A Culture Ride Through Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai

From Buddhist shrines to spicy Lanna food--Thailand's cultural nerve centres Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have it all.  
Thailand’s Northern Delights
Five days in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, the country’s cultural nerve centres, run the gamut of experiences. Photo By: Supriya Kantak

Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai

Leaning out from a bridge leading into Wat Rong Khun, I squint at a stucco moat of outstretched hands and grisly skeletons. Two massive horns arch over the walkway, while a few steps ahead, giant statues of Death and Rahu guard the entrance, like burly bouncers poised to restrict my entry into heaven. “The bridge of rebirth,” I overhear a foreign couple talking. A swampland of desire—enslaved arms—lie in wait blocking a mortal’s road to nirvana. This was rebirth as an infernal spectre, not Elton John’s PG-13 “Circle of Life.”

Chiang Rai’s White Temple could stand in for a gonzo Disney dream, a lakeside monument studded with fragmented mirrors blinking from every inch. Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, its eccentric creator, draws heavily from manic surrealism. He also loves allegory. White signifies the Buddha’s purity; glass denotes his luminosity. The bridge opens into a vast main complex, a safe space for souls free of want. Besides the usual aspects of a shrine, I saunter past some oddball touches—replicas of Iron Man, ghouls hanging from trees and a golden lavatory.

Inside the temple’s principal hall, Kositpipat’s unleashes his freakish vision to the hilt in imposing Buddhist murals, spiked with late 1990s/early 2000s mainstream culture and fired through a space cannon. My eyes scan cosmic battles, the Twin Towers aflame, Neo from The Matrix, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and the notorious big Bs (Bush and Bin Laden). It’s symbolism in overdrive. Not far from here the souvenir shop hawks these mural scenes on smaller prints. I make a beeline for it. Seeking a want, you might rightly deduce. My soul shrugs as the bridge beckons.

 

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Two statues guard the main gate to Wat Rong Khun (left): Rahu and Death (right), who decide the fate of earthly souls. Photos By: Supriya Kantak

Hot-Air Balloon Ride, Doi Saket

It’s before dawn at Horizon Village & Resort, in the rural outskirts of Chiang Mai’s Doi Saket district, and I am biding my time with Supriya, a photographer and my travelling partner on this trip. We sip tea in near silence on the lawn out front. A crew of staffers pump two deflated hot-air balloons, burners spewing fire into their openings. Our pilot, clad in a blue T-shirt, sizes up his passengers. Pointing at me, he implies that lightweights will go last. Behind him I catch the other balloon lifting off, so we pile awkwardly into our basket. Within minutes, Thai Captain Kirk steers us off. As he tinkers with the burner, he reminds us, “Depending on the wind, we can go high or stay low.” We play it safe for nearly 15 minutes. My fingers are tracing the outlines below, a tranquil garden of rice field squares but just when I have a lay of the land, our commander accelerates and the ground blurs beneath my feet. Our goal is to witness the sun’s earliest rays light up the sky’s Rothko blues, which it does in a flashy few seconds. Back on earth, we return to the resort, where we are toasted like Formula One drivers. Instead of trophies, we receive certificates. Bemusement is writ large on our faces, when Captain Kirk, holding an uncorked bottle of bubbly in one hand, signals. I step forward. Bend your head, he says. I follow, waiting for champagne to rain on me. The drink hits my hair like an icy trickle washing down this morning’s warm glow.

 

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Doi Saket’s pastoral charms are an ideal setting for hot-air balloon rides (left); Doi Inthanon National Park is popular with hikers, birding enthusiasts and trekkers (right). Photos By: Supriya Kantak

Bhubing Palace, Doi Suthep

While the Bangkok Grand Palace is all glittering pagodas and coiffed greens, at Bhubing Palace, the royal family’s holiday estate, old-fashioned cottages peek out from hilly stilts, embraced by acres of lovely gardens. Anutree, our spry Chiang Mai guide, had chalked out half a day for our exploration. She kicks it off with a light trek to the Doi Suthep, a mountain in western Chiang Mai, a wonderful vantage point to enjoy the province’s lush wonder. After the exertion, Bhubing Palace is a breeze, ideal for a lazy reverie along rose and orchid-sprouting pathways. From Bhubing, we ride upwards again to Doi Pui tribal village; a refuge of the ethnic community Hmong. Anutree guides us into a the living quarters of an elderly Hmong woman, dressed in a hemp skirt, with rough silver hair bundled up in an knot. It’s a tiny thatched-roof hut with dirt flooring and no doors or rooms for any purpose. Utensils are piled in a corner, in a rubble, along with discarded wood. Anutree tries to make conversation with the lady but she simply stares as though we are from a faraway planet. Later at the tribal market where some Hmong villagers sell their handicrafts, I walk out with a pair of hemp boots, unable to shake that withered face with pale grey eyes from my memory.

 

Mailam, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Kampheang District

If northern Thailand history is your aim, then visit Chiang Mai National Museum, a fascinating collection detailing the region’s ancient Lanna kingdom and its antecedents. But my journey till now had included its fair share of gold-rimmed temple trails. So I am restless for a not-that-quaint experience. MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art in San Kampheang promises to be an outlier. At first though, my senses scramble at the museum’s low-key simplicity; lately they’ve been attuned to florid classical architecture. I enter a plain, long rectangular warehouse, its facade overhauled with rippling glass tiles, refracting playfully in the sun. Inside, Spartan gallery units house a permanent display and temporary exhibits on two floors. MAIIAM owes its repository to a family of private collectors with a taste for contemporary Thai works. Fortuitously, the art on its walls today alludes to timely subjects—migration, identity and exile.

 

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“Super(M)art Bangkok Survivor,” a wall mount (top-left) by Navin Rawanchaikul is part of MAIIAM’s permanent display; “A collection of clay figurines (top-right) called the Spirit Vitrines (Memoirs of a Shan Exile, is a sobering reminder that ghosts of a mass exodus can haunt one forever; Doi Pui tribal market sells a variety of hemp products (bottom-left); Bhubing Palace gardens is perfect for an afternoon amble (bottom-right). Photos By: Supriya Kantak

 

There’s an installation “IDPS,” by Jakkai Siributr, that unfolds on four textile tapestries, which honour stories of Hmong refugees in Thailand who escaped conflict in Laos. In the middle of the central hall, a huge vitrine demands my attention. This is the work of Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, a Burmese artist originally from Myanmar’s Shan state, also battered by a bloody past. I crouch by the glass encasing, my eyes registering little clay figurines, a caravan of travelling amulets. “Spirit Vitrines (Memoirs of a Shan Exile),” the description says, a sobering reminder that ghosts of a mass exodus can haunt one forever.

 

Khum Khantoke, Chiang Mai

I hadn’t the fuzziest notion about a traditional Lanna dinner, let alone the idea that it would be served in an open-air reception hall with almost 800 people being serenaded by pretty Thai women in ethnic attire. When we arrive at Khum Khantoke, inside a business park in Chiang Mai city, much of the ground seating circling the performance arena is already taken by hives of tourists and large family groups. Once the servers arrive bearing food, the steady hum of their incessant chatter subsides. Khantoke in Thai translates to a small dining tray with tinier bowls of food in it. Not at all difficult for an Indian to grasp—imagine a thali with the best of northern Thailand’s specialities. I can count eight bowls in my khantoke and, in one of them, the spicy chilli paste our guide had raved about earlier. The paste is to be eaten with steamed veggies but really, it can also be used as a side with the khantoke’s other dishes—minced pork in tomato sauce, dark red pork curry (also, Anutwree’s recommendation), banana fritters, sticky rice, fried rice noodles and crispy pork skin. Chowing down mouthfuls of pork crunch and chilli paste, I admire a bevy of women in gilded crowns swaying gracefully to classical Thai numbers. A slew of cultural variety acts follow, from dramatic war dances to mythical retellings. Even though riveted, minus any context, I am somewhat befuddled. As far as the khantoke goes, however, my taste buds deliver a standing ovation.

 

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Bo Sang’s umbrella making is so renowned that every year a festival is held to celebrate it (top); At Khum Khantoke, dinner comes with an immersion in Lanna dance routines (bottom). Photos By: Supriya Kantak

Doi Inthanon National Park, Chiang Mai

Usually, I am not one to sign up for arduous outdoorsy plans if I can help it but hiking in Doi Inthanon National Park, home to Thailand’s tallest mountain at 2,565 feet, feels like a light refreshing sprint. Our guide is a chatty local man in khakhis wielding a tall wooden stick that he keeps occasionally tapping against trees and rocks, as if to scare away lurking spirits. “Majority of people here with Karen tribe,” he reveals in his broken accent. Members of the tribe farm for their sustenance and throughout the hike, our guide points out to terraced rice fields, coffee plantations and strawberry fields. We aren’t the only hikers this morning; groups of birders and backpackers squirm past us along narrow rocky climbs. Waterfalls interrupt the forest scenery from time to time and after we rest by one such gushing cascade, we tread back to the start and part with our hiking guide. Anutree says she knows a great lunch spot and so, we set off for Doi Inthanon Royal Project, which is a farming research endeavour patronised by Thailand’s royal family. “The royal project is a source of income for the tribes,” Anutree tells us, while shepherding us in and out of agricultural glasshouses with all kinds of produce growing inside them. And it is this bounty that is used to cook all the dishes at the Royal Project Kitchen, where we settle in for a meal. From our table, I take in the scenic panorama of Doi Inthanon stretched out below. That view alone is worth the price of admission, I concur.

 

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Essentials

Indians can get a visa in advance by applying to the Thailand consulates in New Delhi, Chennai or Kolkata if their trip exceeds 15 days. For journeys under 15 days, visa on arrival is available at Bangkok airport (2,000THB/`4,688). Most flights to Chiang Mai, including Bangkok Airways, have a stop at Bangkok. Chiang Rai is a 3-hr journey by road from Chiang Mai.

Entry to Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai is free; Horizon Village & Resort is a 30-min ride from Chiang Mai City (horizonvillage.net; 8,800THB/Rs20,625 per person; October-March); MAIIAM is also at a 30-min distance from Chiang Mai City (maiiam.com); From Chiang Mai city, Doi Suthep is 40 minutes by road; Bhubing Palace is only open to visitors when the royal family is not in residence (entry 50THB/Rs117); A Lanna-style dinner at Khum Khantoke restaurant costs over 500THB/Rs1,172 (khumkhantoke.com); Doi Inthanon is a one-day trip from Chiang Mai City; Bo Sang is a 30-min ride from Chiang Mai City.

  • Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Editor in Chief at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.

  • Supriya Kantak poses as a photographer so she can travel. She is happiest at altitudes of 1,000 metres above sea level. She posts on Instagram as @routes_and_shoots.

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