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Burmese Temples of Lampang

Buddhist temples and monasteries with Burmese style have been built in many countries around the world and have played a role in disseminating Buddhism as well as aiding Burmese nationals resident in these guest countries to maintain their cultural and religious identities. Fine examples of their art can be at the city of Lampang, just a couple of hours away from Chiangmai.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, British companies received Thai royal concessions for logging operations in northern Thailand and frequently brought their experienced workers from Burma with them. Building temples is important for both Thais and Burmese who respect that it is nature that gives them everything. For people whose job it was to cut down trees in the ancient forests, it can be imagined that erecting temples was one way for them to ask nature for forgiveness and to attain merit at the same time.

Two of the major temples built in Lampang by the Burmese are Wat Sri Choom and Wat Sri Rong Muang which are unfortunately displaying contrasting fortunes today.

Wat Sri Choom is the largest traditional Burmese style Buddhist temple in Thailand and is located at 198 Dhippawan Road, Lampang, directly opposite the Alfalah Mosque "" we are fortunate Thailand is a multi-cultural society. The old Wat Sri Choom consisted of a temple surrounded by Bodhi (banyan) trees, a well and a “sala” (a rest house) with no resident monk in charge. Due to this place being surrounded by bodhi trees, the name Wat Sri Choom, which means bodhi tree in Northern Thai, came into being although the Burmese continued to call it Nyaung Waign Kyaung. In the year 1893 (BE 2436, Burmese year 1254), permission was granted by the Governor of Lampang to construct a permanent temple at this site and the monastery itself was donated by ‘Big Boss’ U Maung Gyi of mixed Burmese Chiangmai Tai Yai background and his Shan wife Me Liang Pounge in 1901. The buildings that make up the temple and monastery were supported by a number of teak merchants.

Entering through the main gate you approach a large open courtyard and the first thing you encounter is a collection of small shops selling Buddhist regalia. You will also see the main wiharn with its multitiered roofs and spiers that was originally constructed in 1900, to your right, beyond the shops. ‘Kyaung Daga’ U Yo started the construction of the main wiharn with timber which was later changed to brick and plaster by his son-in-law U Maung Gyi. Skilled Burmese carpenters from the city of Mandalay in northern Burma were brought here especially and it was completed, in Burmese style, in 1901. The wiharn was unfortunately destroyed by fire on the night of 16th January 1992 but has now been restored, again using craftsmen brought from Burma, who tried to recreate the original from photographs. The new construction contains much information and many photographs and has wind chimes made of what looks like upturned porcelain bells that I have never encountered at a temple anywhere else. Even further to the right is a small stretch of running water that bubbles in honor of Patacara, an eminent contemporary female disciple of the Lord Buddha and a cool, quiet place to sit and meditate. Return to the central courtyard and opposite you will see the ‘Thein’ or Sema or Ubosote (Ordination Hall) where ordination services, rites and ceremonies are held. This was also constructed and completed in 1901. Its construction was supported by U San Ohn, a Mon from Moulmein, his Lampang Tai Yuan wife U Shwe O and other teak merchants. This hall was consecrated at the time by a chapter of ten senior monks invited from Burma. Next to the ordination hall is the golden stupa, that enshrines Buddha’s relics brought from Burma in 1906. This was constructed in Burmese and Mon (Peguen) style and was erected by Mr. Amarin Siriprayong (U San Lin) in 1948.

The refectory house, or eating hall, at the far end of the central courtyard was built in 1950 and is an attractive wooden construction that has now been renovated to become Wat Sri Choom English Tutorial Class on the ground floor and the Chief Abbot Ministry Office on the upper floor.

In 2006, this temple was home to one Burmese and 18 Thai monks whereas in 2000 there were 29 Burmese and nine Thai and perhaps this reflects a change in its adoption over recent years. They still recite the Pali texts in central Thai and Burmese tones, however, and maintain Burmese monks to do the daily physical tasks and to retain the colors and sounds of a traditional Burmese temple.

Wat Sri Choom is keeping up with modern times and as well as a website at www.watsriChoom.com, the monastery broadcasts a dharma program on Lampang City radio (FM 92.75 mhz).

In contrast to Wat Sri Choom, Wat Sri Rong Muang has seen better days but in my opinion has a distinctly ‘lived in’ feel to it that gives the place a definite charm and welcoming spirit that I found lacking at Wat Sri Choom.

Wat Sri Rong Muang is located towards the west of Lampang at No 80 Toa Kraw Noi Road with its rear backing onto the Wang River. It was originally named Wat Tha Kha Noi Pharma, after the village where the Burmese craftsmen who constructed the temple lived. The temple was founded in 1900 and the vihara constructed between 1905-1912. The temple was renamed in honor of the two people who donated the land; Mr. Inta and Mrs. Karn-On.

Entering the compound through the main gate the once beautiful, and still remarkable, wiharn is directly in front of you. Turning to your right you pass a small walled enclosure surrounding an old well and directly in front of you is an old tree that has become a shrine in its own right and is surrounded by offerings. Beyond this is an attractive, gilt decorated, stone stupa that was built in 1902 under the sponsorship of ‘Grand Mother’ Jong Tang Pa-O.

The wiharn itself is in typical Burmese style with groups of multitiered roofs decorated with carved, zinc coated, iron sheets on the gables. The roof also features nine spires in honor of the nine families who donated the majority of the money required for its construction. Inside the wiharn the many wooden pillars are beautifully decorated using rak, a tree sap, to form delicate floral and vine patterns, then embellished with brightly colored glass. The column in front of the central Buddha is particularly striking with its images of guardian angels, demons, monkeys and other animals. The ceiling of the wiharn is similarly decorated and although it is dark inside the colors flash off the glass with every hint of light that penetrates the old hall. There are three Buddha images in the posture of subduing Mara, the evil one, in the Burmese style of Mandalay; they have round faces, carved eyebrows and short noses. The second image from the left is housed in a multicolored glass mondop and is in a style more associated with Lanna.

At the extreme left of the compound are the monks’ quarters and a small farm with vegetable patch and chicken enclosure alongside what appears to be the original stone crafted well. During my visit young monks were working here under the supervision of an old nun and they were most welcoming.

Walking to the rear of the wiharn, to its left, there are a number of spirit houses. One bears the message, hand painted in English; “May you be well and happy; may you be free from mental and physical suffering”. A fine sentiment to take with you when you leave.

The wiharn is now 100 years old and needs attention. The Fine Arts Department of Thailand have recognized this building as a national treasure and estimated its renovation costs to be 15 million Baht. Let’s hope the work is undertaken but also that the vihara will retain its current charm and feeling of well-being for future generations to experience.

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