Northern Thailand: Part I.
The mountainous northern area of Thailand is absolutely breathtaking! There was so much to discover that it certainly set our standards high for what we were looking forward to stumbling into in our later excursions!
BAAN DAM (BLACK HOUSE)
Eerily artistic work off the beaten path but definitely not to be missed!!
about the artist: Created by Thawan Duchanee, a Chiang Rai native, the Black House stands as a testimony to this artists controversial style. Yet, he was quite a force in the international art scene. After studying in Thailand and Europe, Duchanee developed a unique sense 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 actually, some of his early exhibitions were attacked. But many leading Thai intellectuals supported his work and his art quickly gained prominence not only in Thailand but internationally as well.
the masterpiece: The Black House isn’t just one structure but a collection of different buildings scattered around pleasant greenery. The main building is the largest wooden structure upon first entering and it sets the entire mood for what you will experience throughout the rest of the grounds. The black tiered roof has curvy metal points jutting from the sides.
Traditional and elegant on the outside, but it’s whats inside that surprises. Inside, the wooden infrastructure is aesthetically exposed. In the center, a long wooden table with benches on both sides is lined with an incredibly long snakeskin runner. The interior of the hall is interspersed with animal skulls and buffalo horns. This theme is continued elsewhere at the Black House. Everything is black or at least gives off a dark aura and each of the houses contain some collection of bones, skin, teeth, and taxidermy of a wide array of animals.
One hut, designed like a Buddhist stupa, contains a circular room, lined with chairs made of buffalo horns and skin. The centerpiece is a giant crocodile skin, painted black and surrounded by candles. The room is known to amplify sound.
There is no information (in English anyway) that explains why this piece was created, the true meaning of anything here, the significance of the animal carcasses and colors, or the layout of the Black House. I have read that this may be Duchanee’s portrayal of what hell looks like or the journey he believes that Buddha went through to achieve enlightenment. I have also read that the animal remains are all from animals that passed away due to natural causes and that they were not killed just to be showcased on his property. Whatever the reasons, the Black House really leaves an open interpretation for those to look at it however they may like.
WHITE TEMPLE OF CHIANG RAI
Completely opposite of the darkness portrayed at Baan Dam (Black House), Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) emits imagery that instills purity and heavenly colors.
about the artist: Born from the devotion of artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, Wat Rong Khun (or the White Temple of Chiang Rai) is no traditional temple. A deeply devout Buddhist famed primarily for his religious-themed paintings, Chalermchai began the White Temple in 1997. Towards the end of the 20th century, the original Wat Rong Khun was in a poor state of preservation and restoration works were halted due to the lack of funds. Chalermchai decided to completely rebuild the temple and fund the project with his own money. The artist built the temple to be a center of learning and meditation and for people to gain benefit from the Buddhist teachings. To date the temple is an ongoing project, and is actually not seen to be completed for decades to come.
the masterpiece: In its entirety, the White Temple is constructed of the color white, symbolizing the purity of Lord Buddha, and of pieces of mirror embedded in the structure to reflect light, representing the Buddha’s wisdom shining out across the Earth and the universe. Chalermchai re-imagines Thai art for the modern world. As you move through the temple grounds, you will be immersed in the artist’s surreal vision of Buddhist teachings, superheroes, movie stars, and cartoons that make their entrance into temple murals depicting traditional Buddhist motifs and into sculptures and architecture that cover the landscape.
Every detail of the White Temple carries meaning and encourages the visitor to reflect on the Buddhist teachings that show the way to escape from worldly temptations, desires, and greed and focus on the mind instead. The main temple is reached by crossing a bridge over a small lake. In attempting to get there, you cross a threshold guarded by demons and traverse a bridge over an ocean of ghostly hands reaching up from the cycle of death and rebirth. This area represents human suffering and hell and the reaching hands symbolize desire. The bridge is called, “the cycle of rebirth” signifying the crossing over from the cycle of death and rebirth into a state of free suffering; the way to happiness by overcoming worldly things such as temptations and desire. The temple building represents the realm of the Buddha and rising to a state of nirvana.
Next to the lake stand two very elegant Kinnaree, a creature from Buddhist mythology, half human, half bird.
A structure that stands out because of its color, looking important, is actually the rest room building! Another very ornately decorated structure, this golden building represents the body, whereas the white represents the mind. The gold focuses on worldly desires and money. It represents the idea to make merit and to focus on the mind, instead of material things and possession.
PADONG LONGNECK HILL TRIBES
Why wear neck rings??
As told by a long-necked Karen leader, the Padaung tribal people had not worn rings until their golden age during which the tribe was attacked by tigers. Bitten at the neck, several tribal members were killed by the animal. This had worried the tribe so much that the leader, who was also a sorceress, made sacrifices to wild spirits and ordered tribal girls and unmarried women to wear neck rings to prevent themselves from bad luck.
Golden rings were used first. But later, when gold became rare and too expensive, they opted to brass rings as seen today. The longest neck brass has been recorded as 25 loops weighing around 8 kilograms (almost 18 pounds!). Normally, neck coils are composed of two sets of brass rings. Sitting on the shoulders of a wearer, the first set comprising of a few rings, serves as a basis for the second set which is cushioned by a small pillow under the chin. The two sets are locked together with a bolt, but the two sets can be separated for cleaning.
Originally, the Padaung people started putting neck rings to their girls at five years of age or older. Every 3 years, another three rings are added until the woman becomes 25 years of age or gets married. Once the neck rings have been put on, they will be there throughout the wearer’s life without taking them off!! Wrist and leg rings have become popular these days. In those days, among other things, wrist and leg rings were given as a gift to the one who put the neck ring on the girl. The rings, however, have gained more popularity and are worn by either Padaung girls and women today for beauty purposes.
Do Padaung Women Really Have A Long Neck??
Anatomical studies have confirmed that Padaung women’s necks are not stretched at all. In fact, the chests are pushed down by heavy brass rings. The clavicles, or collarbones, as well as the ribs are gradually pushed down. As a result, the women’s necks look elongated. Furthermore, neck muscles become more flexible and weakened compared to those of people without neck rings. Thus, taking off the neck rings can be extremely dangerous. This is why Padaung women never take off their neck brass rings until they die.
Meeting Thailand’s Hill Tribe Families
DOI MAE SALONG
A mountain area in northern Thailand, part of the Daen Lao Range, only 6km from the border with Burma. This mountain is famous because a Kuomintang military division created a settlement near it in 1961 after having been expelled from Burma.
We took a brief stroll through the village’s main road in Mae Salong, a tea drinkers paradise, conversing with the inviting locals, and snacking on street food- including dried bugs!!
We continued on to visit the Doi Mae Salong tea plantation.
MAE SAI- NORTHERNMOST POINT OF THAILAND
Mae Sai is Thailand’s northernmost town, sitting next to the border of Myanmar (Burma). We decided not to wander over the bridge to cross into Burmese territory but instead spent a little time meandering the town of Mae Sai. This town is basically a huge open-air market, full of goods from China, gemstones (watch out for fakes!), and what seems like endless markets and restaurants that line the streets. Honestly, after awhile, all the markets begin to look the same. Nevertheless, it’s still an adventure.
MAE FAH LUANG BOTANICAL GARDENS
Mae Fah Luang Garden is among one of the most famous tourist attractions of the Chiang Rai province. It is located on the slopes of Doi Tung Mountain, elevated 1,630m above sea level. Considered the most beautiful landscaped garden in Thailand, it’s filled with hundreds of different kinds of plants and flowers. Mae Fah Luang Garden is located in front of the Doi Tung Royal Villa (residence of Her late Royal Highness Princess Srinakarindra, the Princess Mother), on an expose of hillside that was originally the Akha village of Pa Kluay.
This village used to be an important route for opium caravans and those involved in heroin and firearm trafficking. Situated in a deep gorge where the Akha lived in a dense settlement without the possibility of expansion, there was little space for hygiene, trash, or wastewater management. At the request of a development project, the villagers agreed to be relocated to a new site 500m away. This site sits on a hill with expansive land. It has running water, electricity, and a paved road into the village.
A garden of mostly temperate flowers was built over 10 acres of land in accordance with the Princess Mother’s wishes to give the Thai people who have never travelled overseas an opportunity to enjoy a temperate flower garden. The colorful garden, enjoying a cool climate virtually all year round, consists of several lawns with various types of annual and perennial flowering plants. Besides the flower gardens, there are also an ornamental garden, a rock garden, a water garden, and a palm garden.
The Rock Garden consists of sandstones from the mountains of Thailand and rocks from the Mekong River. Variations in temperature along the river result in different colors and textures of the rocks. The colder water of the upper reaches produces black and shiny rocks; the warmer water of the middle length makes the rocks brown and black; while the warmest water in the lower Mekong forms reddish brown rocks with rougher surfaces.
In the middle of this garden stands, “Continuity,” a magnificent sculpture created by the late Thai artist, Misiem Yip-In-Soi. The Princess Mother gave this name to the sculpture to draw attention to the fact that continuity ensures the success of any endeavor. Today, it symbolizes the work ethic of all Doi Tung staff in continuing the effort to help people in Thailand and overseas.
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Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!
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