Lampang tends to be overlooked. When it comes to great northern towns, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Pai are the headline-stealers. Yet Lampang has a few things that set it apart, thanks largely to the animal kingdom.
The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre on the outskirts of town has a strong educational feel to it. Sure, there is an elephant show but even that demonstrates how these beasts were used for logging in the past, and also gives the elephants a chance to turn their trunks to art, as they produce remarkably good paintings that can be bought for 500B.
On the other side of town is the 500-year-old Wat Pra That Lampang Luang, the kingdom’s oldest wooden temple. The temple has a three-tiered teak roof that sets it apart from the usual glittering mosaics of Thai temples. Inside there’s a darkness that shrouds the temple as locals kneel in silence to pray. The teak is apt, as this wood helped the town develop into a trading centre.
For years locals thought the chedi at the rear was simply dark in colour, but last year it was scrubbed down and a shimmering gold finish was revealed. Behind the chedi is a small shrine which only men are allowed to ascend. Inside is a large white canvas onto which an inverted image of the chedi appears. By way of contrast to this giant wooden temple, its neighbour is a red and gold place of worship that actually hurts the eye with its gleaming, glittering glasswork.
Lampang town centre has a handful of temples, but just out of town is where it gets interesting. Wat Chedi Sao (20 chedi temple) is a collection of restored golden cones on what is thought to be a 1,000-year-old site. To the rear is a local museum, where a haphazard collection of items donated by villagers offers a snapshot into life here. Despite this, the place was deserted. A visitors’ book by the entrance showed three other foreign visitors had made it here in as many months. Some of the flipflops by the entrance had been there so long they had collected rainwater.
Inside the museum, the skin of an armadillo is nailed to the wall by way of a welcome. Beyond this, 90-year-old photos show how, when the site was re-discovered, it was little more than rubble. One wall is dedicated to foreign bank notes and old Thai currency, including a rare 10 baht note from the reign of Rama VIII. Gramophone players gather dust in one corner, with a collection of cassette tapes that include ‘Music from the Bill Cosby Show’ and ‘Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Works’. A stuffed gazelle looks at the Bill Cosby tapes, while above this a 15-ft long snake skin winds its way across the top of a wall.
It sums up life here pretty well. Maybe the one thing missing is a stuffed horse. Horses are on every corner here, attached to carts that take visitors around town. Lampang is the only place in Thailand that still provides this traditional form of transport and, while it may not be quick, it is atmospheric. My horse was Minsue (200 baht for 20 mins, 300 baht for an hour) has been clip-clopping around town for a few years, directed by its owner. Around 700 horses ply routes around Lampang province, and if you fancy joining them it will cost you 20,000 baht for the horse and 65,000 baht for the cart.
My journey ended near a night market. Here a trader named Higgins (he’s a quarter Irish) was selling ‘khao bun boran’. This northern dish is a mashed carrot and dough set in small saucers. A wooden stick is used to cut this into quarters, and then grated pumpkin and garlic are sprinkled on top. As a final touch honey is poured over. Its soft texture mixed with the grated toppings and sweet honey were superb.
Beyond the night square was a beer garden, where I munched on fried fish, grilled prawns and som tam. As I ate, an elderly man shuffled past, his face partly obscured by a dirty tracksuit top. He looked hard at the food but said nothing. He was homeless and hungry. Pushing the remains of the som tam his way, he gave a ‘wai’ and ate the leftovers with his figners. This seemed pitiful so I ordered a bowl of noodle soup for him, which resulted in an even bigger ‘wai’ and a blessing.
Sleeping – Budget
The Pin Hotel (05 422 1509) is a central, clean, and slightly aging place for 600 baht a night , including breakfast.
Sleeping – Fancy
Wienglakor Hotel (05 431 6430; www.wienglakorhotel.com) Starting at 900B, rooms here borrow heavily from temple architecture, giving an ethereal feel to this luxury pad. Top rooms go for 2,400B.
Along the riverside sits a series of modern restaurants that seem in stark contrast to the old Chinese shops that have been there for years. Among the best places to eat is the Riverside Bar (but go for the Thai food, as it’s infinitely better than any Western dishes).