Thursday, January 19, 2017

New Year Part Two: Early Festivals Around Hanoi

                                                                        by Jim Goodman

boats on the Đáy River heading to Chùa Hương
       Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, falls on 28 January this year.  People across the country are already preparing for it, buying the decorations, ritual items and gifts for the occasion and arranging a schedule for which days they will visit which relatives.  In Hanoi as elsewhere Tết is mainly a family affair, a time for strengthening the bonds among household members and renewing ties with both living relations and ancestors.  Some activities are public, most notably the government-sponsored midnight fireworks at Hoàn Kiếm Lake that heralds the New Year.  For several nights residents can also watch staged entertainment and circus performances at various venues around the lake.
       On the fourth day of Tết families hold their ancestor rituals and many businesses reopen after that.  The seventh day is Khai H--taking down the New Year Tree—which marks the official end of Tết.  But the general good will towards everyone and genuine conviviality (no one wants to start the year off with any expression of social enmity) continues at least until the full moon day the fifteenth.  It’s still the holiday season to most folks and local festivals have already begun.
musicians at Đền Trịnh
       On the fourth day festival action begins in Mai Đng, Hai Bà Trưng district and Chùa Trằm Gian, an hour south of Hanoi.  The latter includes a water-puppet show and both feature wrestling matches, events held in what us usually pretty chilly weather.  On the fifth day Hanoi residents attend the festival in Đống Đa that honors Quang Trung’s victory in 1788 over the Chinese invaders.   A very history- conscious people, Vietnamese also flock to the one-week festival beginning the following day at the ancient capital of C Loa, across the Red River in Gia Lâm.
       One of the most popular excursions the first fortnight of the New Year, particularly the even-numbered lunar dates, is a pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương), about 60 km south of Hanoi.  Sited up in the steep limestone hills that mark the topographical terminus of the flat Red River Delta plains, it has been popular with devotees since the temples were established in the 17th century.  
wild game market at Đền Trịnh
       Anticipating the crowds, Hanoi folks set out as early as 5 a.m. for the hour and a half drive to Đức Khê village, where hundreds of boats lie waiting to transport visitors down the Đáy River for an hour to the landing point below the temples.  Early mornings are usually rather foggy this time of year, the picturesque hills in front of the passengers only visible as dark gray shapes.  
       The boats first make a stop a short distance downriver to the 17th century Đền Trịnh, the temple dedicated to the Trịnh Lords, who ruled northern Vietnam from 1592 until 1787 and commissioned most of the more than thirty temples and shrines in the area.  It’s a festive atmosphere here, for besides the pilgrims making their offerings and praying inside the temple, musicians entertain in the courtyard and the carcasses of wild game, mostly deer but also fox, boar and leopard, hang from rafters in an adjacent marketplace.      
Thiên Trù Pagoda
       From here it’s a longer ride, passing local fishermen, to the pier below Chùa Hương.  After a 20-minute walk past concession stands, and maybe a stop for a bowl of morning noodles, the pilgrim arrives at Chùa Thiên Trù, another 17th century temple, dedicated to Quan Âm, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion.  She is supposed to have lived here as a nun in the distant past, 
       Behind the temple a path leads up to mountain to the cave shrine that is the ultimate destination.  In the past, this took one and half to two hours, depending on how slippery it was, with scarcely a any scenic vista.  Since 2006 pilgrims have the far less strenuous option of a cable car to the top, with splendid views on the ride, especially if the fog lifts and the sun comes out.
reaching for the water drops, Hương Tĩch Cave
cable car ride at Chùa Hương
       The mountain is called Hương Tích—Traces of Fragrance—after the sweet selling flowers that start blossoming a month or so later, during Chùa Hương’s festival, which lasts until the end of the third lunar month and is the other popular visiting time.  Both the cable car and pathway end just outside the Hương Tích Cave.  Several shrines and statues of Quan Âm have been set up inside the cave, reached by a stone staircase of 120 steps.  Stalagmites and stalactites, many with designated names, dominate the interior.  Pilgrims jostle under one breast-shaped stalactite to catch the drops of water, associated with good fortune and prosperity.
pilgrims inside Hương Tích Cave
         From the enthusiasm and eagerness with which the pilgrims reach for the water drops one could assume that they are, at least for the occasion, true believers.   It is the first fortnight of Tết, though, when traditional rituals, customs, activities and entertainment accentuate the days and nights.  The holidays remind them that, however modernized they have become in recent decades, they still take pride in their cultural heritage.  At this time all things traditional are revered:  offerings to the gods or the ancestors, pilgrimages to famous temples, dress-up village festivals and ancient indigenous entertainment like water puppets and quan h singing.
female duet at Lim Hill
male soloist at Lim Hill
       One of the oldest singing traditions in Vietnam, originating in the 13th century, quan h is a type of antiphonal singing in which the male and female singers take turns belting out an old tune and then responding to it.  The melodies are those handed down from classical times and the lyrics romantic and sentimental.  In the past the lyrics were spontaneous and the responses to the songs would be applauded when the answering lyrics seemed especially appropriate, or perhaps amusingly risqué.  Nowadays hundreds of quan h songs have been recorded and singers can choose from a vast repertoire of standardized song dialogues.
wrestling match at the Lim festival
       The quan h tradition is especially strong in Bc Ninh province, its birthplace, across the Red River east of Hanoi.  Bc Ninh quan h singers perform at many festivals throughout the Red River Delta.  The most important event for them, though, is the annual festival at Lim village, held the 13th day of the first lunar month.  Besides neighboring villagers, the festival draws many thousands of Hanoi residents, more than the biggest day at C Loa. 
       Before the government rebuilt and widened Highway 1A, the road was just a two lane route, 25 km from Hanoi, with sloping shoulders that even motorbikes couldn’t use.  If you didn’t depart Hanoi before 7 a.m., the traffic jam might prevent you from getting there at all.   Anyway, local people start setting up early, while it’s still foggy, cold and drizzly, and by 8 a.m. performers have already started singing.
riding the swing at the Lim festival
       They are from several villages besides Lim, even from neighboring Bắc Giang province.  For two days prior to the 13th festival authorities vet the singers and award the winners a spot on Lim Hill, the festival venue, about a half-kilometer off 1A on the southwest side of the village.  Thus, although the program includes other activities, the festival is like an Expo Quan H, showcasing the year’s most talented singers.
       The last stretch of the road from the highway to the hill, as well as the field at the foot of Lim Hill, is full of commercial stalls of various kinds, typical for a Vietnamese festival.   Gambling booths stand at one end, followed by stalls selling noodles, snacks, confections and drinks.  Others hawk decorative items like pine boughs, colored dough figurines on sticks, paper turtles and bamboo dragonflies.  Cheap votive objects and temple offerings may also be on sale, for a modest pagoda stands on top of the hill.  But it doesn’t attract much attention this day.  It’s not really a religious festival as it is one of fun and games.
quan họ singers on the pond beside Lim Hill
       Besides the games of chance and skill offered in the booths along the entrance road, chessboards line a lane on Lim Hill itself.  Here players can indulge their passion in a place with a setting of quan h singers right behind them.  Two or three large swings also stand in the vicinity.  These comprise a pair of three long bamboo poles lashed together and a thick rope hanging down from the yoke between the pole sets.  Riders, solo or with a partner, stand on a plank in the loop of the bottom end of the rope and pump their bodies to attain height.  They can easily get so high as to be parallel to the ground.  But not for very long, for swing handlers grab the rope to ease them down and allow the next person in line a ride.
bats on the belfry at Và Temple
       In another area a wrestling contest takes place.  Bare to the waist, two young men face off and grapple one another.  It could be quite chilly weather but this is a chance to win public acclaim, so they don’t mind the weather.  The match ends when one pins the other to the ground.  Winners then pair off until a final champion can be declared.
         The main attraction, of course, is the music.  About ten or twelve tents, with a guard rope in  front to keep visitors at a respectable distance, house separate village ensembles.  The men wear long gray and black tunics, split on each side, over white trousers, and round black caps.  The women dress in a maroon tunic, split on four sides, over black silk trousers, and wear or carry a large round bamboo hat.  A donation table stands in front of their tent and visitors usually drop banknotes there.  Some want to take the microphone and give their own sort of karaoke version of quan h, but companions quickly persuade them their inebriated, off-key performance won’t get any applause.
village contingent arriving at Và Temple
playing a conch in the procession
       The tents are rather close to each other, so the overall audio effect wandering around the area approaches cacophony.  On the other side of the hill, though, away from the competing amplifiers, a quan h troupe performs aboard a small boat, poled around a pond.  Here the sound is unsullied by other noises and skillful renditions of the male and female singers most easily appreciated.
       With so many performances going on at once, quan h at the Lim festival is atypical.  In the past, pairs of villages in Bc Ninh and Bc Giang, for kinship or other reasons, became ‘twins,’ like contemporary ‘sister cities.’  A troupe of one village performed with a troupe of its ‘twin’ and the antiphonal singing was a dialogue between them, often with very local references in the lyrics.
at the start of the rituals, Và Temple
       Elsewhere, inter-village bonds could extend beyond pairs.  On the full moon day of the New Year month, five associated villages west of Hanoi near Sơn Tây hold a festival of their solidarity at Và Temple.  The compound lies in a wooded area a little southwest of the town.  Dedicated to the ancient Mountain God Sơn Tinh, its original construction was in the 8th-9th centuries, when the Chinese still administered northern Vietnam.  The buildings there now date to the 18th century. 
       At the end of the entrance path is an elevated square, for the compound stands a little higher than the grounds around it.  Next to the massive, red wood entrance gate stands a towering sacred tree.  On festival day a table in front of it holds the offerings of the faithful—trays of fruits, flowers and food.  The contents change constantly, for devotees return to take them away after their prayers in the temple.
offering liquor to Sơn Tinh
       The five associated villages hold their processions at various times.  Long lines of men and women, young and old, dressed in colorful traditional garments, make their way down the road to the temple.  Some carry the palanquin of their own village tutelary deity.  Others brandish flags, banners and ceremonial staffs of various kinds.  Some carry trays of offerings on their heads.  Musicians play fiddles, drums, flutes and conch shells. 
       The compound is rather modest.  Besides the temple it also features bell towers with circular upper tier windows, around which are low-relief bats.  When the processions from all five villages have arrived the courtyard is full.  Then the rituals commence, first with the men, carrying small trays of liquor, with drums beating and horns blaring to either side.  After their prayers conclude the rest of the villagers make their ritual rounds.
       When all have concluded, the separate village contingents pick up their palanquins, staffs, flags and instruments and begin the processions home.  Tết is officially finished and so is their own role in it.  But when the twelfth lunar month rolls around, and people start anticipating New Year again, some people will have more on their minds than fireworks, presents and family banquets. They’ll be thinking about their festivals, the costumes they will wear, the wrestling and swinging skills they’ll display, or the songs they’ll perform in front of new holiday audiences.

palanquin bearer in a procession to Và Temple 

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Roaming Around Huế, the Last Imperial City

                                      by Jim Goodman

boats on the Perfume River
       When Nguyn Ánh finally emerged victorious in 1802 after a protracted civil war, changed his name to Gia Long and founded the Nguyn Dynasty, he chose Huế to be his capital.  In its previous incarnation as Phú Xuân it had been the capital of the Nguyễn Lords, Gia Long’s predecessors, from 1687 to its capture by the northern Trịnh Lords’ army in 1775.  It was also roughly in the center of a newly expanded and unified country, with the borders it has today, and halfway between Gia Long’s long time base at Saigon and the former Đại Việt capital of Thâng Long (now Hanoi).
boat traffic near Đông Ba market
       The city had been devastated by war and virtually nothing was left of its former glory.  The first building the new Emperor ordered erected was a massive Citadel on the northwest side of the Perfume River running through town.  Still standing today, renovated and repaired, its buildings are the primary tourist attraction in Huế, along with the imperial mausoleums, mostly in the southern countryside.  But besides these historical monuments, Huế has much more to appreciate.
Trường Tiền Bridge at night
       The Perfume River neatly divides the city into two parts.  On the northwest side lie the Citadel and the commercial district that grew up on its eastern side in the early 19th century.  It suffered considerable war damage and today the best surviving remnants are the Hainan and Guangdong Chinese Assembly Halls on Chi Lăng Street, the main thoroughfare, and Chùa Ông, built by Chinese from Fujian Province in the mid-19th century and often restored, featuring highly ornamented roofs and pediments.
    .  At the lower corner, next to the southeast corner of the Citadel, is Chợ Đông Ba, the large riverside fresh produce market.  Small boats fill the waters here, coning to deliver items or buy things to take home.  The Trường Tiền iron bridge at the end of this market, that connects this area with the new city, is illuminated at night with a succession of different colors on separate portions.
unloading a boat on the Như Ỹ RIver
       When the French conquered Huế in 1885 they left the Nguyễn Emperors in their Citadel as figurehead rulers and moved the capital back to Hanoi.  In Huế they built a new city on the other side of the Perfume River, just opposite the Citadel, in between two tributary waterways; the Như Ý River in the north and the Phú Cam Canal in the south.  Lê Lợi Street, running along the Perfume River from the train station just across the Phú Cam to the Như Ý River confluence, contains some of the best examples of colonial architecture in the city.
Nguyễn Dynasty monument on Lê Lợi Street
       On the lower part of this road the French opened a spacious high school campus of red brick, European-style buildings in 1896.  Hồ Chí Minh was a student here once, but was expelled after a year for taking part in revolutionary activities.  Other famous ex-students were Pham Văn Đông, Võ Nguyễn Giap, Le Duàn and Ngô Định Diềm. Across the road on the riverbank stands a Nguyễn Dynasty memorial building, flanked by two tall columns, in a style common to buildings in the royal tombs.
       Further up the road, between the Phú Xuân and Trường Tiền bridges, are some of the elegant French administrative buildings.  They are two or three stories high, with gently sloping roofs, narrow, multi-paned windows, colonnaded balconies and white or pale colored walls.  Today they serve as local government or corporation offices.
schoolgirls riding home
       Beside the Trường Tiền Bridge is a park full of odd and fanciful modern sculptures, mostly in sleek white marble.  Nothing neo-classical here, the works are both abstract shapes and strange statues like two swimmers, one atop the other, mounted like a flag from a post, or of the upper torso of a big-breasted woman with a bare, oval head, or the one of a naked bronze woman sleeping while cuddled by a black tree trunk with ten pairs of outstretched arms. Equally unusual sculptures stand in a park on the other side of the Perfume River near the Citadel. 
       The modern business district of Huế begins here, on either side of Hùng Vương Street, which proceeds several blocks from the end of the Trường Tiền Bridge.  Most of the hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and other businesses catering to travelers lie in this area.  On the wide avenues and side streets are more colonial-era buildings and a few churches.  A Cao Đài church lies on the lower end of Hùng Vương Street, perhaps the northernmost example of this very Southern religion, recognizable by the All-Seeing Eye depicted on its façade.
colonial building on Lê Lợi Street
       The most imposing church, in a thoroughly modern style, but with an Asian-style tiered spire, is that of the Redemptorist Mission of the French Catholic Church; the Notre Dame Cathedral, built 1959-1962.  It is near the southeast bank of the Phú Cam Canal, not far from the An Định Palace, another wonderful colonial-era building.  The second last Emperor Khải Định had it constructed in 1917, displaying his personal preference for a European-style mansion.  Three stories high, quite wide, with balconies and large arched widows, the façade painted white and yellow, the palace looks totally French, except for the roof of the octagonal pavilion in the courtyard, with sculpted mythical animals on its tiled roof.  Along with the Citadel and the Nguyễn Dynasty memorial on Lê Lợi Street, it is one of the venues for performances during the bi-annual International Huế Festival.
Phú Cam Canal
       Huế is still a relatively small city, so it doesn’t take long to get out to the suburbs and countryside.  At the lower end of Lê Lợi Street, a turn south on Điên Biện Phú Street eventually leads to Nam Giao, the former site of annual rituals the Nguyễn Emperor made to the Lord of Heaven.  Only the mound remains, but a right turn here, the route to the Tứ Đực Mausoleum, puts one in typically attractive Huế suburbs.  Unlike the outskirts of Hanoi or Saigon, here the houses are sited on bigger plots of land, spaced comfortably apart from their neighbors.    
Notre Dame Cathedral in Huế
       Likewise, the Buddhist temple compounds are larger than those in the city.  The most attractive is Chùa Từ Hiếu, set in a wooded area off the main road alongside two ponds. This is an active monastery with over a hundred resident monks and nuns.  The compound includes an entry gate with three arches, a couple temples, a cemetery, a shady walkway along the ponds, quarters for the monks and nuns and a bamboo rest house beside one of the ponds. 
       Buddhism still has a significant influence in contemporary Huế culture.  More Vietnamese take up the religious life, at least for a time, than in other cities.  And except for the Khmer-inhabited provinces in the south, Huế is the place travelers are most likely to see monks and nuns circulating in the city in the daytime, even visiting the tourist attractions, or happen upon Buddhist priests conducting rites on a city sidewalk.  Its religious reputation has even spread abroad.  At Chùa Diều Nghiệm, just up the slope from Chùa Từ Hiếu, next to an old Nguyễn Dynasty, square-based pagoda, Westerners come to stay for some time, don monastic robes and take classes in Buddhism.
An Định Palace
       From Từ Hiếu the road continues west to a junction and turns south, passing the turn-off to the mausoleums of Tự Đức and Đồng Khánh, and runs above the Perfume River on Vong Canh Hill.  This road continues along this scenic route, then descends to the broad plain in front of the Thiệu Trị Mausoleum, though a turn-off goes to a ferry landing opposite Chùa Hòn Chén.  Sited below a rocky promontory beside the river, when the Chăm held sway in this part of the country the temple honored Pô Nagar, their principal goddess.  The Vietnamese subsequently drafted her into their own pantheon of Holy Mothers and renamed her Thiên Ý A Ná.  The interior features a unique altar of nine tiers and ritual dances for the Holy Mothers occasionally take place here.
rest house at Chùa Từ Hiếu 
       The rural area around Lăng Thiệu Trị is very typical, with scattered farmhouses, rice fields, arched bridges over the streams and fish traps mounted beside them.  Another attraction of Huế is the proximity of its captivating countryside.  One of the most rewarding excursions is to Thanh Toàn, about 7 km east of the city.  The road passes through a network of canals and rice fields.  Small boats ply the waters, temple compounds flank the rice fields and farmers use scoops mounted on bamboo tripods to move water from the canals to the fields. 
sidewalk ritual in downtown Huế
       Fish traps common to Central Vietnam stand at intervals alongside the canals.  This contraption consists of a wide square net suspended from a bamboo tripod connected to an operating lever.  When released, the net then drops into the water.  When the lever is pushed down (and it’s a little strenuous an effort), the net rises, hopefully containing a lot of trapped fish.
       Thanh Toàn village dates its foundation to the 16th century, when immigrants from Thanh Hóa followed Nguyễn Hoàng here when he became governor of the area.  In 1776 a descendant of one of the original 12 founding families sponsored the construction of a covered bridge spanning the canal that divided the village into two parts.  About 17 meters long and 4.5 meters wide, slightly arched, a tiled roof, ornately carved dragons ornamenting the apex and roof ends on each side, with compartments inside for overnight travelers (one of the original intentions), it is one of a handful of covered bridges in the country.  Nowadays no one sleeps there, but it is a popular hangout for the villagers.
countryside near Lăng Thiệ Teị
       The village also has a communal house (đình) and a museum housing traditional tools, baskets and other everyday rural devices and implements.  Many of these are still employed and because of its still largely traditional setting and way of life, plus its beautiful bridge, Thanh Toàn is an additional venue for the International Huế Festival, staging contests in pounding rice, making conical caps, cooking rice and holding boat races on the canal.
       Huế is also close to the sea and a short ride up Highway 49 north of the city to the mouth of the Perfume River leads to Thaận An beach, near the northern end of a long, thin peninsula between the Hà Trung lagoon and the sea. It’s not a particularly scenic beach with no small offshore islands to look at and Huế’s weather pattern allows for few days in the year for swimming and sunbathing.  But in any case there are plenty of restaurants offering fresh seafood in a quiet environment marked by the sounds of rolling waves.
hoisting a fish trap near Thanh Toàn
       On the northern side of the Perfume River a very different kind of rural attraction is Kim Long village, just west of the Citadel on the way to Thiên Mụ Pagoda.  Famous for its garden houses and a popular excursion for Vietnamese tourists, the village dates its origin to the years immediately after the fall of Huế to the French, founded by ex-generals and former Court mandarins who had little to do after the colonial takeover.
       So they built nice, comfortable houses for themselves in Kim Long, outfitted with traditional elements like domestic shrines, carved wooden furniture with lots of mother-of-pearl inlay, ornate porcelain jugs, vases and jars, and flowers, shrubs and bushes to decorate their yards.  By no means mansions, they are generally one-story buildings with an attic to where the residents, descendants of the original families, remove themselves and essential furniture during severe floods.  These can reach as high as half the height of the ground floor rooms.
garden house in Kim long village
       They have a definite turn-of –the-century look, with columned fronts, often adorned with vertical plaques of traditional ‘parallel sentences’ (câu doi), tiled roofs and multi-paneled folding doors.  A few of the bigger compounds include a pond and an artificial mound, placed according to geomantic principles to ward off evil influences.  Some of the villagers have added teahouses or restaurants to their compounds to cater to visitors.  These are usually open-sided, with sloping tiled roofs and fit in with the existing architectural style.  The biggest garden house compounds include fruit orchards as well and maybe a fishpond and a covered passageway to the family shrine.
Perfume RIcer west of the Citadel
       Continuing west past Kim Long the road reaches Thiên Mụ Pagoda, on a hill beside the river.  This is the oldest Vietnamese temple in the province, commissioned in 1601 by Nguyễn Hoàng on his first visit to the area.  Beyond this a few km is the former Temple of Literature, where aspiring mandarins trained for service in the Huế Court.  Only the entry gate and the row of steles honoring the laureates still remain.  Another few km and the Perfume River bends to the south.  Near this turn a village temple compound features a replica of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India.  It’s not listed in any tourist literature, yet it’s another example of the pleasant surprises in store for anyone ready to roam around the enchanting environs of Huế.

18th century covered bridge at Thanh Toàn 
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Huế is one of the stops on Delta Tours Vietnam’s cultural-historical journey through the country.  See   


Monday, December 26, 2016

Teak and Temples in Old Lampang

                                                              by Jim Goodman
the Wang River running through Lampang
       When the British annexed Lower Burma in the early 19th century they began organizing the teakwood business.  An excellent, durable hardwood, with natural oils that make it impervious to water and termites, teak was an ideal building material.  Vast forests dominated by teak trees existed in both Burma and northern Thailand.  As the British took over the rest of the country they further developed the trade and extended business operations into northern Thailand.
       British companies leased forests from local autonomous rulers in the north and set up bases mainly in Chiang Mai and Lampang, 100 km south.  Lying along the Wang River in a broad plain, Lampang is surrounded by mountains, then full of forests that were a prime source of teak.  But while local authorities were quite willing to grant foreigners forest concessions, local people did not want to work in them.  So the British brought in workers from Burma, especially Shan, which not only affected the makeup of the population, but also introduced new cultural influences.  The city today features several Burmese-style temples, around half of those in northern Thailand.
the walled compound of Wat Lampang Luang
       Lampang is actually the second oldest city, after Lamphun, in northern Thailand.  The younger son of Queen Chamadevi of the recently established Mon state of Haripunchai, as Lamphun was then called, founded the city in the 9th century.  Because of the intervening Khuntan Mountains between the two cities. Lampang enjoyed a great measure of autonomy and indeed, there is scarce mention of the city in Haripunchai chronicles. 
       To protect itself from invasions, Lampang established bastions on all the routes leading into it.  When Mengrai of the Kingdom of Lanna conquered Haripunchai, including distant Lampang, these bastions were abandoned.  But one of them, about 18 km northeast, became the site of Wat Lampang Luang, one of the most venerated temples in northern Thailand.  Sitting on an artificial mound and surrounded by walls, it looks like a fortified temple compound.
18th century mural, Viharn Luang
19th century mural, Viharn Luang
       The Buddha himself is said to have visited the site and left a hair as remembrance, which was then housed in a shrine that eventually became a chedi, twice enlarged in the 15th century, that now stands 45 meters tall.  The Viharn Luang in front of it has a classic Lanna triple roof and an ornate, gilded housing for the main Buddha image. 
19th century scene, Lampang Luang mural
       The wooden interior walls feature painted frescoes of the Jataka Tales, a collection of stories of previous incarnations of the Buddha. Some of them date from the 18th century, the oldest in northern Thailand.  These are rather crude portraits, with fewer details and colors than the larger array of early 19th century murals.  Besides veneration of the Buddha, scenes depict kings at their courts, soldiers assembling for war, royalty at leisure and rivers full of fish and mythical creatures. 
       The original mid-15th century viharn (main prayer hall) has been replaced since then, though probably in the original style, as have most of the buildings.  But one of them, Viharn Nam Tam, built in the beginning of the 16th century, open-sided with a triple roof, has never been rebuilt and is the oldest extant original temple in the north.  
Viharn Nam Tam
       Within Lampang city itself, the most important temple in the Kingdom of Lanna times was Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao.  Built over a previous Mon temple in the 14th-15th centuries, it was the original home of the Emerald Buddha, considered Thailand’s most powerful guardian image. In 1434 lightning struck a chedi in Chiang Rai province and revealed a damaged Buddha image.  The abbot found that underneath the exterior stucco was an image of green jade.  The King of Lanna wanted it moved to Chiang Mai, but the elephant carrying it three times detoured to Lampang.  So it stayed in Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao until 1468, when King Tilokaraj removed it to Chiang Mai.   A century later it was taken to Laos and eventually Siamese troops captured it in Vientiane and took it to Bangkok, where it remains.
Po Thip Chang at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao
       As the southernmost part of Lanna, Lampang occasionally suffered when wars between Ayutthaya and Lanna took place mainly in Lampang province.  Lanna itself began disintegrating in the mid-16th century and Burmese armies captured Chiang Mai in 1558 with scarcely any resistance.  Lampang fell under Burmese rule, too, but as in the days when it was part of Lanna, Lampang’s administration still enjoyed a fair measure of autonomy.  There were occasional revolts against bad Burmese governors, but these didn’t last long.  The various principalities in the north never coordinated their actions.
       In the 18th century, Burmese control began to weaken, even as it revved up for a showdown with Ayutthaya.  In 1732 a Lampang hunter named Po Thip Chang led an attack on the garrison that had been set up at Wat Lampang Luang and killed the commander.  Such was the politics of the day, though, instead of organizing a reprisal, the Burmese king confirmed Po Thip Chang as autonomous ruler of Lampang.  In return, until his death in 1757, the Lampang ruler could be relied upon to aid the Burmese forces suppressing revolts in other places.
Baan Sao Nak teak house
       Burma conquered and destroyed Ayutthaya in 1767.  But in the north, sporadic revolts had already been intensifying and now they picked up, with a little more coordination than previously.  The nominal King of Chiang Mai and King Kawila of Lampang, the second successor to Po Thip Chang, faced with a Lanna devastated by revolts and reprisals, sandwiched between two more powerful states, decided the best way to get rid of the Burmese was to agree to ally with and be vassals of Siam. 
       In 1774 a combined Siamese-Lanna force expelled the Burmese from Chiang Mai.   But after barely surviving a Burmese counter-attack the following year, Kawila abandoned the city and removed what remained of the population to Lampang.  When Rama I, who had commanded the Siamese troops in the taking of Chiang Mai, ascended to Siam’s throne in 1782, he appointed Kawila as King of a restored Lanna.  
Baan Sao Nak interior
       But Chiang Mai was still deserted and the Burmese still in the north.  Kawila spent the next couple decades on expeditions to capture people from northeast Burma to resettle them in Lanna.  He officially re-established Chiang Mai as Lanna’s capital in 1796 and finally expelled the last Burmese from Chiang Saen in 1802.
       Kawila was one of Lampang’s ‘Seven Brothers,’ or Chao Chet Ton, the dynasty that ruled Lanna until its final absorption into Thailand.  Another of the original Seven Brothers became prince of Lampang.  As it was still several days’ journey from Chiang Mai to Lampang, he also was a practically autonomous ruler.
the viharn at War Pong Sanuk
       Lampang was the second most important city in revived Lanna.  Chiang Mai’s population only began exceeding Lampang’s in the mid-19th century.  By then the teak business had made it one of the two northern cities with a significant foreign population.  The smaller portion of this was Western, primarily British, some of whom ran the city offices and some of whom spent many days in the forests supervising the logging.  Every December the British community celebrated Christmas together, alternating between Chiang Mai one year and Lampang the next.  (This became easier after 1919, when the railway line, which only reached Lampang three years earlier, was extended to Chiang Mai.)
       The other foreign communities were those who came in with the teak trade—Burmese, Shans and even Indians.  They worked both in the cities and the forests and some Burmese entrepreneurs became quite wealthy from the business.  One of Lampang’s most popular attractions today is Baan Sao Nak, the House of Many Pillars, built in 1895 by a Burmese Mon trader. 
Wat Sei Long Muang
       Altogether 116 pillars support the house’s four connected, Lanna-style buildings, with a Burmese-style verandah in front.  All the original furniture remains on display—beds, tables, chairs, cabinets full of lacquer ware, brass and silver bowls, utensils and porcelain, partition screens, a steam presser for creasing pants and a couple of early 20th century gramophones.
       Other Burmese merchants around this time sponsored construction of temples for their community.  The Burmese have been Theravada Buddhist at least as long as the Thai, but these temples introduced new architectural elements distinct from existing Lanna-style structures.  The most obvious is the tall, thin, multi-tiered, ornate tower over the entrances or on the roofs.  The shape of the viharn—assembly hall—could also vary, making a tour of Lampang’s temples interesting for the diversity of shapes and styles.
Wat Chedi Sao
       Built in 1886, Wat Pong Sanuk rests, like Wat Lampang Luang, on a manmade mound rising above the immediate neighborhood.  Besides a gilded chedi, the compound features a three-story viharn in an unusual cruciform shape.  The viharn at War Sri Long Muang, completed in 1912, lies on a horizontal axis, with a very wide roof over a triple entrance and three-tiered towers on either side of the central one.  The building is unlike any other temple in northern Thailand.  And the central Buddha image, of course, is very much in the Burmese style.
old house on Kad Kokng Ta
       A third Burmese temple from this period is Wat Sri Chum, in the southern part of the city.  U Myaung Gyi, also known as Big Boss, of mixed Burmese and Shan descent, sponsored its construction and helped pay to bring in skilled carpenters and craftsmen from Mandalay to build it, which was completed in 1901.  Both the viharn and the smaller ordination hall feature typical Burmese/Shan roofs, different from the angled, layered roofs of Thai temples, plus ornamented towers of receding tiers.  The viharn has two side entrances, with elaborately carved filigreed screens just above the entry staircases.
       In 1992 fire consumed the viharn.  Basing their work on photographs of the original, Burmese and Thai artisans tried to build an exact replacement.  They got close, but the tower over the rear entrance is somewhat higher than the original and the exterior walls that were once an attractive pale yellow are now bright white.  A large donation box, a postal receptacle and a few other small structures now stand between the entry staircases.  And the filigreed screens above them have been gilded.  Nevertheless, it’s still the finest Burmese temple in Lampang.
horse-carts station in Lampang
       Burmese architectural elements also crept into the original Lanna-style temples in Lampang.  An example is Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao, where a Burmese tiered tower stands at the entrance, just in front of the old Mon-style chedi.  After this temple, the best known is Wat Chedi Sao, on the north side of the Wang River.  Sao in northern Thai dialect means ‘twenty’ and that many white chedis with gilded tops stand in the courtyard.  It also has, unusually for a Theravada temple, a statue of a multi-armed Guan Yin, the Mahayana Buddhist Goddess of Compassion.  Wat Koh, on the south bank of the Wang River, contains buildings in the northern Thai style, but also a very Burmese-style small shrine in the rear of the compound, full of interior wall murals.
Kad Kong Ta Street
       The other influence on Lampang that came out of colonial Burma was that of the British teak wallahs themselves.  Lampang’s central clock tower went up at this time, replicating a feature the British introduced into cities in Burma.  The teak wallahs spent a lot of time in the forests supervising the work.  Their crews first girdled the trees so that they would die slowly while still standing and cut them down one to two years later.  Trained elephants hauled the logs out of the forest and shaped them into rafts on the riversides.  The logs floated downriver to Bangkok, staying in the water up to three months. 
       Coming home out of that environment, they wanted homes that were spacious and comfortable.  Kad Kong Ta, in the northern part of old Lampang, was a favorite neighborhood and today the old teak wallah homes, largely converted to other uses like restaurants and lodges, are another of the city’s highlight attractions. They are a mix of northern Thai and European styles, but in general so evocative of the teak trade’s heyday that the city chose the neighborhood as its ‘Walking Street’ on Saturday nights, wherein the street fills with stalls selling handicrafts and other merchandise, northern foods are on offer and musicians play Lanna tunes.
horse-cart in the streets of Lampang
       The other enduring legacy of the British presence is the horse-cart, also previously introduced in Burma and still in use in Maymyo, or Pwin U Lwin, a hill station near Mandalay.  Lampang is the only city in Thailand one can still take a horse-cart to get around.  They ‘re actually cheaper than taxis and a much more interesting ride. 
       It’s amazing that they have survived this long, for the teak wallahs left a few generations ago and tourism didn’t take off until recent decades.  But now that Lampang is drawing more attention as an excursion for travelers in northern Thailand, the future of the horse-cart looks rosy.  They are a throwback to an archaic age, the city’s halcyon days of yore.  They are an appropriate vehicle for a relaxed exploration and enjoyment of the Mon, Lanna, Burmese and British legacies of Lampang’s fascinating heritage.
the original Wat Sri Chum, 1989
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