were commissioned to export the teak from Thailand in the 19th century, they brought the Burmese along to look after their business,” says the guide. “Some of the Burmese were master loggers, and earned a fortune. They married local women, built lavish mansions like Baan Sao Nak, contributed to Buddhism and made merit.”
Two kilometres south of Baan Sao Nak is Wat Srichum, the largest Burmese-style temple in Thailand. Home to a pagoda and chapel hall, the temple was built by a rich Burmese teak trader towards the end of the 19th century. Legend has it that U Maung Gyi, or the “big boss” as the Burmese tycoon was known, brought the finest carpenters from Mandalay in Central Myanmar to build the main viharn (ordination hall). Teak carvings and decorations of delicately and exquisitely engraved woodwork reflect the craftsmanship of these masters.
“The walls, ceiling and wooden pillars are traditionally lacquered and covered with gold leaves,” says the local guide, directing my attention to the interior walls.
Surrounded by a wall and accessed through a large, elaborately decorated entrance gate topped with a Burmese Pyatthat roof, Wat Sri Chum has been declared a national treasure by the Thai Fine Arts Department.
One of the finest temples in Lampang is Wat Lai Hin, 40 kilometres west of Wat Srichum. Small yet graceful, the temple is a diamond in the province’s crown. The arched entrance, with elegant plasterwork depicting small angels and guardians, was the prototype for the entrance of Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang – the city’s most sacred pagoda.
“This small viharn with its multi-tiered roofs makes a bold statement about Lampang architecture,” says the local guide. “Many experts regard it as finer than Chiang Mai architecture.” A tall pillar with a swan on top in front of the viharn pays testament to the Burmese influence.
From Wat Lai Hin, we head to Wat Pongsanuk on the bank of Wang River. Built in 1886 by the Shan-speaking community in Lampang, the temple won Unesco’s Award of Merit 2008 for restoration. Although it lost much of its character during the renovation, the small, open-sided building stands on a mound is one of the few remaining local examples of original Lanna-style temple architecture. To get an idea of what it was like previously, look at the carved wooden gateway at the entrance to the north stairway.
For the history buff, a trip to Lampang is not complete without a visit to Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. Perched on the expansive mound, the visitor has quite a climb up the Naga stairway to reach the main entrance – which is inspired by the arched gateway of Wat Lai Hin. It’s worth checking out for fine plaster designs.
The main viharn houses a bronze Buddha statue called the Phra Chao Lan Thong. At the end of the viharn is a golden pagoda in Lanna architectural style containing a Holy Relic of Lord Buddha.
“Wat Phra That Lampang Luang draws visitors for the golden pagoda,” says the guide. “But the temple also has beautiful murals on wooden walls and these are said to be the oldest in the North.”
The murals tell the tales of Jataka through paintings of serpents, elephants and Lord Buddha as well as the stories of Ramayana and some Lanna folktales.
Despite its size and provincial mien, Lampang in many ways maintains a slow Lanna pace. Unlike the big city like Chiang Mai, it charms visitors with its old-fashioned Lanna culture. Whether you choose to move around in a horse-drawn carriage, Lampang’s signature mode of transportation, cycle or walk, you’ll be delighted with the sense of discovery.