The highlight of our visit to Chiang Rai, a city of just over a million people about 140 kilometers from Chiang Mai, was the temple complex Wat Ron Khun, the White Temple.
It’s quite a spectacle, the life’s work of a local artist and very much a work in progress. It is a fanciful temple full of traditional and very untraditional decorative elements, constructed of cut glass set in white cement/plastering. Movement from the outside into the temple – itself still fundamentally intended for prayer and meditation – begins with a whimsical, Bosch-like rendition of hell, the result of sin, and the ultimate progression to heaven.
A delight to the eye overall, the structure was so elaborate that the more we looked, the more details and subtleties we noticed. The temple enticed one to stay and observe, not just rush through, so in a way this was more of a place for introspection and engagement than a more traditional temple.
Inside the viharn or main building, a detailed mural in a colorful graffiti style was evolving on the hellish wall around the entrance and opposite the Buddha. It depicted battle scenes between contemporary versions of more ancient types of heroes who war with villains, including comic book crime fighters like Spiderman or Superman and individuals like Michael Jackson, here strangely placed among the villains. Along the sides happy people boated toward the Buddha. In imaginative quality and splendor, all of it reminded us of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Once in Chiang Rai we visited a much more traditional temple, Wat Phra Kaew, a 13th century temple that once housed the venerated jade emerald Buddha we saw in Bangkok. Here sits a stunning replica, also in jade, of the original, carved recently in commemoration of the king’s mother’s 90th birthday. In Bangkok you cannot get close enough to the real one to see the detail as you can here. Though dating from around 300 BC and much travelled around SE Asia including Sri Lanka, the jade Buddha was actually found here much later. Lightning struck the pagoda housing it and exposed the statue. The full story of its travels seems fascinating (reminiscent of the fictional story of the Maltese Falcon dingus) and worth learning more about some time, for the statue continued to travel from here, to Chiang Mai, Lampang, Laos (the son-in-law of the king at the time being Lao), and finally Bangkok.
Oddly, we apparently have been on the trail of this image, for we have now seen all of these locations but the one in Laos, and we’ll probably catch that one too. Also, oddly, there is no security at all despite the treasures. The guide said it is seriously bad luck to remove anything from a temple, and Thais are pleased to tell stories about the bad things that happen even to people who just “borrow” something. Hell on earth, or something like that.
The drive earlier from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai was very pleasant. We first passed through a set of hills like the ones we had trekked, and then through a broad fertile valley rimmed by more low-lying hills in the distance.
It was an archetypal SE Asia landscape with endless golden fields of rice filling the valley. In case you haven’t seen actual rice fields, they look a bit like wheat fields with a shorter stalk of about 3 to 4 feet when ready to harvest. Toward the top like a tassle of corn are the kernels of rice encased in a tough husk. In the villages, they used a heavy levered hammer device to pound the husks and release the rice kernels, then deftly sifted the husks from the kernel so that you can actually use the rice. Not surprisingly, with all these fields, Thailand is the largest exporter of rice in the world.
On the drive, the fields were occasionally interrupted by a town just like those spaced widely in the agricultural regions of the Midwest, with the main street as the town commercial section, but one block off the street as just residential. The main difference: no speed limit through town and no apparent speed traps. We just kept zipping along at 60 to 70 mph whether in town or not.
(For more pictures in a slide show, go to our Thailand itinerary page.)