After finding myself exhausted by the train trip to and from Chiangmai last year, I decided to fly north this year. Not as much fun. Not as scenic, but easier on the aging person. I arrived at the airport too early, due to confusion, another side effect of aging. The flight was full but they served lunch of which I ate just enough to curb my hunger since I was hoping for better things to come.
M met me when I came out of baggage claim, which was dear of him. No one likes going to an airport. We found a taxi to this year’s hotel, The Rich Lanna House that is on the Old City side of the moat. It is very nice, spotless but does not have the black sticky rice for breakfast that the previous hotel had. The room was large, looked out on trees, had stained glass in the bathroom windows and an abundance of hot water. It was on the top floor, an interesting climb punctuated on each landing by “collections”—Burmese lacquer work, Thai carving, a cabinet full of those things families acquire overseas including a shot glass from Niagara Falls– but this altitude ensured quiet and less pollution from the moat road which snarls and growls with motorcycles and trucks.
The young man on the desk was totally idiotic, answered eagerly questions we hadn’t asked and didn’t notice those we did. I suspected he didn’t understand as much English as he pretended to know.
After the formalities were taken care of and my bags were up stairs, M and I started off with his map, my Nancy Chandler map from 1985 cheerfully illustrated with people and wats, and my new, only slightly understood Kindle, none of which preserved us from confusion.
M had asked about a place for lunch and been told to go down Ratchaphanikai which we did, stopping at Wat Chiang Man which we came to almost immediately.
Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiangmai built by Phaya Mengrai in 1296, the King who was killed by a bolt of lightning; the memorial of this event is not far away. The wat has the oldest Buddha image in town dating from 1465. Its handsome old chedi—a structure that is a sort of adaptation of the Indian stupa, very like the Tibetan chorten–holds sacred remains or other holy objects buried within. This one has elephants around its base. We were here last year and I hope will visit next year. It might take 10 visits before the surroundings become familiar, since form and iconography are alien.
We did stop for lunch on Ratchaphanikai but it was not very good, a C lunch. My pork was tough and the seasoning without subtlety.
Heading for Wat Sam Pao we never made it. The clouds gathered, although we had no rain. It was
getting late. We stopped at a nice looking place for a
smoothie for M and yoghurt for me—too much sugar in the yoghurt–and I went home to the Rich Lanna to do emails.
The next day we did a sort of crash course in wats. The list included Wat Duang Dee, Wat U-mong Mahatera Chan, Wat Pan Ping (isn’t this a character in Verdi’s Turandot?), Wat Sam Pow, Wat Phan Tao, Wat Chai Phra Kiat and Wat Chedi Luang. That may not be a full list and I cannot guarantee that the details I will tell you about are always linked accurately to the right wat. We sort of followed our various maps. M’s sense of direction is even worse than mine, although I was the one who got us into trouble at the end of the day.
Wat Duang Dee was small and neglected with a derelict but beautiful old structure, lacy teak decorations painted red along its eaves. In some places these were missing like gone teeth. There was a hurricane fence and a locked gate, so we could only stand outside and look up at its faded crimson curves and curlicues. Trees sprouted out of its front gate.
The stone fence that surrounded the entire wat had low arched entrance gates some of which had been heaved into a tilt. The serpent stair rails of the small temples were splotchy with lichens.
Wat U-Mong Mahaterachan was in much better shape with newly painted and gilded stair serpents looking more like iguanas than snakes. Between their front feet they each protected a gilded baby iguana. In the back is an old rosy brick chedi, sprouting baby ferns and mosses above its wrap-around apron in blue, yellow, red and white striped cloth. Its gold finial shimmers overhead.
Wat Pan Ping, I think it is Pan Ping, was not as interesting, although the chedi had an unusual metallic tile top in poor condition with gaps among the tiles. I think it was at Ping that I came out of the lavatory to be greeting by amiable smiles and short shrieks of laughter from a man dressed decorously in mourning. The Thais are still in mourning for the King who will be cremated in Bangkok on October 26th. The man was, sadly, insane. I had his shrill gasps of hilarity for company until M came from the men’s john, uncomfortable but not sinister.
Wat Sam Pow may or may not be the place where there is, to the left of the entrance, a small, pale stucco building with intricately decorated shutters and doors. It is the recently renovated library of the monastery. The building is striking because, despite the complexity and delicacy of its decoration its pale color has a monochrome calm unusual in Thai buildings.
On the corner of Phra Pokklao and Ratchadamneon is the monument to King Mengrai who was, on this very spot, struck by lightning. The sign in Thai and English apologizes for the smallness of the monument that is a little arched receptacle with what looks like a gold plume in it. On the walls behind it are bas-reliefs of incidents from the King’s life.
Opposite this corner is supposed to be King Mengrai’s spirit house but I could not find it. This was annoying because I am a fan of spirit houses. I almost bought one to bring back and install on the terrace of my then apartment on 54th St. I’m sure the local spirits would have appreciated it. These are small houses of wood or concrete on pedestals into which everyday you place offerings for the spirits from whom you are borrowing you living or cultivating space. It is an excellent reminder that your relationship to the land you are on is one of tenure not ownership.
I had lost my New York City hat in the BKK airport, so was delighted to find a flowered replacement in a shop where I felt the King’s spirit house should have been.
We moved down the street a little to Wat Phan Tao where renovation is in progress. The main building has a peacock and dog on its front. The peacock stands proudly in full display with the dog curled at
his feet. These are the personal symbols of an earlier king who built this part of the wat.
One window, possibly at the back of this building, is straight out of Cambodia. Rather than just being open, as a Thai window would be or having bars in it, it has vertical wooden dowels such as one always sees in Cambodian temple windows. Nearby is a temple whose roof ends spring up into two-dimensional gold serpents.
The last wat of the day was Wat Chedi Luang. Under a tall tree that only bushes out at the top, is a neat multi-roofed house, home to the City Pillar. Interestingly, since the City Pillar in Bangkok is not only open to women, but houses the deity to whom you offer eggs if you want to get pregnant, the City Pillar of Chiangmai doesn’t like women and they are not allowed to enter his temple.
I remember this wat from the 1980’s when it was in very bad shape, dusty and disheveled, although it certainly had its worshipers, but they had no money then. They have made up for that drought lavishly. The main temple is brightly painted with black and gold stencils on the pillars of trees, birds perched on branches, squirrels and mice running up and down them. All this looks very recent. There are sparking, crystal chandeliers in a long row overhead. The
standing Buddha looks newly gilded, as do his companions. The ceiling is deep scarlet with gold medallions. Flowers were everywhere, I would guess because of the King’s impending cremation.
Behind this is the old chedi, a small mountain of earth and rubble covered with brick that dates back to, I think, the 10th century. It has been repaired, not remade, meaning that the top part, which caved in who knows when, has been bricked up for stability, but not rebuilt. The elephants around the base have been repaired as well. They all have new ears that look like some lovely, grey veined fungus. There are modern gilded Buddhas in the niches at the top who seem rather garish and too new. The serpent stair rails, blotched black with damp are many headed.
There is a superb grey wood chapel to the left of the chedi. The area over its door is set with mirrored gold and blue glass tiles. Inside, behind the image of the Buddha is a gold and teak wood backdrop. The nagas, water snakes, which adorn the eaves, have been carved in tight coils of grey wood. The surrounding garden is vibrant with green and any orange robed monk wandering there becomes a brilliant bloom in his own right.
Another chapel near by has a Buddha, a short cube like Buddha with no neck, carved from stone with a
five headed naga arched over him to protect him from sun and rain as he meditates.
Sometime in the midst of all this we had lunch at the Champor Lanna Boutique Resort, an island of green with old-fashioned houses around a compound. We, and some Thai girls who ate surrounded by their luggage, were the only customers. The food was superb. I had an unfamiliar, exceedingly hot chicken soup and an equally hot shrimp salad both excellent but they totally did my intestines in, now accustomed to Catalan bland.
By the time we were at the grey chapel at Chedi Luang the sky was blackening, rain was immanent. With superb misplaced confidence, I took us in what I thought was the direction of the hotel. A half hour later in slackening rain I had to confess myself lost. We went into a barbershop but their English wasn’t good enough to help us much which caused them, this is very Thai, to dissolve into giggles. M, bless him, called Uber and a cheery young man arrived in about ten minutes to rescue us from my hubris and drop me off at the Rich Lanna House before taken M home.
The next day as a change of pace we focused on museums, having last year been to the Lanna Crafts Museum which is a beauty both in its exhibits and in its own construction. We started with the Cultural
Museum, which was closed except for an exhibit dedicated to the Queen’s support of the northern tribal textile industry. This consisted of locally woven fabrics made into patchworks and then embroidered with scenes and people, the Queen frequently among them always immediately recognizable because of her string of pearls. More charming than the people were the embroideries of pigs, chickens and buffalo.
The gift shop was tempting but I only bought five appliqued squares in red, white and black.
On to the history museum next door, which makes clear how separate the north feels from the south. In the welter of names the only one I´ve managed to retain is Mengrai and that is probably because he was struck by lightning.
Both England and France, as colonial powers respectively of Burma and Laos, took bites out of northern Thailand in the 19th century. However, the Thais were clever enough to keep those territorial gluttons at bay. The Burmese did invade in the 19th century, before they were overwhelmed by the British, but the south pushed them out and united the two parts of the country for the first time.
Underneath the museum is an archeological site, a
damp site, with bricks of an old wall and some delicate ceramics—a jug with an oval belly and a tube top. A pale beige to cream plate painted with flying brown birds.
As we went down the street I recognized the shop of the man I had bought postcards from last year. He had told us he was going to move his shop to a new location. I asked what had happened. He said he now had two shops but he was going to close the new one because his rent on the old shop had been doubled to 20,000 baht a month, about seven to eight hundred US. He told us he wanted to work for five more years before retiring to travel with his daughter. He then dropped a bomb on us. He has two autistic children. What a catastrophe. But there he is selling postcards, cheesy souvenirs, stamps and old coins, quiet cheerful behind his counter.
We needed a bland lunch because of my burnt out stomach so we went back to the museum café for a bland Caesar salad, all right but not exciting. As we were finishing and the café was emptying, two young men with guitars came in. They looked alike enough to have been brothers. They played, to a decreasing and disinterested audience, American songs that were vaguely familiar of the soft and sentimental variety.
Our plan was to go on to the insect museum. I struggled with my Kindle, which was not being helpful, Nancy Chandler was too dated to be of assistance, and finally figured out that the museum was outside the Old City and a half hour, at least, walk away. So we skipped that and walked to Wat Phra Singh as the sky darkened for evening rain.
I don’t like the main temple of Wat Phra Singh finding it garish and rather modern Burmese. Also the main Buddha does not appeal to me but there are chapels that do. Behind the main temple, continuing the garish theme is a “solid gold chedi” with half an elephant sticking out of all four sides. It looks as though it has been wrapped up in some sort of rather heavy, unwieldy, gold wrapping paper through which the elephants are attempting to escape.
To the left of this oddity is a chapel where the Buddha sits inside a niche before a superb backdrop of scarlet and gold. The walls are covered with murals, relatively old ones, maybe 19th century. Some are damaged but where they are not people fly, sit, converse, stride through a world that is most mysteriously a lovely, peaceful shade of blue.
Another, larger temple had wax figures of former monks sitting in meditation. They are so life like that I had to stare hard at their chests for movement.
We took a tuktuk back to the hotel driven by a handsome young man who had done to himself all the things I loath most that the young do to enhance their appearance. He had tattoos, big rings stretching his earlobes, various piercings.
M and I had a coffee and a smoothie at a café next door to the hotel and said goodbye until next year. In the morning the hills were scarved with mist as they are every morning but this time there were white boas dipping down into the valley.
I had a woman cab driver to the airport. On the plane back to Bangkok the Chinese woman next to me started a conversation while she put the main part of her lunch in its plastic container into the throw up bag from the seat pocket and then into her handbag to be consumed later. As the conversation progressed I discovered that she had a gay friend, a man she used to work with in the town she comes from in southern China, who lives in a town outside of Barcelona. I made various suggestions about how she might locate him and gave her my email. The world is an odd place and getting smaller.
Arriving in Bangkok I made it to the Paragon to food shop but was delayed going home by a monsoon rain so violent that they closed the exit doors of the mall. Women cleaners were mopping up what came running in under the doors. You had to leave through
a passage taking you to the Siam Center. The rain made the phrase “a sheet of rain” ridiculous. This was a grey wall of water. But I wandered the shops until it let up and went home to the A One.