Archaeological travel guide to the ruins and ancient temples of Lampang — a Hariphunchai Kingdom city later absorbed by the Thai Lanna Kingdom.
Name: Lampang (Khelang Nakhon)
Where: Lampang, Thailand
Location: 18.2957, 99.51027
Description: Lampang is an ancient Dvaravati city founded by Hariphunchai and later controlled by the Lanna Kingdom.
Getting there: The modern city of Lampang contains the ancient city. Most locations can be accessed by walking or bicycle.
Lampang is a quaint, atmospheric town straddling the narrow Wang River. Unlike other Thai towns that run rampant with the iconic tuk-tuks, small, horse-drawn carriages are the staple of transportation here. For the rare tourists that do visit, whether the few Thai or even fewer foreign, the town provides a tangible tranquility with its local street markets and architecture bearing an authenticity not found in nearby Chiang Mai.
At the heart of Lampang is Nakhon Khelang, the ancient name of the walled city that fortified the Wang River Valley for the Dvaravati Hariphunchai Kingdom, and its successor, the Thai Lanna Kingdom. This city was not only an important buffer for both kingdoms, but served to project their power through what is now northern Thailand.
This important role meant that Lampang later eclipsed its parent city of Hariphunchai (Lamphun) as the Lanna Kingdom moved the power center to Chiang Mai, although it later fell into a relative obscurity which helps it retain a historic feeling to this day.
The Story of Ancient Lampang
The city that would become Lampang, historically known as Nakhon Khelang, was established in 680 CE (1223 BE). The city’s original name meant “conch-shaped city” after the city walls built on the banks of the Wang River, which resembled a conch-shell.
Ancient Lampang in the Hariphunchai Period
According to legend and writings from the Hariphunchai Period, the founder and first ruler of Lampang was Phra Chao Anantayot, the son of Queen Camadevi, the legendary first ruler of Hariphunchai.
This proved to be an important strategic move by the Hariphunchai Kingdom, as Khelang is located in the Wang River Basin, which runs parallel to the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Basin, but is separated by a low, yet significant mountain range called the Khun Tan Range.
This range has historically been a barrier separating the northern kingdoms of Hariphunchai and Lanna from the other kingdoms of the central plains of Thailand such as Lavo and Ayutthaya. By establishing Lampang in this nearby valley, the Hariphunchai Kingdom was able to secure trade routes on another important waterway as well as provide itself with another layer of protection.
Compared to its parent city of Hariphunchai (Lamphun), little is mentioned of Khelang during this period. Very few inscriptions or artifacts have been discovered in Lampang dating from this period. This has led to the general conclusion that, after its founding, Lampang played second fiddle to Lamphun, much as many of Lamphun’s other satellite wiangs (walled cities) such as Wiang Tha Kan, Wiang Mano, and Wiang Kum Kam.
However, these other satellite wiangs all exist within the same river valley as Lamphun, while Lampang was separated from these cities by the aforementioned Khun Tan mountain range. During its time as a satellite city of Hariphunchai, Khelang (Lampang) was also the center of its own network of small walled cities within the Wang River basin, such as Wiang Nang Tong, Wiang Jai, Wiang Hee and Wiang Tan. This feature proved a significant consideration that was utilized by the Lanna Kingdom which would later conquer and succeed Hariphunchai.
Lampang in the Lanna Period
After Mangrai moved his forces into the Ping River Valley in the later 1200s, he succeeded in conquering the Hariphunchai Kingdom in 1292 and later incorporating them into his burgeoning Lanna Kingdom. This was the era in which Lampang would begin to emerge as a more significant city, as Mangrai moved the regional seat of power out of Lamphun, first to Wiang Kum Kam, then to Chiang Mai. During this era within the Lanna Kingdom, the city was called Lakhon.
At this time, the city walls of Lampang were expanded to the southwest and reinforced to consolidate Lanna power within this parallel valley. During this phase, the original 1.5-meter-high earthen mound walls were covered with layers of brickwork and raised to a height of around 5 meters.
The third and final phase of Khelang Nakorn’s (Lampang’s) city wall began during the time between 1441 and 1474, when the city served its purpose as a defensive border outpost, during a time when the Lanna Kingdom and the Ayutthaya Kingdom were conducting a series of border wars.
Following the wars with Ayutthaya, Lampang remained within the Lanna Kingdom, which eventually fell to the Burmese. While Chiang Mai was forcibly abandoned by the Burmese rulers. This era prompted the Lanna remnants to ally themselves with Siam, the central Thai kingdom based in modern Bangkok, to overthrow the Burmese.
This era saw the emergence of Kawila, a Lanna noble from Lampang who led the effort in liberating the northern cities during this conflict. Through the alliance’s formed during this conflict, the Lanna Kingdom, and by extension Lampang, became a tributary state of Siam. For his role during the war, Kawila was put in charge of Chiang Mai, and this dynasty became the new rulers of Lanna.
Legends of Lampang
As could be expected with a city stretching back for more than 1000 years, local traditions and stories have become deeply ingrained into Lampang’s cultural identity, most centered around its Buddhist heritage. Some of the oldest and most interesting of these go back through generations of ruling powers to the times when the city was said to have been founded.
A curious number of these involve the appearance of the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, himself appearing in variations of the stories within the geographic region of Lampang and Northern Thailand. Common themes also occur in other parts of Southeast Asia, including Laos and Isaan (northeastern Thailand). However, it is important to note that there is no historical record of Siddhartha Gautama ever venturing into any region of modern-day Thailand or Southeast Asia from his native land of India.
The White Rooster Legend
The Hindu god Indra plays a prominent role in many of the Thailand national legends, even earning himself a place in Bangkok’s official name in Thai. Likewise, one such time when he found himself in Lampang at the same time as Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha), Indra is said to have transformed into a white rooster to awaken the people of the city to greet the Buddha and make offerings to him.
This legend has become strongly tied to the city’s identity, earning the white rooster a place as the Lampang’s official symbol and nickname as “the Rooster City”. Standing guard outside the city is the White Rooster monument, which can be easily seen on the route from Central Lampang to Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang.
The Lawa-Buddha Legend of Lua Ai Gon
Another legend invoking the Buddha’s visit to ancient Lampang involves a man named Lua Ai Gon, an ethnically Lawa man who offered fruit and honey to the wandering ascetic Gautama. As a reward for this offering of sustenance, the Gautama Buddha gave Lua Ai Gon a hair off his head,. This hair would later be encased in a golden cask and enshrined in Lampang’s signature temple, Wat Phra That Lampang Luang.
Meanwhile, the Buddha threw the cylinder which had contained the honey to the north, proclaiming that where it had landed would prosper as the future city of Lampang.
Visiting Ancient Lampang
The city that would become Lampang, historically known as Khelang Nakorn, was established in 680 CE (1223 BE). The city’s original name meant “conch-shaped city” after the city walls built on the banks of the Wang River, which resembled a conch-shell.
Ancient Lampang’s City Wall
Lampang’s city wall is an interwoven patchwork of fortifications from overlapping eras. Unlike Chiang Mai or even Lamphun’s city walls, which were continuously built upon the existing structures, Lampang’s walls continued to be expanded outward with each new phase, particularly during the Lanna Period when the city’s importance increased.
The first of these was no more than a raised earth mound surrounded by a ditch/moat. The mound walls measured 3 meters wide and 1.5 meters high and were bordered by a moat 3 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep. The second phase began during the reign of King Mangrai, when Lampang became a part of the rising Lanna Kingdom based in Chiang Mai in the early 1300s. At this time, the wall was expanded and brick reinforcements were added, although excavations show these to only be 1-2 bricks thick in most locations. During this time, this fortification measured 1.1 kilometers around, 13 meters wide, and 5 meters high.
City Wall Remnants
The city wall of Lampang’s old city developed in 3 stages. The first of these was no more than a raised earth mound surrounded by a ditch/moat. The mound walls measured 3 meters wide and 1.5 meters high and were bordered by a moat 3 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep. The second phase began during the reign of King Mangrai, when Lampang became a part of the rising Lanna Kingdom based in Chiang Mai on the early 1300s. At this time, the wall was expanded and brick reinforcements were added, although excavations show these to only be 1-2 bricks thick in most locations. During this time, this fortification measured 1.1 kilometer around, 13 meters wide, and 5 meters high.
The third and final phase of Khelang’s (Lampang’s) city wall began in the mid 1400s CE, when the city stood as an important defensive outpost during a series of wars between the Lanna Kingdom and the Ayutthaya Kingdom to the south.
Pratu Ma City Gate
Main article: Pratu Ma: Ancient Lampang’s Ruined City Gate
The Pratu Ma gate or “Horse Gate” is the sole remaining city gate of Lampang. It dates from the Lanna Period, when the city wall was reinforced with brickwork. The gate marks the northernmost extent of the city’s walls throughout all the stages of expansion.
Like its counterparts in Chiang Mai city, this city gate has been largely reconstructed to resemble its original appearance in the late Lanna Period. Skirting the northern face of the city gate, and the subsequent unrestored wall sections that continue one in either direction, is the mostly forgotten city moat that would have once been 3 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep.
The gate is bisected by a busy road leading north out of the city which divides after passing through Pratu Ma. Visitors are welcome to climb atop this rebuilt section of Pratu Ma, and on the eastern section, there is a glass window on the floor viewing down into some of the original brickwork of the city gate. However, during my visit to Pratu Ma, this glass was too obscured to see through.
A little off to the side of the glass window is a small shrine with a horse statue. This is fitting, considering Pratu Ma translates to “Horse Gate”.
Amok Tower (Ho Amok)
The Amok Tower (หออะม็อก) sits on the east bank of the Wang River and is a piece of the fortifications built in 1808 CE. The structure itself is a large octagonal building approximately 10.25 meters high. On the defense tower’s western face is the opening which would have originally faced the inside of the completed fortification.
The name of Amok Tower comes from its original purpose as a battlement hosting cannons, which “Amok” literally translating to “turret” from Burmese. However, the rest of these walls and battlements have long since been deconstructed as modern Lampang expanded outward from the river and the confines of the fortified city.
Wat Pratu Pong
Wat Pratu Pong (วัดประตูป่อง) is a Lanna-era temple located near (and named after) Pratu Pong, one of Lampang’s former city gates. The temple is centered on an ornate wooden viharn dating from the 1900s, which, like many others in Lampang, has been renovated and well-maintained over the years.
Although the temple itself is of historical interest, for those seeking more ancient traces of Lampang, there is a remnant section of the city wall to be found along the eastern edge of the temple grounds. This brick wall is visibly old and although some effort has been made to make it blend in with the surrounding modern walls of the temple, it stands out as notably more ancient.
Given that Khelang’s original city wall was mostly a raised earth barrier, this section is unlikely to be from the original city wall. It was during the Lanna Period that the existing earthen walls were reinforced with layers of brickwork, which would align with the wall architecture seen at Wat Pratu Pong.
Inside the Old City
The Old City of Lampang is an ill-defined section on modern-day maps, and even harder to track down on the ground. Given the extents of each stage of ancient Lampang’s city wall expansion
Chao Ya Suta Stupa
Main article: Ku Chao Ya Suta: Ancient Lampang’s Ruined Temple
Wat Kak Kaeo (Chao Ya Suta) is the sole remaining ruined temple in inside Lampang’s Old City. Although most of the temple’s remains are only the ancient temple’s foundations, the prize of these ruins is the gateway for which the ruins gain their more common name.
The Khong Gateway, a signature aspect of Lanna temples, remains almost entirely intact — in stark contrast with the rest of the ruined temple. Most notable on the remains of the Ku Chao Ya Suta Stupa is the stucco artwork adorning the entire monument.
Outside the Old City
Wat Phra That Lampang
Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang ( วัดพระธาตุลำปางหลวง) is a 700-year-old living temple located outside the city of Lampang, and is one of the most spectacular examples of classical Lanna architecture in Northern Thailand. The main viharn is an elaborate, open-air carved wooden structure widely considered the oldest such buildings in Thailand, with local stories placing the initial construction during the reign of Camadevi, the legendary first ruler of Hariphunchai (Lamphun).
The temple grounds are notable for their fortified enclosure, which was added during the war with Burma and remains one of the most unique features of any northern temple. Within these walls is much more to explore beyond the primary viharn and stupa.
The stupa of Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang is one of the oldest great stupas in northern Thailand and is reputed to hold physical relics of the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama — specifically his hair and bone fragments from his right forehead, along with parts of his front and rear neck. Elements of its design has been noted in several other later temples, including Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai in Lamphun and Wat San Ta Hoi in Chiang Mai.
Wat Pa Phrao
Wat Pa Phrao is a ruined temple dating from around the mid-1400s, sitting just outside the city walls and Pratu Ma city gate. Until recently, the entire area was overgrown by the forest adjacent to Trinity Cemetery (สุสานไตรลักษณ์) and Luangpho Kasem Khemako (สำนักปฏิบัติธรรม หลวงพ่อเกษม เขมโก). At this time, the only part visible was the decayed stupa core, which appeared only as a cylindrical tower of brick with a landscape of scattered bricks and clay fragments mostly covered in dirt.
There are no written records relating to Wat Pa Phrao’s founding or original construction. There are local legends of its founding centered on one of the former mentors of the Lanna King Tilokaraj, but there is no evidence to support this story. The first mention of Wat Pa Phrao seems to appear during its renovation by Khamsom (1782-1794), the fourth ruler of Lampang who served under the Lanna Kingdom’s rule from Bangkok.
Restoration of Wat Pa Phrao by Thailand’s Fine Arts Department began in 2017. This process involved removing the overgrowth and reconstructing the outer layers of the stupa to resemble its original appearance. Expanding beyond the stupa was, the restoration also excavated and reconstructed the base of the temple’s primary viharn.
The entire temple is now open to visitors and is easily accessible from the Pratu Ma city gate. There is also a Facebook page documenting the reconstruction process here: Wat Pa Phrao Restoration Project (in Thai)
How to Get to Ancient Lampang
GPS Coordinates: 18.2957, 99.51027
The ancient city of Lampang is conveniently located within the heart of the modern Lampang provincial capital, and is well-connected by train, bus, and even has direct flights to Bangkok, making the city a great starting or ending point for any trip to Northern Thailand.
The interesting sights of the city are rather spread out, and best explored by a method other than walking. Most guest houses are located on the east bank (which is actually the south bank in central Lampang), and sit across the river from the historical sections of the city. Most of these guesthouses will rent bicycles or motorbikes, which make for comfortable and efficient ways to get around the quiet town.
Also unique to Lampang are horse-drawn carriages. Unlike most other cities, Lampang has forgone adoption of Thailand’s iconic tuk-tuks in favor of small, carriage which are used to traverse some areas of town. While an atmospheric way to view the sights in Lampang, it will not be available in all areas
City in central Thailand and historic capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was succeeded by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
Legendary Lavo princess and first ruler of Hariphunchai who brought Buddhism and Dvaravati culture to northern Thailand.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mangrai in 1293.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.
Ancient city in northern Thailand founded by the Dvaravati culture that was the center of the Hariphunchai Kingdom (c. 750 – 1292 CE) until it was conquered by the Lanna Kingdom. Currently known as Lamphun.
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand (c. 750 – 1292 CE) centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
Lanna prince who led successful campaigns against Burmese domination, liberating Chiang Saen. He led the rebuilding of Chiang Mai after becoming governor of Lampang under the Rattanakosin Kingdom.
City in northern Thailand historically known as Khelang Nakhon. Founded by the Hariphunchai Kingdom to control the Wang River Basin, the city was later absorbed by the Lanna Kingdom.
City in northern Thailand and the historic capital of the Hariphunchai Kingdom.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
Ethnic minority group who constructed three walled cities in the Chiang Mai valley: Wiang Nopburi, Wiang Ched Lin, and Wiang Suan Dok. They are also referenced in historic writings as Lua, Milukku, Tamilla, and La.
The unified Thai state that began in the Ayutthaya Kingdom and continued through the Rattanakosin Kingdom into modern Thailand.
A legendary prince born in Lumphini, Nepal who would go on to found Buddhism. Known generally as the “Buddha”.
Lanna king from 1441-1487. An ardent patron of Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism, he renovated many temples and artworks during his reign.
Motorized rickshaw commonly used as a taxi in Southeast Asian countries.
Thai word meaning “temple”
Lanna Thai word for “walled city”
- “Chao Ya Suta Stupa / Wat Kak Kaeo (deserted)” bronze plaque sign. The 7th Office of Fine Arts Department, Chiangmai. Khu Chao Ya Suta, Lampang, Thailand.
- “Chao Ya Suta Stupa / Wat Kak Kaeo (abandoned)” sign. The 7th Office of Fine Arts Department, Chiangmai. Khu Chao Ya Suta, Lampang, Thailand.
- Curtenaz, Loris. Wat Pratu Pong วัดประตูป่อง. temple-thai.com/lampang/wat-pratu-pong/.
- “Khelang Nakorn” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.Lampang Cultural Street. Lampang Culture Office, Ministry of Culture. https://www.m-culture.go.th/lampang/ewt_dl_link.php?nid=1599.
- “Nakhon Khelang: Lampang.” E – Lanna [Notable Cities and Communities of the Lan Na Kingdom], Chiang Mai University, www.sri.cmu.ac.th/~elanna/elanna_eng/public_html/cities/city11.html.
- Wongmaha, Jai Phet. “Amock Tower, Ancient Turret, Srikerd Community, Wiangkhelang, Model 3, Lampang .” :: สำนักงานเทศบาลนครลำปาง (Lampang City Municipality) :: Lampang City Municipality Office, 14 Oct. 2011, www.lampangcity.go.th/detail_news_infomation.php?id=3407.
- สืบหล้า. กุลธิดา. “วัดป่าพร้าว วัดโบราณที่รอการถอดรหัสและบูรณะ.” วัดป่าพร้าว วัดโบราณที่รอการถอดรหัสและบูรณะ ~, Lanna Post Newspaper, 4 Dec. 2015, www.lannapost.net/2015/12/blog-post_10.html.