Located just 15km from the northern city of Lampang is one of Thailand’s oldest living temple complexes with some of the best preserved examples of early Lanna architecture in the country and many fascinating cultural artifacts.
The fortified temple complex of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is located upon an ancient man-made mound. The temple compound is roughly rectangular in shape, the walls measuring about 75m along the eastern wall and 95m along the northern wall. This site undoubtedly pre-dates the arrival of Tai people to the area and may have originally been a Mon site.
The Tai moved south into what is now northern Thailand during the 13th century CE, displacing the Mon and establishing the kingdom of Lanna. The “Golden Age” of Lanna is considered to be the second half of the 15th century CE when King Tilokkarat ruled in Chiang Mai. It is from this period that many of the structures at Wat Phra That Lampang Luang date.
Entry to the complex is via an intricately carved stone gateway in the eastern wall, probably dating from the 16th century CE, reached via a large stairway lined with naga serpents. On stepping through the gateway one almost immediately enters the main assembly hall, Wiharn Luang.
Wiharn Luang was built in 1476 by Chao Han Srithattha Maha Suramontri the ruler of Lampang. The open-sided construction with triple-tiered roof is typical of the early Lanna style. Open sided wiharns allowed people outside the building to observe and participate in ceremonies but examples of this style exist today only in Lampang province.
The front of Wiharn Luang is beautifully decorated in traditional style. Towards the back of the wiharn a large Lanna style golden “mondop” houses the main buddha image Phra Chao Lan Thong from 1563, reputed to be the most beautiful buddha image in Lampang.
Along the sides of the main wiharn paintings on wooden panels from the nineteenth century are still visible. Also of interest are two traditional wooden pulpits which date from the 18th century CE.
The Main Chedi
Behind the Wiharn Luang is the 45m high chedi which is covered in weathered copper and bronze sheeting. The chedi in its current form dates back to a restoration by Chao Haan Sri Tat in 1496 and shows a mix of Lanna style with influences from Sukhothai.
This chedi was a renovation of an earlier chedi and in fact there has undoubtedly been a chedi at this spot for many centuries prior to the current temple complex being built.
Immediately behind the main chedi is a small wiharn housing a naga Buddha image, portraying the meditating Buddha being protected by a many headed naga serpent. This image is the oldest in the temple, dating to 672 CE.
According to local legend the Lord Buddha himself once passed through this area and was offered honey in a wooden tube by the indigenous Lawa people. When the Buddha discarded the wooden tube he threw it north and announced that this place would in future become known as Lampakappa Nakhon. It is said that he also gave the people a single hair from his head which they enclosed in a gold casket and then buried in an underground tunnel with other valuables. The chedi of Wat Phat That Lampang Luang was later built over this spot. This relic of the Buddha is believed by devotees to still be at the base of the chedi together with ashes from the Buddha’s right forehead and neck.
Other legends say that the 7th century CE Mon Queen Chamathewi came to pay respects at Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. It is also believed that it was one of her sons that founded the city of Lampang, naming it after the nearby temple complex. Whether these various legends are accurate or not, it does seem highly probable that the site of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang has been a site of worship since at least the time of the Mons in the 7th century CE.
Wiharn Nam Taem
Just north of the main chedi is the beautiful Wiharn Nam Taem, another Lanna style open-sided wooden wiharn dating from the early 16th century CE. It is believed to be the oldest wooden temple building in Thailand.
As in the main wiharn the wooden side panels are decorated with paintings dating from the nineteenth century whilst faint murals still visible on the walls date from the sixteenth century.
Wiharn Phra Put
To the south of the main chedi is Wiharn Phra Put. The wooden core of this structure dates back to the 13th century CE but restoration in 1832 added the outer stone walls to enclose this wiharn.
An Unusual Haw Phra Phutthabaht
Behind the Wiharn Phra Put is the small raised room that houses a footprint of the buddha. This traditional Haw Phra Phuttabaht (Room of the Buddha’s footprint) dates from 1449 but now houses a very unusual feature, having been converted into a “camera obscura”.
Inside the small room a white screen has been set up opposite the door. With the doors closed light pierces the darkness through a small hole above the door and projects onto the screen a clear but inverted image of the main chedi opposite.
The Temple Museum
Exiting via the southern gate of the temple complex leads one to some further old buildings now used as museums. One of these houses a copy of the famous Emerald Buddha known as the Phra Kaew Don Tao. Carved in Chiang Saen style it is reputedly over 1,000 years old although its origins are obscure.
Also in this area is the interesting Haw Trai or temple library. Built in typical Lanna style this double tiered roofed building is beautifully carved. The Haw Trai is raised off the ground in order to provide protection from insects or vermin for the fragile religious manuscripts stored inside.
It is also interesting to see that the locals appear to have chosen this spot as a suitable location to leave their own old or broken buddha images.
A Battle in the Temple
In 1730 Wat Phra That Lampang Luang was the scene of a battle led by Pho Chao Thip Chang, a commoner who went on to become the ruler of Lampang.
At this time the northern kingdom of Lanna was under the suzerainty of Burma but internally fragmented between competing warlords. Pho Chao Thip Chang was asked to dislodge a band of Burmese soldiers led by the Lamphun warlord Chao Maha Yot from their camp inside Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. Pho Chao Thip Chang succeeded by secretly entering the complex at midnight through a water channel with three trusted companions dressed as Burmese soldiers. They surprised Chao Maha Yot, catching him at a game of chess, and shot him dead. Then they opened the temple gates to allow their full contingent of three hundred men to chase the Burmese and Lamphun based forces from Lampang.
Locals say that bullet holes still visible in the railings around the main chedi are from this night, although other sources dispute this, saying that the railings were not installed until seventy years after this battle.
Pho Chao Thip Chang went on to be the ruler of Lampang for twenty seven years (With the blessing of the Burmese) and founded a dynasty known as the Seven Princes. He is commemorated by a statue just outside the eastern wall of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang where gifts of rooster statuettes are particularly popular offerings, the rooster being the symbol of Lampang.
Where to Go
How to Go
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is open every day from 7.30am until 5.00pm with no admission charge (Although as in all temples there are many opportunities to donate money to help in the maintenance and upkeep of this historically important religious site).
For those owning or hiring transport it is approximately 100km southeast of Chiang Mai off Highway 11 or 15km southwest of Lampang off Highway 1.
If using public transport, trains or buses run frequently from Chiang Mai to Lampang from where the blue songthaew 2462 links to Ko Kha and finally a motorcycle taxi can go to the temple. It is probably easiest to rent a songthaew or taxi for the round-trip out of Lampang.
- A Brief History of Lanna, Hans Penth, 2004 Silkworm Books
Header Image – View of the front gable of Wihran Luang