Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Heart of Chiang Rai

Between Amphoe Wiang Chai and the Kok River is Amphoe Wiang Nua, where life is about as it ought to be. Rice, corn, pumpkins, coconut, banana and other fruit, and tobacco, grow in profusion. Tourists are few - in fact, almost non-existent. The pace of life is slow, people are friendly, reliable and honest, and passing fads of fashion must seem to locals as but crazy fairy-tales from far away. As everywhere in Thailand, there are many temples.
One of the temples is called Wat Boran; it may hold the oldest remnants of by-gone society to be found in northern Thailand. It’s not much, except perhaps in significance. Just how old the Buddha effigy is isn’t clear, but bricks and mortar from a jedi (pagoda), wall or gate, dug up in 1972, are from the early Chiang Saen era (before the city was called that), about 1200 years ago. Better info might be had by calling 053-725014 or 01-0205820; I expect Pasa neua language skill would be handy for that, though.
To get there, head straight east from the Ha-yaek at the Mengrai Monument south of the Kok River bridge on Highway 1 to MaeSai. Continue past the Sports Stadium, and after about 10 kilometers you’ll come to Wat Panalai Kasem in Ban Panalai, about 4 kilos south of Wiang Chai. Going on, you’ll pass Ban Wiang Nua, and start to notice more and more old style clothing and architecture. By the time you get to Ban Rat Jalern, you should have seen many ‘galae’ roof horns, raised houses and even polished teak ones. Wat Ratjalern has fancy embossed temple doors and colorful front wall paintings of Mae Toranee and Taewadah angels. The next small town is Ban Sansalit; Wat Sansalit is just before Wat Boran, which is in Ban Wiang Doem (or Derm, given the Thai predilection for transliterations using silent r’s with no counterpart in corresponding Thai script).
At the back of Wat Boran a new temple structure is under construction. It was interesting to see construction materials and a laundry basket stored on verandas of houses for spirits of the newly deceased. In front of all that, between it and the ‘bot’ (sala si-ri tamon pracha-nuson) for chanting and services, are lots of birds - many caged (some ‘talk’) and others fly around inside the bot. The old things are in a fancier temple building, just to the right after a small pavilion at the gate. Nothing is in English… and often no-one is around. But one does get a hint about what was here before Mangrai.

Front of Wat Sansalit

Image unearthed at Wat Boran

Another fascinating historical temple is just a few kilometers further on. Pass the turns to the interestingly named Ban Ta-bandai (water-stairs, or perhaps, “waiting for stairs” place. If it seems I should explain why sometimes I’m not sure of a translation, I’ll be getting to that presently! First let’s get to our next old temple).
Wat Bang Trai-gaeo, at Ban Trai-gaeo, is a bit down at the heels, but not a century old, I’m sure. Just past it, take a clearly marked (in English even) left turn, to Wat Ku-na (the sign in Thai calls it Boran Satan Prajao Ku-na). After about a kilometer and a half, turn right and go the same distance to Ban Ku-na (no real village) and pass the little rest stop for weary drivers (I think the only one I’ve seen in Thailand). Then turn left at the lake.
This is an amazing place. Built first by Lanna’s animist king while he was still a Buddhist, over 630 years ago, the setting charming, ambience delightful and surprises amazing. I particularly like the little “ti-pak ron jai” (place to stay for hot hearts) tiny jail.

More noticeable, in fact, impossible to miss, is a roofed over fallen tree. A sign in Thai explains that it was a rubber tree (ton yang) over 100 years old, over 29 meters tall and 4.1 meters around, found in the river early in 2004. But a caretaker there told me it was a “Ton sai” tree, and not only do I clearly remember the tree being there, and not with a new roof, either, before that, I have pictures from my first visit – over a year before that! So, I’m reluctant to trust everything I read or hear…
By the roofed tree’s roots are gifts: women’s cloths and zip up wardrobe, make-up equipment and a donation box. Clearly a spirit is believed to be in residence.

There’s no resident monk at Wat Ku-na, just a caretaker who sweeps up and sells fish food, incense and candles. Often one simply puts money in a bowl and helps oneself. The bowl is on a table in a “sala” between the small lake and a sturdier sala with a large Buddha statue. That is the main bot – with no walls.
People tend to ignore the bot, and place their offerings before a huge 5 or 600 year old Ton sai tree (well, the caretaker told me that’s what it is, I thought maybe a Bo tree… but it’s another kind of fiscus, the banyan; and, apologies to the caretaker, rubber is a kind of fiscus, too!) which often has images of royals among its roots. High up in its branches are over 20 bee hives, easily visible. The largest appears to be over a meter in length. Locally, bees building a nest is regarded as a token of great good fortune.
Extending over the lake is a small wood sala, with benches, placed above a cement walk around it, with protective railing, used for
feeding the many fish – many fairly big for such a small lake. There are pla duk catfish, pla ja-la met butterfish, pla tah pien and long pla chon fighting fish, I was told by visitors feeding them.
West of the big tree, near the river, is something like bleachers for images given to the tree, and the riverside is where the Loi Kratong parade from Wiang Nua ends and people launch their kratongs.
It’s all quite lovely, with the air cooled by breezes passing above the river and lots of vegetation, including plenty of trees. Well worth a visit, especially if one wants to see a bit of unspoiled northern life.

When I started compiling ChiangRai tourist information a decade ago, WiangChai was off the tourist track, and few people there spoke anything but northern &/or central Thai. Although with a primarily rice-based economy, due to proximity to Amphoe Muang, good soil (a legacy from when the ChiangSaen Lake was huge), and plentiful water, WiangChai is more prosperous than PhrayaMengrai, Theung or other outlying areas of ChiangRai. Santiburi Golf has helped too, as has land speculation. Grounds preparation for another golf-based community, “Happy City”, is well underway, and already there are Farang faces to be seen around and about. There are internet cafes, modern homes aplenty, and other signs of development; with that, though, has come removal of some mountains (over towards otherwise beautiful Bung Luang and charmingly slow PrayaMengrai), for materials. Soon the area will be ‘discovered’ – and much busier. Global economic problems will surely affect this development, and perhaps the success of Happy City, but ChiangRai is sure to replace ChiangMai in the hearts of many. We should regard ourselves as fortunate to still be able to enjoy the unspoiled charm in Wiang Chai. One of its nicest places is just north of town on 1173, 2.5 km along PhaNgio (spelled Pha Giew on signs) Road from Ban DonRuang, 3 km. past the turn to ChaingRung and ChiangKhong.





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