Charmed by a City Off Thailand’s Beaten Path

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Thailand is renowned among hard-charging tourists for nightlife in Bangkok, full moon parties on Koh Phangan island and hedonistic walking streets in Pattaya. It’s also a magnet for the bohemian and wellness crowds who flock to the mountain destinations of Chiang Mai and Pai.

But mostly ignored by foreign tourists is Lampang, in Northern Thailand. This utterly charming, riverside city of about 90,000 people has preserved the historic architecture and stately squares from its days as a major city in the ancient Lanna kingdom and a hub in the teak lumber trade. Wooden temples from centuries ago and two-story teak mansions from the late 1800s and early 1900s still stand, and alongside the Wang River, the streets in the Kat Kong Ta enclave are like an open-air museum of well-preserved Chinese shophouses and European gingerbread-style buildings.

All around town are extremely friendly residents, as well as statues and images of chickens — from manhole covers to traffic circles. Chickens are the symbol of Lampang, and appear on its ceramics, acclaimed across Thailand, that include bowls and cups hand-painted with black-and-red roosters.

The charm in Lampang comes not from amusements and attractions built for tourists, but in exploring integral parts of a functioning city. Shophouses have evolved into boutiques and cafes. Ceramics factory stores are ideal for gift shopping. Even the horse carriages that clip-clop around town carrying tourists were originally the main transit for train passengers after the station opened in 1916.

I first heard about Lampang in 2022, when my wife, Susan, and I moved to Chiang Mai and we met a doctor named Lawrence Nelson, a retired physician-researcher known as Doc with the National Institutes of Health in the United States. He recommended a visit and in early January, we finally started our five-day visit to Lampang in a spartan, four-car train from Chiang Mai (for less than $1 each) on a 2.5-hour ride into the forested valley nestling the city.

You can find dozens of suitable homestays and hotels for less than $50 a night, and few pricier than that. We lucked out with a spacious room at Kanecha’s Home, a homestay in the heart of town overlooking the Wang River and the white, dragon-backed Ratsada Phisek Bridge.

We rode bikes along the quiet lane next to the river, glossily reflecting the silver spires of a temple, in search of a signature dish of Northern Thailand, khao soi. We found a delicious version of the curry noodle soup at the roadside restaurant Jay Jay Chan (a banner with Thai script that looks like “17” signified that it was vegetarian), with a tidy buffet station on the shaded sidewalk and a large wok gurgling with vegetable soup. Total bill, 120 baht or about $3.40, including several tasty black bean bars sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Late that afternoon, we meandered around the town. The weather was perfect, in the mid 80s, and the sky was block-printed with cumulus puffs. We strolled through the grassy, tree-shaded town square, past a tiered shrine with three tall teak pillars that locals wrapped with colorful ribbons for an auspicious start to 2024.

A square-block market building made of concrete was closing down when we stopped at a sidewalk flower shop across the street. A man named Reangprakaiy Decha nodded hello, and went on to share that his family has been selling bunches of daisies and chrysanthemums and garlands of orange marigolds for temple offerings for 50 years.

Mr. Reangprakaiy, 39, meditates daily “to be sharper; not to cheat people, but to help them,” he said. Why, I asked, did the city seem so peaceful, the people so friendly? He told us that it had to do with the power of a certain Buddha statue.

Nearby is a beautiful temple, Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao Suchadaram, Mr. Reangprakaiy said, where legend has it that in the 1400s, an elephant carrying Thailand’s sacred emerald Buddha statue diverted to Lampang and wouldn’t budge. The statue graced the temple for 32 years. It’s now enshrined in the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but its energy remains, he said.

“We believe that the power of this Buddha statue is very strong,” Mr. Reangprakaiy said, “and it spreads out for the Thai people to be peaceful and happy.”

Mornings are for markets in Lampang, and before sunrise the main market on the north side of the Ratsada Phisek Bridge is a smorgasbord of everything from pig heads to live eels, fried fish to fresh vegetables. When we neared the entrance, where orange-robed monks stood sentinel with their alms bowls, we found a model of resourcefulness — a deconstructed banana tree. It was broken down on a metal table into piles of the fruit, the flowers and the stem (all edible) and stacks of flat, dark green leaves, used throughout the market to wrap cooked treats like bitter melon, pork and rice.

We then used the ride-hailing feature on the Grab app for a lift to the next market, on the west side of town and adjacent to the Nhong Krathing Park. We found scores of bamboo stalls offering traditional breakfast food like quail eggs and rice-flour muffins and perfectly cupped coffee from regional farms. Strums from an amplified guitar and tinkling wind chimes mixed with chatter from local residents dressed in running and cycling gear and squatting on little stools under a canopy of plum and fig trees.

That afternoon, we rented a motorbike and headed two miles southeast to get to the bottom of the city’s chicken fixation.

Local Thais tell the story of how Buddha came to town, and the deity Indra disguised himself as a rooster to ensure the residents woke up to offer alms. A more recent explanation can be found at Dhanabadee ceramics factory, which claims to be the original source of Lampang’s ubiquitous chicken bowls.

On a tour of the factory and museum, an English-speaking guide shared that the factory founder moved from China in the 1950s, discovering that the local white kaolin mineral was ideal for making ceramics. He opened a factory and, borrowing a motif popular in China for centuries, hand-painted chickens on cups and bowls. Admiration of the Lampang chicken bowls spread across Thailand over the decades, and now there are scores of workshops and factories producing chicken-adorned tableware.

Almost everywhere you turn, there is a temple. We spent one day visiting a handful, including Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang, built in the 1400s and thought to be one of Thailand’s oldest teak buildings.

Walking onto the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Thailand can be at once mesmerizing and bewildering, which is just how Susan and I felt.

We came across a mystery rope strung from the golden-spired, 14-story stone stupa down into the courtyard, and attached to the bottom in the clothesline setup were a succession of flowers, bells, streamers of Thai currency and a bolt of orange fabric.

Just as I was regretting that we didn’t have a tour guide, three Thai visitors approached us in the courtyard, asking if we wanted to know about the temple. The two men were old friends from college, now in their 60s: One was an artist from Lampang and the other a developer, joined by his wife, who splits his time between Bangkok and Atlanta.

The trio spent more than an hour escorting us around the temple, and Cheerapanyatip Chamrak, the artist, explained the background of the rope. The offerings, he said, were shuttled skyward each evening on this first weekend of the New Year, in prayer to Buddha “to protect you and have a good life in this year.”

After moving south of town to the lush and tranquil Lampang River Lodge, into a teak and bamboo suite overlooking a lily-blanketed pond, we met up with Doc for lunch at the gable-roofed house of the first governor of Lampang, built at the turn of the 20th century and now occupied by the Baan Phraya Suren restaurant.

Delighted with our dishes of basil fried rice and pork topped with egg and spicy grilled pork salad, we talked about how Doc met his wife, a native of Lampang, when she was working in the Washington, D.C., area, and how, after his first visit to Lampang in 2017, he was soon helping support a local university’s research on women’s health.

He likened the city to Brigadoon, a mythical Scottish town that comes to life only one day every 100 years. “When I went to the nursing college for the first time I felt I was in a 1950s black-and-white movie,” he said.

We had an appointment that afternoon to step back in time with Jantharaviroj Korn, whose great-grandfather came to Lampang from Burma 126 years ago to work for the lumber baron Louis Leonowens, the son of Anna, the British tutor for the children of the King of Siam, immortalized in “The King and I” musical.

We met Mr. Jantharaviroj, 60, at the 108-year-old mansion of his grandfather. Thailand was a rarity in Southeast Asia in avoiding colonization by European powers, but the British extracted generous teak concessions: Thais did the hard labor and many Burmese moved to the area with the British (who had colonized Burma and exploited its teak) to serve as administrators and lumber barons themselves, he said.

Mr. Jantharaviroj’s family became wealthy from logging, he said, but his ancestors made amends for stripping the forests of teak.

“My grandfathers believed that if we cut the tree, we destroy the living place of the spirit, so we have to build the temple,” he said, adding that his grandfathers were major contributors to several Burmese-style temples in Lampang.

Our final day was reserved for the temple in the sky, Wat Phra Phutthabat Sutthawat, about an hour’s drive north. The only local tour guide I could find was out of town and referred us to a young woman, who picked us up at 4 a.m. to watch the sunrise on the mountaintop. The problem was, the park office didn’t open till 7:30.

The wait was worth it.

After lurching up a one-lane road in the bed of a pickup truck, we climbed steep staircases to a jagged limestone plateau with unadorned wooden shrines perched on the rocks. Each had gongs or bells, and we struck each three times with a prayer, the reverberations melding with the twittering of birds and a soft breeze. We were alone as mist evaporated from the forested floor a half-mile below until a Dutch couple arrived, followed by a handful of retirees from Bangkok.

Twenty years ago, a monk inspired by bathtub-like impressions on the mountaintop said to be the footprints of Buddha, had about 20 stupas built across the forest of stony peaks, some of them golden three-story cones, others shaped like round white bells.

The views and the energy of the place were so soothing that after 90 minutes I didn’t want to leave. But we were famished, and when we made our way back down, we found the dumplings and noodles stands just opening for lunch. We arranged a little plastic table on a porch to look out at the stupas high in the sky.

Munching a perfectly prepared papaya salad, we doubted there was a better lunch spot in Thailand.

Patrick Scott writes frequently for Travel. Follow him on Instagram: @patrickrobertscott



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