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Lampang - An Ancient City

Scenes from Lampang

NESTLING ON A broad plateau 93 kilometers south of Chiangmai is Thailand's fourth largest city, LAMPANG, but despite its size and importance, LAMPANG has managed to maintain many of its past traditions, culture and lifestyle. With prime farmland around its immediate perimeter and mountains beyond, it is not surprising that the city is influenced by rural activities. The world's first elephant hospital and training center is situated on the outskirts of the city. Other indications of its rural nature are waterfalls, caves, mountaintop national parks and dams, all within easy traveling distance from the city.

In many ways, Lampang can be considered Chiangmai's sister city. Actually born some 200 years before Chiangmai. In the 11th century, Khelang Nakorn, as it was known then, was a Kingdom in its own right. Coexisting with the ancient Kingdoms of Mon Haripoonshai of Lamphun, the early Thai Kingdom of Phayao, founded in the 10th century, the pre-Thai Lawa Kingdom of the north and the Khmer Angkor occupation of Sukhothai in the 10th to 13th centuries, Lampang, situated on the large and important Wang river, was a highly valued Kingdom. In fact it was prized so much that it was actually taken over for some time by the Haripoonshai Kingdom. Lampang was also home to the famous Emerald Buddha for three decades, another indication of its high point in history.

Chiangmai has good reason to be affiliated to and protective of its association with Lampang, as the city was its savior more than once over the centuries. On a number of occasions, Lampang forces took it upon themselves to save Chiangmai from Burmese invasion and after the great earthquake of 1545, which left Chiangmai devastated, Lampang served as a refugee center for 20 years. This bond between the two cities and their inhabitants is as close now as it was then, although today it is mainly commercial transactions that encourage the daily transfer of people.

Despite the long-standing connection, Lampang is a city in its own right and with its own distinct character and personality. There is a casual air about the place and a demeanor that is refreshingly pleasant. Outside the city hall you will find lines of horse-drawn carriages. These are not a tourist attraction, indeed few visitors use them, but are mainly used by the locals. The horse drawn carriage was a traditional form of transport in the city long before the first tourist arrived and despite the influx of Pickup trucks, motorcycles and seelors, the carriages are still very much in use conveying shoppers to and from the many markets. Of course tourists may hire them as well for a trip around the city and for the same price as the hire of a seelor (red communal taxies), you will be treated to a far more pleasant tour. Wearing cowboy hats and boots and blue denim jeans, the drivers like to "whoop it up", enjoy posing for the camera and will willingly discuss and negotiate special deals to suit your needs. Take a ride around the city, you won't regret it.

In the heart of the city you will discover a different form of architecture. The buildings are old, constructed of brick, stone or wood, and columns from floor to roof are a distinctive feature. Balconies adorn the upper levels and large window and door shutters are a predominant characteristic. In many Thai cities, modern day constructions have replaced the buildings of the past, but in Lampang many forms of Lanna architecture can still be seen in old shops and homes that have been retained and preserved. The river is another place to view authentic and ancient constructions. At intervals, old stone bridges straddle the two banks and some of them have been painted in a most attractive blue and white. With one bank bordering the inner city and the other facing onto mainly residential and rural scenes, a trip on a boat down river is an interesting and worthwhile venture.

In Chiangmai there are hundreds of temples and Lampang also has more than its fair share, but it is the diversity of the architecture that make these old places of worship so interesting. Many temples have strong Burmese overtones as a result of the 300-year occupation of both Chiangmai and Lampang, but there is also a strong Lanna influence as that of well as that of the early Haripoonshai period:

  • Wat Phra Chetuwan is a classic example of Lanna-Thai style, and wooden carvings along the top of the main wiharn are simplistic yet attractive. In a very good state of repair, this temple is worth a look and is only five minutes walk from the city hall on the regular horse-drawn carriage route.
  • Wat Chedi Zao Laang is one of Lampang's most famous temples as well as being one of the oldest. Dating from the Haripoonshai period (11th - 13th century) one of the many magnificent features of this temple is a large compound holding no less than 20 sparkling white Chedis. This temple is five kilometers out of the city.
  • Wat Phra Gaew Don Tao is a classic,old style Burmese temple. The wiharn,which is carved from wood, and a gleaming white chedi with a golden spire are at the center of this temple. A visit gives you a better feel as to just how pronounced the Burmese influence was on the Buddhism of the region.
  • Wat Phra Thart Lampang Luang once housed the famed Emerald Buddha, which rested there for 30 years. The Emerald Buddha has occupied many temples over its history including the Luang Phrabang Buddhist center in Laos and Wat Chedi Luang in Chiangmai. It is now in Bangkok at Wat Phra Gaew. Wat Sri Choom is another Burmese style temple and the center of attraction here are the many wood-carved lintels on the temple buildings. It is also one of the few temples in Thailand that retains the classic Burmese gilt work on the walls and ceiling of its main wiharn.
Lampang is also the center of Northern Thai Ceramics and many of Lampang's kilns are situated on the road leading out of the city to the north. This area, known as Tambon (subdistrict) Hangchat, is composed of traditional northern Thai houses, many built in small compounds housing a number of families, the early version of today's housing estates. Bordering the main road you will find over 20 ceramic kilns in a distance of 2 to 3 kilometers.

Unlike the Chiangmai ceramics industry, which concentrates on glazed products and the famous Celadon, Lampang covers the whole range of items including stoneware. Blue and White glazed ceramics are the type for which Lampang is famous. Some kilns specialize in simple clay pottery, red and brown colored bowls, vases, and other vessels that are seen so much in everyday use in Thailand, while others make elegant gold-washed blue and white overglaze items. Lampang's own five-color Bencharong ware is another distinctive and attractive product.

Apart from these specialized products, the majority of Lampang's kilns concentrate on painted earthenware items ranging from miniature ornaments, watermelons, chili peppers and lemons, through to flower vases and planters of every shape, size and design imaginable. Everything from dinner services to a vast array of individual coffee cups and mugs are available and every piece is not just hand painted but has also been hand crafted and shaped, even the miniature items. A visit to Lampang must include a visit to some of the kilns, which are an attraction to both commercial buyers and the ordinary person interested in fine ceramics and glazed stoneware.

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