After an almost twelve-hour bus ride from Phitsanulok to Chiang Rai, a wizened, neighborly Thai man gave me a ride in his tuk-tuk to Bed & Bike Poshtel – branded as an “upscale, posh style hostel,” though I only paid the equivalent of $4 in baht because I snagged a deal on Agoda (technology in travel is most definitely a double-edged sword).
It was a tiring end to the semester. Jenn and I decided to travel separately, aiming for some breathing space and independence from the very small town we live in, along with the desired accomplishment of our first solo trips.
It was a long day of traveling and with what was already a late night, I wanted only to shower at my hostel and go to sleep. When I returned from the showers, in the bed across from mine had appeared a blonde, barbie-doll-bodied and full-lipped woman who looked to be in her late twenties. I had to laugh when this new hostel-mate of mine introduced herself as Jen.
She was easy to talk to despite my low energy, mostly because she didn’t require many responses – she seemed to be able to fill most of the conversation on her own, which allowed me to comfortably honor my fatigue-induced introversion.
Jen had also just arrived at the hostel (that Agoda deal had attracted us both) and was interested in seeing many of the same sights that I had planned to explore the next day – The Blue Temple, the White Temple and the Black House, or Baan Dam, three of the most popular tourist destinations in Chiang Rai.
The next morning started in a refreshing and seamless manner, with a bowl of instant oatmeal, some coffee and a delightful brick kitchen nook with windows overlooking the crisp city sights. Jen and I agreed to share the cost of renting a motorbike for the day (a whopping 200 baht) and started off toward the Blue Temple.
Around 70,000 people call Chiang Rai home in the northwestern corner of Thailand, including some of the country’s most famous contemporary artists. Both respected and controversial, a growing number of artists are embracing a relatively new creative movement by blending modern art and architecture with Buddhist philosophy.
The Blue Temple, Wat Rong Suea Ten, is literally translated to Tiger Temple – it’s said that before the artist Putha Kabkaew began renovating the temple in 2005, wild tigers roamed the abandoned area. This temple was just recently opened in 2016, though finishing touches were still in progress when I visited in October.
The vibrant sapphire and stunning gold accents of the temple grab your attention in a much more subtle way than the shocking aspects of the White and Black temples, but Kabkaew’s paintings decorating the temple’s inner walls are reminiscent of Chalermchai Kositpipat’s style, artist of the White Temple. Not surprising, as it is rumored that Kabkaew studied under Kositpipat. Going from the regal blue temple to the Black House, Baan Dam, was a sharp transition.
“Animal hides, bones and tribal statues adorn the long tables found inside Baan Dam’s main structure, built in the traditional Lanna style and painted completely black. Entering the building, just one of 40 or so structures in total, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve accidentally stumbled upon a secret lodge set up in preparation for some kind of bizarre mass ritual.– Sailingstone Travel, The Black, White & Blue Temples: Where Modern Art Meets Buddhism in Chiang Rai
If I simplify the imagery, it felt as if we’d gone from a flamboyant royal wedding to a tribal, animal-ritual funeral. An eccentric assortment spread across a 40-building property uniquely harmonizes eery symbols of Buddhist ideals with eclectic humor.
Images of the Buddha balance an assortment of animal bones, ranging from crocodile skins to cow skulls. The crocodile skins represent the dangers of grasping and craving in Buddhism as they dominate the length of the main hall. Parallel to the stone labyrinth in the outdoor zen garden, a visibly-excited carved man guards a seashell gallery, complete with a small gift shop for buying souvenir penis carvings – the perfect gift to bring home for the holidays.
Yet the stillness resonating from less obvious, discreetly situated, small Buddha images somehow intrinsically override the more obvious animal energy of the room’s mind-catching cornucopia of horns, snake skins and other various reptilian remains.– Carleton Cole, Inspired in Chiang Rai- Baan Dam, the Black House
At the time I visited Baan Dam, the hot rainy season was still in full swing. The heat and humidity were brutal as it neared afternoon, so Jen and I decided to save the White Temple for earlier the next day and visit a closer, smaller temple called Wat Huay Pla Kung.
Often mistakenly called Chiang Rai’s Big Buddha, the impressive representation of Chinese Goddess of Mercy Guan Yin encompasses a 9-tier pagoda – visitors can take an elevator to Guan Yin’s forehead and gaze at the view below through her open eyes. Intricate depictions of gods and goddesses, trees and dragons decorate the all-white top floor tier. An extra touch of crystal sparkles with the light from the circle of windows garnishing the back of Guan Yin’s head.
This was the first temple I had experienced in Thailand that was dedicated to a woman…. and it was Chinese. Still, I was grateful to finally see a divine female representation. Around the same time I visited this temple, the potential confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was fresh in my mind along with the implications for the #MeToo movement. I reflected…
“God is a woman. What an experience to see the view from the top of this beautiful temple, looking out of Goddess Guan Yin’s eyes.
Let’s recognize that it’s possible to have a spiritual practice, to believe in love and to believe in god without ascribing to a specific religious figure (a man, commonly falsely depicted as a white man).
When we reject this idea, more emphasis falls on worshipping the ideal “Him” and “His” plan than on the ideals of our spiritual practice itself.
After this past week’s events in the US, many women are angry, and deservedly so. Use this flame as motivation to vote, to speak out, but also to observe how the patriarchy can be ingrained on an individual level. Beliefs are not always our own – conditioned ways of thinking, such as defining god as a man, help to build this patriarchal society. Take apart your walls, look for the truth, and use that truth to burn your flame even brighter.”https://www.instagram.com/sampagee/
Clearly, I was inspired by the Goddess of Mercy and the amount of empowerment the depiction of a strong, supreme woman can evoke. The visit became more mystical when we entered an elongated church-like building nestled in the valley of Guan Yin’s shadow.
Though structurally built like a Christian church, a Buddha image completed the ecclesiastical hall. A recording of singing monks floated ethereally among the sparkling white decor. Similar to peaceful art found within Guan Yin’s crown, though this decor was far more narrative – battle scenes on one side contrasted monks in meditation on the other, potentially depicting enlightenment and its violent alternatives.
After a few minutes, Jen and I found ourselves alone in the hall, relishing in this rare moment of privacy in a sacred space.
Refreshed and with an earlier start to the next day, Jen and I visited Wat Rong Kuhn, the White Temple. Only around 20 years ago, this old temple was purchased by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Similar to Thawan Duchanee, artist of the Black House, Kositpipat focused on depicting the balance between heaven and hell. Wat Rong Kuhn is centered around Kositpipat’s depiction of a bridge to enlightenment (moksha) and symbolic of samsara, the transformative Buddhist cycle of death and rebirth. Hands reach up from underneath symbolizing sins and material things that distract people from a path of purity. Some hands hold skulls to represent those who succumbed to the evils of the world. Walking across the bridge successfully is symbolic of blessings in your journey, but it is strictly forbidden to walk back down the bridge, just as you cannot travel back through your life.
The temple’s dominant white color was intended as an emblem of enlightenment, though the artist also added a touch of gold to the property. A smaller, golden building behind the main temple acts partially as a Ganesh tribute and partially as a gift shop; the bathrooms reside in an ornate, yellow gold building known as the Golden Temple, a parody of materialistic tendencies; an outdoor prayer hall is accented with gold pillars and benches. Elements of popular culture are weaved throughout his masterpiece, with heads of famous characters like Captain America and Deadpool hanging from trees.
Some of the most interesting parts of this art-exhibit are not to be photographed, including the indoor Buddha statue you reach at the end of the bridge. Kositpipat also included a gallery of his own work, including an acrylic painting of George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden riding a nuclear missile through space together.
““Delicate details embellish the exuberant structure of the White Temple like lavishly piped icing on a wedding cake. The overall effect is spectacular.”
This quote from The Not So Innocents Abroad perfectly describes the elaborate, mystifying nature of Wat Rong Kuhn. I was fortunate enough to visit this temple a second time in December on a work trip and noticed so much more the second time around – Plus, it was fun to explore the famous sights with students, some of whom have only been out of Phetchabun once or twice.– The Not So Innocents Abroad, Wat Rong Kuhn, Chiang Rai’s White Temple
Singha Park was the next stop Jen and I had planned for our second and last afternoon in Chiang Rai, but the heat made the option fairly miserable. We swung by to see the famous Singha statue but passed on the outdoor tours in favor of visiting a waterfall.
We got lucky again at Huai Mae Sai Waterfall as, after only a few minutes, the other visitors left us to enjoy the space alone. The sun was at its peak golden hour – we had only about an hour to enjoy the fresh, crashing water, ebullient birds singing among green vines and black slate walls. After she was finished with her Instagram photo shoot, Jen wandered back to the motorbike.
I spent the next few moments in complete peace – enjoying nature reconnection with which we so rarely gift ourselves.
You might remember that during the summer months, Jenn, John and I were all training boxing after school with our friend Changsen. Toward the end of our first semester of teaching, he moved back to Chiang Rai to begin his next semester of university. After the waterfall, that October night in Chiang Rai, I was able to have dinner and visit with Changsen.
He looked very tired – challenged and exhausted by his studies, but nevertheless ambitious enough to still be training for fights in his spare time. I felt grateful he took time away, even just to chat over ramen in that little brick kitchen nook. We walked around the market, chatting about all that’s happened at LKP since he left, laughing about the tearful farewell we all gave John only two weeks prior. He inquired about my plans for the next day and I paused.
Jen was planning to travel throughout Laos for the next week, an exciting idea and a tempting invite – “This is my fifth time in Southeast Asia and I have an entire itinerary planned out. You’re welcome to join!” but I didn’t like the idea of spending my solo vacation shadowing another.
Then I remembered a small segment of Jen’s stories – she had mentioned an elephant sanctuary she had visited in Chiang Mai, complaining that she wanted to volunteer but that there was a minimum time commitment that she couldn’t meet. I connected the dots with my situation and sent a message to Into the Wild Elephant Camp, the sanctuary I visited in May.
“Tomorrow, I’m traveling to Chiang Mai,” I explained. “I have a meeting scheduled with the founder of an elephant camp about a volunteer opportunity.”
Around mid-morning on Tuesday, I was preparing to leave for my bus to Chiang Mai. Resting in the Bed & Bike Poshtel’s lobby, I savored an espresso and mused over some emails.
As I neared a 20-tab internet vortex, a friendly, young Philippine woman sat next to me and introduced herself as Frigg. She was vagabonding around Southeast Asia and looking for a solid English-teaching job. Unfortunately, I had just heard from Pee Pui that we filled our last available positions, so I could only offer her luck with her search. She accompanied me on my walk to the bus stop and we enjoyed another coffee together (Not sure if I give in to my coffee addiction more at work or while traveling). It was so refreshing to have a conversation with a stranger who speaks intelligent English and had incredible stories to tell. Just being around her independent, empowered spirit was uplifting, leaving me in the perfect headspace to pursue my next adventure.
Cheers to the people we meet on our journey – every one of them has something to share or to teach, and I’m so thankful I was listening.