Mention the name LOPBURI to a Thai and the chances are that he or she will start telling you about monkeys – the central junction in the old town of this unexceptional provincial capital, 150km due north of Bangkok, swarms with macaques. So beneficial are the beasts to the town’s tourist trade that a local hotelier treats six hundred of them to a sit-down meal at Phra Prang Sam Yod temple every November, complete with menus, waiters and napkins, as a thank you for their help. In fact, the monkeys can be a real nuisance, but at least they add some life to the town’s central Khmer buildings, which, though historically important, are rather unimpressive. More illuminating is the Narai National Museum, housed in a partly reconstructed seventeenth-century palace complex, and distant Wat Phra Phutthabat, a colourful eye-opener for non-Buddhists. Lopburi’s main festival is the five-day King Narai Reign Fair in February, which commemorates the seventeenth-century king’s birthday with costumed processions, cultural performances, traditional markets and a son et lumière show at Phra Narai Ratchanivet.
The old centre of Lopburi sits on an egg-shaped island between canals and the Lopburi River, with the rail line running across it from north to south. Thanon Vichayen, the main street, crosses the rail tracks at the town’s busiest junction before heading east – now called Thanon Narai Maharat – through the newest areas of development, via Sakeo roundabout and the bus station, towards Highway 1. All of the sights below are easily walkable from the train station; the best accommodation and most restaurants are set within the quiet, partly residential core between Phra Narai Ratchanivet to the west and Thanon Na Phra Karn to the east.
Originally called Lavo, Lopburi is one of the longest-inhabited towns in Thailand, and was a major centre of the Mon (Dvaravati) civilization from around the sixth century. It maintained a tenuous independence in the face of the advancing Khmers until as late as the early eleventh century, when it was incorporated into the empire as the provincial capital for much of central Thailand. Increasing Thai immigration from the north soon tilted the balance against the Khmers, and Lopburi was again independent from some time early in the thirteenth century until the rise of Ayutthaya in the middle of the fourteenth. Thereafter, Lopburi was twice used as a second capital, first by King Narai of Ayutthaya in the seventeenth century, then by Rama IV of Bangkok in the nineteenth, because its remoteness from the sea made it less vulnerable to European expansionists. Rama V downgraded the town, turning the royal palace into a provincial government office and museum; Lopburi’s modern role is as the site of several huge army barracks.