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If there is one thing Thailand and the European nations have in common, it is the ability to captivate their tourists with an explosive abundance of design. In this architectural hot spot, the art lies not in the figure-topped buttresses and marble-lined pillars of lofty cathedrals, but in successive temple complexes, where the little bells of bird-like chofahs sing with the wind upon the temple roofs, and the pillars are elegantly adorned by elephants displaying their trunks in praise. Shimmering with gold, silver and colored glass, these temples are commonplace across the country, from as south as the capital of Bangkok, way up to its northern counterpart, the ancient city of Chiang Mai.
The former capital of the 13th century Kingdom of Lanna, Chiang Mai stands today at the crossroads of history as it continuously preserves its cultural treasures, mostly in the over 300 Buddhist wats or temples throughout the domain, amid the challenges presented by a globalized society. It was early in the morning when I found myself before the staircase of one of these grand temples, face-to-face with a menacingly-fanged naga, but eager to discover the secrets that lie guarded behind this city’s gates.
Fruits of the earth
Located just beyond the city proper of Chiang Mai, the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is considered as one of the holiest sites in the province, due perhaps to the legend behind its construction. According to tradition, in the 14th century, the king of Lanna placed a relic of the Buddha on the back of a white elephant, which stopped and died on top of the mountain where the temple now stands. The relic is now safely housed in the chedi (pagoda) of the complex, the oldest building in the temple, and the subject of pilgrimages for Buddhists from across Thailand.
On the other hand, within the preserved brick-and-clay walls of the Old Town are a number of other fine examples of Chiang Mai’s temple architecture, starting with the Wat Chedi Luang. Meaning “royal stupa”, the temple was the largest building in all of Lanna during the time of its construction, and used to be the home of the Emerald Buddha now revered throughout Thailand. The chedi suffered considerable damage during an earthquake in 1545, but efforts have been made by such organizations as UNESCO to reconstruct the temple, including the beautiful naga-decorated balustrades on all four sides of the wat.
A more recent construction, the Wat Sri Suphan located south of the Old Town, traces its roots to the original Wat Srisuphan Aram founded under King Mengrai in 1501, but given a little more ‘glimmer’ in 2004 through the efforts of the local abbot. Utilizing the skills of the local silversmiths of the Wualai District, the main ordination hall, or ubosoth, shines in splendor today as the only temple of its kind – decorated within and without with intricate religious carvings out of silver and zinc alloys. To give guests a glimpse into the making of this temple, artisans can be seen at work within the complex, bringing sketches to life after carefully pounding the precious metal.
Digging for arts and culture
I could go on about a hundred more of Chiang Mai’s temples, but I willed myself to see more of the arts and culture of the city, which I expected would take me through hundreds of years of history, starting with a visit to Wiang Kum Kam.
From what is known from stories and what archaeologists have uncovered in the site, Wiang Kum Kam is an ancient city built by King Mengrai in the latter part of the 13th century, which he envisioned to be the capital of his kingdom. The city, however, faced constant problems with flooding from the nearby Ping River, and the king then decided to move his capital to Chiang Mai. Wiang Kum Kam is known as the Underground Empire as it remained under mud and sludge until it was rediscovered in 1984. The excavation site is now home to many temples essential to the study of northern Thai culture, including Wat Chedi Liem (Ku Kham), the only one not buried by the flood.
Getting intimate with the northern Thai culture also meant being up close and personal with the elephants of the Mae Sa Elephant Camp. The biggest elephant camp in Thailand, Mae Sa is home to 71 active elephants which enjoy a daily routine of feeding and bathing. I was fortunate that on the day I got to pay the elephants a visit, they indulged the audience with a showcase of art, with five painting such themes from nature as flowers and landscapes, their trunks holding up the brushes and working upon canvas, no less.
But for something a little more serene for the creative soul, head on to Baan Kang Wat, an artist village which houses shophouses and cafés featuring various crafts and sustainable products by local Chiang Mai artists. The village features a garden, galleries and studios, including weekly workshops on ceramics and wood at Nok Pha Nit Studio, pocket-sized knickknacks from Jibberish Zakka Shop, and yoga from Luang Phabang Café.
An immersion combining culture and food is best offered to guests in any trip, and we got to experience this at Khum Khantoke, where we were treated to authentic Thai hospitality. That evening, along with an array of dance and music upon the central court, on our table arrived the wooden trays called khantoke, filled with bowls of Northern Thailand’s representative dishes. We feasted on kang hung lay (northern style pork curry), kab moo (crispy pork), fried chicken leg, steamed vegetables with green and red chili pepper dips, all served with kao niew (sticky rice) served in small baskets.
Learning more about northern Thai cuisine also requires a frolic on the streets for a taste of khao soi, a noodle dish ubiquitous across Chiang Mai. At Kao Soi Nimman at Nimmanhemmin Road, the dish comes with a rich and flavorful coconut soup, and may be served with seafood, kai (chicken leg), or sai oua (northern style spicy sausage). A bestseller as well in the restaurant, especially during the rainy season, is yam jin kai, a chicken and herb soup served hot.
With many bestselling restaurants located along the Ping River, other dining options to choose from within the city include: The Gallery Restaurant for flavorful dishes from all over Thailand, including pad thai, spring rolls and pomelo salad; Good View Restaurant for a good combination of music and food, such as steamed snapper and seafood tom yum; and The Whole Earth Restaurant, where guests experience the mingling of Thai and Indian cuisine, as evidenced by the restaurant’s curry dishes.
Finally, don’t forget to have a sip of mountain-grown coffee from the highlands of Thailand after your meals. With its high altitude and fertile grounds, Chiang Mai produces top-class coffee beans, which rivals the depth of flavors of coffee grown in the Americas.
After our visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, we met Ness, an Australian biker and nutritionist who has been in Chiang Mai for weeks, getting to know its food, culture and eco-adventure offerings. She is among the rising number of women who come to visit Chiang Mai, hailing from the US, Australia and the European countries not for tourist purposes, but on the lookout for the next destination for women of her age.
With this, Chiang Mai has more than enough to offer to its women visitors, starting with a visit to Bai Orchid, a sanctuary for northern Thailand’s budding flower industry. With Thailand as a major producer and exporter of premium orchid blooms, Bai Orchid is home to aisle upon aisle of orchids of different varieties, colors and petal sizes. Guests can also learn from the farmers how to cultivate their own blooms, bring home a bottled sample, or purchase a souvenir in the form of preserved petals turned into jewelry.
Chiang Mai is also a shopping haven for all kinds of tourists – from the thrifty traveler to the big spender. Take a trip to the enormous Warorot Market, where you can buy everything from clothes and cookware to preserved fruits and fresh flowers. For a shopping experience for the elite, head on to Nimman Promenade and its surrounding streets for couture wear, designer accessories and precious antiques to decorate your home. Finally, don’t forget to experience Chiang Mai’s famous Night Bazaar where you can haggle for the price of spices, souvenirs and the requisite shirt saying you’ve been to Chiang Mai.
After a bit of shopping, the rest of my company spent their evening on a Thai massage retreat, availing for themselves the expert treatment of many of the spas around town. I, on the other hand, took a quick trip to Wat Chedi Luang to catch the evening chant of the monks. And there, within the hall, amid the drone of the collective prayer, I caught a final glimpse of the guardians of Thailand’s rich and unparalleled culture. Time will tell if this brave roar sweeps across the rest of the nation, to finally usher in an age of perennial appreciation.
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Houses of the spirits
The spirit house, or san phra phum, is a shrine commonly placed in an auspicious spot within a house or business’ vicinity or property, intended to provide a shelter for spirits. It usually stands atop a pillar or dais, and can take the form of a house or temple, its size usually dependent on the number of people who use the premises. To appease the spirits, votive offerings are laid upon the houses, which could be in the form of food, flowers, candles and incense.
A very famous spirit house in the north is the one housing the Chiang Mai City Pillar. Located in Wat Chedi Luang, this spirit house is large enough for people to walk into, and offerings are made in it for such immense requests as harvests and protection from catastrophes. In the event the people’s prayers are answered, a return visit to repay the spirit is usually done to complete the ritual prayer.