Our bus trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai passed without incident …. until I spotted my mate through the window at the terminus, jumped off, and left my camera behind me. So excited at the thoughts of seeing him after a gap of 17 years, I lost the run of myself. We were on the road home before I noticed. What was to be a peaceful, trouble-free week hadn’t started off too well. But the girl on the ticket desk was very helpful. She made a few calls, and told me to come back in a hour. When I did, I’d be reunited with my camera. I’d been pretty ticked off when himself had left his phone on the steps of Wat Arun and hadn’t noticed till we’d crossed the river and disembarked the ferry. Thanks to a chap we’d bought a painting from and the auspices of a good monk, he got it back. But now it was my turn. On the double.
We stayed with our friends on the fab Santi Buri golf course, ’cause that’s where they live. P gave me cooking lessons – she cooked and I took copious notes. S took me golfing (the first time I’ve played 9 holes in twice as many years – I can still get the distance but I’m still crap around the green). We day-tripped to the Golden Triangle and Phu Chi Fa. We had a body-crushing 2-hour Thai massage in a temple. [I had to bite my knuckle to keep from crying and am getting worried that I might be getting a little into pain :-)] And when we weren’t hanging out by the pool catching up, we visited the sights.
Wat Rong Khun, aka the White Temple, Chiang Rai
Wat Rong Khun, better known among foreigners as the White Temple, is something to behold. Think Gaudi meets Kahlo, or Frozen meets The Addams Family, and you might get some hint as to what to expect. If you pay attention, you’ll find contemporary characters like Spiderman, famous people like Michael Jackson and super-brands like Hello Kitty mixed in with the demons and flames. As temples go, this one is a baby. Opened to visitors in 1997, it’s really an art exhibit giving a nod to the Buddhist Temple genre. It’s designed, constructed, and owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who says of himself:
I am simply a painter, who shares this world of ours, as a small unit in human society, paying my due and hoping to contribute by a small measure to the planet earth. I intend to remain a painter for the cause of Buddhism until the last day of my life. Nothing can ever change me or divert me from this course, not fame, nor contempt.
This evolving work of art is mind-bogglingly brilliant. Kositpipat has another 120 or so people working with him. Some of the buildings are bare white walls, standing like canvasses awaiting the master’s touch. Were it not for the couple of thousand Chinese tourists who disembarked from a fleet of buses before we arrived, it’d have been better still. It’s a poser’s paradise, saturated by selfies. Spare me. If I ever win the lottery, I’m going to rent the place for a couple of hours at sunset or sunrise and have it all to myself… and maybe a few close friends. Plenty more pictures on the Any Excuse to Travel Facebook page, but these give you a sense of what it’s at. Colour is scarce – the gold building photographed houses the public loos. I didn’t have time to queue to see what was inside – next time.
Baan Dam, aka the Black House, Chiang Rai
From white to black and there couldn’t be more of a difference. The product of the weird and wonderful artistry of Thawan Duchanee, blogger Roy Cavanagh describes the Black House thus:
Part art studio, part museum, part home, Baan Dam is an eclectic mix of traditional northern Thai buildings interspersed with some outlandish modern designs. Baan Dam is a thought-provoking combination of sanuk, the surreal and the sombre and [..] it’s fair to say that some of the artwork and themes on display won’t be to everybody’s liking.
The prudish side of me was a little taken aback by the signs for the loo. The squeamish side of me could have done without seeing those worms (if that’s what they are). But the quirky side of me enjoyed its day out. Duchannee, who died a few years back, had the wherewithal to amass an extensive collection of stuff on his travels. It’s not the ashtray-from-Brighton or the tequila-shotglass-from-Tijuana stuff we’re taking about but rather furniture, and snake skins, and sculptures. It’s a mad place altogether. But it, too, was besieged by hordes of visiting Chinese tourists although this time, thankfully, they didn’t land until we were leaving. If you’re planning what to do in Chiang Rai, do this first. You need a fresh mind to take it all in. Duchannee apparently came to the world’s attention with his piece ‘A Drawer’. Said to explain Buddhism to the West, it’s one I’d love to see but can’t find photos of anywhere. If anyone knows more, let me know .
Thawan developed a unique style of artistry using black and red tones, based on the styles of traditional Buddhist art to explore the darkness lurking within humanity. His pictures initially shocked many people as being blasphemous to the Buddhist religion and some of his early exhibitions were attacked. But many leading Thai intellectuals supported his work. Kukrit Pramoj for one claimed “his art is to be understood as giving life to myth.”
Lots more photos on the on the Any Excuse to Travel Facebook page. Check them out if you’re curious to see more.
Wat Huai Pla Kung, aka Big Buddha, Chiang Rai
It’s hard to keep track of the many faces of Buddha. Before coming to Thailand, Buddha to me was a short, chubby fellow with a big belly and a bigger smile. Since visiting the myriad temples in Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Chiang Mai, I’ve come to know his various embodiments, but I’d never imagined seeing him as a woman. And he isn’t. Or rather this Big Buddha is really a big, big, depiction of the goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin, ‘an East Asian bodhisattva associated with compassion and venerated by Mahayana Buddhists and followers of Chinese folk religions.’ No surprise there considering the influence of Chinese art and the spectacular Chinese cemeteries dotted around the country. She is revered for her 10 great protections from fire, water, falling, politics, prison, curses or poisons, demons, evil beasts, disputes or wars, and unlucky children.
Standing some 79 metres tall (even though she’s sitting), Guan Yin can be seen from the city. We took the elevator to the top, inside her head, and looked out through her eyes and through her bindi – her third eye. The views are incredible. The wall carvings are reminiscent of the intricacies of the White Temple, and the overall affect is jaw-dropping. I was particularly taken by the donation system here. Instead of, or in addition to, giving money, you can purchase a large bag of rice for 100 baht that goes to feed the elderly in an old folks home. You buy the bag, attach your name, and then put the offering on the altar. Constructive giving.
And the rest of Chiang Rai
There’s plenty to see and do in the city. We left the Blue Temple till next time. And the Oub Kham Museum which covers
..the history, culture, handicrafts and heritage of all the different Tai groups of Southeast Asia. Thais, or Siamese, are just one branch of the Tai ethnic/linguistic family that also includes, among numerous other groups: Lao, Northern Thai, (or Lanna), Shan, Tai Lue, Tai Yuan; the Black, Red and White Tai groups of north-western Vietnam and the Dai of Southern China, from where all Tai groups originate.
We skipped the Phiphitthaphan Up Kham museum with its ‘wide-ranging collection of artefacts, pictures & clothing from ancient royal kingdoms’ in favour of the Hill Tribe Museum, which gave us a fascinating account of life in the surrounding hills and mountains. Well worth seeing BEFORE you go to Phu Chi Fa. It knocked some of the stories we’d been hearing about responsible tourism on the head, particularly regarding elephant rides. Chiang Rai is a gem of a city but I wonder how much we’d have seen of it had we been tourists instead of visitors. They pointed out a tiny little shop opposite the Overbrook Hospital, frequented by locals, that is packed to the seams with all sorts of traditional, hand-dyed and woven Thai clothes. We came across this gem when we went for pizza at a Thai place, Ban Lom Jen, that opens just on Fridays to serve pizza until they run out. It’s in the village of Ban Rimkok and I’d be hard pushed to find my way there again.
We had a great week. Massive thanks again to our wonderful hosts. Early Wednesday morning, we caught a plane to Don Mueang International Airport near Bangkok. Asia’s oldest operating airport, it dates back to 1914 and is thought to be one of the world’s oldest international airports. From there we caught a taxi East to Kanchanaburi, to the River Kwai, for just 1500 baht. The Thai equivalent of Uber, GRAB, is our new friend.