Wat Phra That Haripunchai, a place of pilgrimage for the whole of Thailand, stands on the site of the former royal palace which lay outside the city wall, part of which is still visible. It is best viewed from the river end, as was originally intended. Here the visitor is greeted by two great lions, an unmistakable sign of the Burmese influence on the temple’s architecture.
On the left, before reaching the actual temple complex, there is a smaller, plainer wiharn containing a reclining Buddha, 15 m (49 ft) long.
The history of the wat dates back to 876 when the Mon king Atityaraj built a mondhop to hold a relic of the Buddha (a hair or a skull fragment). The chedi which took its place was modified and made taller over the
centuries but its present height (58 m (190 ft)) and appearance are roughly as they would have been in the 16th c. and fairly typical of the chedis of that period. The richly articulated base and upper part are covered in ornamental gilded copper plates with a nine-tier gold canopy on the tip of the spire. Once a year a ceremonial procession takes place when the chedi is washed down with holy water.
The Burmese-style tower east of the chedi holds the 13th c. temple gong, one of the largest in the world, with a diameter of about 2 m (7 ft). Almost all the present temple buildings are 20th c., including the wiharn, built in 1925 but in the ancient style. Beautiful partly gilded carving embellishes the façades, doors and windows. Interesting features in the interior include a statue of Buddha in the Chiang Saen style, the lovely wooden ceiling and the richly decorated preaching stand. The wall paintings here and in the lobby have recently been restored.
The charming wooden library pavilion on the left side of the wiharn is also worth attention. Erected in the 19th c. on the site of an older building it has a top story decorated with carving and inlay and a stepped roof. The old bookcases contain valuable palm-leaf manuscripts.
Past the large wiharn on the right there is an 8th c. brick chedi which once held 60 Buddha figures, 15 on each side. Only a few remain but on the square base, at the front of the chedi, there are three Buddhas in Chiang Saen style, one of which used to be shaded by a naga (the cobra’s neck has been broken off). The inscriptions on these three statues are in the north Thai dialect which was banned from schools under King Rama V.