TIO Thailand: North For Three Days
Sometimes it’s not about turning caca into chocolate. Sometimes the caca is the chocolate – or in this case, the paper.
Elephants consume, on average, 500 pounds of plant food and 42 gallons of water. Waste not. Want not.
Heading north from Chiang Mai, the first stop on Nat’s agenda was a factory where elephant feces are transformed into paper, a ten-year-young industry. The labor-intensive process involves hours of boiling, bleaching, beating, drying. Out the other end comes paper products such as picture frames and bookmarks, the sales of which help to support places like Maesa Elephant Park. (See previous post.)
Passing through a number of checkpoints – and there are many in place on major thoroughfares throughout the country to discourage sex and drug traffickers – we reached our first major destination du jour: Tham Chiang Dao.
Tham Chiang Dao is a network of four interconnected caverns once home, the local legend says, to a hermit who lived underground for 1,000 years. Apparently the sage was on a first-name basis with Buddhist angels, whom he convinced to create seven magic wonders inside his underground dwelling: a stream flowing from the pedestal of a solid-gold Buddha; a storehouse of divine textiles; a magical lake; a city of naga (mythical serpents and protectors of the Buddha); an immortal elephant; and the hermit’s tomb.
Sadly, such wonders lie beyond the illuminated caverns, off limits to guides and their tourists.
What tourists do get to see are Buddhist icons tucked into nooks and crannies scattered throughout an impressive network of stalactites and stalagmites, which function as limestone versions of rorschach tests: I saw giant bats in their shapes – and large phalluses.
The town of Chiang Dao, with traditional teak buildings lining Main Street, was founded in the 18th century as a place to exile so-called “spirit people” or those possessed by evil spirits – which turned out to be malaria.
Grilled shiitake mushrooms – Thailand is heaven for fungiphiles – crispy morningstar, a favorite green; papaya salad; and crispy spring rolls with pork. That was the savory menu at Chiang Dao Nest #2, a wonderful Thai restaurant, which is part of a resort complex that includes Nest #1, with its award-winning European menu.
The Nest operates tours and treks from its resort, but our guide Nat had his own agenda: we were scheduled to reach Tha Thon before dark.
Maekok River Resort, Tha Ton:
Located on a bend in the Kok River in the hindquarters of Chiang Mai Province, Tha Ton is a picturesque town that operates primarily as a staging area for the river boats that make regular runs to Chiang Rai. The region, checkered in mountains and hot springs, is home to a number of hill tribe villages.
Tha Thon is also where Bryan and Rosie Massingham built their dream resort and education center: Maekok River Village Resort.
After securing a reservation – dumb luck because the place is usually fully booked this time of year – Nat took us to explore the area, shorthand for let’s go check out yet another wat.
Wat Tha Ton is a large temple complex whose setting only a few clicks from the border with neighboring Myanmar was purportedly established using feng shui.
Feng shui is a complex body of knowledge developed in China some 3,000 years ago that reveals how to balance the energies of a given space to assure health and good fortune for its inhabitants.
And because one can never be too careful, toss in some dragons for added protection. But Wat Tha Ton’s phantasmagorical guardians appear to have made a side trip via Las Vegas en route to their mountain home with a view. All glitz and glimmer, are fabbie dahling.
Back at the ranch, Bryan Massingham joined us for dinner to explain how a nice Brit like him came to own a resort in a remote corner of Thailand like Tha Ton.
The Oxford University-trained geology teacher immigrated to Asia 31 years ago, first putting down roots in Hong Kong. Unclear what would happen in China following Tiananmen Square, he decided to move, originally settling in Chiang Mai, then in Tha Ton in 1990.
In 1998, he and Rosie, a history professor, took over an old resort, adding a student center.
By 2006, the couple had become successful enough to purchase an undeveloped stretch of marshland on the banks of the Mae Kok River, where water buffaloes played.
By 2008, the Massinghams had developed a new resort based on the pro forma of the original: 36 well-appointed rooms helped to support an education center with 110 beds, where today more than 2,000 students, primarily from Southeast Asia, but also from Australia, the UK, the Middle East and Japan, come to study each year and enjoy amenities such as an indoor climbing and rappelling wall.
The couple is also deeply involved with the nearby community of Lahu (the majority), Aka and Karen – as well as the Chan, an ethnic minority originally from Burma. The focus of their work is school improvement, but Bryan and Rosie also support promising students who might otherwise be forced out of school into the fields.
(They also act as surrogate parents and bankers for much of their well-trained staff.)
Talk about following your bliss.
(High season at the Maekok River Village Resort is November – February. Book early.)
Lahu, boat trip to Chiang Rai, Black House, White Temple:
Before climbing onto a long-tailed boat for the blissful three-hour ride to Chiang Rai, Nat wanted us to see a Lahu village. En route to Paqui, we made a mandatory stop at a local mom and pop shop to buy lollipops and biscuits to distribute to local kids, who lined up for the rare treats, each one namaste-ing in thanks. When I suggested we should have brought them something healthier to snack on, Nat rolled his eyes. This is not Kansas, Dorothy.
The boat ride took us from Banmai past the settlements of Phatai, Lahu, Ruammitr, felt very different from a similar trip on the Chaophraya River in Bangkok: fresh wind in our hair, instead of gas fumes. The current was running, but our agile “captain” easily cowboyed his way through patches of white water.
Nat met us on the dock at Chiang Rai, where we talked to the only other “farang” –Thai-speak for foreigner. Adria was open and warm, so we compared notes. She even talked about the time she lived in Telluride, where she worked for a friend, Steve Gumble, founder and director of the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival.
Wouldn’t want to paint it.
Once in Chiang Rai, hands down the main event is the Black House (or Temple).
Created by a “national artist” of Thailand, Thawan Duchanee, the grounds include nearly 40 small black houses made of wood, glass, concrete, bricks, or terracotta, The complex was built to accommodate Thawan’s vast collections from all over the globe of paintings, sculptures, skins, horns, and silver and gold items. But here, animal bones rule. Bones are apparently what inspire the artist to create. Most of the furniture and lots of objets are made of bones.
Let’s just say the Black House is definitely not a place for animal lovers.
It is, I believe, a contemporary, sculptural vanitas, meant to remind us of the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits and the fact, an essential tenet of Buddhism, that change is the only constant.
The creepy place chilled me to the…. You guessed it.
Next up: the Golden Triangle. The 75,000-square-mile area spanning parts of Thailand, Laos, and Burma was once infamous for the production of opium.
Various Thai organizations (Royal Project and Doi Tung Development Project among them) spent decades battling the trade. Part of the campaign, the Hall of Opium was built to educate people about the dangers of the drug (and heavy drugs in general) through in-depth exhibitions trace opium’s history from its first use 5,000 years ago to current socio-economic challenges of abuse and addiction.
Included in the exhaustive exhibition are scary videos about how the CIA got up close and personal with major gangsters – many of whom made their money on the backs on addicts. The rationale? Fight the Red Scourge of communism no matter the cost. Thousands of lives ruined? Collateral damage.
The Opium Hall, one of the country’s best museums, also features a kind of rogue’s gallery dedicated to major celebrities who succumbed to their addiction, from Tallulah Bankhead and Boris Karloff to Kurt Cobain.
Our last major stop of the three days: the White Temple.
Thailand is a very spiritual country and a very large percent of the population practices Buddhism, hence all the wats. But unlike all the other temples, the Wat Rong Khun or White Temple is new – and so far, fabulous to behold.
So far, because while work on the site began in 1997, this Buddhist Disneyland is not scheduled to be completed until 2070, when it could become another Wonder of the World.
The White Temple is the work of another of Thailand’s famous artists, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who is constructing the project in white to represent Buddha’s purity.
Note: To book Nat, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 085-7078216 or from the U.S., 011-66-85-7078216.
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