Lamphun is an unfortunate place. Overshadowed by its ever-encroaching neighbour, Chiang Mai, it is often forgotten by most, stuck aside in a footnote of places to visit when on holiday in the north, in spite of the fact that it is rather well developed, with beautiful canals and rivers, community areas and even their own, be it much smaller, but yet far more ancient wall. For a town so small, Lamphun has a lot going for it. It is the home town of the great 7th century warrior Queen Chamadhevi and its temples number amongst the most sacred in the land.
Citylife is just as guilty as the next person in our marginalisation of Lamphun, not often featuring stories from this historic city. So, when Citylife interviewed the owner of Mickey Mouse House for our June issue, we spent a day in Lamphun and discovered more than just a few cartoon plushies. We learned that Lamphun has a deep-rooted community spirit that extends across the city, with people from all walks of life becoming proactively involved with things in their local community. Forgotten traditions have been brought back to life, museums have opened up across the area, weirs have been built and toilets have been cleaned (in spite of your raised eyebrow, this will make more sense later). Lamphun is a special place, with a very special group of people. And it is these people who embody the Spirit of Lamphun.
The Community Stirs
Almost ten years ago, three friends, Naren Panyapu, Takapong Kumbuluang and Suwipa Jampawan, took it upon themselves to re-develop an old teak-wood house that was simply rotting away not far from where they lived. Bought by the local municipality, the house was being ‘preserved’ by the local powers-that-be as part of an initiative to care for historical buildings, but was at that time left to rot.
The trio stepped in, and began an impressive restoration project. The municipality stepped up and showed their support in spirit, if not in actual coins, and soon word spread of the work being done and a group was formed under the name GwongWaen to canvas the local community for donations. Soon locals were donating money, labour, materials and even antiques and artefacts to be display in the museum.
The community was buzzing with excitement and before long the Lamphun Community Museum was completed. “We raised over 300,000 baht in just a couple of months,” said Naren. “It was amazing to see how many people wanted to help; this inspired us to carry on.”
Soon local community groups such as the Harley and Vespa societies all came to support this inclusive co-operative society with the shared vision to strive to develop as well as preserve their town; fed up with the inaction of local authorities.
Soon the community grew, matched only by its achievements.
The Spirit Grows
After several years of managing the museum and starting on several smaller projects around the city, Naren and his friends decided a re-structure was in order. By 2009, the group had grown to over 1,000 volunteers combining over ten pre-existing groups and NGOs, all offering support in any way they could. The Spirit of Lamphun name was coined and a legitimate community was born.
“All members have to be employed or in education,” Naren explained to Citylife. “They also must stay employed or at school, as if they can’t be developing themselves and supporting their own families, how can they help and develop the community?” As a result, the group has a membership that ebbs and flows, from students who come and go, only involving themselves during their holidays and adults who jump in and out only when they have the time.
Naren also emphasised that they were not an organisation, with management, review boards and accountants. They are a grassroots community of willing participants and donors with no limits as long as possibilities can be realised. “There are volunteers who own cafes, noodle shops, car washes, clinics, northern sausage stalls, and they all pledge some of their profits to us – for the next museum, project or event that they want to get involved with.”
Naren, to remain completely transparent, doesn’t take direct donations, instead asking that the donors only provide it when there is something they want to get behind, often asking them to bypass him entirely and pay directly to suppliers. The Mickey Mouse House is a perfect example of how these things come together, with Naren providing the land and the Mickey Mouse collection, and volunteers paying for materials and offering hours of unpaid labour for the House’s construction.
The Society Revives
After the success of the museum, the community rallied behind a now-popular annual event. “It’s called Loy Kralong Fai festival, and it’s a tradition unique to Lamphun which had died over 70 years ago. We had to revive it.” Coconut husks collected over the year are filled with beeswax and are floated down the river every Saturday after Loy Kratong.
Soon the spirited volunteers founded the ‘peddle festival’. Naren and his group hopped onto bicycles and peddled around the city promoting the society as well as handing out free bottles of holy water to be used to pour on Buddha statues during Songkran.
“The Spirit of Lamphun community is heavily inspired by Kruba Srivichai,” explained Naren and Takapong. The ‘northern saint’ who, in 1934, galvanised the entire Chiang Mai community to help build the road up Doi Suthep to the temple at the top, is paraded around Lamphun every Songkran as a sign of respect. Kruba Srivichai led thousands of volunteers in building the road, brick by brick – one of the Thailand’s most impressive examples of true community spirit.
The Volunteers Retreat
In 2012, the Spirit of Lamphun community was taken by surprise when the local municipality decided to take back the Lamphun Community Museum and manage it themselves. Years of hard work and thousands of donated items were now in the hands of the municipality who also refused to return any antiques or artefacts to their donors without proof of ownership. NGOs pulled out, volunteers left, and the museum was left lacking key resources to remain open. Half of the community was outraged, half were complacent, but for Naren it didn’t really matter.
“We have come to terms with this on several occasions now, where museums we open are then closed down by the owners,” said Naren very matter-of-factly. “We don’t own the buildings and it’s up to the owners what they do with it. We have all become used to it now.” Luckily the Lamphun Community Museum is still open to visitors and the municipality are managing it well. Naren is genuinely happy about the situation, as long as the museum doesn’t close down, but it highlights the fact that despite the hard work, financial investment and resources put into any of their projects – there is always a chance of it being lost.
The Museums Multiply
Today, the Spirit of Lamphun community has facilitated in the opening of around ten museums in Lamphun and the surrounding area. Whether it be the Mickey Mouse House which we featured in June; the vintage style Three Army Man Petrol Pump located just off the canal road and a great place for an old-school photoshoot; or a collection of ancient train tunnels that you can explore while learning about the massive infrastructure developments during the reign of King Rama V — Lamphun has it all.
“Museums are great,” said Naren, who highlighted that not only do they showcase all the best things about Lamphun’s rich and vibrant communities of yesteryear, but also work well for families or school trips – educating the newer generations in things easily forgotten.
Out of these ten museums (listed below), four are in the city itself and can all be visited on one day. Naren suggests that if you are interested, start off at the Mickey Mouse House, grab a coffee and have a chat with him before you venture out around the town. Once caffeinated up and ready to go, hopefully with a bit of local insight from Naren himself, head to the Kruba Srivichai Exhibition Museum in the Jaem Tawee Temple and learn about the revered Buddhist saint of the north. Grab some lunch and then pay a visit to the Lamphun Community Museum (with no hard feelings) before you stop off at the Thee Army Man Petrol Pump for a stylish photoshoot. If you still have time, try venturing out of town to one of the other museums in the neighbouring villages.
The Spirit Blossoms
Over the last few years, activities such as weir building to help preserve water for local villages and regular blood donation drives have become commonplace in Lamphun, with literally thousands of willing volunteers ready to help whenever they can. This year they even began cleaning toilets in temples and in elderly people’s homes every mother’s day – another selfless act for the wider community.
In the last year, the Spirit of Lamphun society has collected a list of almost two thousand names of people who are now on call in Lamphun if any urgent blood donation is required. “The local hospitals have a direct line to us that they call when they are in urgent need of a certain blood group. We then quickly call everyone on the list with that blood group until we find someone available to rush to the hospital and donate right there and then,” said Naren, especially proud of this achievement.
There is no doubt that the Spirit of Lamphun is something quite unique, but in Naren’s eyes, this is not a good thing. “Other places should have something similar, and maybe they do, I can’t say I’ve sought out any other communities like ours. I hope we are not unique.”
From a group of three friends determined to improve a small teak building in the quiet town of Lamphun some ten years ago, their community spirit has snowballed and infected their entire community, bringing about a community spirit that leaves those without such a community impressed and inspired. Their unique Thai style laissez faire system which sees everyone working independently within a community filled with ideas and dreams is impressive and goes to show that in the right communities, good things can develop naturally and can in turn impact everyone around them.
What the future holds for the Spirit of Lamphun community is uncertain, just how they like it. Soon enough a new project or new museum idea will come to light, and in no time will become a reality – all through the generosity and dedication of those in the local community of Lamphun to keep their town’s spirit alive.