While its slow pace and Lanna-style temples are the main attraction, this quaint northern city is also a living museum that transports visitors back to the early 20 century and its teak-trade past.
Few Thais wouldn’t recommend a trip to Lampang. Thanks to its gentle, slow pace of life, many liken this little northern city to Chiang Mai in the eighties. But beyond its laid back atmosphere, most visitors come to admire its famous Lanna temples, such as Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, located on the outskirts. Or to visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), an initiative supported by His Majesty the King.
Sadly, however, few people take time to notice the jewels Lampang has to offer in its city centre. Beyond its old temples and traditional Lanna-style teak wood houses, it hides dozens of villas and mansions inspired by the Art Nouveau and Art Decomovements, some of them open to the public. Many of these stand as reminders of the wealth of Lampang at the end of the 19th century, when the city was a regional hub of the teak wood industry, attracting traders not only from all over Siam but also China and neighbouring, British-ruled Burma.
Running parallel to the Mae Nam Wang River, where boats used to load or unload their precious cargo, Thanon Thalad Khao street thrived on the buzz of trade from the late 19th century up until 1916, when a new rail station opened a couple of km away from the city centre. The street, which is also known as Kad Kong Ta Road, served as the regional headquarters of the large international companies who had received trade concessions for exporting teak wood, such as Bombay Burmah, East Asiatic, Siam Forest and British Borneo. The street was said to be extremely cosmopolitan, the trading community comprised of British, Burmese, Shan, Indians and Chinese as well as caravans coming from Yunnan or Shan States.
Opulent mansions are what remain from those glory days,with at least a dozen of them dotted along Ka Kong Ta andits adjacent streets. Five of these have received a prestigious award from the Association of Siam Architects, or ASA, one that acknowledges the outstanding preservation work.
The first to be distinguished with one of these awards was Baan Sainanon, on Praisani Road, back in 2005. Once owned by a wealthy Chinese Merchant, the circa 1919 mansion with its prominent gable and balcony is clearly inspired by Art Nouveau architecture, bearing details reminiscent of the Glasgow School of Art.
Just as remarkable is the Moung Ngwe Zing Building – a favourite motif for photographers thanks to its white-painted façade and delicate wood carvings. Entirely made from teak, the house was formerly home to a rich Burmese merchant who usedto be the head of the British Forestry in Burma. Its Burmese origin is reflected in the intricate balconies and wood sculptures that grace it’s façade. Today, it serves as a coffee shop, an art gallery and an architecture information centre. Inside, a large map displays all the most historical mansions in the area, no less than fifteen of them (a booklet is also available but only in Thai unfortunately).
Standing only a couple of metres away, Baan Chantarawirojis another eclectic building mixing Chinese and Burmese architectural details. Baan Kanchanawong, one of the street’s oldest houses just across from the Moung Ngwe Zing building, is yet another. Built in 1905, this white walled gem has a verandah and balcony decorated with intricate floral motives.
Thanks to its strong community spirit, Ka Kong Taturns into a pedestrian area during weekend night markets. As the sun drops down over the Mae Nam Wang river, houses light up while hundreds of stalls pop out, selling not only the usual plastic goods but also local handicrafts,second-hand objects, musical instruments, Lanna-style lanterns and of course, food, food and food. The scent of crispy rice, Northern-style noodle soups and marinated pork loins are just some of the scents you can expect to be drawn in by. The market draws locals and tourists alike until late, while young couples and teenagers have a romantic moment under the arches of the nearby Rachadaphisek bridge, which dates from 1917.
Other architectural jewels await your discovery in other parts of the city. The rail station, for example, is another example of German-style Art Nouveau; and near the station are two villas, one standing derelict amid a huge garden, and the second, a country-style mansion built in 1930 to host the Siam Commercial Bank but today a museum. Between the rail station and the city centre, the Gibbon Cafe is another example of an amazing Art Nouveau villa, with an ornately detailed façade.
The best way to discover Lampang is to rent a bike and just explore street by street, corner by corner. Or to take a ride on one of Lampang’s famous, colourful horsecarriages. Yes, it is touristy, but it’s an experience that only adds to the charm of this old Lanna city.
Lampang is 130 km south of Chiang Mai, and accessible by non-stop flights from Bangkok with Bangkok Airways. There are also direct bus and train services from Bangkok. It takes approximately six hours to reach Lampang by road and eight to ten hours by night train.
There are plenty of guest houses and simple but comfortable hotels along the River. R-Lampang Guest House is famous among Thais and offer spotless rooms in an old house. A few minutes away from the river in a quiet neighbourhood across from Wat Pratu Pong temple, Auangkham Resort offers beautiful gardens, nice rooms and an hospitable welcome.