Wat Phra Sri Mattana Rahathat at sunset
Though I went to Lopburi for its annual Monkey Festival Banquet, I saw more than Wat Prang Sam Yot, or the monkey temple. Lopburi, which is 2.5 hours north of Bangkok, has plenty of ruins to offer. King Narai the Great, the king of Ayutthaya Province from 1656 to 1688, designated Lopburi as the state’s second capital and built palaces there. Upon Narai’s death Lopburi’s extravagant buildings were sadly abandoned. It wasn’t until centuries later, in 1856, that the ruins were restored under King Rama IV. Compared to other ruins in Thailand, Lopburi is underwhelming; you can blame the Thai government that let the former royal palace disintegrate for hundreds of years.
Here are the sights to see in Lopburi.
King Narai National Museum
On the same grounds as Phra Nara Ratchinawat, the museum is open Wednesday-Sunday, 9 AM to 4 PM. When I went admission was free because of Rama IV’s recent death; the admission price has likely since returned to 30 baht for foreigners. That’s less than $1 USD. It’s worth the price: the museum has prehistoric finds, and plenty of sculptures and paintings from the Khmer and Ayutthaya art periods, among others. On the second floor of the biggest building in the museum many of King Narai’s personal effects are on display. The room also offers a great view.
Phra Nara Ratchaniwet
The buildings here, and King Narai National Museum, all comprised King Narai’s Palace. However, Rama IV, who restored the compound, renamed this area as above. The best restored ruins of Lopburi are here, and worthy of a few hours’ stroll. The towering trees, vast green expanse of grass, and the sunned ruins take up enough space that the other visitors don’t take away from the ambience.
One of the most significant buildings here is Dusit Sawan Throne Hall, on right. It’s an interesting combination of architectural styles: one side is French, and the other is Thai. This is the Thai side. Though built as an audience hall, Narai adapted it as a reception room to greet foreign ambassadors.
At the back of the hall is a raised platform reserved solely for the king. Thai culture has always been very reverent of the monarchy. During Narai’s reign, no one was to approach the king on foot or even hand things to him directly (today, the authority of the monarchy extends into law, known as lèse-majesté: those criticizing the Thai monarchy will be imprisoned). These expectations were set on foreign visitors, too. This is different from European treatment of ambassadors: they were considered as direct representatives of a monarchical ruler, and thus given the same respect as a royal.
Dusit Sawan Hall is the site of an infamous interaction between King Narai and the Chevalier de Chaumont, the French ambassador. The Chevalier (knight), sent by King Louis XIV in 1685, knew of these standards for addressing the king, but refused to prostrate before him. Negotiations between the Siamese and French governments resulted in a compromise: the Chevalier would approach the king on foot (in itself a huge concession from the Siamese government) and offer a gift on a tray attached to a long handle, so the Chevalier would not have to strain for the king to reach his letter from King Louis XIV the Sun King, and Narai would not need to lean over. Any show of extra effort on either of their parts would signal weakness and reflect badly on their respective states.
At the time of the greeting, the Chevalier improperly held the handled tray and it sat well below the seated King Narai. He had to lean over to reach King Louis XIV’s letter as delivered by the first ambassador from France. This one encounter has several dedicated signs in King Narai National Museum; it’s a popular, near-mythical story from history that’s actually true.
Phra Prang Sam Yot, or the “Monkey Temple”
This temple, teeming with monkeys, was built in the 12th or 13th century. It’s a Khmer style building not too dissimilar from Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The Khmer King Jayavarman VII of present-day Cambodia ruled over the Lopburi area at the time. This explains the stylistic similarities between the two temples. As Jayavarman was a Buddhist, Phra Prang Sam Yot was likely built as a Buddhist sanctuary. However, as Lopburi changed hands several times after this temple was built, it is now a religious mishmash that encompasses several deities and beliefs. There are Buddhist and Hindu motifs on the façade.
And, of course, plenty of monkeys. There are bars on all the entrances into Phra Prang Sam Yot save two, so the monkeys will stay out of the interior and guests can enter the temple without too much harassment. It’s quite a sight to see the hundreds of monkeys at this temple, hanging off of the prangs (the elevated structures on top of each entrance) and zooming around the ancient architecture. They’re clearly used to human interaction: walking near one will hardly fetch a glance. Farangs, or foreigners, stoop down and try to get a baby monkey for a Kodak moment. One young monkey jumped on my leg, eager for a snack or some attention, but I screamed and it hurried away. No thanks.
Constantine Phaulkon Residence
These ruins are of Constantine Phaulkon’s compound, which is in the northern part of the city center. It’s a good 20 minute walk from the other places in this post. When I went admission was free because of Rama IX’s death; the entry fee has likely returned to its previous 50 baht. A tour guide is available for free. Take advantage of this lovely opportunity to learn more about the ruins, especially since there are no signs!
Phaulkon, a Greek man, became fluent in English, French, Portugese, Thai, and Malay while working for England’s East India Company (remember the English, Spanish, Portugese, and Dutch clamoring for the monopoly over spices in Southeast Asia?). Phaulkon used his linguistic prowess to work as a merchant in Siam in 1675, then as a translator for King Narai. He then earned a promotion to work in the Treasury and became a close friend and counselor of the King.
Phaulkon arranged for the first ambassador from France, Chevalier de Chaumont, to come to Lopburi and meet King Narai (see the last two paragraphs of Phra Nara Ratchaniwet for a story about this meeting). As a reward Phaulkon received French citizenship and a noble title to be passed down to his sons. Phaulkon oversaw the building of this compound for the French ambassador, whom King Narai was desperate to impress. When the French ambassador departed, Phaulkon and his family moved in.
Phaulkon’s high esteem in the eyes of King Narai led to machinations from his rivals. When King Narai fell terminally ill, Narai’s foster brother Pra Phetracha spread a rumor. Phetracha gossiped that Phaulkon wanted to use Narai’s heir, Phra Pui, as a puppet so Phaulkon could become king himself. Phetracha used these falsehoods as an excuse to execute Phaulkon and his entire family on June 5, 1688. King Narai found out about this treachery and was furious, but could not avenge his assassinated Greek counselor as he was days away from death himself. Upon Narai’s death, Pra Phetracha seized power and expelled almost all foreigners from the kingdom of Siam.
Wat Phra Phuttabat, or Buddha’s Footprint Temple
Located between the towns of Lopburi and Saraburi, this temple houses a footprint of the Buddha from the 16th century. I took a bus from Lopburi bus station to Wat Phra Phuttabat. There’s a long boulevard stretching from the highway to the actual temple. The bus will drop you off at the entrance to the boulevard, and you can get a taxi or walk there. The walk is about 30 minutes, and you can walk through the market leading to the temple. Admission is 30 Thai baht per person. This temple holds incredible religious significance for the Thais: it’s one of six temples ranked as the highest grade of the royal temples, and it hosts a Holy Footprint Festival twice a year, in February and March. The festival, also known as Tak Bat Dok Mai, sees hundreds of thousands of Buddhists come to pay their respects.
This temple has a legend: King Songtham of the Ayutthaya Kingdom sent monks to Sri Lanka to pay tribute to the Buddha footprints there. Sri Lankans informed the monks that the Buddha had also been to Thailand and they should look for the Buddha’s footprints in their home country. A local man later discovered this footprint while following a wounded deer through the forest. The deer came out from the bushes fully cured and ran away. The man discovered the Buddha’s footprint, which was filled with water, and drank from it. His bad skin disease was instantly cured. King Songtham heard of the news and ordered the construction of a temple for the Buddha’s footprint. I do not have pictures of the Buddha’s Footprint, but I do have video, posted below.