Wat Phra That Lampang Luang
Table of Contents
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang: introduction
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang (วัดพระธาตุลำปางหลวง) is about 16 km southwest of the city Lampang. It is one of the most revered temples in North Thailand and attracts lots of, mainly local, visitors. People regard it as one of the must-see temples of North Thailand. The temple is unique with its solid walls and location on an ancient man-made mound. The part of the temple within the walls is centuries old and has not been altered much. This gives Wat Phra That Lampang Luang such a unique atmosphere.
Diagonally opposite the temple, there is a huge parking lot with lots of food stalls to cater to the visitors. Apart from that, there are a number of horse carts parked along the main road, with which you can make a short tour around the temple.
It is an extensive fortified temple complex with many structures and an interesting museum so allow at least 45 minutes to visit. Most people probably will spend more time than that. Before the construction of the temple, which dates back to the so-called Golden Age of the Lanna Kingdom (15th century) there might have been a site of worship here in the time of the Mon kingdom Hariphunchai. This kingdom existed roughly from the 7th until the late 13th century.
Some local legends
According to a local legend the Lord Buddha once passed through this area. The indigenous Lawa people offered him honey, in a wooden tube. The Buddha then discarded the wooden tube and threw it away. After that, he announced that this place would in the future become known as Lampakappa Nakhon. According to the story, he also gave the people a single hair from his head. They decided to put the hair in a gold casket and buried the casket in an underground tunnel with other valuables.
Later they constructed the chedi of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang at that spot. Buddhists believe this relic of the Buddha is still at the base of the chedi together with ashes from the Buddha’s right forehead and neck.
Another legend says that Queen Chamathewi of the Hariphunchai King dome came to Wat Phra That Lampang Luang in order to pay respect to the relic of the Buddha. People believe it was one of her sons, who founded the city of Lampang, naming it after the nearby temple complex. Wat Phra That Lampang Luang has probably been a site of worship since at least the time of the Hariphunchai Kingdom in the 8th century.
Exploring the Wat Phra That Lampang Luang
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is an extensive complex with a walled compound and an area outside. Within the walls there are five assembly halls, a Buddha Footprint Chapel and an ordination hall, surrounding a massive chedi or stupa.
Outside the walls there are three museums and several other buildings with Buddha statues. Below map comes from the National Museum in Chiang Mai.
The Viharn Luang
The main entrance of the temple is on the east side. A beautiful Naga staircase leads to a magnificent gate. The first building is the main assembly hall, the Viharn Luang, which translates as the big assembly hall. This viharn dates back to the year 1485 (BE2019) during the reign of King Tilokaraj, the 12th monarch of the Mangrai dynasty who ruled from 1441 until 1487.
The open-sided construction with the triple-tiered roof is typical of the early Lanna style. Open-sided viharns allowed people outside the building to observe and participate in ceremonies. Towards the back of the viharn a large Lanna style golden “mondop” houses the main Buddha image, the Phra Chao Lan Thong. Many people regard this as the most beautiful Buddha image in Lampang. In 2020 they gave this viharn a new roof.
The chedi of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang
Behind the Wiharn Luang is the 45m tall chedi which is covered in 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 restoration of an existing chedi. People believe there has been a chedi at this spot for many centuries prior to the construction current temple comple. Immediately behind the main chedi is a small viharn 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.
Ho Phra Phutthabaht
Behind the Wiharn Phra Put is the small raised room that houses a footprint of the buddha. This traditional Ho Phra Phuttabat (room of the Buddha’s footprint or Buddha’s Footprint Chapel) dates from 1449. It 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. I did my best to observe this phenomon but, alas, it didn’t work out. I didn’t see the footprint as well.
Viharn 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 but restoration in 1832 added the outer stone walls to enclose this viharn.
Viharn Nam Taem
Just north of the main chedi is the beautiful Wiharn Nam Taem, another Lanna-style open-sided wooden viharn dating from the early 16th century. It is believed to be the oldest wooden temple building in Thailand. As in the main viharn 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.
The Viharn Ton Kaew
On the right side of the Viharn Luang there are two smaller viharns: the Viharn Ton Kaew and the Viharn Nam Taem. The Viharn Ton Kaew contains several sitting Buddha images.
The viharn Phra Chao Lavo
This viharn is located behind the chedi of the temple. Research is under way.
The Temple Museums
On the southern side of the walled compound is an area with buildings and Buddha statues. There are three museums: The Wat Lampang Luang Museum, the “wooden utensil” Museum, and the Museum of the Emerald Buddha. The Wat Lampang Luang, to start with, is the least interesting. It contains Buddha statues. The Museum of the Emerald Buddha contains a copy of the famous Emerald Buddha, which is now in Bangkok. This small image is hardly visible because it is exhibited behind bars. Besides this statue, this museum has an interesting collection of old pictures, of which the one that shows the Monk Kruba Srivichai and the German engineer Emil Eisenhofer, posing with monks.
The most interesting museum, in my opinion, is the Museum of Wooden Utensils. It is also the most beautiful building of the three. To appreciate the exhibits you should take some time and read the descriptions underneath. Some of them are centuries old and examples of exceptional wood carving
The Temple Library
The Ho Trai or temple library is located between the Museum of Wooden Utensils and the Museum of the Emerald Buddha. It is a nice building with a carved double-tiered roof in Lanna style. It is elevated to the Buddhist palm leaf scriptures are protected against insects, rodents and other destructive dangers. During all my visits I found the building closed and could not even locate the entrance. It seems to be attached to the Museum of the Emerald Buddha.
Practical information, stories and facts
The raid at Wat Phra That Lampang Luang
In 1730 a battle took place at the temple. The Chiang Mai Chronicle is the source of this story. It also appears in the Thai language on the pedestal of the statue of Pho Chao Thip Chang aka Thippachak, which is in front of the temple.
The Lanna kingdom was under Burmese occupation at that time but was marred by constant warfare between nobles, who either sided with the Burmese or fought against them. Pho Chao Thip Chang was a hunter who later became the ruler of Lampang (1732-1759). He is considered the founder of the Chet Ton Dynasty, whose members ruled Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Lampang, roughly until the 1930s.
What happened? Burmese troops, led by Chao Maha Yot, a Lamphun warlord, had occupied Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. Pho Chao Thip Chang surrounded the temple with 300 men. He placed guards on all the gates and ordered them to kill the enemy if they came out. Accompanied by three trusted men he sneaked into the temple and, once inside, confronted Chao Maha Yot. Thippachak shot and killed him. After this hand-to-hand fighting broke out. The Burmese tried to escape from the temple but many of them were killed by the troops of Thippachak who were waiting outside.
References for this article
I visited the Wat Phra That Lampang Luang several times over the years. My last visit was in June 2021. I read blogs from other writers and articles on the internet. I have also consulted Thai language sources such as books and websites and have spoken to people at the temple.
These are some of the sources I consulted:
Information at the temple on plaques and in the museum
Sarassawadee Ongsakul, History of Lanna, Chiang Mai, 2005
Michael Freeman, Lanna, Thailand’s Northern Kingdom, Bangkok, 2001
Hans Penth, A brief history of Lanna, Chiang Mai, 2000
David K. Wyatt and Aroonrut Wichienkeeo, The Chiang Mai Chronicle, Chiang Mai, 1998
A great video from the Fine Arts Department
Horsecarts at the temple
There are a number of horsecart parked in front of the temple. They have fixed prices. The last time I checked (June 2021) the price was 200THB for a ride of 10 minutes around the temple complex. For 300THB they will take you on a longer ride of 20 minutes through a village and around the temple. A horsecart can accommodate two adults.
K.Boonthi and her dogs
During my last visit in January 2022 I met Khun Boonthi, a very sweet, elderly lady who takes care of the ten temple dogs. It is common that temples in Thailand have a community of dogs living in and around the temple. These dogs are all spayed or neutered, she told me. She feeds them every day and takes care of them. There was initially a lot of barking and growling but they soon warmed up to me and we became friends.
Stray dogs are a huge problem in Thailand and especially in Lampang. In Chiang Mai we have Amandine from HandtoPaw who helps street and temple dogs. She and her team offer medical care to street and temple dogs whenever possible. They help dogs with cancers, dogs who have been hit by cars, dogs suffering from flea/tick infestation or mange, and dogs who have been poisoned and need immediate intervention. They are sterilizing 2,500 cats and dogs annually. In Lampang there is no such organization, as far as I know.
How to get to the Wat Phra That Lampang Luang
The temple is about 16 km southwest of Lampang. This is the distance between the clock tower in central Lampang and the temple, which I checked myself during my last visit.
You have to charter a songtaew or a private taxi from Lampang. Your hotel in Lampang should be able to arrange transportation to the temple. The quickest and most comfortable way to get there is by private taxi. Most hotels in Lampang will be able to book one for you. You can also join an organized tour from Chiang Mai. A private, customized tour will also allow visits to other interesting, less-visited temples such as Wat Lai Hin Luang and Wat Pong Yang Khok.
You can get there by public transportation but this will be very time-consuming.
The temple is open every day from 0730 until 1700. There is no entrance fee. Please donate for the maintenance of this magnificent, historically important religious site.
This is the location of the Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. The official address of the temple is 271 Lampang Luang, Ko Kha District, Lampang Province.
Frans Betgem, June 2021