Wat Phra That Lampang Luang
Table of Contents
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang: introduction
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang (วัดพระธาตุลำปางหลวง) is about 30 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 Lampang, even of North Thailand. 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. The temple is located upon an ancient man-made mound. 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.
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. This viharn dates back to the 15th century.
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.
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) 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.
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 Temple Museum
Exiting via the southern gate of the temple complex leads one to some further old buildings now used as museums. One of these houses a copy of the famous Emerald Buddha known as the Phra Kaew Don Tao. Carved in Chiang Saen style it is reputedly over 1,000 years old although its origins are obscure.
Also in this area is the interesting Haw Trai or temple library, a beautifully carved double-tiered roofed building in Lanna style. The Haw Trai is raised off the ground in order to provide protection from insects or vermin for the fragile religious manuscripts stored inside. It is also interesting to see that the locals appear to have chosen this spot as a suitable location to leave their own old or broken buddha images.
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.
About 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
Horse carriages at the temple
There are a number of horse carriages 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 horse carriage can accommodate two adults.
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