Our first stop back in Thailand was a town called Chiang Rai. We had been told several times if we were going to Chiang Mai that we should stop and and spend at least a day in Chiang Rai, being sure to see the white temple (Wat Rhun Kong). This was one of the most interesting wats (temples) and one of the newest. The name really says it all, it was a white temple, as opposed to most wats which are some combination of gold, red, and brown. It was quite stunning from the outside. On the inside wall is a mural that provides a social commentary on violence and greed. Your eyes are immediately drawn to the burning Twin Towers with a gasoline nozzle rising out of the flames, dripping petrol into the mouths of these demon type creatures. There are also images from The Matrix, Star Wars (old and new), Superman, Jaws, Alien, Converse shoes, cell phones, weapons, raining bombs, nuclear explosions, satellites, and a USA space shuttle. We stood in front of it for a good half hour seeing more and more images as our eyes kept taking it all in. At the very top of the mural was the enlightened Buddha, rising above all the chaos of the world below. We were particularly intrigued by this wat because it is one of the few times we have seen real creativity and “out of the box” thinking in SE Asian culture. Even if we didn’t necessarily agree or understand the entirety of artist’s commentary, we were excited to see someone was doing something different and breaking the mold. Unfortunately, photos of the inside were not allowed.
We also visited the Hill Tribe Museum while in Chiang Rai and learned quite a bit. These people are stuck in a hard position like many indigenous people. They have had much of their land stolen which has forced them from Burma and China to Thailand and Laos, mostly and they are not recognized as Thai citizens so they have no rights. One tribe, the long necked Karen, who were imported from Burma, are being exploited by tourism at a zoo-like village where they are available for viewing. There is also a deep and painful history involving opium which goes back hundreds of years. We learned some cultural things about each of the different tribes and since we have been in Chiang Mai we have learned even more from Vance and Juanita Frankamp who are doing some work with several of these groups. It’s fascinating, but very sad the lack of education, the lack of health care, the lack of food, and the overall treatment of these people groups. There’s so much that can be said and even more that we don’t know or understand. HIV/AIDS is a major problem with Hill Tribe people and there are education efforts in place to help in this area. On the way out of the Museum there are a couple of “statues” made from condoms to encourage safe sex. This Santa Claus won’t be sharing any more than holiday cheer this season.
The other cool thing that happened while in Chiang Rai was unexpectedly bumping into Rebecca, the friend we traveled with for several days in Laos. Neither of us knew the other was going to be in Chiang Rai. We were both in the food court area and she spotted John’s beard (it’s getting easier and easier to spot all the time). We had a quick half hour to catch up before she had to leave for her flight to Bangkok. It was really great to see her and we realized we would be back in Bangkok at the same time in a week. So, we arranged to meet up one more time before we leave the continent.