Published on January 5, 2008
A recent family wedding in Lamphun gave me a chance to poke around the tiny and idyllically backward province and have a look at its bigger yet younger sister, Lampang. Staying at a hotel in each proved to be a study in contrasts, but don't let anyone tell you one province is better than the other.
More developed Lampang wins the hospitality competition effortlessly, though. The 10-floor Lampang Wienthong Hotel on Phaholythin Road is really quite good - if you ignore oddities like the "deep-fried prawn tartare" on the room-service menu.
There's not a great deal to offer in town in terms of accommodation, but for my visit during Loy Kratong the elevators were repeatedly coughing up colourful furballs of costumed dancers from Europe, in town for a folklore festival. So clearly the Wienthong's reputation spreads far.
The rooms are clean, quiet, on the spacious side, and have TV, mini-bar, ample wardrobe and fully outfitted, faux-marble bathroom with combination bath-shower and loads of hot water. The service is great and the staff very pleasant.
Right outside there's a string of the horse-drawn carriages for which Lampang is nationally famous. There are some 200 ceramics factories in the province, thanks to a rich lode of perfect clay in the area, but it's the horses you hear about most (and the Elephant Conservation Centre too).
The flower-bedecked geegee jigs with a pair of seats under a canopy - and two smaller seats in front if you really want the horse to suffer - have been plying a shady route through the old part of town for most of the last century.
A wizened old gent coaxed his horse to tow a buggy bearing my wife and I around for an hour, stopping three times along the way. The first stop was Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao, best known as the original home, for three decades in the mid-15th century, of the Emerald Buddha.
It's a Burmese-style temple with a 50-metre-tall gilt chedi that contains, says one source cited by many other sources while remaining dubious, "some hair of Lord Buddha". There are startling sculptures all around the compound and a collection of hide-covered drums from small to mammoth in scale.
Birthed in the seventh century, Lampang grew into a teakwood-processing hub and still sports many stolid teak houses erected more than a hundred years ago, particularly along Talad Gau, a photogenic street by the Wang River.
On Talad Gau you see guardian roosters, the symbol of Lampang. The story goes that Lord Buddha came there on his travels and the god Indra took the form of a rooster to awaken the townsfolk.
Our next buggy stop was Baan Sao Nak on Ratwattana Road, a sprawling, beautifully conserved, Burmese-and-Lanna-mix home built in 1895. The name means "house of many pillars", because it rests on 116 teak posts - the originals, merely fortified in the 1960s.
Now a museum furnished with antiques and handicrafts, Baan Sao Nak was the residence of the late Khunying Valai Leelanuj, who in 1977 was honoured with a visit by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, and two years later by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.
His Majesty the King, no less, had been a guest of the next person we saw. This person has now been dead for 11 years but I still recognised him immediately because his picture is everywhere in Lampang, unmistakeable due to his gaunt features.
What's left of Luang Phor Kasem Kemako is a leathery mummy lying in a glass coffin inside a glass-walled room at Wat Susahn Dtailak, our third buggy stop.
For a devout Buddhist who railed against materialism, it's a strange fate. January 15, the anniversary of his death, brings a large influx of pilgrims to Lampang to pay homage to a fiercely private man descended from Lanna royalty.
Meanwhile, back on the other side of Doi Khun Tan National Park, which straddles the provincial boundary, awaited Lamphun, which I looked forward to seeing, having been a big fan of National Lampoon magazine. I had certain expectations.
The province's rather apologetic official website has only a slim chapter on its tourist attractions. Lamphun is known elsewhere in Thailand for its longans, garlic, shallots and a silk woven with a raised flower pattern called yok dok.
As for other things, there are in fact caves, waterfalls and a flat-topped hill with a well that miraculously never runs dry. And Lamphun was at the centre of some very interesting history a long time ago. Around AD 663, about the time Christianity was spreading its legs in England, a holy man named Wasuthep hired Mon workers to build a city named Haripunchai between the Kwuang and Ping rivers.
Chamthewi, a daughter of the king of Lawo (the future Lop Buri), became sovereign of the most prosperous settlement in the north of what would one day be Thailand. Lamphun is touted by some sources, but not all, as Thailand's oldest city.
I stayed a night in its oldest hotel, or at least I assume so because I was told it's the only hotel in Lamphun. An outfit called Gassan has a pair of golf resorts outside the town.
The Supamithr Hotel is beyond the ancient part of town, but does sit conveniently next to a chicken farm, the roosters of which take turns going off all night long, obviating the need for wake-up calls. Guests don't so much sleep as count crows. The rooster reins in Lamphun as well as Lampang.
Don't let this put you off: Lamphun is packed with charm. The old ways are still the best in most regards.
Lamphun's long-ago founders are commemorated primarily at 800-year-old Wat Phra That Hariphunchai, but the only temple I was able to visit there was Wat Phra Nang Chamthewi, dating to AD 755, colloquially called the Ku Kut Pagoda for its most important edifice.
There are still two ancient structures there, both chedis, one dating from the eighth century that's virtually crumbling, the other from the 11th century and still looking strong enough to support its 60 statues of the Lord Buddha (or at least boddhisattvas). At its summit the ashes of Queen Chamthewi were once encased in gold, but this feature vanished at some point - hence the name Ku Kut: the pagoda without a top.