Saturday, December 20, 2014

Day Tripper

I'm not a big believer in guided tours.  At best, they're the most expedient way of getting from point A to point B.  At worst, they're misinformative and don't give you enough time to see the things you really want to see.  However, (as I've said before) sometimes they are the only way to see what you really want to see, so I found myself getting in a minibus with 12 other foreigners Wednesday morning, bound for Chiang Rai.

I did not care about seeing the hot spring along the way.  You know I love hot springs, probably more than a lot of you, but a quick foot soak doesn't begin to cut it for me.  I had a look around at all the shops, used the loo, and ate a banana pancake (because someone didn't have time for breakfast) but it wasn't doing it for me.

I was similarly unimpressed with the Myanmar border and the Golden Triangle, a place on the Mekong River where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos meet up.  I've crossed land borders before and I saw Israel on the other side of the Dead Sea, and besides, I was going to Myanmar the next day.  Those two stops were two hours of my life I would have rather spent differently.

The Black House, on the other hand, was an interesting surprise.
Thawan Duchanee, the recently deceased Thai artist, designed the place as an interpretation of hell (this is even more interesting when you realize that his teacher was Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed the real reason I signed up for this tour).  There are actually a lot of buildings on the grounds, all of them painted black with red tiles on the roof and filled with all sorts of pointy bits.  It also has a lot of dead animals.  Like, a LOT.  Supposedly the all died of natural causes, but still.  I have a dog skull given to me by Fire Marshall on my desk - I teach Georgia O'Keeffe, it works - and it still makes me a little squeamish if I think about it too much.  The buffalo horns, crocodile skin, and even elephant skeleton definitely help you to feel like you've landed yourself in hell...as do the carvings on the doors of human-ish creatures with a stranger assortment of penises than you'll find in a Korean bathhouse...

There were two things I actually went into this tour for - hill tribes and the White Temple.  Sadly, we didn't spend too much time with either or them.  On our way to the Myanmar border, we turned off onto a dirt road, which we followed a way between rice paddies.  Up here the bright red clay used to be poppy country, although Thailand was successful in promoting other crops.  The people we visited are the Kayan Lahwi, and were originally from Burma (which I've been calling Myanmar because that's what it is now), but many now hold Thai passports.  For a variety of reasons the practice is fading out, but we still saw plenty of children wearing them.
I probably don't think as hard as I should about things before I do them - Heaven knows it's something my Dad's complained about for a good three decades.  At lunch (which we finally got to eat around 3 o'clock!) I was talking with some of the other women on the tour, one of whom hadn't gone to see the Kayan in protest to the fact that they were somewhat exploited.  I can see what she's saying, although I don't know what the truth is.  Are they happy to be a tourist attraction?  Do they have choice in their lives?  I'm not sure.  I tried to be respectful, and I made sure to buy some of their handicrafts.  Whether or not that's enough, I'm not sure, but I'm still glad I got to see them.
And that, good friends, brings me to the absolute highlight of my tour: Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple.  (By the way, if you were wondering, no, this is not the order we did things in - just the arbitrary way I'm writing about it).  I'd seen pictures of the White Temple before and thought it was just about the most amazing thing I'd ever seen.  And then I got there and got to actually see it.
Wat Rong Khun is Chalermchai Kositpipat's interpretation of the rebirth cycle, including Heaven and Hell.  The amount of detail on this monster is just unbelievable.  The front of the temple has this installation, which seems like a pond, but has no water, just about a billion grasping hands.  Around the sides of the pond are a variety of demonic creatures gnawing on whatever they got, 'cause demons don't give a ----.  You go over the bridge leading to the actual temple, and find yourself in a much calmer place, closer to enlightenment.

Pictures aren't allowed in the interior of the temple itself, which continues the external themes in a much more colorful way.  It was damaged earlier this year by an earthquake, but fortunately was open and in the process of restoration.  It was interesting to see the artists working on repairing the murals inside the temple.  I was particularly intrigued by the Hell portion, which was on the side with the door you enter through, as it had a variety of pop culture icons - a Minion, Neo from the Matrix, Superman, and Ben Ten, among others that I can't remember now.  I think I could have spent all day there, but I only had thirty minutes.

All that said, I think the best moment came when we were on our way back to Chiang Mai.  Night was fallen and it was dark as we hurried back along the roads, when we passed a typical, Northern Thai temple.  It was not lit up, but all the mirrors used to decorate it were catching light from everywhere - street lights, car lights, moon light.  As we zoomed past, it sparkled, like a mirage, like fragments of a dream.  And this is the worst thing about tours: the fact that you can't just demand that they stop the car, let you get out and take a look, take a photo - there are 11 other passengers (not counting the guide's sister who had her hands all over the driver, ewww) who are ready to get back to their hotel for the night.  Bummer.  But if I'm lucky when I get back to Chiang Mai on the 28th I'll be able to track down one to shoot.  There's certainly enough that I should find one if I persist...

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