Historical Lopburi is one of the oldest cities and places in Thailand. People live here since stone ages, and there were settlements around since long. It's lying in the alluvial plains of central Thailand, at the banks of Lopburi River, a tributary of the Chao Phraya River. The first civilization here was a Mon Kingdom, people of the Dvaravati Culture with Indian roots. The old name of the place, given to it by the Mon, was 'Lavo'. The place was conquered by the Khmer empire of Angkor in the first half of the 12th century and incorporated into it. Angkor left many impressive architectural evidences here. From the 14th century on, Lopburi came under direct influence and rule of the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya.
Nowadays it's a vivid Thai city with about 27,000 inhabitants and few tourists. The mass of the culturally interested tourists goes to Ayutthaya, fewer to Sukothai. But Lopburi has some real advantages. It hasn't been so totally destroyed after the Burmese conquest of 1767 as Ayutthaya has been. The remaining places are in a better state. Besides, Lopburi is older than Ayutthaya. Much older. First settlements reach back to stone-ages, some 3,500 years ago. King U Thong, the founder of Ayutthaya, came supposedly from Lopburi. Lopburi and Suvarnabhumi (the Golden Land) were the most important vassal cities of emerging Ayutthaya. Lopburi came soon under full control of the kingdom of Ayutthaya. It became then, under the rule of King Narai from 1664 on, an important fortress and second capital of Ayutthaya, as a reaction of the Dutch naval blockade 1663/64 and the permanent threat coming from the Burmese kingdoms west of the Tenasserim Mountains.
Lopburi is a fascinating place to go for a few days. It has it's drawbacks, either. Parts of the city are in the hands of marauding macaques. There has a heavy overpopulation of these impudent animals grown. Besides are some (larger) parts of the city really dirty and smelly, namely the fresh markets. That comes together with the animal plague. As though the dog (over-) population wouldn't be enough. But most annoying and dangerous is the omnipresent traffic chaos. Bigger than any other overpopulation is the overpopulation of motorised vehicles. And that's really most murderous. The annual traffic increase in Thailand is enormous and has killed a lot of living quality within the last years.
Lopburi is situated at the banks of the Lopburi River. The economy is coined by agriculture, rice, corn, cotton...
The History of Lavo / Lopburi
Thousands of years ago, there were already several prehistorical stone-age settlements established in nowadays Lopburi Province, of who a number of findings give witness.
The foundation of Lopburi, formerly Lavo, as a settlement was probably done by an Indian king and his people, coming from a part of nowadays Pakistan. That was at around 648 CE. This first civilization in and around Lopburi was part of the Dvaravati Culture (see also: Nakhon Pathom as another example for a Dvaravati settlement in central Thailand). In the years 1115 and 1155 CE, envoys from Lopburi were sent to China, forming a relationship with the greater power in the north.
After the Angkorean conquest, the city was one of the most important provinces of the empire of Angkor. The governor of Lopburi was also in the rank as an imperial viceroy. Angkor's power faded away for the sake of the emerging Thai kingdoms, and at the end of the 13th century Lopburi was for a time within the sphere of the kingdom of Sukothai.
The first European in Southeast Asia was probably Marco Polo (1254 - 1324 CE). Marco Polo was a medieval merchant traveller, travelling along the silk route until deep into China. From Beijing he made a journey to Mergui (nowadays Myeik in Burma) and came through Lopburi. Lopburi is described in Marco Polo's third book of his travels. He used the name 'Locach', a Chinese derivate for 'Laovo', respectively Lopburi. He mentioned for example that the location of Lopburi was "too far to be a military target for the Mongol army of Kublai Khan".
At the time of Marco Polos arrival here, Lopburi was part of the classical Southeast Asian empire of Angkor. In 1289 CE another diplomatic mission was sent from here to China.
In the second half of the 14th century Lopburi became part of the emerging Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya. King Narai of Ayutthaya made Lopburi in the 17th century a second capital and a stronghold. That may have been a reaction to the blockade of the Chao Phraya River mouth by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the years 1663/64, which was clearly seen as a threat for Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was in that times closer to the shores of the Gulf of Thailand as it is nowadays, and more vulnerable for naval attacks.
After King Narai's death in the Lopburi Palace, Lavo decreased in importance, some sources claim it was almost deserted, until king Mongkut (reign: 1851-1869) of the Chakri dynasty ordered restorations and used it and particularly king Narai's old palace as a royal residence again. That was from the 1850s on. In this time the city got actually it's nowadays name 'Lopburi'.
In 1937 Prime Minister General Phibunsongkhram made Lopburi a military center of Thailand. The city has been expanded to the east, along the Narai Maharat Road. This road streches several kilometers from the old city center to the east, where the King Narai Monument is situated. Due to the traffic it's a highly unpleasant walk, but gives an impression of bombastic fascist city-planning in the 1930s. Aside a part of the road are huge barracks from the time.
Sights of Lopburi
Lopburi with it's long history is a place worth to go for it's many sights. These sights are mostly to find in the area of the old city, what makes it easy to go everywhere by walking. Also the zoo and the King Narai Memorial, although situated somewhat east of the old town, are reachable by walking. A good alternative is, as always, a bicycle.
King Narai's Palace
The old King's Palace (Phra Narai Ratcha Nivet) is a center piece to visit in Lopburi, for it's a large, historical site in a good shape with large, clean garden. Moreover, it houses a National Museum since 1924 with a lot of information, items and other material very worth to have a look on.
It's everywhere the same thing in Southeast Asia. At the touristic sights, where entrance is charged, foreigners pay more than locals. Much more. In Thailand it's five times as much. For more about that have a look at 'Entrance Fees in Thailand'. However, that adds up when one is visiting many places. The entrance for the National Museum in King Narai's Palace is now up at 150 Baht for foreigners (stand: 2012). I wasn't willing to pay that.
Short after 8:30, when it opens, I went there. I set up my brightest sunday smile and approached the ticket booth with the pretty young lady inside. I said 'good morning', claimed, I were a Thai person and put 30 Baht on the table.
She said "No".
I said "Yes".
She said "No".
Mutual smilings hanging in the air. I explained her that I am 'here' since years already. Living 'here'. Soon later I had the ticket. That's really nice here in Thailand. When there are (silly) restrictions, they give one most of the time a possibility to bypass them. Once understood the rules here, one can play them out. Of course, it does not work always that smooth. Particularly not with the immigration offices and the embassies.
Well, the old palace was built from 1665 on, took the builders twelve years to finish the complex. The design comes from French Jesuits, who stayed in the French quarter in Ayutthaya already since a few years (1662). That was the time when Lopburi became the second capital of Ayutthaya. It's very remarkable that this palace is the first palace in Siam, and probably in the whole of Southeast Asia, which was built in stone. A result of the emerging European influence in the world region. King Narai was very open for Western ideas.
There is an outer, a middle and an inner part of the palace. It's surrounded by high brick walls. In the past they lost their coat, but meanwhile it's all nicely restorated. The King's Palace is in a good shape, very clean and staff is always around to maintain the place.
The palace had a sophisticated water drainage system for fresh water. In the outer part of the palace were the stables for the king's elephants and the houses for the royal mahouts.
In the inner part of the palace is Narai's throne hall situated, where he received foreign guests. The famous bronze plate reminds to the visit of a French delegation in 1685, who came to Siam to convert king Narai to Christianity.
At the end of king Narai's reign, when he was sick and opposition crystallized around Phetracha, here, in the inner part of the palace, the plot to overthrow the king was made. It's supposed that king Narai was poisoned, and he died in Suttha Sawan, the throne hall, in July 1688.
This plot is called the 'Siamese Revolution of 1688'. Though, it wasn't actually a revolution, just a palace revolt. Anyway, after Narai's reign, king Phetracha invited a policy of isolation against Western powers. It was too obvious already, that Western countries, above all France, had ambitions to colonize Siam. In this context the 1688 events play an important role in Siam's history, for the Europeans were mostly banned afterwards. It came even to a longer siege of the French fortress in Thonburi, which ended with the retreat of the French. It wasn't that easy to get them out.
After Narai's death, Lopburi and the palace didn't play an important role for centuries. It was abandoned by the nobility.
In the 19th century king Mongkut (Rama IV) ordered the palace to be restored and added the 'Phiman Mongkut', the Mongkut Pavillon. He used Lopburi as well as a second residence as king Narai did in former times.
The National Museum of Lopburi
Inside the 'Mongkut Building' is nowadays the core of the National Museum. Other former palace buildings around are housing more items. The museum displays a great number of items who span a time range of some 3,500 years. For those few who are more interested in history it takes time to go through all of it, and one can easily come back next day and repeat the tour, seeing things one still missed at the first visit. You are, of course, privileged to pay again... A ticket is only valid for one day. Anyway, it's actually too rich and plenty for a one-time visit.
Prang Sam Yod
The 'holy three prangs' were erected in the Khmer era a thousand years ago, in the 12th century. The materials are laterite and sandstone, partially bricks. The three remarkable prangs are the city's symbol and one of the main tourist attractions. More than that, it's the basic camp for the local macaque population. Many tourists go there only for feeding the monkeys, not to visit the sight. The monkeys are supposed to be descendents of certain Hindu gods.
Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat
When arriving by train this big temple complex is one of the first things one sees in Lopburi; it's situated directly opposite the train station. Wat Mahathat means, by the way, temple of the big relic. There is a 'Wat Mahathat' in every historic place in Thailand; they all are distinguished by secondary names, what makes their names unique, but always long and sometimes a bit hard to remember.
Lopburi's Wat Mahathat's age is not known, but it's supposed to date back before the Angkorean era, means it was founded by the Dvaravati Mons and became later extended by the Khmer. As it looks now, it's clearly Khmer style. Altogether the wat is estimated being a thousand years old.
One of the buildings is clearly different. It's a 'viharn', built in the time of king Narai and represents a significant different building style. Some chedis are built in the reign of Narai as well.
Good thing here is that I never saw a monkey here. It's too far away from Prang Sam Yod, what's their center place.
Ban Vichayen (Ban Wichayen)
Two blocks north of king Narai's Palace is Ban Vichayen, also spelled 'Ban Wichayen'. It served as the residence for the French envoys and was a pompous place in the 17th century. It was then the residence of the influential and dubious Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon, who came first to Siam as an employee for the British East India Company. He made a rapid career in Siam and became a minister of king Narai. Might be that Phaulkon himself drew the planning of the place. He (Phaulkon) was called 'Vichayen' by the Siamese of the time. After the 'Siamese Palace Revolution' of 1688, Phaulkon was killed by orders of king Narai's successor, king Phetracha.
Nowadays the whole place, not small, is in ruins, surrounded by high walls. Before entering the usual and relatively high fee is due (Thais 30 Baht, Westerner 150 Baht).
In the middle between king Narai's Palace, Ban Vichayen and Prang Sam Yod is another Angkorean Prang situated: Prang Khaek. It's neglected and not one of the well-visited tourist sights, but still a remarkable place. Surrounded by streets with heavy traffic, it could be a pearl of a small green island in middle of the city. But the place is so dirty, everywhere are faeces on the ground (from dogs, monkeys, people...) that one has to keep an eye open first for that. As soon as leaving the small sight, one is on the road and has to care for his life. The traffic nowadays is murderous.
Prang Khaek was a place of Brahmanist worship. It's built of bricks and lost, as so many other buildings of it's kind, it's coat completely. A sign at the sight claims that the buildings were originally coated with a rubber gum. Extraordinarily. Might have been renovated in king Narai's time.
Lopburi has a zoo in the new part of the town. Most of the animals here are from Thailand respectively Southeast Asia. Some are from other parts of the world.
Yyears ago Lopburi was already known since long for the monkeys, the crab-eating or long-tailed macaques, living at and around Phra Prang Sam Yod. They were kind of an attraction. In 2006 there were already many of them around, but their number was still limited. In the meantime the population exploded and they invade the city. It's by the way the same phenomenon I observed in Pratchuap Khiri Khan in south Thailand. There are masses of macaques on the streets, on the roofs, climbing the electric wires, the cars. They enter the markets and steal from the stalls. They go into the houses and plunder the kitchens. They look out for food everywhere, and they find a lot of wasted food in the dustbins and rubbish on the streets. Globally, there are 50% of the world's food wasted. People buy food and throw parts of it away. Then animals come and try to get it. Dogs, cats, rats, insects, microorganisms and others. Here the macaques are very active. They don't fear people, aren't shy at all and become easily aggressive. The bigger ones have four long incisors.
When I entered Phra Prang Sam Yod I couldn't believe how many of them were around. Of course it's a touristic place and all kinds of stupid businesses are going on. One is the unavoidable selling of monkey food. Some tourists feed the beasts 'for fun' or to gain a better 'kharma'. Some local people do (frequently) the same. At the prang are some guards around with sticks in their hands. While walking around, a juvenile beast jumped on my back, on my small backpack. There is always a roll of toilet paper in an outer pocket, covered in a plastic bag. The beast took it out and opened the plastic bag, just two meters away from me. They aren't shy the slightest bit.
'Theft', I thought. I turned and saw a Thai tourist nearby, who was there with his family and had an umbrella in his hand. I asked him to borrow the umbrella and gave the villain a good blow. I guess I afforded to spoil some kharma by doing that. He let the roll go and looked at me both surprised and disgusted, uttering a loud sound of protest. The beasts don't get any limits set in their behaviour. Then he made up a chauvinistic pose and approached to me as he would start an attack. I hold the umbrella up and gave him a warning glance to show him what he had to expect coming a single step closer. He considered that and stopped. I took the roll back, put it this time in my trousers pocket. Suddenly another monkey approached, showing aggressive behaviour and making noises at me. I made it clear again that I would receive him with a stroke of the umbrella, and he disappeared as well. Mean, little street gangsters they are. There were hundreds of them around.
It's really incredible how the locals promote the monkeys. There are piles of food, bananas and other fruits and plenty of food remains from food stalls etc. thrown onto the streets, just for them. That makes the surrounding dirty, produces a lot of faeces and insects (not only flies, also mosquitoes love fruit nectar); in reverse the macaques plunder the local shops, enter houses and cause a lot of damage. Never open a window, except there are bars in behind it. It's not really save to walk around here.