Art from a gothic perspective

I don’t know if it was a language problem or just a breach of our driver’s comfort zone but it caused a certain inflexibility of attitude. We had already done many of the things on the typical Chiang Rai tour list, which seemed like poor value for money, so we booked our own driver and car which we thought would allow us to construct our own far-reaching itinerary. Like many things it started out smoothly. Or maybe we should’ve realized when he wouldn’t take the more scenic road we preferred, to our first stop. He still managed to get us to the Baan Dam Museum, better known as the Black House.

Free from temple dogma Thai National Artist Thawan Duchanee felt unrestrained to plumb the darkest recesses of his mind. I was vibrating with anticipation and gladly paid the entrance fee that seems to be the first thing you do at one of these projects. Oddly, the entrance to the Black House seemed peaceful, almost reverential but at least you can leave your shoes on!

Not actually black but a dark dull stain, the Black House seems rather small, almost humble, as one enters the great hall but magically expands as you cross the threshold and your eyes follow the ladder-like steps nearly four stories up into the rafters.

One shudders at what the view from up there might do to your bladder. That’s when the assault to your senses begins to overwhelm. It’s kind of a gothic perspective on Buddhist art.

The exhibits mostly consist of the skin, horns, and bones of dangerous animals arranged in artistic patterns that seem to change their meaning somehow.

This menagerie is accompanied by a massive hoard of old Thai collectibles worthy of a Cracker Barrel restaurant in the U.S.

Many of the 40 some-odd buildings can only be viewed from outside the structure.

I don’t know why it’s here but this is a completely deconstructed elephant skeleton

Duchanee is said to occasionally spend the night inside his personal apartment in what is known as “the whale.”

Volunteers and backpackers stay in these concrete yurts.

As seductive as inspecting Duchanee’s gothic nightmare is, we’ve miles to go to our next stop. We soon realized that our headstrong driver had his own ideas about our itinerary and we found ourselves taking a huge detour to see a tea plantation which was the last priority on our list, only if we have the time. All things being equal I like tea plantations, but we’ve seen the terraced valleys of Bali and you just can’t touch that for scenic tranquil beauty .

So we lost an hour and a half while trying to convey our disappointment at how this was progressing and we really ought to head north to the rescue cave as soon as possible. Our thinking was our car, our driver, our rules.

Now we dolly back, then we fade to black in preparation for round two.

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Which New Year?

We were in Chiang Rai for New Year’s Eve and we didn’t know how or if they celebrate and where. Googling sent us to check out the clocktower square in the afternoon and we were happy to find a big stage and lots of night market booths coming to life. We didn’t expect to hear a Thai version of the Miami Sound Machine doing a sound check but we’re getting used to the unexpected in music here in Northern Thailand.

I don’t think we mentioned before that the most common music we hear around these parts is jazz, followed by R&B, then classic singer-songwriters. Nearly every guesthouse, restaurant or shop greets us with cool jazz, like Chet Baker, Oscar Peterson, Mile Davis, Stan Getz. We asked a lot of hosts why jazz is so popular but we’re met with blank looks as if to say, “What else would we be listening to?”

We returned to the square in the evening as the party was getting started, joining what must be the entire population of greater Chiang Rai. The setup was like a giant night market but most of the vendors were selling beer, cocktails, and snacks. Chang Beer seemed to be the biggest sponsor judging from their marketing presence.

One band after another got the crowd going until the final group caused a frenzied surge toward the stage with a sea of phones recording the performance. We never learned who they were but even the armed police guards edged closer, obviously enjoying the privilege of their position.

As we approached midnight and the countdown the band relinquished the stage to the dignitaries and we watched the clock as we listened to what we assume were thanks to the organizers and VIPs. Note the year in this photo — 2566. That’s the new year in the Buddhist calendar. My iPad has been on the Buddhist calendar since we arrived in Thailand despite every attempt to remind it where it came from.

Finally we counted down to 2023 and we were treated to beautiful fireworks and much cheering and selfie-taking.

2022 was a difficult year of transition for Jack and me but we feel pretty good about 2023, and ringing in the new year surrounded by so much joy bodes well for the future. We wish you all a year of health and happiness. May you find peace and pleasure every day of the year.

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Bizarre colorful confections

When we were rolling into the outskirts of Chiang Rai we noticed a traffic scrum ahead. Tuktuks, buses, people were milling about seemingly without direction, all in a cloud of dust and confusion. Looming high above the commotion we could see a bizarre confection of architectural flourishes in a strangely glowing white. Our driver leaned over and spoke for the first time. “White Temple.” We’ll visit that another time.

After a few days in Chiang Rai we decided to catch up with a spot of temple touring. It was a longish hike along the river from the flower show but we found the famous Blue Temple.

It looked kind of malevolent for a peace-loving Buddhist temple but the design was done by a student of the decidedly quirky chap Chalermchai Kositpipit who bears responsibility for the golden clocktower, the White Temple, which is classified as an art exhibit rather than a temple, like the even darker Black House. You can think of him as the Tim Burton of temple design.

Done up in a sapphire hue instead of the standard gold leaf or at least gold paint, some of these temples have more gold than a Trump bathroom. Trust me they’ve still managed to work plenty of gold into the design, and it looks rather nice against the sapphire blue.

So where was I? Oh yes, arriving at the gate always reminds me of a carnival with parking lot street food, maps or guides for sale, and sarongs for the ladies to cover up offensive lady bits. The Blue Temple has unusually fierce reinforced concrete guards at the gate and, to my eye, dipping into Hindu mythology for more fantastical creatures. After all, how many times can you sculpt another Buddha? Ok you’ve got standing, sitting, and lying. Maybe laughing as a subset. An artist needs something more. Depression must be rampant among Buddhist artists.

There must be a couple of thousand ways to put an eye out with all these pointy bits and bobs.

This back gate is getting its demons and is still in natural concrete.

As the day began to fade we found the sapphire turn to gray and a lucky Grab ride parked outside in the car park.

The White Temple would have to wait till tomorrow.

As you Escapees know, recovery is a hard thing to do so another long hike to a temple was not in the cards for Yours Truly. We decided to take the city’s blue bus to the White Temple for 40 baht ($1.22US). We’re told it goes right past.

Things started out smoothly but rather late. It’s a Thai thing. We anticipated the loose schedule by booking a mid morning ticket. What we hadn’t realized was that the back doors are left open and as the bus wandered around town, anyone that fancied a free ride would just hop on board. I can’t say that we were the only people that actually paid for the ride but I suspect most did not. Soon people were crushed together practically sitting on my lap and hanging out of the rear door while more squeezed in.

When the bus wheezed to a stop and all the backpackers began to fight their way towards the doors, we guessed this might be our stop. We stepped down to the dusty roadside and realized that we hadn’t a clue how to get to the White Temple. Neither did the backpackers. I saw a traffic cop at the crossroad behind us and he smiled and stopped traffic for us to cross and we sussed the flow from there.

The site was built in 1997 and it’s overwhelming, impressive by dint of its sheer size, energy and, forgive me, the over-the-top ridiculousness of the exercise. Everything is painted with a metallic white paint and bedazzled with millions of tiny mirror bits along any edges and it sparkles with an insistent iridescent glow. You can think of it as a massive wedding cake that you can walk through.

Once again I marveled at the carny-like atmosphere. No, it was more like Disneyland on a weekend. There are a lot of paying customers out here and now we are as well.

The main temple is surprisingly small inside. On the back walls are two huge dreamlike murals with dozens of bizarre pop culture images from Kositpipit’s feverish brain. No photographs are allowed but if you have a need to experience Western evil in the form of Elvis, Michael Jackson, Batman, Transformers, the twin towers, the Matrix, etc., you can Google “white temple murals images” to see photos from someone with more pull.

This monk is an amazingly lifelike statue and is my only contribution of an illicit photo.

There are nine buildings on the grounds, some of which are more whimsical than others.

Officially golden hour, we relaxed into a nice park bench to contemplate whether to take another local bus trip or an air-conditioned Grab ride. We were on a grassy knoll near a small police kiosk. and failed to appreciate the tower of loud speakers at head height. I’d heard the wispy buzz of a drone overhead and lazily searched the sky over the White Temple.

Suddenly the PA system crackled to life. “WILL THE PERSON DEPLOYING THE ILLEGAL DEVICE PLEASE REMOVE IT IMMEDIATELY!”

No response from the drone.

“REMOVE THE DEVICE IMMEDIATELY!”

No change from the drone.

After a half dozen 120 decibel ear-spitting warnings the drone calmly whispered off and the police stopped running around in circles.

It’s been a long day so we treated ourselves to a little bit of luxury and opted for the Grab ride home.

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Around Chiang Rai

Friends who’ve been to Chiang Rai recommended it as much quieter and more rural than Chiang Mai but as soon as we left our hotel we found the same dusty streets, the same noisy traffic, the same lack of sidewalks that require iron nerves and a purposeful stride to make it to your destination without being clipped by a motorbike. But a new town is always fun to explore and we pointed our feet toward the city center.

Right smack in the center of a roundabout stands the fanciful golden clock tower, designed and built by Thai artist Chalermchai Khositpipat in 2008 in honor of the king. You’ll hear more about the artist in the next blog post.

We did our usual café crawl then hired a tuktuk to take us across the Kok River to the Garden of Reeds. There was a flower festival going on with an arts fair on the grounds of the adjacent cultural center. We usually miss festivals so it’s a nice coincidence that we’re here for this one. The downside is that it was crowded, this being a weekend, but it’s always fun to see events that are local and not just put on for tourists. In fact we saw very few tourists all day.

There was a huge food tent, and the roads were blocked for vehicles and lined with craftsmen of all stripes and mediums. The textiles and clothing were particularly beautiful and once again I had to restrain myself from scooping up a new wardrobe.

This is the first time we saw bugs on offer, and no, we weren’t tempted to try them.

We grabbed some bug-free food and cold drinks and parked ourselves in the middle of the cultural center among the examples of different hill tribe houses.

Then it was time to enjoy the flower show. We loved this display from the Northern Bonsai Club. I’ve always been intrigued by bonsai, and decades ago I made an feeble attempt to create one, but the art requires a degree of patience I don’t possess. Some of these examples were obviously quite old.

Jack got distracted by the longtail boats giving 15-minute rides up the river and back.

We walked through the park and admired the flower displays until it got too hot and crowded.

We walked along the river for what seemed like miles, watching the longtails zoom by, until we reached the famous Blue Temple. Sure, you can take a tour to the “important” sites, but we are the Escapees. We don’t do tours. Feet don’t fail us now.

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Go for the shrimp

I don’t know why but I’m finding it slow to warm to Chiang Rai. We’d hired a private car and driver to run us north from Chiang Mai over the mountains to Chiang Rai because the bus was booked solid for weeks.

After three and a half hours of rather tense switchbacks, the driver ignoring any guidelines that may have been painted on the road, we pulled up to a traditional-looking teak guesthouse called “The North.” The neighborhood, however, was adjacent to the large bus station and looked kind of like a collection of disparate warehouses with a small strip of businesses dressing up the front of the bus station.

There were a few eateries featuring breakfast and maybe lunch but unlike Chiang Mai, it was hard to find any vegetarian restaurants. As luck would have it there’s a night market that’s supposed to be, wait for it, behind the bus station just a few feet from our guest house.

Theoretically things were looking up. We were on the hunt but all we could see were rather seedy looking low warehouses. By nightfall we could hear and smell “night market.” Walking down a dark, but paved neighborhood alley, dodging motor scooters, we finally came to an open door and stepped through.

Miraculously we were hit with the brightly lit sights and sounds of a Southeast Asian night market.

The food vendors were in a huge open air section encircling the tables and chairs, with a large stage at one end.

Thai music was blaring, and on the stage were dancing beauties in dazzling ballgowns in their signature red.

The lead “singer” wore a gown with a thigh-high slit nearly up to the fine china, and she lip synced with enthusiasm and sincerity. I suspect she was not chosen for her voice.

There was a mouth-watering array of Thai food but Marce is having trouble finding vegetarian dishes that don’t slurp all over her tee shirt.

Before I could even decide on an entrée, the beauties were replaced by a somber young man whose guitar gently wept and who seemed to regret most of his life choices. After the colorful beauties it was a real buzzkill. I wish him well.

I went with the shrimp, 80 Bhat ($2.44usd) for a dozen medium, deep fried.

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To market

Markets are maybe my favorite thing about travel. I love them all; supermarkets, bodegas, city markets, wet markets, farmer’s markets, art fairs, you name it. I think you get a good sense of a place when you visit its markets.

Chiang Mai has some great ones, and I’m determined to drag Jack to every one of them. The small city market near us has a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, all so beautiful and inspiring that I wish I were shopping to cook.

One day we ventured outside the Old City to the biggest city market, a rabbit warren of market buildings and alleyways with hundreds of stalls offering dry goods, fresh food, crafts, clothing, household items, appliances, and so on. Whatever you need you can get here as long as you have the patience to find it. I love this kind of market but it’s not Jack’s favorite and I admit it can be exhausting. Someone told us this is called the Chinese market because it’s in the middle of Chinatown.

Behind the Chinese market along the riverfront is the flower market. There are dozens of vendors with beautiful fresh flowers, so fragrant and tempting.

Our guesthouse host suggested we visit a weekly organic food and craft market, also outside the Old City. This one is more upscale with a produce pavilion, several lovely cafés, crafts from some of the hill tribes plus beautiful clothing from local designers. I don’t usually photograph clothing or jewelry because I worry that the designers will think I want to copy their work, but it was all beautiful and well made. If I weren’t living out of a suitcase I’d have a whole new wardrobe.

Coffee is a very big deal here in northern Thailand, and making a pourover cup from single source beans is a ritual.

In addition to the traditional crafts there are lots of quirky local artists. I wish I could have bought one of these cats.

The prepared foods here looked great but we opted for ice cream, our first in Thailand.

There are a couple of daily night markets in Chiang Mai but the big one is the Sunday one on the Walking Street. It runs halfway through the Old City and along some side streets too, with several hundred vendors selling new and used clothing, crafts, food, leather goods, paintings. It’s impossible to take it all in.

One night a troop of Hari Krishnas chanted and drummed their way through the crowd. We hadn’t seen them for years.

Most of the food stalls are in the temple grounds, and there are quite a few temples along the route. You can usually find an empty table to sit and enjoy your food.

There are always lots of buskers playing every kind of music.

As the sun goes down the crowd gets bigger until it’s shoulder to shoulder along some stretches. That’s when we take a side street to get out of the fray and head home for some peace and quiet. But we always go again the next week.

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Exploring the neighborhood

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand with a population of 1.2 million people, and located in the northern highlands. There are upscale shopping malls, universities and technical schools, an international airport, museums and cultural centers, a giddying array of dining options, modern hospitals and medical centers, nearby national parks and enough recreational activities to keep a traveler busy for years.

We, however, have chosen to park ourselves in a quiet corner of Old City, the original walled and moated square mile established in the 13th century as the capital of the Lan Na Kingdom. The wall is mostly gone now, destroyed and rebuilt through the centuries, the bricks pilfered by the occupying Japanese during World War II, and the remains now stabilized and protected. The moat is still there, a blessing to the character of the Old City and a curse to drivers who can only cross in limited places.

We spent our first days in Chiang Mai exploring the Old City by foot. I downloaded a self-guided walking tour and we used that as a guide.

If you’ve ever traveled in this part of Southeast Asia you know that most of the points of interest are going to be temples, and it’s easy to get “templed out.”

Since touring many of the hundreds of temples and temple ruins of Angkor Wat, we have perhaps a keener interest in temple art and architecture, and rarely suffer from overtempling. I compare it to touring Italy, where a guidebook may lead you to church after chapel after cathedral, but each is unique and beautiful, and it’s the same with temples. Once you recognize the basic elements, styles and building functions, you come to appreciate the unique features and designs.

Some of the older temples date from the 13th or 14th centuries. Many are well preserved, some are left in their natural state. This one, the largest in the old city, Wat Chedi Luang, was damaged by an earthquake in 1545.

These are all Buddhist temples, but there’s often Hindu iconography displayed, something that confused me in Cambodia, too. It seems this region was once part of the originally Hindu Khmer Empire (the people who built Angkor Wat) and much of Hindu culture lingered even after the population became Buddhist. It’s not uncommon to see the much revered Ganesh, remover of obstacles. You might remember we stumbled on the Ganesh Chaturthi festival on the beach in Fiji. You can read about that here.

Some of the temples have remarkably lifelike wax figures of monks staged inside, which more than once gave me a start.

Jack rarely goes inside the temples because he doesn’t like taking his shoes off but I go in nearly every one and sit quietly for a few moments, or walk the perimeter to see the art.

Each temple is not just a single structure, but a collection of buildings, each with its own purpose. If there are resident monks, there are also domestic buildings. It’s not unusual to find graves, or a chicken coop, or kitchen garden.

The best part about visiting the temples — except for the ones on the popular tourist routes — is the stillness within the walls of the grounds, where you can hear birds, or chanting or temple bells. It’s a beautiful break from the outside world.

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Universal traveler’s dance

If all goes well today we should be in Chiang Mai by 1:00 am tomorrow. So now we begin the Universal Traveler’s Dance. Checkout at the beach bungalow is 11:30am but our flight isn’t until 9:30pm so the owner kindly said we can hang out on the deck until our airport ride picks us up at 3:00 pm for the one and a half hour drive to the airport.

We have an old sailing buddy who washed-up in Phuket and we’d love to meet up, but we’re schlepping all our worldly goods, including our new vacuum cleaner jammed in a new rolling duffel, and dragging this excess baggage on and off public buses to see him is not in the cards. We couldn’t push the airport ride any later due to the rush hour penalty and we’re on a late flight because, well, it was the cheapest. After all, budgets are budgets.

We landed in Chiang Mai way past our bedtime, collected our bags, waited in the taxi queue for a lift, then wound our way through the dark back alleys of the Old City until the we came to a dead end. A small dimly-lit sign read Wayside Guesthouse. No front door, open to the air with a dozen pairs of shoes and sandals just inside.

A young man checked us in, then gave me a long look and announced sheepishly that the room is on the third floor. On the way up the stairs we noticed the impeccably clean varnished wood parquet floors, quite the change from our primitive beach hut. Exhausted, we flopped down on a thinly padded, semi-hard king size bed.

In the morning as we made our way down the stairs we could smell coffee and toast wafting up the staircase. We met our new best friend Jackie, the owner, tiny, smart, energetic and a magnificent maker of breakfasts, included. Budgets are budgets.

Bathed in Thai sunshine I was helped in tying my shoes by several neighborhood cats who extorted a few head pats. It turns out Thailand is a cat country.

We’re off to see where we are. Within a few meters of our guesthouse we entered a tree-covered park that shelters a beautiful peaceful temple. Classic Thailand. Not to borrow a phrase but you can’t swing a cat in Thailand without hitting a temple. And this is our neighborhood. For now.

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Dragging anchor

There’s a funny thing that happens in your head when you spend years on a boat at anchor.

On a boat you choose an anchor spot that’s protected from wind and waves, that takes into account a possible change in wind direction and tide so that when the boat swings it’ll still be a safe distance from the shore. Our ears are attuned to every noise on the boat and a sure get-out-of-bed sound is breaking waves, evidence that you’re too close to shore and need to move. Now.

Only once did we intentionally anchor within the sound of waves crashing on rocks. It was in narrow Baie de Hane on the island of Ua Huka in the Marquesas, French Polynesia. We sailed into the tiny sliver between rocky shores as darkness fell, a wary eye on the surf on either side, and eased in as far as we could to escape the ocean swell. We put out the bare minimum of anchor chain plus a little extra for safety and hoped for the best. The next day our friends on French Curve tucked in close behind us and we spent three days exploring this rarely-visited treasure. Our anchor and chain never budged but the constant disconcerting sound of breaking waves on the rocks kept us on high alert the whole time.

Old habits die hard. We’re in a wooden cabin perched on a steep slope above a rocky shoreline about 12 meters from the sea. When the tide comes in the sound of waves crashing over the boulders — some the size of Volkswagens — makes the muscles in my neck tense and I unconsciously wait for the tug of the anchor chain reassuring me that we’re still stuck to the bottom.

Then I remember we’re on land in a virtual tree house and we’re safe.

Since traveling on land after selling Escape Velocity we always seem to gravitate toward the water. I miss boat life. I miss the peace and privacy of life at anchor. I miss living in harmony with nature. I miss flexing the skills that became automatic with experience.

Now we’re on land looking at the water instead of on the water looking at the land. Which is better? Boat life is definitely more fun, but land life is less stressful. Maybe. I think the sea is calling us back. Time will tell.

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Beach decompression

I think we can all agree that whatever your age, a drive to the beach is always going to feel like it’s taking far too long. If I’m being honest we were already an hour and a half into an hour long ride to Khao Lak but maybe the less than inspired scenery was part of the reason I was impatient. We pulled into the carpark in a cloud of dust. I looked over at a steep two foot wide roughly-paved concrete pathway that disappeared into a wild tangle of jungle and a sign pointing toward Poseidon Bungalows.

This is not the first time I was glad I’d kept my walking cane. I really didn’t need it anymore but at Phuket immigration I‘d felt like a celebrity, shuttled to the front of the line for my own passport guy. Who knew? The anxious crowd stared over at the lucky guy —Yours Truly — thinking “Who the hell is that?”

At our new digs, cane at the ready, I started to work out how I might build a little momentum up the steep grade but when I finally reached the top of the path it sharply turned towards the crashing sea and pitched over at an amazingly steep angle.

The torturous path ahead looked more like a rollercoaster than a way to get from point A to point B. It was certainly picturesque but Dr. Aaron’s last words echoed in my brain. “Just. Don’t. Fall. Down.” Turns out until new bone builds up, the knee is just glued in and not as strong as it will be.

Every walk from our tree house along the undulating cliffside path made me more confident and stronger, and the jungle color and atmosphere were amazing.

Breakfast and dinner were served at the main covered deck perched on stilts overlooking the river that emptied into the bay right under our feet. After a couple of days I threw down the cane.

At the end of our rollercoaster cliffside path was an overlook with steep uneven stone and concrete steps leading down to a magnificent crescent-shaped sandy beach with open air restaurants including, of course, Thai massage tables scattered about. You could walk for miles along this magnificent beach, and we did.

Every night we lay in our camp-style bungalow and absorbed the sweet music of the ocean swell breaking over massive well-worn black rocks just below our heads. During the day we often sat together on our tiny covered front deck in the trees writing, listening, only interrupted occasionally by a long-tail fishing boat passing close by. We eventually found our way down another set of steep steps to our own private beach.

This week of beach decompression was so restorative that we felt ready to tackle the rigors of the old walled city of Chiang Mai. I decided it was time to pass on my cane to someone in need and we were off to the airport.

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