Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park in Chiang Rai

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The Golden Pavilion as seen from the bridge

We debated renting a car or hiring a driver to do a day trip out of Chiang Rai to the Myanmar border to see the Princess Mother’s swiss-style villa and garden and the “Yunnanese” village of Mae Salong. But, the more we read about these destinations, the more they sounded like a long drive for not much that appealed to us. We were loving our hotel (Maryo Resort), enjoying the leisurely pace, and decided to stick closer to home. As I mentioned before, there’s not tons of must-see sights in Chiang Rai. It’s in the far north of Thailand and tourists tend to come for the White Temple and to explore the region’s parks and villages. We’d seen the White Temple and our share of villages, so what about Chiang Rai itself? I came across mention of the Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park. “Mae Fah Luang” refers to the recently-deceased king’s deceased mother, known as the “Princess Mother.” The park contained a Lanna-style wooden “pagoda” or temple made of wood from 32 traditional homes and gifted to the Princess Mother on her 82nd birthday. The park also contained other structures and exhibits relating to Lanna culture. This sounded like the perfect, easy destination.

[Note: The Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park should not be confused with the Mae Fah Luang Villa and Garden near the Myanmar border.]

The hotel happily informed us that they could book the same tuk tuk driver for 300 baht ($8.57) to take us to the park and wait a couple of hours, then take us to somewhere for lunch. Somehow David missed the identity of the driver and his face fell when he saw the speed demon in the ear-splitting tuk tuk from the day before. Oh well, in we climbed…only to discover that, while the tuk tuk was just as loud, our driver seemed much more mellow than on the previous day. We speculated whether he might have skipped his morning coffee…or taken his meds, but the ride out to the cultural park through bright green rice fields turned out to be more relaxing than we initially feared.

We pulled to a stop at the ticket booth where we paid a steep-for-these-parts 200 baht ($5.71) apiece before motoring past an empty parking lot to be dropped off at a pretty covered bridge over a lake. The setting was gorgeous, but the place was entirely empty of visitors save for us. Across the zigzag bridge, we came to another booth where a young woman came out to escort us into the huge wooden “Golden Pavilion” that lay just ahead. Although we could see that the building was large, the beauty and lofty size of the softly-lit interior still took my breath away. Beautiful!

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Stairs to the Golden Pavilion
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David at the doorway into the Golden Pavilion. The carving over the door is new; the one to the left is antique.
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Central Buddha inside the Golden Pavilion
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I loved this sign under the Golden Pavilion. There is a real reverence for trees shown here, particularly teak.

The young woman walked us around a wide raised walkway that circled the open center of the soaring building. She explained the origin and meaning of the various carved religious items that lined the walls in a soft accent that substituted “th” for “de” so that “wood” became “wooth.” Photos weren’t allowed, although David snapped one that hardly does the place justice. After we finished our little tour, the young woman turned off the interior lights then directed us on to wander the other buildings and plant-filled large grounds on our own. Most of the wooden, Lanna-style buildings seemed to be potential meeting and social sites, now empty.

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The only “museum” housed a tribute to the Princess Mother, all in Thai, and a bilingual exhibit of teak items, their place in Lanna culture, and related information about teak in general. The deceased Princess Mother is a revered figure in northern Thailand where she worked extensively to help the local people and steer them away from the opium trade.

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In the museum: a spectacular carved “coffin” made by a husband for his wife’s ashes

In the museum, we finally came across two other visitors. The Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park merits more interest, and I hope it gets it as the city moves from this shoulder season into high season.

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Part of the teak exhibit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colorful Chiang Rai: A black house, an emerald Buddha & a white temple

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The White Temple of Chiang Mai

On our first full day in Chiang Rai, we opted to hit some of the city’s “biggies.” (By some accounts, we hit all of them; Chiang Rai is not a huge city and much of its tourist allure lies in the area around it.) The White Temple is the iconic Chiang Rai site, so that was definitely on our list, even though it’s really more a work of art that an active wat. I also wanted to see Wat Pra Kaew, the “Emerald Buddha Temple,” since it is a true wat and one of the most revered places in Northern Thailand. Despite warnings of temple fatigue on a trip as long as ours, it seems I don’t really tire of visiting temples. I am fascinated by the variations of religion from country to country, even within a faith, as older local customs become adapted to and incorporated within new ideas and belief systems. At the suggestion of a hotel staff member, we added the Black House to our list, a quirky art site I’d read about but wasn’t so sure was my type of thing. Still, some describe the artist who created the Black House as the national artist of Thailand, so how could I not take a peek?

The sites we’d chosen were in opposite directions from our hotel with the White Temple being a good 20 minutes away. Our hotel arranged a tuk tuk for us for 700 baht ($20) for the day. Our driver, a pleasant-faced middle-aged man, arrived promptly in a vehicle similar to Sawat’s small, puttering tuk tuk in Siem Reap. That’s where the similarity ended. We roared away from the hotel in a cloud of noise so loud David said it reminded him of high school when guys would drill holes in the mufflers of their cars for maximum machismo. This guy was a lot faster than Sawat, too. And impatient. We snaked through traffic, squeezed our way to the front of lines, drove on shoulders and thundered ahead of the “competition” at least until we got onto more open roads and the pick-up trucks could “take us.” Even then, though, our driver floored it, doing his ear-splitting best to keep up with the big boys. And, there we were in the open-air rear of the tuk tuk, no seat belts, no helmets, laughing and shaking our heads. I couldn’t help but imagine making this ride with my boys when they were younger on one of our many travels. I’d have been worried I was going to get them killed!

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Getting a moment to catch our breath

We bumped our way to a stop in the parking lot of the Black House (officially the Baandaam Museum), chosen as our first destination by the driver for logistical reasons. As billed, this is a really strange place. The “main” building is in the form of a wooden lanna (the traditional local ethnic group) temple, but done all in black. Animal skulls and horns, furs and crocodile hides mingle with statues and art, that drift from “normal” to bizarre.

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The Black House

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Behind the main “temple” a number of other buildings are scattered around the surprisingly large grounds. Several dark wooden are on stilts, the space beneath them crammed full of various creations, often nearly identical pieces: horn chairs and the like, repeated over and over. There are glass-sided buildings with “furnishings” inside, often fur-covered horn beds with horn chairs or couches surrounding them. Some odd white half-domed buildings stand in a row, allowing similar glimpses through glass doors or windows.

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Peering into one of the buildings on the grounds of the Black House

At a far end of the grounds, I came across a modernistic black building, vaguely reminiscent of a squid or maybe Verne’s “Nautilus.” Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. In thirty minutes, David and I had seen enough and headed back to the tuk tuk. [The Black House is free of charge although there is a gift shop selling all sorts of weird momentos.]

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After the strange artsy-ness of the Black House, I was ready for a real temple. Thankfully, our next stop was Wat Pra Kaew, the Emerald Buddha Temple. The wat gets its nickname from its famous history: In 1434, lightning struck its stupa, cracking it to reveal an emerald Buddha inside. This Buddha has been revered ever since and has made its way from Thailand to Laos and back. The original is now in Bangkok, but a replica was carved from jade and is ensconced in Wat Pra Kaew.

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A lovely little temple sits at the front of the wat complex and David and I couldn’t resist slipping off our shoes to look inside. Afterwards, as I was slipping my sandals back on, an older monk thanked me (for showing respect–I was also appropriately dressed to hide my scandalous knees) and asked me where I was from. He told me to be sure not to miss the Lanna Museum just around the corner within the complex. He made a point of telling me the replica Buddha was carved of Canadian jade, so he may not have understood when I told him I was American. Still, I was impressed with his friendliness and English, and David and I headed off in that direction. The two-story museum turned out to house an impressive collection in a beautiful wooden lanna-style building. Along with the Emerald Buddha replica, there are white-jade Buddhas from Myanmar, reliquaries, altars, offering containers, and other statues of sacred figures.

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The Lanna Museum at Wat Pra Kaew

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We strolled along a flower-lined path, past shrines and the white stupa that replaces the one struck by lightning, but not venturing into the monk school that lies in the rear of the grounds. The main temple stands before the school at the top of a steep flight of stairs. Lit green tiles line the walls surrounding the Emerald Buddha, framing murals depicting scenes of the Emerald Buddha’s history.

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The new Emerald Buddha, dressed in golden “clothes”

Back in the tuk tuk, we made our high-volume way southwest towards our final destination. The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is really more an art project than a temple. It replaces a temple that once sat there and we still had to take off our shoes before entering (and I wasn’t supposed to take the photo inside that I did), but still, it’s art. There’s a definite Gaudí-esque feel to the place, although the lines are sharper. It’s a fantasy brought to life in stucco and mirrored tiles, a truth reinforced by the pop-culture characters portrayed at its periphery. A bronze version of the alien from “Predator” sprouts from the ground near masks of the “Terminator,” Spiderman, etc. hanging from a tree…which sits just in front of a beautiful covered walkway from the ceiling of which thousands of thin metal prayer offerings hang. Finally, a golden “temple” constitutes possibly the fanciest most improbable public restroom building ever.

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Inside the White Temple. I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to take a photo, but since I did, here it is.
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The pubic toilets at the White Temple

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The White Temple recently started charging foreigners an entry fee, but at a mere 50 baht ($1.43), it’s hardly exorbitant and well worth it.

We stopped at one of several open-air restaurants on the way to the tuk tuk for a quick, tasty and very late lunch. I’d provide the name of the place but there was only Thai on the outside, so a photo will have to do. At 40 baht a plate ($1.14), we doubled the price of our lunch by ordering a couple of beers bringing the total to a whopping $4.57. I could get used to these prices!

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Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!

[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]

– Tamara

August 31, 2016