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Archaeological travel guide to the ruins and ancient temples of Lamphun — capital of the Hariphunchai Kingdom and final remnant of Thailand’s ancient Mon-Dvaravati civilization.


Fast Facts

Name: Lamphun (Ancient Hariphunchai)

Where: Lamphun, Thailand

Location: 18.576750, 99.008778

Description Lamphun is an ancient walled city which ruled Northern Thailand for centuries before being conquered by the Thais from Chiang Mai, becoming part of the Lanna Kingdom.

Getting there: Lamphun is easily accessed by bus, train, or private transport from Chiang Mai and site along the Bangkok-Chiangmai Rail.

Cost: Free (Hariphunchai National Museum 100 THB/USD 3)

Centuries before Chiang Mai’s famous Lanna Kingdom, northern Thailand was ruled by the Hariphunchai Kingdom, based in the modern town of Lamphun. This quiet provincial capital may not seem lively today, but its history goes back over 1000 years — with the legends of its earliest years taking on aspects of royal intrigue, pioneering frontiers, and wars with the locals. 

This frontier Dvaravati city of Hariphunchai would go on to outlast all of its sister cities in Central and Northeastern Thailand, which would eventually succumb to the ever-expanding Khmer Empire from Angkor in Cambodia. In their absence, Hariphunchai would continue flourishing for another 300 years. 

Welcome to Hariphunchai, the last of the Dvaravati Kingdoms.

The Story of Ancient Lamphun

Imagine yourself a member of a long-established, prosperous, and respected culture built along the most lucrative trade route in the known world. Your people have built cities and awe-inspiring monuments that garner renown as part of the “Golden Land” from all that pass through. You are the Byzantines of the 800s, the British of the 1800s — the traders of Siam a millennium before Siam existed — you are Dvaravati.

Your people have flourished along the coastal waters, profiting, building, and expanding on maritime trade routes between India and China. Some have begun moving inland, to a distant and dry plateau to establish new cities and holy landscapes away from the distractions of commerce. 

Meanwhile, you have been chosen by your queen for an expedition north into unknown territory. She tells you that she will be leading 500 monks, artisans, and other specialists from Lavo, the shining gem of your civilization, to a remote and desolate city founded by a hermit in the mountains. 

Your queen’s mission, and yours by extent, is to harness this new frontier and bring your great civilization to the uncultivated peoples who live in this faraway wilderness. Legend has it, this hermit who summoned your queen is himself descended from wild creatures and cannibals. Yet, you follow your queen, Camadevi, and by her lead, you are part of the great mission to bring civilization to the northern regions by founding the new kingdom of Hariphunchai.

So goes the founding legend of Hariphunchai, whereby the noble Buddhist queen brings high culture and enlightened civilization to the untamed wild folk of the Ping River Valley. It may invoke the elements of pulp adventure stories from the early 1900s, but the story is revered to this day by the proud citizens of Lamphun Province.

Camadevi & Wasuthep — the Legendary Founding of Hariphunchai

The Kuang River runs along the eastern side of ancient Lamphun.
The Kuang River runs along the eastern side of ancient Lamphun.

The stories surrounding Lamphun involve two important individuals — Camadevi and Wasuthep. These are the 2 figures that you need to know to appreciate any historical tour of Lamphun

Camadevi (also Chamthewi, Chammathevi, Jam Thewi) — The Princess of Lavo (ancient Lopburi) who brought Dvaravati culture and Buddhist religion to the north, leading to her ruling the prospering Hariphunchai Kingdom as its first queen.

Wasuthep (also Suthep Hermit, Sudeva, Vasudeva, Suthewa) — A Lawa ascetic and hermit who descended from Doi Suthep Mountain to found the Lawa city of Wiang Misankorn and Mon city of Hariphunchai, as well as inviting Camadevi to rule the latter.

While their historical status is questionable, they are still credited as the primary figures who gave rise to both the city and kingdom of Hariphunchai. Camadevi, in particular, is highly revered in Lamphun’s history and a visitor will quickly find her story woven into nearly every monument in the city.

The legend of Wasuthep is closely linked to the local indigenous Lawa people who established their own walled cities in the region that is now Northern Thailand long before the Thais or Dvaravati arrived. Wasuthep is said to have been a Lawa hermit who withdrew himself on the peaks of Doi Suthep mountain before descending to bring a level of civilization and Buddhism to his people. 

The Lawa hermit Wasuthep depicted in the Phra Ruesi Cave.
The Lawa hermit Wasuthep depicted in the Phra Ruesi Cave.

In this process, he founded the walled Lawa city of Wiang Misankorn and continued on to found the city that would be Hariphunchai. However, Wasuthep sought a wise ruler for this city. 

Wasuthep sent an invitation to the rulers of Lavo, a Dvaravati Buddhist kingdom based in modern Lopburi (3 hours north of Bangkok) for their princess to rule his new city-state. The princess, named Camadevi, came north with a royal entourage of 500 monks, craftsmen, and others meant to bring the high civilization of Lavo to the new kingdom of Hariphunchai.

Camadevi is said to have ruled Hariphunchai for 10 years, before abdicating to her firstborn son, Mahantayot, and giving the city of Khelang (Lampang) to her second son, Anantayot.

Hariphunchai’s Wars with the Lawa

Main article: Cultural Profile: Lawa, the Oldest Settlers of Thailand

As a long-lasting and independent kingdom wedged between the powerhouses of Angkor, Burma, and China, ancient Lamphun played a significant role in the larger landscape of southeast Asia. However, there is a little-known chapter in its local history involving the Lawa, the indigenous people of Thailand.

The Lawa are recognized by archaeologists and the Thai people as the original inhabitants of the region that is now Thailand. Archaeological evidence places them as building and occupying cities in the Ping ver Valley at the same time as Hariphunchai was founded, with the Lawa featuring in many of the Dvaravati legends regarding the settling and growth of Hariphunchai. 

Some of these, like the legends of the Lawa hermit Wasuthep founding Hariphunchai and welcoming the Mon settlers from Lavo, portray an amiable coexistence. Such a relationship is supported by some archaeological evidence, such as cooperation on Buddhist monuments such as Doi Poi’s San Ku temple or Wat Ku Din Khao within the Lawa walled city of Wiang Chet Lin.

Other stories depict a more tense relationship between the Lawa and Dvaravati people of Hariphunchai, It’s important to note that (as no written records from the Lawa exist) these stories are only told from the Hariphunchai point of view and portray the Lawa as antagonists. Often these are centered around the idea of the superior culture being brought by the Mon-Dvaravati settlers and enlightening the local Lawa people. 

One story, in particular, tells of the Lawa leader at this time, Khun Luang Wilangka becoming infatuated with Queen Camadevi of Hariphunchai. Upon hearing of her rejection of his marriage proposal, Wilangka is said to have organized 80,000 men and waged several unsuccessful wars on Hariphunchai. In another version, the Lawa of Misankorn (Wiang Chet Lin) attacked Hariphunchai preemptively out of fear or threat from the more civilized Mon-Dvaravati culture.

Nearly all of these legends stem from the Hariphunchai narrative. As they expanded their influence over the next few centuries (700-1100 CE). It may be that these stories of Wauthep, Camadevi, and Wilangka were a story representing, and perhaps justifying, the Mon-Dvaravati culture expanding into the Lawa realm.

The Lost History of Hariphunchai

Following the reign of Camadevi and her son, Mahantayot, few written records exist regarding the actual history of Hariphunchai. Renowned Lanna Kingdom historian Hans Penth surmised that approximately 200 years are missing from the Hariphunchai historical record, which seems to resume in the late 10th Century CE. Further complicating the matter is that those that do exist later in the Kingdom’s history heavily incorporate mythological elements alongside royal propaganda, highly skewing any truth that the events recorded might be based upon.

The Phrathat Hariphunchai stupa supposedly houses relics from the Buddha's visits to ancient Thailand.
The Phrathat Hariphunchai stupa supposedly houses relics from the Buddha’s visits to ancient Thailand.

One example of this is the Mulasasana chronicle, which also details a prophecy that the historical Buddha once visited the region leaving behind relics that would appear at a later date. It just so happens that King Athitayarat found these artifacts, fulfilling the prophecy, enshrining them at Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai, and ushering in the Hariphunchai Kingdom’s Golden Age.

One era of Hariphunchai’s history that appears to be archaeologically verified is an epidemic of cholera around 1050 CE. This disease outbreak forced Hariphuchai’s population to abandon the city for a length of time, with records stating that they sought out refuge in Myanmar’s Thaton and Pegu. The exiled population of Hariphunchai would repopulate their city approximately 6 years later.

Hariphunchai’s Wars with Lavo & Resisting the Khmer Empire

Another story recounts a war waged between Hariphunchai and Lavo, the home city of Hariphunchai’s first ruler. This war takes place in the 1100s CE, and tells of 4 series of conflicts between the two sister Dvaravati states, beginning with a sort of gentlemen’s agreement that they would not actually fight and kill each other’s soldiers and people.

Going from the stories, these conflicts instead took the form of competitions in building stupas or digging ditches. This is more than likely another prime example of literary license. The eventual result of these conflicts was Lavo abandoning their campaign to conquer Hariphunchai around the mid to end of the 1100s CE.

Around this time, Lavo had become a part of the Khmer Empire and was likely to be ruled either directly by the Khmer, or by a Mon-Dvaravati king loyal to the Khmer Empire. Historian Hans Penth suspects that this was, in effect, Lavo attempting to annex Hariphunchai to the Khmer Empire. 

However, the end of this conflict ushered in a golden age for Hariphunchai. While Lavo was teetering between other powers, be they the declining Khmer Empire or the rising Thai city-states of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, Hariphunchai was left alone to flourish.

This Golden Age of Hariphunchai is thought to have lasted between approximately 1200-1275 CE. During this time, many of the temples and public works were renovated and expanded.

The Defensive Satellite Cities of Hariphunchai

Wiang Tha Kan is one of Hariphunchai's defensive satellite cities that was later expanded by the Lanna Kingdom.
Wiang Tha Kan is one of Hariphunchai’s defensive satellite cities that was later expanded by the Lanna Kingdom.

The city of Hariphunchai was surrounded by a network of smaller settlements to serve as a defensive buffer and an early alert system for the city. Each of these defensive cities was approximately 20km from the city, or about a 1 day trip from the capital. 

While most of these satellite cities have been identified around the modern city of Lamphun, very few traces remain of them. However, some of these cities were later inhabited and expanded by the Lanna Kingdom, preserving them into more recent centuries. Wiang Kum Kam and Wiang Tha Kan are two such cities that still have ruins to see to this day, while Wiang Mano can be traced by its moat and occasional wall remnant, but no other construction from the ancient city exists.

The Decline and Fall of Hariphunchai

While the Hariphunchai Kingdom managed to evade the height of Khmer expansion, they would eventually suffer the same fate as their Khmer-dominated cousins to the south. During the 13th century, a number of internal factors led to a weakening of the Khmer Empire following the death of Jayavarman VII. Seizing upon this opportunity, the Thai people of the Lavo Kingdom (Central Thailand) began to overthrow and drive out their Khmer rulers and establish their own independent Thai kingdoms, resulting in the establishment of new dynasties at Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. 

Meanwhile, another Thai kingdom north of Hariphunchai, the Ngoenyang Kingdom began an incursion into Hariphunchai territory. 

Like the earlier populations of Tai peoples who had fled to Lavo in Central Thailand, the Ngoenyang Kingdom faced an outside threat as the Mongol armies of the newly established Yuan Dynasty began overtaking territory in China’s far south. From their capital at Chiang Saen, the Ngoenyang king, Mangrai continued to move south, establishing new capitals at Chiang Rai, Fang, and eventually setting his sights on Hariphunchai.

Back in the Ping River valley, the Lawa people had lost most of their cities to Hariphunchai. When Mangrai and the Thais arrived, they formed an alliance to defeat the Hariphunchai and take Lamphun. With the help of a Lawa man named Ai Fa, Mangrai was able to defeat the king of Hariphunchai, Yi Ba, and take the capital of the Hariphunchai Kingdom, and marking the beginning of the Thai Lanna Kingdom.

With the fall of Hariphunchai, the last remnants of the Dvaravati civilization officially came to an end.

Hariphunchai in the Lanna Kingdom

Main article: Cultural Profile: Lanna Kingdom

Hariphunchai's brick city wall was constructed during the Lanna Period.
Hariphunchai’s brick city wall was constructed during the Lanna Period.

After the conquest of Hariphunchai, Mangrai opted to make his capital at Wiang Kum Kam, and later Chiang Mai, rather than establishing Lamphun as the new political center. However, Lamphun continued as the spiritual capital of the region, with Mangrai and his dynasty openly embracing and carrying on many of Hariphunchai’s long Theravada Buddhist traditions.

Throughout the early years of the Lanna Kingdom, Lamphun and its temples were used to host visiting monks and teachers, notably those from Sukhothai and Sri Lanka. This changed in 1369, when King Kuena invited the Sri Lankan monk Sumanathera from Sukhothai to visit Lamphun and then Chiang Mai. 

Sumanathera presented the king with a relic of the Buddha, which issaid to have miraculously split itself in two. Kuena ordered one half of this relic to be enshrined in a temple on the top of Doi Suthep, while the other was to be housed in a new temple at Wat Suan Dok (“Flower Garden Temple”) built in the Lawa’s abandoned walled city of Wiang Suan Dok, which had since become a royal garden. This new Lankawong sect based on strict Theravada philosophy became the forest-dwelling Aranyavasi monks.

Kuena placed Sumanathera in charge of this new order of Aranyavasi sect Buddhist monks, elevating them to an almost exalted status during his reign. This action fundamentally moved the spiritual center of Buddhism away from Lamphun and refocused it in Chiang Mai. From that time on, Lamphun lost any real semblance of influence within the Lanna Kingdom, and its fate was inextricably tied to decisions and actions made from Chiang Mai.

In the late 1500s, political instability in Chiang Mai allowed the Burmese Taungoo dynasty to conquer Lanna. Chiang Mai and Lamphun were forcibly depopulated during this time, although the Burmese allowed several temples to continue operating in the cities.

The Burmese reign lasted nearly 200 years until Kawila, a Thai leader from Lampang was able to overthrow the Burmese rulers in Chiang Saen, and then Chiang Mai with the help of an alliance with Ayutthaya. 

After Kawila was successful in repelling the Burmese and reestablishing Thai control of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and the rest of the historical Lanna Kingdom became a tributary state of the Siamese Kingdom based in Bangkok. During the reign of King Mongkut, this tributary status was dissolved and Lanna was integrated into the greater unified Siam nation-state, which would evolve into modern-day Thailand. 

Visiting Ancient Lamphun

While Lamphun is not often visited in lieu of its larger neighbor Chiang Mai, or even its sister city, Lampang, it is easily accessed from either. Our bus from Chiang Mai dropped us off in the heart of Lamphun’s Old City, at a small bus stop between the National Museum and the town’s namesake temple, Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai.

Resting in the shaded Pickbaan Hostel in central Lamphun.
Resting in the shaded Pickbaan Hostel in central Lamphun.

Our hotel, the Pickbaan Hostel, was a short walk away, around the corner from the Lamphun city hall, and provided bicycles which are all we needed to se everything we wanted around the Old City.

Ancient Lamphun’s City Wall

Inner view of remnants of the western city wall at Pratu Mahawan Gate.
Inner view of remnants of the western city wall at Pratu Mahawan Gate.

The modern city wall remains seen surrounding the Old City of Lamphun ae neither the original nor the Lanna-era city walls, but restorations made in the 20th-21st Centuries

Like most other Dvaravati cities, the original city wall of Hariphunchai was an earthen wall surrounded by a moat. Some sources speak of an outer wall on the outside of the moat as well, but these claims are not universal and this has not been verified archaeologically. 

During this ancient Dvaravati period, records state that Hariphunchai had 6 city gates in its wall — 3 along the Kuang River to the east and 3 in the other cardinal directions (north, south, and west). 

During the Lanna Period, the Lamphun city walls were expanded and reinforced with brick and laterite during the reign of King Muang Kaew (1495–1525). This new city wall was 3 meters tall and was adorned with the flower-petal shaped parapets seen on the city wall remnants today (as well as those in Chiang Mai). Most of this phase of the wall is gone in the modern day, however, some traces of the wall’s base can be seen in the area around Pratu Chang Si (north gate) and Pratu Mahawan (west gate)

In 1939 and 1943, the local government sought permission to tear down sections of the remaining city wall, fill in sections of the moat, and build modern roads to connect the central Lamphun city. The sections removed included large stretches of the eastern and western walls and the northern Chang Si Gate.

Pratu Chang Si (North Gate)

The reconstructed Pratu Change Si is built on the old base of the ancient wall.
The reconstructed Pratu Change Si is built on the old base of the ancient wall.

Pratu Chang Si is the northern city gate of ancient Hariphunchai and is the southern terminus of the ancient path between Chiang Mai and Lamphun, with the other terminus being Pratu Chiang Mai (Chiang Mai Gate). This path is marked today by Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road which runs along the east bank of the Ping River, passes Wiang Kum Kam, and continues to central Lamphun. The length of this path between these two core Lanna Kingdom cities is lined with hundreds of centuries-old trees wrapped in orange shrouds matching the revered robes of Buddhist monks.

The modern Pratu Chang Si seen today is a reconstruction of the city wall created after the road was built after the 1943 construction. It is based on the Lanna-period gate that would have existed after the 15th Century CE. 

Pratu Lee (South Gate)

Outer view of the western side of Lamphun's Pratu Lee southern gate.
Outer view of the western side of Lamphun’s Pratu Lee southern gate.

The structure seen at Pratu Lee (also Pratu Li) today is Lamphun is another fully reconstructed section, although it appears more as two sections of city wall more than the ancient Lanna-era southern city gate would have looked. After the old city walls were demolished in 1939-1949, no real trace of Pratu Lee remained. The wall seen today was built in 2014 as part of a city-wide effort to improve the town and reclaim a piece of its long historical heritage.

One particular legend that goes along with Pratu Lee and its associated temple, Wat Pratu Lee, claims that there was a secret underground tunnel running from the king’s palace (where the Lamphun City Hall is today) to Wat Pratu Lee (~150 meters from the Pratu Lee gate). This tunnel would have stretched about 750 meters and been used to evacuate people from the city in times of trouble. While the prospect is intriguing, no evidence of such a tunnel has ever been found.

Pratu Mahawan (West Gate)

Original sections of he Pratu Mahawan western city gate.
Original sections of he Pratu Mahawan western city gate.

Pratu Mahawan is the only city gate where you still see pieces of the original (Lanna Period) city wall and gate, though they have been built over during the most recent renovations. These small sections of the original brickwork of Pratu Mahawan are located just north (35 meters) from the modern ‘gate’ where the road crosses the western moat.

Unlike the eastern side of the city, which had 3 gates along the Kuang River, Pratu Mahawan is the only western gate, located midway between Pratu Chang Si and Pratu Lee. The gate points the way directly to Wat Mahawan, Wat Chamthewi (Ku Kut Chedi), and eventually to Wiang Mano, one of Hariphunchai’s defensive satellite cities approximately 7 km out from the gate.

Pratu Tha Kham (East Gate)

Pratu Ta Kham is one of two hypothetical gates that are written to have existed on the east side of the Hariphunchai city wall, along the Kuang River. This was the southernmost of the three eastern gates, closest to Pratu Lee. No trace of this wall or Pratu Ta Kham gate remains today.

Pratu Tha Sing (East Gate)

Pratu Tha Sing is the central gate of Lamphun’s eastern city wall and one of two hypothetical gates that are written to have existed along the Kuang River. This city gate was located directly east of Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai and served as a ceremonial entrance to the city and temple. It is named ‘Sing’ after the lion statues guarding Wat Phra Yuen, Hariphunchai’s eastern directional temple, which the gate pointed the way to over the river.

No trace of this city wall section or Pratu Tha Sing gate remains today.

Pratu Tha Nang (Reconstructed East Gate)

Pratu Tha Nang is Lamphun's northeastern gate and main entryway to the city from the Kuang River.
Pratu Tha Nang is Lamphun’s northeastern gate and main entryway to the city from the Kuang River.

The city gate standing at Pratu Tha Nang today is entirely rebuilt, although the design gives the best impression of how historians suppose Lamphun’s Lanna-era gates appeared. Pratu Tha Nang is the northernmost of the 3 eastern city gates, closest to Pratu Chang Si, and was considered the main entrance to the city, being situated along the Kuang River, closest to the route to Chiang Mai. 

Inside the Lamphun Old City

Wat Phra That Hariphunchai Woramahavihan 

The Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai temple is the most historically significant in Lamphun, though not its most ancient. Writings and legends agree that it was founded during the reign of King Athitayarat around the 1150s. The king used the stupa to enshrine relics supposedly left by Siddhartha Gautama during visits he made to the area some 1500 years before. Once again, it’s important to note that this only appears in local folklore and is not backed up by outside written sources or archaeological evidence. These are only mentioned in the same text which proclaims Athitayarat’s own victory over Lavo.

The temple itself is a large complex, taking up almost 10% of Lamphun’s walled Old City area, and hosts many individual monuments and buildings with complex symbolism too detailed to get into here.

The main golden stupa is the “Phra That Hariphunchai ” which the temple is named after and Athitayarat’s Buddha relics are supposed to be housed. This golden bell stupa seen today is not the original stupa, though. The original was a tiered, square-based stupa (Mon-Dvaravati style) similar to the one at Wat Chamthewi or the Suwanna Chedi within Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai. However, Mangrai ordered a new bell-shaped stupa to be built at the temple when he took control of Hariphunchai.

The Suwanna Chedi reflects some of Lamphun's original Mon-Dvaravati architecture.
The Suwanna Chedi reflects some of Lamphun’s original Mon-Dvaravati architecture.

The other ancient monument of note within Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai is the Suwanna Chedi, a thin Mon-style pyramidal stupa topped with a pointed, golden cap. It is believed that the Ku Kut Chedi at Wat Chamthewi was originally topped with such an ornament.

Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai went through many renovations and expansions under the kings of Lanna. However, in 1915, the main viharn was destroyed by a powerful storm. The last official ‘ruler’ of Lamphun worked with the monk Kruba Srivichai to build the worship hall seen today.

Hariphunchai National Museum

Cast bronze Buddha images from ancient Lamphun on display at the Hariphunchai National Museum.
Cast bronze Buddha images from ancient Lamphun on display at the Hariphunchai National Museum.

The Hariphunchai National Museum is located in the middle of the Old City, directly across the street from Wat Phra That Hariphunchai. The top floor of the museum contains informational displays and relics from both the Hariphunchai and Lanna periods of the city’s history, the most impressive of these are the cast bronze sculptures displayed in the center of the museum. Along with the relics are exhibits containing a good deal of information about the ancient satellite cities of Hariphunchai, such as Lampang, Wiang Mano, and Wiang Tha Kan.

The bottom floor displays inscribed tablets from Lanna and Dvaravati periods.
The bottom floor displays inscribed tablets from Lanna and Dvaravati periods.

The bottom floor contains a collection of ancient inscriptions collected from many eras throughout Lamphun’s long history. Many of the relics were once in the possession of Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai. However, they were donated to the museum upon its founding to further preserve them and share the history with the general public.

Admission to the museum is THB 100 (USD 3) and well worth the admission. Nearly all the displays have a good English translation, making the city’s history easily accessible to foreign visitors.  

Camadevi Monument (Nong Dok Public Park)

The monument to Queen Camadevi is located at the southwestern corner of Lamphun's Old City.
The monument to Queen Camadevi is located at the southwestern corner of Lamphun’s Old City.

A monument to the legendary first ruler of Hariphunchai is located in a beautifully crafted park on the southwest side of Lamphun’s Old City near one of the city’s largest street food markets. The dense city park is loaded with elephant statues, leading to a bronze sculpture of the idealized Camadevi.

Behind her are relief panels representing the many stages of Lamphun’s long history. Thankfully, each of these panels is nicely explained in both Thai and English, providing perhaps the best introduction to Lamphun’s history in the entire city.

These panels are housed on a monument that, at least to me, is more reminiscent of an Angkorian prang and temple than anything I have seen from Dvaravati or Thai architecture. This is curious, considering the Angkorian Khmers had no real presence in Hariphunchai’s history.

Outside the Lamphun Old City

Ku Kut Chedi (Wat Chamthewi)

The Ku Kut Chedi (also written as Kukut Chedi) is located at Wat Chamthewi is perhaps the most intriguing and noteworthy monument in Lamphun. It is one of the earliest examples of a narrow, tiered, square-based stupa in Thailand. This design has gone on to inspire many other such designs around Thailand, including several in Chiang Mai. The design is based on the Sathmahal Prasada, a unique stupa found at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka, which has no definite date to its origin.

Likewise, there is no clear archaeological evidence as to the exact date this Ku Kut Chedi stupa was erected. However, the city’s folk legends attribute its origin as a shrine in which to entomb the ashes of Chamthewi (Queen Camadevi). 

However, it’s also possible this was a logical progression of the Mon-Dvaravati stupas found further south in the more ancient Dvaravati cities of U Thong, Nakhon Pathom, etc. These stupas were large, pyramidal stupas with broad bases. A narrowing of the base into a sleeker stupa may entirely eliminate the need for influence from Polonnaruwa’s Satmahal Prasada.

Wat Chamtwhei also has another ancient stupa presumed to be from a similar period, the 8-sided, 12-meter tall Rattana Chedi. It was built in the 1100s CE by the Hariphunchai King Sapphasit. On each side of the stupa is a niche containing a standing Buddha image in the same position (Abhaya mudra) as those on the Ku Kut Chedi. 

One thing I found very curious about these Buddha images in the Rattana Chedi — the head is made of terracotta ceramics, but the bodies are stucco molded on top of the brick. 

Niches as the top on each side contain a seated Buddha image. The cap of the Rattana Chedi is thought to have been a rounded bell or cone shape.

Ku Chang Stupa

The Ku Chang stupa is the legendary burial place of Camadevi's war elephant.
The Ku Chang stupa is the legendary burial place of Camadevi’s war elephant.

The Ku Chang (Elephant Tower) stupa sits outside the northern end of the ancient walled city of Hariphunchai. Like the Ku Kut Chedi, this stupa is said to date from the time of Queen Camadevi. This would place its origin hundreds of years before the Thais arrived and established the Lanna Kingdom in Chiang Mai. The stupa is unique in Thailand, bearing more similarity to the ancient Pyu stupas of central Myanmar than the later, Sri Lanka-inspired bell-shaped stupas that the Thais would employ.

Legend says that this stupa’s reliquary chamber houses the tusks of Queen Camadevi’s war elephant, named “Phu Kam Nga Khiao”. In battle, this elephant could kill just by looking in one’s direction. Because of this, the elephant’s tusks were entombed within aimed skyward.

Ku Ma Stupa

The Ku Ma stupa is the burial place of King Mahantayot's horse.
The Ku Ma stupa is the burial place of King Mahantayot’s horse.

The Ku Ma (Horse Tower) stupa is alongside the Ku Chang stupa as a part of the Ku Chang-Ku Ma complex. Unlike its companion stupa, the Ku Ma monument takes the more recognizable bell shape of stupas in Thailand. However, legend places its age around the same time as Ku Chang, with Ku Ma entombing the horse of Queen Camadevi’s son.

The Ku Chang-Ku Ma Complex

Despite the age of the stupas, Ku Chang and Ku Ma have remained an active and popular site of worship. The complex is located is a semi-forested area outside the city wall and is filled with various shrines, altars, Buddha images, and of course, representations of elephants and horses. 

The altars at Ku Chang-Ku Ma were quite unlike any other worship space I have ever seen in Thailand. Altars in the front of the complex were filled with some offerings not uncommon – things like bananas, other fruits, and drinks. However, there were also several altars with pig faces on plates, facing upward. I have still never seen this at any other Buddhist temple in Thailand or anywhere else.

The entire complex is surrounded by a low, brick boundary wall. This wall is lined with hundreds, maybe thousands, of small figurines. Most of these were expectedly of horses and elephants, but many were of other images — buddhas, soldiers, boys, girls, and other presumably mythological figures.

Ruined Stupa at Wat Kai Kaeo

The Koo Kai monument at Wat Kai Kaeo.
The Koo Kai monument at Wat Kai Kaeo.

Wat Kai Kaeo is recorded in the Yonok Chronicle to have been founded in around the 11th Century CE, during the Hariphunchai Period. The temples’ name “Kai Kaeo” is derived from the fortuitous relic of a white chicken, a symbol of the city, said to be housed in the temple.

The temple was renovated in the Lanna Period (ca. Mid-1400s CE) to include the bell-shaped stupa now seen in ruins on the grounds. The octagonal design seen in this stupa was popular in Chiang Mai at this time. Wat Kai Kaeo was excavated and restored by the Fine Arts Department in 1993 CE.

Ruined Stupa at Wat Ton Kaeo

The ruined stupa at Wat Ton Kaeo sits in an abandoned section of the old temple grounds.
The ruined stupa at Wat Ton Kaeo sits in an abandoned section of the old temple grounds.

Wat Ton Kaeo is directly across the Kuang River from Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai. The entire complex dates from the reign of Sawathisithi, who dedicated the temple and then became ordained at it with his two sons. 

Today, the temple grounds have been divided up into three sections, one of which has become a local elementary school. Another section is a museum started by the temple’s abbot in 1987. This Wat Ton Kaeo museum houses many items collected from the donations of local people, and these items range from ancient clay votive tablets to more modern wooden crafts.

The ruined stupa at Wat Ton Kaeo sits at an otherwise abandoned section of the original temple and is only used for meditation and dharma practice. The main body of the stupa is a rabbeted prasat style, but gradually gives way to a small Lankan bell-style upper section.

Wasuthep Monument at Wat Doi Ti (Sudeva Monument) 

The Wasuthep Monument commemorates the legendary founder of Lamphun.
The Wasuthep Monument commemorates the legendary founder of Lamphun.

Standing at the southernmost corner of a hilltop (Doi Ti Mountain) east of Lamphun is a shrine dedicated to the city’s legendary founder, Vasuthep (otherwise known as Sudeva). The modest shrine requires looping behind the larger temple to the small mountain’s southern point, where a pathway leads to a platform lined with shrines of meditating figures with animal heads. Although there is no informational display explaining this, these may represent factions of Vasuthep’s people, the Lawa, who according to local writings from the Hariphunchai and Lanna Periods, were descended from certain animal totems or spirits. They may also represent figures or sages from Hindu mythology, which forms the historical basis for Buddhist cosmology.

On the far end of the platform are depictions of the bearded hermit Sudeva, one of which portrays him in the Phra Ruesi cave, the location atop Doi Suthep that legend says he retreats to before descending to establish the Lawa cities and Hariphunchai. At the center of the monument is a 10-level brick stupa in the shape of a step-pyramid, resembling the older Dvaravati stupas found in Central Thailand in cities like Nakhon Pathom, Khu Bua, and U Thong.

The monument to Kruba Siwichai at Wat Doi Ti.
The monument to Kruba Siwichai at Wat Doi Ti.

The Wasuthep Monument shrine is part of a greater Wat Doi Ti temple complex dedicated to Khruba Siwichai (ครูบาศรีวิชัย), a famous monk and abbot of Wat Ban Pang who studied in Lamphun. Khruba Siwichai was an influential community leader responsible for many of the region’s public works constructions and temple restorations in the early 20th Century CE, including the road up Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai. When approaching this temple complex from the road (Highway 1), the massive statue seen overlooking the roadside is of Khruba Siwichai.

Wat Mahawan

Wat Mahawan sites just outside Lamphun's western gate.
Wat Mahawan sites just outside Lamphun’s western gate.

No ruins exist at Wat Mahawan, however, its history is a significant one allegedly dating back to the founding of Hariphunchai.

Wat Mahawan is one of four temples in the city’s cardinal directions said to have been built during the reign of Camadevi, not long after the legendary founding of the Hariphunchai. Wat Mahawan temple is located directly outside of Lamphun city gate, Pratu Mahawan, for which the temple is named.

Like many historical locations in Lamphun, legend ties Wat Mahawan heavily to the story of Camadevi. The Buddha image housed within the modern viharn is reputed to have been brought by Camadevi with her from Lavo (ancient Lopburi). This image went on to be the template for a series of important votive tablets.

Wat Apatharam (Wat Phra Khong Ruesi)

The unique stupa of Wat Phra Khong Ruesi.
The unique stupa of Wat Phra Khong Ruesi.

Wat Phra Khong Ruesi is the northern temple of Camadevi’s four directional temples. The name is derived from the “Ruesi” or “Hermits” who are said to have met here to discuss the founding of Hariphunchai, referring to Wasuthep and his partner, who conferred before building the city. A statue exists across the street from the eastern temple gate, as well as within the temple grounds, memorializing these hermits.

There are no ruins at Wat Phra Kong Ruesi, however, it contains a very unique stupa at the center of the very dense temple. Wat Phra Khong Ruesi also defies the normal layout of a Lanna temple by placing the stupa at the center of the complex instead of behind the main viharn. 

Wat Aranyikaram (Wat Phra Yuen)

The Bagan-inspired stupa at Wat Phra Yuen was rebuilt in 1900 CE.
The Bagan-inspired stupa at Wat Phra Yuen was rebuilt in 1900 CE.

Of ancient Lamphun’s ancient directional temples, Wat Phra Yuen (officially Wat Aranyikaram) is easily the most interesting, atmospheric, and has the most to see. The large complex is located within a forested area away from the busier town center and is surrounded by a well-worn brick wall. While some sections of this boundary wall have been restored, others still have their old stucco covering.

Like most of the other ancient structures of Lamphun, Wat Phra Yuren is also said to date back to Camadevi’s time. However, there is no actual evidence Wat Phra Yuen is so ancient. Its earliest phases are confirmed to be from the 10th Century CE. The temple appears in written mentions dating from the reign of Phaya Sapphasit (c. 12th Century CE) and went through subsequent restorations throughout its history. 

While the temple’s viharn is very obviously new, the grounds of Wat Phra Yuen are littered with the brick bases of the more ancient structures. Among these, a stone inscription is tucked away in a glass display behind the temple.

This stone inscription found at Wat Phra Yuen tells the story of the Lanna King Kuena inviting the Sri Lankan monk Sumanathera from Sukhothai to Chiang Mai. Sumanathera passed by Lamphun on the way, where he resided at Wat Phra Yuen. Although he was to remain at Wat Phra Yuen for 2 days, he requested to restore the temple and ended up staying for 3 years.

The most interesting structure is Wat Phra Yuen’s principal stupa, built over the temple’s more ancient mondop, which was built as a part of Sumanathera’s renovations. This large Burmese prasat-style stupa is reminiscent of those found in Myanmar’s Bagan. Considering the temple’s age, I first thought this structure must have surely served as the inspiration for Chiang Mai’s later Wat Chedi Luang, which features many of the same design elements. However, the stupa as it appears now dates from only 1900 CE, when Wat Phra Yuen was renovated after more than 2 centuries of abandonment and neglect caused by the Burmese occupation of Lanna.

The most interesting structure at Wat Phra Yuen (c. 10th Century CE) is certainly its principal stupa, built over the temple’s more ancient mondop, which was built as a part of the Sri Lankan monk Sumanathera’s renovations in the 14th Century CE. This large Burmese prasat-style stupa is reminiscent of those found in Myanmar’s Bagan. 

Considering the temple’s age, I first thought this structure must have surely served as part of the inspiration for Chiang Mai’s later Wat Chedi Luang, which features many of the same design elements. However, the stupa as it appears now dates from only 1900 CE, when Wat Phra Yuen was renovated after more than 2 centuries of abandonment and neglect caused by the Burmese occupation of Lanna.

Wat Sangkharam (Wat Pratu Lee)

The modern viharn of Wat Pratu Lee.
The modern viharn of Wat Pratu Lee.

Wat Sankharam (otherwise known as Wat Pratu Lee) is one of four temples said to have been built during the reign of Camadevi, not long after the legendary founding of the Hariphunchai. At this time, it was inhabited by Theravada Buddhist monks, part of the royal entourage that the newly crowned queen had brought with her from Lavo.

No ruins or other signs of the temple’s ancient past remain today. Records of the temple tell of a long line of patronage by successive rulers of the kingdom, resulting in continued renovations throughout the temple’s history.

Today, the temple’s grounds are a short distance from the Old City’s southern gate. The small courtyard within the temple’s walls retains a quiet, secluded feeling from the otherwise busy streets outside.

How to Get to Lamphun

GPS Coordinates: 18.57675, 99.00877

Lamphun is easily reached from the Chang Phuak bus station, or even more conveniently driven to if you happen to have your own transportation. The Lamphun Railway Terminal is also one of the final northern stops along the Bangkok-Chiang Mai rail line. 

Driving from Chiang Mai, there are 3 main routes to take. Two roads from the southeastern area of Chiang Mai (Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road and Yothathikan Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road) as well as the divided Highway 1, which passes Lamphun’s eastern edge and leads on to Lampang and, eventually, Bangkok. Of these roads, Chiang Mai Lamphun Road heading south from Wiang Kum Kam is easily the most scenic and pleasant drive, going for kilometers past trees and local neighborhoods rather than empty highway.

Buses and vans run regularly from Chiang Mai and other cities. Although Lamphun does have a full bus station, most transport will run through the center, dropping off and picking up outside of the Hariphunchai National Museum.

The Lamphun Railway Station is located about 2 kilometers north of the Old City’s center. Tuk-tuks are available to take you into the Old City

Once you’re in the Lamphun Old City, almost anything of interest will be within walking distance. There are only a handful of hotels in the Old City, but some will provide bicycles for easier access to the site farther out of town, such as Ku Chang-Ku Ma or Wat Phra Yuen.

Fast Facts

Glossary

Ayutthaya
City in central Thailand and historic capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was succeeded by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.

Buddhism
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

Camadevi
Legendary Lavo princess and first ruler of Hariphunchai who brought Buddhism and Dvaravati culture to northern Thailand.

Chiang Mai
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.

Chiang Saen
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Ngoenyang Kingdom until the establishment of its successor, the Lanna Kingdom, in 1293 CE.

Doi Suthep (ดอยสุเทพ)
A revered mountain on the western edge of Chiang Mai. The mountain peak has been used by both the Hariphunchai and Lanna Kingdoms to house sacred Buddhist relic temples.

Dvaravati
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.

Hariphunchai Kingdom
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand (c. 750 – 1292 CE) centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.

Kawila
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.

Khmer Empire
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.

Kuena
Lanna king from 1355-1385 CE. He expanded the Lanna domain to its largest extent and founded the Lankawong school of Buddhism in Lanna.

Lampang
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.

Lamphun
City in northern Thailand and the historic capital of the Hariphunchai Kingdom.

Lankawong
A sect of Theravada Buddhism based on Sri Lankan teachings.

Lanna Kingdom
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.

Lavo Kingdom
Dvaravati kingdom in central Thailand centered in the modern town of Lopburi. Eventually conquered by the Khmer Empire.

Lawa
Ethnic minority group who constructed three walled cities in the Chiang Mai valley: Wiang Nopburi, Wiang Chett Lin, and Wiang Suan Dok. They are also referenced in historic writings as Lua, Milukku, Tamilla, and La.

Lopburi
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lavo Kingdom founded by the Dvaravati culture. It was subsequently ruled by the Khmer Empire and the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

Mangrai
Final ruler of the Ngoenyang Kingdom (Chiang Saen) and founder of the Lanna Kingdom from 1291-1311 who established Wiang Kum Kam in 1286 and its successor Chiang Mai in 1293.

Mon
Ethnic group originating in Myanmar who established the first civilizations in modern Thailand. The Mon kingdoms in Thailand are collectively referred to as Dvaravati.

Ngoenyang Kingdom
Tai kingdom based in Chiang Saen, which was succeeded by the Lanna Kingdom after the establishment of Chiang Mai.

San Ku
Ruined Buddhist temple atop Doi Pui dating from the Hariphunchai Period.

Sathmahal Prasada
A 7-leveled pyramidal stupa from Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. Its unique design appears to have influenced the architecture of several ancient Thailand kingdoms.

Sumanathera
Sri Lankan monk who resided in Sukhothai before being invited to Chiang Mai by King Kuena, He gifted the Lanna King a Buddha relic which is now housed at Wat Suan Dok and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Taungoo dynasty
The ruling dynasty of Myanmar from 1510–1752. It waged wars with and conquered several surrounding kingdoms, including Siam, Lanna, and Lan Xang.

Theravada Buddhism
“The “Doctrine of the Elders” branch of Buddhism which draws its teachings from the Pali Canon. This sect is popular in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.

Wasuthep
Fabled Lawa hermit monk who is said to have founded Wiang Misankorn and Hariphunchai, and invited Camadevi to rule Hariphunchai.

Wat Phra That Hariphunchai Worawiharn
The central temple of Lamphun founded by the Hariphunchai king Athitayarat in the 1150s CE to enshrine relics supposedly originatting from Siddhartha’s ancient visit to northern Thailand.

wiang
Lanna Thai word for “walled city”

Wiang Kum Kam
The first city established by the Lanna Kingdom in the Chiang Mai valley. Abandoned after successive years of flooding to establish Chiang Mai.

Wiang Misankorn
Lawa city at the base of Doi Suthep founded before the Hariphunchai Period. 

Wiang Tha Kan
A satellite city of Hariphunchai later occupied and expanded by the Lana Kingdom.

Wilangka
Legendary ruler of the Lawa people who waged war on Hariphunchai with 80,000 men after being rejected by Camadevi.

Yuan dynasty
The ruling dynasty of China from 1271-1368 CE. Yuan was founded after the Mongol conquest of China and continued expansion of their territory.

Sources 

  • “Ancient City in the Protohistoric Era” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
  • Damrikul, Surapol. “San-Ku Archaeological Site, Doi Pui Hill: Sacred Site of Wasuthep Hermit.” Journal of Fine Arts, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, http://cmuir.cmu.ac.th/jspui/handle/6653943832/65062.
  • Grabowsky, Volker. An Early Thai Census: Translation and Analysis. Institute of Population Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 1993.
  • “History of Northern Thailand: Hariphunchai Region” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
  • “Notable Cities and Communities of the Lan Na Kingdom: Hariphunchai (Lamphun).” E-Lanna, Chiang Mai University, http://www.sri.cmu.ac.th/~elanna/elanna_eng/public_html/cities/city8.html.
  • Pongpandecha, Narong and Ken Taylor. “Interpretation of the Cultural Landscape and Heritage Values of “Mae Koong Bok Village”, Tambon Sanklang, San Patong District, Chiang Mai, Thailand.” Suthiparithat Journal, 93rd ed., vol. 30, Dhurakij Pundit University, Bangkok, Thailand, 2016.
  • Stratton, Carol, and Miriam McNair. Scott. Buddhist Sculpture of Northern Thailand. Buppha Press, 2004.
  • Swearer, Donald K., and Sommai Premchit. The Legend of Queen Cāma: Bodhiraṃsis Cāmadevīvaṃsa, Translation and Commentary. State University of New York Press, 1998.
  • Wichien, Aroonrut. “Lawa (Lua) : A Study from Palm-Leaf Manuscripts and Stone Inscriptions.” Kyoto University, 2012. https://www.academia.edu/6206063/Lawa_Lua_A_Study_from_Palm-Leaf_Manuscripts_and_Stone_Inscriptions.
  • Williams, Benjamin. “Wiang Suan Dok: Ancient Chiang Mai’s Holy Outer City.” Paths Unwritten, 22 July 2019, https://pathsunwritten.com/suan-dok-chiang-mai/.

Benjamin

Benjamin

Hi all, my name is Ben. I’m a native Michigander with a passion for human culture and new places, and more than that, new experiences. I have degrees in archaeology and writing, pursuing a career in the latter. However, I never quite lost that fascination for archaeological theory. For the past 9 years, I’ve been living and travelling in Asia, documenting ancient sites and the peoples who built them, and then adapting them into practical archaeological travel information at PathsUnwritten.com.

What are your thoughts?