Complete archaeological travel guide to the ruins and ancient temples of Lopburi, an ancient Buddhist kingdom that predates the Thai people by centuries.
Kim and I stepped out of the van from Bangkok a little before midnight. But, we were still 5 km from our destination. There were not a lot of options, and we ended up settling into a deal for a ride in a shady van the rest of the way. “Not something I would have done alone,” she mentioned on the ride into one of the oldest places in Thailand.
The Story of Ancient Lopburi
It’s a modern town that has been known by many names by many people throughout its long history. Lavo. Lavapuri. Locach. Lo-ho. And most recently officially named Lopburi by the Thai government. All these are clearly interrelated and appear in many significant chronicles throughout history, pointing out the significance that this small town once had.
The ruins of Lopburi are unique from most ancient sites that I had visited up to this point. The modern town has been built up literally on top of and around the existing ruins. While this brings a vast ease of accessibility and an interesting character seeing several-hundred year-old ruins randomly popping out from a modern street, it also takes away from some of the remote and intriguing aura that more removed ruins have. It also begs the inevitable question of what was destroyed and built over, leaving only these ruins standing.
The easiest answer to this is the Dvaravati are what was built over. Lopburi was the first encounter I had with the legacy of the Dvaravati (pronounced twar-a-wat-ee) culture. Historically, they’re the first step in what created modern Thai culture.
A little over 1000 years ago, the Dvaravati, who are thought to have mostly been a Mon-Burmese culture arrived in what is now Thailand. They established their first settlement at Nakhon Pathom, about 60 km from Bangkok. From there, they expanded out through most of what is now Thailand and became the first to introduce Buddhism to the region.
Many significant Dvaravati artifacts have been unearthed near Lopburi, and it is thought to have been one of the more important centers in their culture. Others include Nakhon Pathom and Ratchaburi.
Much of what can be seen in Lopburi today is strictly Khmer-Angkorian architecture. The Dvaravati culture suffered the fate of all too many in history and was simply absorbed into stronger surrounding civilizations. Their biggest influence on history was their introduction of Buddhism to Southeast Asia.
And then there are the monkeys. Lopburi is famous for its legions of crab-eating macaques that inhabit the old temples. While slingshots and swatting poles are commonplace among the locals these days to keep away the overly curious snatchers and vandals, they also have a high appreciation or reverence for them as well.
A local legend I heard on the road told of a time during the Burmese-Ayutthaya wars when the Thais had to escape, but a river stood in the way. The monkeys formed a chain across the river to save the Thais from their pursuers. Every year in November, the people of Lopburi throw a Monkey Party, very similar in concept to the Elephant Buffet in Surin, where tables and troughs full of snacks for the monkeys are set out for them to feast upon.
Still, arriving in the calm of night we saw no monkeys as we walked the dark streets looking for a hotel. Perhaps they were asleep for the night or we were in the wrong part of town, but our first experience with the famous monkeys would have to wait for the next day.
First thing in the morning, I was out the hotel door to where I had seen the silhouettes of ruins in the dark. Although, that isn’t saying it’s a far walk as the entirety of Old Lopburi can be crossed in under 10 minutes.
Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat
The large fenced-in area I had seen the night before ended up being Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat. Throwing about every generic title of a Thai temple into the name you could imagine, this was the main Buddhist sanctuary of Lopburi under Ayutthaya rule.
Inside the fences are a number of partially ruined buildings primarily centered around a large prang, a Khmer-Angkorian style of stupa. I’ve read some accounts dating it as far back as the 12th Century and as recent as the 17th Century during the height of Ayutthaya’s reign. While the style of the prang is certainly reminiscent of Khmer designers, the stone masonry is not.
Khmers used large laterite blocks in their construction, even in most of their smaller structures. Thais used regular brick masonry overlaid with stucco. Most of this prang tended to be brick, so I’m inclined to agree with the later dates ascribed. More likely, it’s one of the transitional stages of the prang from the tiered Angkor design to the smoother, corncob-shaped prangs common throughout Thailand.
Numerous other ruined structures dotted the fenced-off park, including a large variety of styles of stupas. Walking around the ruins of this temple, you almost get the sense that it might have been an experimental ground for testing different ideas of stupas. I’m probably completely wrong about that but it’s the feeling I got.
Turning left out of the Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat gate is a road along the train tracks, which essentially makes up the eastern edge of the old city. Continuing down this road is the signature monument of the town: Phra Prang Sam Yot, an iconic 3-pranged Khmer Hindu temple.
Along the way to this monument, I stopped off at a store to grab a drink, as it was an exceptionally hot day in the height of the hot season. In the store, I once again ran into Kim, The girl I had met at the Bangkok bus station and had ridden with the night before. She also had not been to Phra Prang Sam Yot, so we were off together.
This is the part of town where the monkeys seemed centered. Lounging on the sidewalk and running along the sparking power lines. Hopping car to car, they led us the way to Phra Prang Sam Yot.
Phra Prang Sam Yot
Another fenced in temple that required crossing a relatively busy street to reach, this one was guarded by a single man armed Bart Simpson-style, with a slingshot in his back pocket. Again, there was a small entry fee; nothing big but still grossly inflated for foreigners.
So, walking past the safety of the slingshot guard, Kim and I made our way to the temple. The different style of architecture is immediately noticeable from what I had just seen at Wat Phra Sri . . . sigh . . . Rattana Mahathat. It’s simply better quality construction, evidenced by the fact that it is 400 years older than most of the buildings at the prior temple and is still standing fully intact. While slightly different, it was immediately reminiscent of two other Khmer temples I had visited: Muang Sing and Phanom Rung.
What I had heard about monkeys in Lopburi didn’t do justice to what we were seeing. They were all over the structure, scaling up and down the sides, laying around on the stairs and flat foundation and basically just walking aimlessly around the grounds. And these weren’t the lazy, passive monkeys I had encountered at Prachuap Khiri Khan down south. As soon as they saw I had a drink in my hand, they were after it.
A couple friends from my ATI group had visited some months before, and had actually gotten bitten while allowing the monkeys to climb on them. I didn’t intend to give them that chance. Thankfully they didn’t resort to leaping at me, as I’m sure they could have, but these menacing simians were certainly stalking me for that iced coffee. Finally about halfway around the temple, I had finished the coffee and gave an overly ambitious monkey the empty cup of ice.
After a loop around the building and ditching our monkey pursuers, we entered the temple via the suspiciously opened gate on the south end. Inside the temple, the corridors linking the three towers were supported by wood and lined with a number of sleeping bats. Thankfully they seemed more docile than the monkeys.
Inside one of the towers was a beheaded statue a Buddha. Another complete one stood outside the temple connected by a worshipping hall. This was different than I had seen before, but not totally unexpected. Despite the fact that the informational sign at the entrance claims this was originally a Buddhist temple, any other source, and the architecture itself will tell you this is not true.
The three-towered design is not uncommon to many Khmer structures. It is meant to signify the Trimurti, the three gods of Hinduism: Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. On top of that the outside hall in which the main Buddha sits is quite obviously a different building technique from the rest of the temple, being of Thai brick masonry.
While Mahayana Buddhism was practiced in the sphere of the Khmer civilization (as the far-flung outpost of Muang Sing shows) it’s more likely that Phra Prang Sam Yot, was a Hindu temple initially and then converted into a Theravada Buddhist temple when the town came under the control of the growing Ayutthaya state.
Phra Narai Palace & National Museum
A few blocks away begins the enormous wall surrounding the former second palace of Phra Narai, a king of Ayutthaya who preferred Lopburi. Immediately inside the gate are a refreshment stand and a path leading to the central building through a second wall.
The central building of the palace quite obviously draws influence from European architecture, as does the throne room building. However, both now contain the Lopburi branch of the National Museum. And, as far as museums go, this one is exceptionally interesting. You know, if you’re an archaeology nerd.
The ground floor of the Museum is dedicated almost exclusively to the Dvaravati, which I honestly found the most interesting. It read of their history not only through Lopburi, but also through all of western and central Thailand. More than that, though, it gave me maps of Lost Cities I hadn’t known about previously.
The main and second floors go through the Khmer and Thai eras of the city. With every room quite literally representing a period, Kim and I wandered through the history of the city until we came to King Narai’s reign.
This area of the museum and the main throne room building contain a very interesting era of history when Thailand/Siam was beginning to interact with outside powers, namely Europe, China, Japan, and eventually even the United States. However, this was a little recent for my tastes, and I preferred the interactions of those three indigenous cultures.
After the museum, Kim and I explored the rest of the palace grounds. The official residence of King Narai was now in complete ruins, but the building the next area over, a strange reception hall unlike anything most would think of was very nearly intact.
According to the informational sign in front (whose information I had grown to doubt by this point) this hall was quite the spectacle. The King would stand above the foreign visitors on a second storey platform, which had since crumbled. The stairs were still there and most of the structure of the building. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite possible to get the feeling of kingliness while clinging to a questionable wall and standing on a 2 cm wide surface.
Now in the place of the elevated king stood a small Buddha image which visitors earnestly applied small fragments of gold leaf to.
Heading back along the southern wall toward the main entrance, we saw a few other buildings. Royal storage buildings for tribute from representatives of other countries, stalls for the elephants that once roamed the palace and conveyed the royalty, and the remains of a less-formal foreign reception hall.
Very oddly located at one of the busiest intersections in the town, Prang Khaek is the oldest structure still standing from ancient Lavo. Prang Khaek looks very much like a miniature version of Phra Prang Sam Yot, albeit unconnected. However it is well over 300 years older. Dating from about the 800’s CE, it’s early even for the Khmer Empire, showing the long historical ties Lopburi must have had with them.
The curious part is that Prang Khaek is actually built with simple brick masonry, very similar to what I had seen at . . . uuugghhh . . . Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat, which was built nearly 1000 years later. A possible indicator that Thais were behind the times? Maybe so considering that was the same method of construction I would later see in Ayutthaya.
Like all the entrances to Phra Prang Sam Yot, barred metal doors had been placed on all these prangs. Unlike the other monument, these ones were all locked. However, they were wide enough to stick my arm through and shoot a flash picture upward to see what the tower held. To my surprise (which it shouldn’t have been) more bats.
Unfortunately, as I’ve found as a trend in Thailand, the inside and the entrance of each tower was adorned with discarded trash. Leaving behind the rubbish, as so many locals apparently seemed to do too, Kim and I made out way from the traffic island down the road back toward the railway.
Wat Nakhon Kosa
Walking through the town, many of the smaller and probably more insignificant ruins pop out from the surrounding buildings. Our day began to wind down in the shade of Wat Nakhon Kosa. Here are the ruins of two monuments, a Thai-style prang and the ceremonial hall of the former temple.
The feature that dominates the spot, though, is the immense ruined stupa opposite the hall entrance. While the top has long since crumbled and been overgrown with weeds and small trees, the base seems to remain fully intact. However, looking simply at this base, it wasn’t possible for me to tell if this had been a standard stupa or a prang.
A posting in the museum had said Wat Nakhon Kosa housed a Lopburi (transitional Thai-style) prang which was supposed to have been larger than the one at Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat. The other still standing didn’t look any larger, and if this base were the mentioned prang, it would have been very large.
On the east side of the massive, overgrown ruin is a small garden of decaying Buddhas bordering on, and in some cases partially overtaken by private yards. Adorning their bases are smaller figures, burned incenses, and melted wax left by people who still use these ancient Buddhist ruins as symbols of their living beliefs.
On the north side of the largest ruin was a hole. Whether it was put their intentionally or done later was unclear, though it’s roughly symmetrical house-shape suggested it was meant to be there. It took a bit of climbing to get to and went back too far to see. Thankfully, my camera’s flash once again came to the rescue.
Unfortunately, it proved another dead end. You always hope those Indiana Jones-esque secret passages might lead somewhere, but they rarely do. After checking the camera screen to find nothing, I climbed back down the ancient bricks to rejoin Kim in the shade.
San Phra Kan Shrine
Across the railroad from, and in the middle of a busy intersection, is a very unique roundabout. In this island of traffic is the San Phra Kan Shrine, a much more modern Buddhist shrine that has usurped and warped its original historical purpose significantly.
The first thing you’ll notice when you enter the grounds of the roundabout shrine is certainly the monkeys. Oftentimes they seem to surf on the cars back and forth from Prang Sam Yot, much to the drivers’ and traffic cops’ dismay. Here they take food offered them and sold by local vendors to feed them. There also seem to be some standoffs between the monkeys and the stray dogs for the food, but the monkeys tend to form small gangs to fend off the dogs.
Look past the rampant monkeys, though, and the first thing you see is the modern shrine. Made of a light grey concrete and a definitively modern Thai temple style, this shrine, it houses a figure presumably original to the site depicting the 4-armed Hindu god Vishnu. Of course, since taking it over, the Thais have replaced the Vishnu identity with an Ayutthaya Buddha head and regard it as a Buddha image.
It’s behind this modern shrine that the more interesting part is though. The surface this shrine stands on is the western edge of the base of a former Khmer prang. And when you see this base in person, nearly 2-3 storeys tall on it’s own, this must have been one enormous prang. It has long since collapsed, but being the crafty reclaimers that they are, the Ayutthayan Thais built their own period shrine on top of the Hindu Khmer base.
Of course, this Thai temple fell to ruins much quicker than the base did, resulting in what stands atop the tropical tree-encrusted structure today: a massive laterite base built with the signature mark of Khmer large stone workmanship topped with a few fragments of comparatively flimsy brick and mortar remains of the much later Thai temple.
The sun was beginning to set over Prang Sam Yot as we crossed the road back into town. The monkeys were still out in force, and while they monkeys could come and go freely, our admission ticket was no longer valid, so we only watched from outside the gate.
After that, we parted ways. Kim to move on to Ayutthaya the next day and I was staying a little longer in Lopburi.