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The Mysterious Charm of Chiangrai



CHIANGRAI -For many years Chiang Rai has lived in the shadow of it’s older sister city, the big and bustling Chiangmai. Many felt that it had very little to offer tourists who generally by passed it in favour of Chiangmai. 
However after several years of living and traveling around this northernmost city of Thailand, I am now very impressed at what Chiang Rai has to offer to tourists and to its local people.
For a start, Chiang Rai is home to some of the greatest artists in Thailand, such as Chaloemchai Kositpipat who has turned the local temple of Rong Khun into an art gallery. He also designed the amazing Ordination Hall and Pagoda, or The White temple, which can be found after the turn from Mae Suay Intersection up on Road no 1.According to the locals, this temple is still a Buddhist temple but has been turned into an art and sacred gallery by Khun Chaloemchai.
The building houses a collection of world-class religious art. Some of his paintings attract rich collectors who pay more than fifty

Chaloemchai Kositpipat

The Mysterious Charm of Chiangrai 1

million baht for some of his art works. You need at least an hour to peruse his paintings and collect souvenirs. Kositpipat is now the most respected provincial artist in Chiang Rai. His style has been duplicated everywhere such as in the new clock tower in the city of Chiang Rai and the new bridge of Chiang rai.(The White Temple opens daily from 0800 to 1700, free of charge, but requests visitors to dress politely by covering their shoulders and knees. This rule of etiquette applies to every temple visit in Thailand.)

Chiang Rai is also the home of the Emerald Buddha or ‘Pra Kaew Morakot’ . The Emerald Buddha is believed to have been discovered here in Fourteenth Century before it traveled to many different kingdoms. Eventually it settled in Bangkok. The temple where it once resided now features a newly built museum in the Lanna style and the wonderful Ho Kham equipped with stunning paintings.

On the other side of town is the Black House owned by Dr. Thawan Dajjani. The 72-year-old artist opens his house and compound for visitors to appreciate his collection of art works which are most mysterious but very interesting, consisting as they do of animal skulls and skin. The Black House is part of a group of his Lanna style houses, each one houses farmers fish traps, utensils, animal skins or horns. The main one displays his abstract paintings. (The Black House usually opens between 0800 to 1700, but closes at lunchtime.)

Located north of Mae Chan on Road No 1 to Mae Sai, The Golden Horse Monastery is rated as a ‘MUST SEE’ among many different travel magazines. Tucked away in a small mountain, away from townships near the border of Myanmar, the temple is similar to Sao Lin where the monks and novices are being trained in martial arts. I learned that monks and novices here are trained to appreciate the art of Thai boxing. Every evening, the temple master conducts Thai boxing dances as well as three rounds of Thai boxing. A proper curriculum of Thai boxing has been posted on the board for the young novices to use as a reference.

According to the head monk, it’s only an exercise but it is also part of their mental training. It was amazing also to see monks and novices using horses as the preferred mode of transportation in the hilly terrain around the temple. All of them seem to be very agile and good at riding horse. Given the mountainous topography, the monks need a horse to bring them up and down the mountain and help them to patrol the forest. The most interesting activity is watching a caravan of warrior monks and novices riding their horses from the mountain to receive alms in the early morning from the devout Buddhist villagers. The temple has done a lot for the tribal people, by recruiting tribal children to become monks and teach Buddhism to their parents who have not really been exposed to the Thai language. The tribal children also have the opportunity to go to school in the temple and can be assimilated in Thai society well.

Located in between laos and Myanmar and not very far from China, Chiang rai is home to at least five diverse groups of minorities who either once migrated into Thailand or who have been living and migrating back and forth
between Thailand and its neighbouring countries. For the last fifteen years ago, the minorities have been seeking a better life by establishing both several private and public projects.

One of the most important is the royal project which was implemented to enable the minorities to be recognized economically and socially. The royal project at Doi Tung initiated by Her Princess Mother some fifteen years ago clearly illustrates how much the royal family has done to better the quality of life for the minorities.

Gardens at Doi Tung, Chiang Rai

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Doi Tung nowadays is a symbol of the close relationship between the Lord of Thailand and the minorities of Chiang Rai. Its beautiful garden draws several thousand tourists a year to appreciate the beauty of Chiang Rai and the sustainability of people living on the mountain. This helps them assimilate into Thai society well and live together in harmony. However, their cultures
 and folktales have been preserved and promoted to maintain their strong dignity which they share proudly with visitors. Minorities are not only interesting in terms of their external dress and colouful ceremonies, but their
belief and practice of agriculture. The Chiang Rai provincial organization has recognized the
importance of its diversity.

Before visiting the actual villages of the minorities, tourists are encouraged to gain some basic information from the Hill Tribe Museum at C&C. this museum provides an excellent overall picture of the hill tribes and their history.
All of the places I mentioned above do not attract as many tourists as the Golden Triangle.

Chiang Rai is infamous for its past history of opium trading, migration of the Haw Chinese of the 93 KMT battalion, and the border trading town of Mae Sai. The Golden Triangle is the point 
where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet and provide a convenient spot for opium traffickers to conduct their illicit trade. 
However, the story of opium trading goes back to the great opium war between England and China in the 19th Century. After being forced to open up the country to receive tobacco and opium produced in India from England, the Chinese government equipped its population to grow opium and tobacco in order not to lose out in the ensuing drug wars.

In the early 20th Century, the migration after the cultural revolution in China brought in those minorities who have learned the know how on drug dealing from China. The Chinese KMT were the greatest opium traders during the old days and those armies in Shan and elsewhere who needed to liberate their states from the oppressive regime were all involved in the opium trade. 
This page of history also referred to ‘Air America’ who were engaged in the opium business in the Golden Triangle. Believe it or not, the Hmong in Laos helped the CIA fight
against the communist in Laos and were using the profits of opium trading to finance the purchase of weapons.
The story of opium has has become a fading memory but the lesson learned is simply not to repeat it again.

However, the place and its history bring tourists back again and again like a bees to a honey pot, only this time, to participate in an equally insidious activity. 
The Golden Triangle has now turned into a casino. Tourists come here to lose their money before setting off to Mai sai to spend their remaining funds on counterfeit Chinese DVDs and other amazing goods at the duty free shop just across the bridge leading from Mai sai to Burma.

Apart from the above mentioned attractions, Chiang Rai has many other numerous attractions to visit – such as the most beautiful waterfalls in Thailand, an opium
museum, a Chinese village on the mountain, and numerous hot springs.
Given the choice of places to visit, Chiang Rai is definitely worth more than a sojourn of a few days, offering much more than Chiang Mai and other provinces in Thailand.

By Dr.Kris Dhiradityakul

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