Once they had granted us Pattaya, Phuket, Samui, Phangan, Koh Tao, Chiang Mai and part of Bangkok, the Thai people decided to grow magic walls around the places they want to keep whole for themselves and their successors. One of this places is Lampang, The last Paradise of Thailand, as they call it. Haven’t heard of it, have you?
Of course, you haven’t since the town is magically hidden. Lonely Planet, the number one paradise ripper in the world, dismisses it with very few words: “The farangs pass by only to get to Thai Elephant Conservation Center”. Perfectly true. Just like the city hidden from the blind men’s eye.
Suppose you happen to get to kilometer 600 on the highway linking Bangkok to Chiang Mai you will notice there is nothing that prompts you to follow the sign towards the center of the city. A few car shops and some quick-stop restaurants suggest this is another intersection city like so many others in Thailand and around the world. Even if you entered the city looking for a refuge for the night, the few grey painted Chinese hotels would stop you before getting to the heart of Lampang.
As anyone barely speaks English you will settle for the first pillow that is being offered to you and so you will sleep as if you were a long run truck driver, praying for the morning to come sooner. Later you will describe Lampang as a bizarre and tedious experience, and by doing so you would add one more lock to the Paradise gate.
Yesterday night I left my friend’s house with the intention to get to my own home. The two residences are not further than four kilometers one from another and it was maybe the tenth time I was taking this road, yet I managed to get lost. I drove in the wrong direction for half an hour and realized I had to turn around only when the road significantly narrowed from a three lanes highway to a one lane country road. Sure, laugh all you want and question how I can do the job I do if I am not capable of finding a way in my own garden. Well, that’s the secret: being able to get lost with maximum precision even in the spaces you know best. Taking the wrong way you find the entrance to the Last Paradise.
I realized something was not quite right when going on a small one-way alley I heard bells and horse trampling. The carriage passed me by with its little horses flapping their pony tails and the driver looking left and right, taking off his cowboy hat while the pedestrians cheered for them. I was watching this surreal show doing a slalom through huge aluminium pots bearing tempting smells, colorful balloons, old books, old ladies practicing tai chi in the sunset light and old men playing the violin along the road. The carriage stopped at the end of the street where other eight or nine waited to depart. Lampang is the only city in Thailand where carriages are still used as public transportation or taxis.
Once I reached the carriage stop and I was done mesmerizing at this fantastic means of transport, I walked down Kad Kong Ta Road where on Saturday and Sunday only people and time are permitted to pass by. Kad Kong Ta was the most important commercial street of the city until the beginning of the 20th century, when the first train took off from Lampang station, taking with it part of the economic importance of the town. The tradition was kept alive and is thrifty since hundreds of sellers gather each week from all over Northern Thailand to sell traditional foods and drinks, handicrafts, music instruments and whatever else one can imagine.
The little street was vibrating with tension, as copper wire connected to the poles of a battery. Cramming myself through the electrons ambushing the vendors’ carts I touched one of the poles and I got electrocuted. A white bold bridge – on which I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a white crystal carriage passing by – was interrupting the monotony of the river Wang.
At the other end of the bridge a brand new episode of Lampang started, a rural story smelling of steamed rice, clay and long hard worked love. A bunch of white roosters were guarding the walking alley on the bank of the river; they’ve been doing so ever since the god Indra had sent them to Lampang to wake up the people prior to Buddha’s visit. The elders and the youngsters and the cats of the city minded their own businesses along the running water, tossing in it the sins of today and fishing answers to tomorrow’s questions.
I should now tell you how to get there, where to sleep, how much it costs. I can’t, though.