LOPBURI, THAILAND – We were headed to a small town called Lopburi. I had never been to Lopburi, nor had I heard of it prior to this trip. In fact, I had never even been to central Thailand (where Lopburi was located). My Thai travels had always centered on Bangkok and the various islands, with periodic jaunts to the Chiangs in the North.
So, why the hell was I packed into one of those excruciatingly cramped mini buses, a mode of transport I detested and had not used since my Peace Corps days? Well, I had been invited (and/or cajoled) by a Thai friend into joining him on a weekend trip back to his hometown. Lopburi.
Now, if you’ve done any traveling at all, then you probably know that some of the most interesting experiences to be had are derived from hanging out with locals. It’s an opportunity to engage the culture in a way that a manufactured tourist attraction doesn’t allow. It’s like going to someone’s house for a home cooked meal or attending a wedding – the traditions and insights that those sorts of activities provide are often the most culturally rich. My hope was that this trip to Lopburi would be like that.
After a two hours plus (it felt like more) minivan ride starting in Bangkok, we arrived in Lopburi. My first impression was far from positive to be honest. Lopburi is a small town by any standard – it encompasses a whopping 14 km² and has a population of less than 30,000 – and at first glance, it just didn’t seem like there was much to it. But my friend, who goes by the name of Tar (“pronounced like guitar” he would always say), certainly seemed happy to be back so I went along, hoping for the best.
We checked into what turned out to be the main hotel in town, the Lopburi Inn Resort. Rather standard as far as hotels go, but it did have two distinctive features worth mentioning – (1) a huge pool (which made me happy since I figured we could just hang there if all else failed) and (2) a full-on monkey theme, in the form of giant monkey statues adorning the resort grounds….which I found rather creepy. I later found out that the monkeys of Lopburi are one of the town’s main attractions but more on this later.
After getting settled in our rooms, we hit up the pool first, where I attempted (rather successfully, I must say) to forget all about the unpleasant minivan ride. Then it was off to dinner. We opted to eat at the resort’s main restaurant because Tar’s father worked there as a chef. It turned out that his father was not only a fantastic cook (it was one of the tastiest Thai meals I’ve had) but a gracious host as well. And since this was Thailand – where everyone seems to love to sing – we finished the night with a bout of karaoke, in which Tar eagerly and competently indulged (he later admitted that as a teen, he had worked as a singer at the restaurant).
The next day, I got to explore Lopburi, which we did via motorbike, and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. The main attraction is the very impressive Phra Narai Ratchaniwet, also known as the ruins of the royal palace of King Narai who used Lopburi as a base during his reign in the mid-17th century (Note: this is according to my friend Tar, who apparently also worked there giving tours during his teenage years). Other Lopburi highlights included some lovely Khmer style shrines that were overrun with monkeys, as is much of old Lopburi (apparently the monkeys are domesticated and have free reign over the city), a quaint floating outdoor food market along the Lopburi river, and, up in the surrounding mountains, a couple of lovely temples (sadly, I don’t recall the names) which offered up some fantastic views of the countryside.
And that was my weekend trip to Lopburi. Thanks to my friend Tar (“pronounced like guitar”), I can now say that I’ve been to central Thailand and that I was able to experience it in a way that I wouldn’t have if I had gone there by myself.
What’s the little thing that makes a trip to Lopburi worthwhile? The ruins of Phra Narai Ratchaniwet. And the monkeys, if you like that sort of thing.
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Photos: Gary Fong
Author: Gary Fong