Ho Trai in Chiang Mai

The ho trai is the library of a Buddhist scripture library in Thailand. It is always included as part of a larger ensemble of buildings in a Buddhist monastery. Its primary function is to store the sacred books or palm-leaf manuscripts of the monastery. In the past, they were often built on stilts above ponds, as this would help to protect the manuscripts from rats, insects and other vermin.

In Northern Thailand- the territory of the former kingdom of Lanna- ho trai on stilts are less common than they seem to be in Central Thailand. Here the most common form of ho trai is a narrow two-storey structure with a brick and mortar base and a wooden superstructure. While they are rarely the focus of much attention in travel writing, some of them are aesthetically impressive buildings which a history or architecture buff might get some enjoyment from. On a recent trip to Chiang Mai and Lamphun, we encountered a number of historic ho trai. This article will cover a couple of notable examples from Chiang Mai and a later article will focus on the examples we encountered in Lamphun, just to the south.

The rear view of the ho trai at Wat Phra Singh

If you were only going to see one ho trai on a trip to Northern Thailand, the obvious choice would be the one on the grounds of Wat Phra Singh. A fine example of Lanna architecture, the library dates back to the fourteenth century, making it one of the oldest monuments in Chiang Mai. It is built on a high stone base, which would have put its sacred manuscripts safe above the periodic flooding of the Ping River. Apart from its functionality, the base of the monument is a thing of considerable beauty, with beautiful, stucco figurines of devata, a kind of heavenly being. The devata on this ho trai are female, with elegant proportions and the elaborate head-dresses and garments associated with royalty. The ones on the corner of the base are performing the wai, the prayer-like Thai greeting, which is performed with palms pressed together. The base is also noteworthy for its long, narrow staircase which is flanked by a pair of guardian figures. The upper story is made from timber, with a multi-tiered, Lanna-style roof. This upper section is decorated with glass mosaics and gold lacquerwork, which greatly adds to its charm.

The front of the ho trai at Wat Chiang Man

For a point of contrast, you could also check out the simpler ho trai on the grounds of Wat Chiang Man, which is sometimes referred to as Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. This ho trai is set over a pond, which would help to deter termites and other unwanted pests. The wooden structure reflects in the waters of the pond below, not only protecting its treasures but enhancing the aesthetics of the scene. The structure itself has a simple fretwork balcony but a subdued elegance is achieved through the foliate gold lacquerwork which adorns the front of the building. The roof, in the Lanna style, features steeply upturned chofah decorations. It appears this structure is much more recent than the one at Wat Phra Singh, but it still offers a modicum of old Lanna charm.




The Multi-Layered Heritage of Wat Phra Yuen

Even among the select group of visitors who include Lamphun on their itineraries to Northern Thailand, the temple of Wat Phra Yuen is likely to be passed over. This is a shame because it is arguably one of the oldest temples in the region and one which has vestiges from three different kingdoms: Haripunchai, Sukothai and Lanna. In this it can be seen as a composite of a millennium of different political and cultural influences in this small part of the world. Yet in spite of these claims, it retains a very unassuming appearance.

Unlike most of Lamphun’s sights, it is nowhere near the walled and moated core of the old town. Instead, it is a few kilometres away, amidst the rice-fields which surround the small city. When we arrived around lunchtime on a Sunday, we found no one else around. Parking the motorbike on the leafy grounds of the wat, we wandered around, taking a look at the ensemble of temple buildings. There are two main structures at the site: a comparatively modern vihaan and an ancient stupa. Though you will see both as soon as you enter the compound, we decided to examine the vihaan first and save the stupa for last.

While the vihaan is relatively modern, probably dating to within the last few decades, it is a colourful example of a Northern Thai temple which is worth at least a few minutes of your time. On the outside you can see wooden naga finials on the tips of the eaves, stone temple guardians crouching on the balustrades of the staircase and elaborately decorated windows with coloured glass inlay. The inside of the temple is even more lively; the focal point is a large Buddha depicted in the touching-the-earth posture. Seated at the far end of the hall, before it are a row of slender, wooden columns with lotus-bud capitals. Both the columns and architraves are painted red and decorated with gold stencil work. The overall effect is surprisingly elegant. There are also some beautiful carvings in the window panels, most of them depicting standing Buddhas with flowing robes. However, a brief look around will probably suffice as the wat’s greatest treasure is outside in the yard.

On the grounds of the wat is a large, white stupa which is one of Lamphun’s links back to the kingdom of Haripunchai, an ethically Mon kingdom which, it is claimed, ruled the region between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. The prevailing mythology about Haripunchai also propounds that the kingdom was founded by a legendary ruler by the name of Queen Chamadevi. A statue of her graces the centre of town to the present day. In truth, the surviving monuments and statues of Haripunchai go back as far as the tenth century but no earlier, so the kingdom may not be quite as old as legend would have it. Nonetheless, Lamphun is certainly an ancient city which was founded and ruled by the Mon ethnic minority for many centuries before it was incorporated into the dominant Northern Thai kingdom of Lanna. And recent archaeological work at Wat Phra Yuen has confirmed that the lowest level of the stupa at the temple (consisting of the foundations and some monk’s prayer cells) are, indeed, of Haripunchai heritage. This monument has more than a thousand years of history behind it. On the other hand, its present form bears scant resemblance to how it would have appeared in the days of Queen Chamadevi.

A standing Buddha in one of the prayer niches

Its first major renovation was when a huge Sukothai-style mondop was built over the original Mon monument. It was at this point that it first attained its current monolithic proportions. In this Sukothai-era reconstruction, it would have had a large, pointed roof on top. Local residents suggest that this may have been extent as late as the early twentieth-century when the crumbling monument was reconstructed again as a squarish stupa. This third version shows a clear influence from the Pagan style of Burma. It is worth noting, however, that, apart from these three major renovations, numerous minor adjustments would also have been added over the centuries.

In its current form, it has a monumental square base with four, grand staircases, one located in the centre of each side. A low parapet runs around the edge of the upper terrace, clearly demarcating the upper portions from the base. On the terrace (which is not admissible to visitors), you can see a couple of lesser stupas. In the centre of the terrace is a large block of masonry, which is patchily whitewashed. On each side there is a long, deep niche, where a large, Sukothai-style standing Buddha can be found. While most of the monument shows signs of dilapidation, these images are well-maintained. If anything, their brilliant gold coats of paint might look too clean and bright for some tastes. On top of the monument is an ornate, tiered roof, topped with a golden parasol. The signs of deterioration notwithstanding, this is still a venerable monument, whose mixed heritage makes it worth the time of any historically-minded passerby.

One of the ornamental staircases of the main stupa

Ku Chang Ku Ma: The War Elephant’s Shrine

The final stop on our trip around the lesser-known sights of Lamphun was Ku Chang Ku Ma, a pair of brick ancient brick stupas reputed to have associations with the legendary Queen Chamadevi. It is set on a quiet, leafy street in the suburbs of the small city. Coming on a motorbike, it only takes a few minutes from the major wats of Lamphun’s old town. While it is certainly not an overwhelming site, for those looking for traces of the old Mon kingdom of Haripunchai, it should definitely be on your list. History aside, it is also notable for the highly unusual design of its main stupa, the shape of which is totally unique among the ancient monuments of Thailand.

Arriving on a Sunday afternoon, we pulled up in the site car-park. There were a couple of street-stall vendors selling rice and drinks to visitors. At the time of our visit there were a dozen pilgrims who had stopped by the venerable brick monuments to lay garlands, burn incense or simply sit around enjoying drinks and snacks. Situated directly opposite the car-park, the main stupa is flanked by spirit-houses and statues of war-elephants with raised trunks (a modern addition), most of which have been liberally decked with garlands. Like so many shrines in Thailand, it has an aura of serene mysticism.

Ku Chang Ku Ma

The stupa now consists of exposed red brick but traces of plaster remain on the upper portions. It would probably have been entirely covered with plaster originally; the Mon ethnic group were masters at decorating their religious monuments with stucco. In terms of shape, it is a cylinder which tapers towards the top. While this is the only surviving example of the this kind of stupa in Thailand, it is comparatively common in the Mon sites of Myanmar. For instance, there is one beautiful example on the Irrawaddy riverfront at the famous archaeological site of Bagan. This could be a suggestion of cultural exchange between the Mon kingdom of Haripunchai, which was based in Lamphun, and the Mon kingdoms of ancient Myanmar.

According to local legend, Ku Chang Ku Ma was built by Haripunchai’s founder, Queen Chamadevi, who ruled the area in the 7th century. The stupa is said to entomb the tusks of the queen’s most fearsome and revered war-elephant, which obviously explains the surrounding statues. It is also worth mentioning that the Thai word for elephant is chaang, which is reflected in the shrine’s modern name. Behind the main shrine is another more typically shaped stupa, which is said to be the tomb of Queen Chamadevi’s war horse. Whatever the truth of these claims, the shape of the main monument gives some credence to the fact it is of Mon lineage, which means it probably dates back to at least the early 13th century. For this reason alone, it is a must-see monument for anyone tracing the region’s Haripunchai heritage.


The Dwarapala of Muara Jambi


During 2002 on an archaeological dig at Candi Gedong I, a temple at Muara Jambi, the researchers uncovered a complete and undamaged 1.5 metre sandstone statue. Not used to finding large artefacts intact, the archaeologists were greatly surprised and excited by their discovery. Because of the location of the statue (near the entrance door to the temple), it was immediately presumed that they had found a dwarapala (a door guardian in Hindu-Buddhist mythology). The function of the statue would have been to prevent evil spirits from entering the sacred space of Candi Gedong I.

Standing with his legs in a unusual, buckled position, the dwarapala holds a small shield in his right hand and a cudgel in his left hand. The broken cudgel is perhaps the only feature of the statue which is seriously damaged. While it is customary for dwarapalas to have a rather fierce countenance…

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Wat Mahawan Woramahawihan: The Shrine of Phra Sila Dam

In March 2018, we returned to Lamphun after a 12-year absence. Arriving on a rented motorbike from Chiang Mai (a city located about 25km to the north of Lamphun), we not only revisited the city’s major sites but also saw some lesser ones which we’d missed on our first visit. One of the ones which we visited for the first time was Wat Mahawan Woramahawihan, a Lamphun city wat which housed the holiest Buddha image in the whole province- Phra Sila Dam.

The wat is located near the city moat in the historic core of the city. This makes it an easy add-on to a visit to Lamphun’s main sight, the magnificent, gilded temple of Wat Phra That Haripunchai. However, as we soon learned, Wat Mahawan Woramahawihan is one of those Thai wats which vividly illustrates the difference between legend and reality. According to legend, the wat had been established in 667 by Queen Chamadevi of the Haripunchai Kingdom. It had been built to house a black statue which was war booty from a war against Lavo, which was the former name for the modern city of Lopburi. The statue- variously known as Phra Sila Dam (The Black Stone Image), Phra Phutta Sikkhi or Phra Rot Lamphun- can still be seen at the temple today, and it attracts a steady flow of Thai pilgrims. But while the statue itself is clearly of great age, the buildings at the wat belie the claims of its great antiquity.

A close-up of the famous statue, with gold-leaf accretions

By and large, the current complex dates back not to the 7th century but rather the 1940s. However, isn’t to deny that it has some heritage value. Of particular note is the hor trai (Buddhist scripture library), which is an attractive old timber building with dramatic gables, tipped with the ubiquitous Thai roof ornaments known as chofah. In front of it is a tall, thin belltower of similar vintage. Other structures from this period include a small, wooden shrine and a drum tower. Nearby there is an exotic-looking sala tree ,which has pink blossoms of an otherworldly appearance. Apparently, the species has associations with Buddhist mythology. On the other hand, it can’t even be as old as the library building.

Of greater promise for antiquity-spotters is the golden chedi behind the wat. Consisting of of bricks, plaster and gold plating, the chedi clearly has greater durability than the other parts of the temple, which are mostly built of wood. However, the chedi is designed in the style of the Lanna kingdom, not the earlier Haripunchai kingdom, which had a very different aesthetic style. That means that there is no reason to believe that the chedi was a product of the Haipunchai kingdom, let alone the reign of the legendary Queen Chamadevi. However, it is possible that the current chedi was built over the core of an older structure, as this had often been the case in Thailand.

From there we went to see the main vihaan, which was where Phra Sila Dam was enshrined. Like most of the complex, it seemed to date back no more than a few decades. It has a multi-tiered roof and a three-headed naga balustrade on the front steps. It made me curious to see what this temple looked like in the early twentieth-century and if anyone has any period photographs, I’d certainly be keen to look at them. Nonetheless, we were really there to see Phra Sila Dam, so went inside, hoping to spot the venerable image.

The tusk-flanked image of Phra Sila Dam

There were a couple of friendly women who worked as attendants at the temple, selling amulets cast in the image of Phra Sila Dam. They also collected donations for the upkeep of the temple. They confirmed to us that the image could be seen inside the vihaan and showed us a photo of what to look for. It was located at the far end of the vihaan, as part of a dazzling tableau of gold and mosaic work, elephant tusks, lotus-shaped ornaments and electric candles. The largest element was a large, seated Buddha set on a lotus pedestal with beautiful glass inlay, but this was not the revered image. Phra Sila Dam was set in front of it, flanked by a pair of elegant tusks.

The venerated image was modest in size, its formerly black stone now coated in a thick layer of gold-lead. It showed a seated Buddha with a highly stylized naga hood. He had the blunt, thick-lipped features of Mon Buddhas, which suggested that it was of considerable age, the Thais having conquered the Mon kingdoms of Thailand as far back as the thirteenth century. Famous with Thais, this image is rarely seen by foreigners, but this was clearly a shame. It is is an interesting but little-known link to the Haripunchai kingdom and possibly even its legendary founding monarch, Queen Chamadevi. A visit here is likely to be rewarding for the historically-minded tourist.

Pasemah: Cyst Graves and Carved Boulders


The Merasa Hotel was a couple of kilometers out of town, a far enough distance to take us back out into the countryside. On the way we got our first glimpse of Mount Dempo, a three thousand meter high volcano, its peak wrapped in mist. The air up there in the mountains was so clear that we could see the mountain clearly, though set at a considerable distance. Coming from Jakarta, a foully polluted city, this seemed quite a wonder in itself. This was not the only pleasant surprise. The rice paddies, receiving a high annual rainfall, were emerald green, the whole landscape having a cool, lush appearance. We had been drawn to the plateau by its historical remains, but from the start it was its natural beauty that impressed us.

The Merasa Hotel was another matter. The ojek drivers pulled up in the front yard of what looked much…

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Pasemah Plateau: A Train Without Tickets


When it was time to leave Palembang, we decided to go by train, presuming it could scarcely be as shambolic as the rest of the city’s transport. While its becak and taxi drivers were a motley collection of drunks and thieves, we couldn’t imagine an entire railway system falling into the hands of the mafia. We were wrong, of course, and really we had no one but ourselves to blame; one of our guidebooks had warned us off Kertapati train station, depicting it as a viper’s nest of gangsters and lowlifes. The book dated back to the mid 1990s, so we had presumed, erroneously, that things might have changed in the last fourteen years. Thinking we knew better, we decided to check it out ourselves.

The station was set behind the Ogan Mosque, at the confluence of the Musi and Ogan Rivers. We went by minibus, crossing the Ampera Bridge…

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