I visited Lop Buri on vacation from my job in northern Thailand in 2000. The first place I went to was a Khmer Hindu temple that had been converted into a Buddhist temple in the 1600s. The temple was built in the 10th century by the Khmers. Like Angkor Wat, it has three Cambodian towers called “prangs,” the middle one larger than the others. When it was a Hindu temple this symbolized the Hindu trinity of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. The place is crawling with monkeys, most staying in the shade of the building. I made the mistake of walking into the shade to get a picture when a monkey jumped up on my back. After it decided that it couldn't get my backpack open, it climbed up to my head and started pulling my hair (heaven knows why). After about a minute of this some Thais came up to me and chased the monkey off. The monkeys are the main tourist draw of Lop Buri today. In a way, it’s rather sad. Had King Narai’s vision been achieved, monkeys would be the least of Lop Buri’s tourist draws.
Khmer Hindu Temple
That vision briefly came to life at my next destination, Narai Ratchaniwet Palace. It represented the pinnacle of a later era of Thai civilization, and the exotic civilizations that had come to Thailand. The palace was fascinating and a bit confusing. The oldest part of the complex is a 12th century Khmer prang in the adjoining temple; the rest was built during the time of King Narai. The first thing I noticed walking into the newer part of the palace and its temple was that the windows looked Islamic. I figured that they must have been built by Malay architects. Later however, I read that King Narai had hired artists and architects from Iran to help build Lop Buri.
The Gate to King Narai's Palace
Iran at the time was in an era known as the Safavid era. The Safavid era was a golden age for Iran. It saw the flowering of Iranian arts and culture, especially under Shah Abbas the Great (1588-1629), which is regarded as the peak of Safavid Iran. In addition to a flowering of the arts, trade also increased and trading missions made their way further and further afield. A few reached the shores of another kingdom in its golden age: Thailand of the Ayutthaya era.
Safavid Iran and Ayutthayan Thailand may have had vastly different cultures, but their paths were about to cross. A tiny community of Iranian traders had been living in Ayutthaya for several decades by the mid 1600s, but they had made little impact on Thai society. In 1656, King Narai, whose reign is often seen as the apex of the Ayutthaya era, took the throne and soon became fascinated with the Iranians and French. When he initiated diplomatic relations with Safavid Iran, he invited diplomats as well as Iranian architects and artisans to reside in Lop Buri rather than Ayutthaya, an honor reserved only for Iranians and French.
Different parts of the palace were built in different styles. One building is purely Thai; others have strong French or Persian influences, while others seem to be a perfect blending of Thai, Persian, and French styles. One building was dedicated solely to entertaining Iranian and French diplomats. The gate of the palace reminded me of a medieval Islamic city gate with its large, vaulted central gate and smaller niches. The palace itself has large, arched windows—a great departure from the usual rectangular windows of Thai buildings. Looking at them, I couldn’t decide if they were intended to be French gothic or Persian in their design. King Narai probably didn’t want it to be either; his city was a masterpiece of cultural fusion centuries before that term became popular.
A Building in King Narai's Palace Showing French and Persian Influences
At its peak, Lop Buri must have been an amazing and unique sight. It was a city in which three very different cultures, those of Thailand, Iran, and France, were fused for the first and perhaps only time. Unfortunately, centuries of neglect have left only a few hints of the glory that was once Lop Buri. Today, a few crumbling brick skeletons of old buildings, their decorations having long since faded and decayed, are the only glimpse we have of Lop Buri’s glory days. Given that the Thais reserve their most lavish decorations for windows, window shutters, doors, and the archways over the doors, I could only imagine the beauty that must have existed on and over the Persian-Thai windows and doors of the palace as I stared at their pale, colorless outline on the brick walls. Records kept by visitors note that the interior of the palace was an impressive blend of Thai, Persian, and French styles, but we have few details. Amazingly, the absorption of Persian culture at Lop Buri even reached the Buddhist temples. Many (not all) Thai temples have a row of niches, usually about a foot high, in which small statues of the Buddha are displayed. In one temple in Lop Buri, King Narai had these made to resemble the mihrab (prayer niche) of an Iranian mosque (albeit smaller). What the Iranians thought of their mosque architecture being used for Buddhist temples we may never know.
Author Standing in Front of a Collection of Khmer Temples and a French- and Persian-influenced Buddhist Temple, A True Symbol of the City
Nor do we know what would have happened had King Narai’s interest in Iranian culture been passed on to his successors. That was not to happen. The glory days of Lop Buri, and the cultural fusion that took place there, were nipped in the bud. King Narai died in 1688. At the time, the British and Dutch were taking hostile military action against Siam, and the Burmese were threatening from the west. While the Thai have never been especially xenophobic, there were those in Narai’s court that believed isolationism was the answer to Siam’s external problems. They were becoming increasingly annoyed by attempts on the part of the French to convert Narai and Siam to Christianity. When King Narai died, a succession battle broke out. In the power vacuum that ensued, an isolationist general seized power and expelled the French and many of the Iranians. Lop Buri was abandoned as a capitol and its great buildings left to the elements.
In 1767 the Burmese invaded, destroyed Ayutthaya, and massacred the royal family. They were repelled shortly thereafter, but Ayutthaya was finished as a capitol. The capitol was shifted to Bangkok and the Chakri dynasty, which still reigns today, was established.
The great Safavid dynasty met its end even sooner. After a series of weak kings, the short lived empire of Afghanistan invaded, sacked the capitol of Esphahan, and brought the Safavid era to an end. The Afghans were driven out three years later by the man who was to become Nader Shah. After his death, and a few short-reigning kings, the Qajar dynasty was established.
Having experienced the glories of Thai civilization and seen pictures of the stunning, delicate art and architecture of Safavid Iran and old France, the faded outlines of all three together in one place was both intriguing and sad. While only shadows of its former glory remain, Lop Buri stands today as a reminder of what can happen when people from diverse lands meet on peaceful terms. For a few short years, three peoples with vastly different cultures, all sharing a deep appreciation for art and beauty, built a city the likes of which we have only hints of today, and may never be seen again. Given time, Lop Buri may have developed a culture all its own, and what a beautiful one it would have been. In our current age of mass communication and easy travel, we can only hope to see something like it in the future.