Tag Archives: Wiang Kum Kam

Palace, Temple, Farmer’s House: Chiang Mai

 

Chiang Mai from Doi Inthanon National Park (right) Symbol of the Nation: PHRATHAT DOI SUTHEP

Chiang Mai in a muggy late February haze: the ancient, once fortified, city still sits surrounded by a watery moat and the highest mountains in Thailand.  The hills provided vantage points warning of potential invasions from its arch-enemy, the Burmese (and their Thai cousins from Ayutthaya in the south). Yet the Ping River  that nourishes the valley’s abundant agriculture inexorably continues its cycle of – all too frequent for some – annual floods.

prayer, cash offerings,, gongs and frescos
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

It’s no wonder that one of Thailand’s most sacred Buddhist temples (site selected by a White Elephant and whose golden chedi emblazons the Royal Standard) should top one of these mountains.  Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep’s founding dates from the late 14th century. Inside the temple grounds, visitors must remove their shoes (like all temples the interior is immaculate) and must be appropriately dressed – no shorts, short skirts, sleeveless blouse or shirt. Within the site are pagodas, statues, bells and shrines displaying the eclectic mix of Hindu/Buddhist craftsmanship common in Thailand. Tourism and worship, even texting, blends seemlessly within the atmosphere of common respect temples generate.

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep: replica of Bangkok's Emerald Buddha

Bhubing Palace is only a few miles from the Wat. Both are less than an hour’s drive up scenic Mount Doi Suthep through Doi Inthanon National Park (offering great outdoor activity potential). The extensive Palace gardens run the gamut from common perennials to roses, orchids and a tropical rain forest yet all are seemlessly blended within the natural landscape by a small army of professional gardeners. The gardens are open to the public whenever members of the Royal Family are not in residence (information is available through your hotel or the tourist offices in the city). The Palace itself is rather modest reflecting its role as a home to get away from it all. Bhubing Palace is a popular site for foreign and Thai tourists, and with Chiang Mai’s position next to ethnic hill tribes, there’s often a colorful mix of clothing.

Bhubing Palace and gardens, (bottom left) the Royal Standard

Wiang Kum Kam had been a Buddhist settlement long before the late 13t century when it was chosen as the first capital for King Mangrai’s Lanna Kingdom (Kingdom of Million Rice Fields: 13th – 18th centuries).  Yet frequent flooding caused even the King to move – Chiang Mai. With its rural complex of 20 temples and chedi, Wiang Kum Kam remained important throughout the Lanna period, but repeated assaults by the course-changing Ping River forced most of the temples to be abandoned during the 15th century.

examples of the temple complex at Wiang Kum Kam: (bottom center: horse cart with driver/guide at Wat Chedi Liam, the Chedi of Wat E-Kang, Wat Chang Kum - one of 2 operating temple sites - with the god Garuda.

With assistance from UNESCO, archeological excavations started in the 1980’s removing on average 3 – 4 feet (1 – 1.3 meters) of mud and silt deposited over the past 500 years. With on-going restoration and preservation, Wiang Kum Kam is an historical park. Surrounded by village houses and deep green rice paddies, you understand the allure of the rural countryside when crickets, birds, locust and the sound of  horse’s hooves are louder in the hot humid air than any man made noise. 

Wat Chedi Liam

The ideal method for touring Wiang Kum Kam is by horse carriage. For less than US$5-7.00(inc. a tip) with driver/guide, a couple to 3 can tour the lost city in a style that adds to its sense of time-warp, despite its location only 5 miles south of Chiang Mai.  Many of the sites are mere ruins yet a closer look reveals stories in the fragments – decorative carvings of sea snails as stair rails, sea monsters or evidence of mortar covering thick, wide brick construction.  The Wat Chedi Liam is the starting/ending point for the carriages. Remarkably, this Wat survived the destructive floods over the centuries and has remained a living temple.

19th/early 20th century properous farmer's elevated house and barn

Moved and restored, the 19th/early 20th century farmers elevated house and barn is a fine example of life for many people in Wieng Kum Kam over the past 1500 years. Constructed almost entirely of light but flexible bamboo, including flooring, these elevated structures prevented both unwanted animals and moderate flooding from doing major damage to the home. Rice and grains were stored in the upper floor of the barn along with light tools, while larger tools remained on the open ground floor.

at the Winter Palace gardens

The Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Akha and Karen (otherwise known as the long neck people) are collectively the ancient hill tribes speaking pre-Lanna/Thai languages. Comprising nearly 15% of the Chiang Mai area’s population and known for their craft skills, they’ve become somewhat a tourist attraction. Standard tours to villages frequently are nothing more than staged shopping trips. Check around for alternative tours or best option is to arrange through your hotel a private car/driver/tour guide. This allows for custom designed touring avoiding what’s obviously staged and explotative. Cost for a 7 – 8 hour day average US$40/60 depending on itinerary. It’s the most comfortable way to travel as well.

(Top from left) fountain w/children in prayer, Shiva - late 19th c., the Buddhist Scripture Hall/library - 1878 - built and funded by generations of local Chinese-Thai families, (center & top right) decorative temple elements of multi-colored mirrors, mother-of-perals inlay, (bottom from left) statue of a 19th c. officier on horseback, entrance to Wat Gate Ket Karem Museum - late 18th century monks residences, measures for opium, Narod the Hermit (19th c. in wood) the Hindu father of witchcraft
Prince Damrong Rajanpub

On the ethnically diverse east bank of the Ping River is the venerable temple, monastery and school complex of Wat Gate Ket Karem and its museum. Established within the past decade in a renovated 19th century wooden building on the temple grounds, the museum is the gift of “Uncle Jack” Jarin Bain, an octogenarian who can still be seen offering his services as a docent. Many of the artifacts and collectables were acquired by an early 20th century German expat business man. A major source of knowledge on the artifacts come from the extensive writings of Prince Damrong Rajanpub (1862-1943) regarded as the father of Thai archaeology and history. In 1962 this 57th son of King Rama IV (1804-1868) was selected by UNESCO for its World’s Most Important Person’s List.

The Lanna Architectural Center’s  Khum Chai Burirat house (1893/early 20th century renovations) is not only a fitting site for a museum of pre-20th century Thai architecture, but an excellent example of  “ruen kalae” or mansion style. An extension of Lanna University’s  architecture department, the house-museum is free and open most days. Sitting in a walled park just blocks from the Old City, Khum Chai Burirat house was donated to the University. The smooth highly polished teak hardwood, Buddhist chapel, curved main staircase, wide covered 2nd floor wraparound porch and wood lace decorative touches tell of a time when buildings compensated for the hot climate rather than attempted control. That rarely works; just ask the Ping River.

Lanna Architecture Center, Ratchadamnoen Road, at the junction with Phra Pok Klao Road

Monk Chat at the Silver Ubosoth: Chiang Mai

bas relief at the Silver Ubosoth, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Question: “If we follow the Eight Precepts of Buddhism, especially the one that prohibits having sex, after 100 years the human race will become extinct.”

Response: “As a matter of fact, this question is asked about something impossible and it is quite useless to discuss about such an absurd subject. But to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, we may do some guesswork about it. Of course, if all human beings on Earth observed the Eight Precepts and abstained from sex, mankind would become extinct within 100 years. Even if that happened, there should be no cause to  lament or  to worry unless you were the only human being that remained and lived alone in the whole world.”                                                                                                                                           (from Questions and Answers In Buddhism, Professor Saeng Chandngarm, Mahamakut Buddhist University, Lanna Campus, Chiang Mai, Thailand)

The Eight Precepts of Buddhism 

Refrain from destroying living creatures.

animals - real and in art - in temples

Refrain from taking that which is not given.

The Silver Ubosoth (in construction - will take 5 more years)

Refrain from sexual activity.

no women allowed within the Silver Ubosoth (ordination hall)

Refrain from incorrect speech.

Silver Ubosoth workers: hand stamping the bas reliefs and paper stencil

Refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

Refrain from eating at the forbidden time (after 12:00 noon)

Waves representing the oceans on the exterior floors of the Silver Ubosoth

Refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.

novices working in 95 degree (F) heat and listening to Thai modern pop music

Refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.

temple dogs - refuge, care and reverance

Whow…that’s heavy – no sex, no drinking, no drugs, no dancing – no FUN! No…not exactly. “Refrain” actually means “resist” – it does not mean “Thou shalt not…” Semantics? Only in the Judeo-Christian sense – and actually, only in the Middle Eastern ancestry of the Christian sense of absolute “good/evil.” Otherwise, Buddhism recognizes humans as merely one of over 30 life forms searching for the ultimate release from the cycle of life – reincarnation – through enlightenment. When’s that ultimate release? It’s up to you. Now THAT’S heavy!

Phri Dhatu Chedi Luang founded 1391 - Chedi tower (and elephants) toppled by an earthquake in 1546

To Westerners, people walking around in saffron robes is intimidating, yet we’re use to Catholic priests, nuns and Protestant ministers wearing odd clothing. Clothing, obviously, does not make the person and Chiang Mai’s Buddhist Temples and monasteries have intelligently created time within the day for the Monk Chat. It’s a chance to sit down with these men and discover that, OMG, there just like us – Apple laptop and all. At two different Temples – the magnificent Phra Dhatu Chedi Luang and the unique Silver Ubosoth – we had the opportunity of conversing and deepening our knowledge of this 2500 year old religion.

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (founded late 14th century) and Thailand's most revered Buddhist site

The all-inclusive Buddhist lifestyle and, to the Western tradition, its seeming contradictions, have always been an enigma. In a classic, and somewhat humorous manner the monks patiently explain a way of life that baffles many people. “Life” is not just  human life and even that concept does not mean that animals and plants are simply sacred. One’s life encompasses millenniums of reincarnation through many forms – hence sacredness – before, at some point, in a human life form, the soul, through the Eight Precepts, achieves enlightenment and nirvana.

men wearing shorts/tank tops and women wearing shorts/short skirts/bare shoulders are never allowed in Temples without donning borrowed temple clothing

So every Buddhist Monk will achieve nirvana? Hardly. Male children as young 7 years old can enter the monasteries and receive a free education until 20 – first few years of university. For poor children this is truly a “god-send.” At 20 they may choose to study further for their university degree and ordination as a monk. At that point it’s a life-long committment? No. A novice and a monk may leave the monastery any time they wish. They may marry, have children, become a farmer or a banker. Do they then go to “hell” when they die? No. Buddhist do not believe in that concect of retribution – they believe in reincarnation until the achievement of enlightenment and nirvana. A former novice or monk (if married they must now be a widower) may reenter the monastery at any time – and may leave again if that’s their wish. We were told that many people will enter the monastery for a year or two as an adult, like a sabbatical, just to enrich their personal and spiritual life, and then return to their business life.

Temple city of Wiang Kum Kam founded 8th century, destroyed by floods in the 1300's, excavations and revival in the 1980's as an active Buddhist site

The Lord Buddha’s attitude toward women…a sticking point among modern Western thinkers. Buddhist nuns are, like in the Catholic Church, not equal to monks and are cloistered. I will turn once more to Professor Chandngarm’s explanation and make no claim, as a Quaker, that I fully understand the concept.

According to the monastic rules, the most important rule for monks, as well as for Buddhists, is to keep celibate. Since womanhood is the natural opponent to celibacy, so women are a stain for chastity. The Buddha did not keep women in a lower level or in  inferiority than men. He only recognized the differences between men and women. Monkhood in the Buddha’s time was very hard. Right after ordination, monks would be sent away to live and practice alone in caves and forests, in the wilderness in deserted huts. He had to eat whatever. sometimes they were beaten and robbed, or didn’t eat for days. The Buddha hardly expected women to do that. When monks and nuns live close together another kind of trouble breaks out – and you can imagine what it is. Not because of women’s evil, but because of man’s natural weakness and the overwhelming charm of women. As far as intelligence and attaining Enlightenment, the Lord Buddha saw no difference between the two genders.”

Have I now told you everything you need to know in order to understand a belief system that affects the lives and politics of more than a dozen cultures, governments and millions of individuals? I hope not, or else you will not want to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to chat with these intelligent and gentle monks in the 2,000 year old spiritual and Royal center, Chiang Mai (of the Lanna Kingdom and Thailand).

the Ping River, the Royal City of Chiang Mai