For a travel writer, there are instances when putting a coherent thread to a travel story may take time. My visit to the Heritage and Crafts Arc of Northern Thailand was one such instance. Though I visited these destinations in Oct 2015, it is only now that I could string together my diverse experiences into a single cogent story. Savour it and do leave a word if you like it!
PS: This article has appeared in Huffington Post. To read it there, click here.
‘Amazing Thailand’ – Tourism Authority’s attempt to sum up all that is Thailand – spews forth myriad images to the mind. From beaches to scuba and snorkelling, tuk-tuks to long-tailed boats, ornate stupas to Khon (traditional Thai Dance form), jungles to elephants and tigers, Grand Palace to Buddha Temples, spa and massages to seafood and cuisine, floating markets to flea and night markets – the slideshow begins.
Heritage and Crafts Arc of Northern Thailand
While that happens, one thing somehow remains in the blind spot – the traditional crafts of Thailand. It is not that there is any paucity of traditional crafts in this wondrous country; just that the rest of the imagery has a stronger gestalt!
After the conclusion of TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) in Bangkok, a few of us were flown down to Chiang Mai by Tourism Authority of Thailand en route three provinces I had not explored before – Lampang, Phrae and Nan. Though I had browsed the itinerary, I was not prepared for what was to unravel.
Of Chicken and his Bowls
We landed in Chiang Mai airport and were driven straightaway to Lampang. First stop – Dhanabadee Ceramic Group’s factory. While I have known and seen what typical ceramic factories are all about, I was not prepared for what confronted us there.
We were navigated through the reception area into corridors and hallways that subtly showcased the history of this famous institution known for its ‘Chicken Bowls’. We witnessed the smallest ‘Chicken Bowl’, a rustic dining room setting, a ‘Chicken Bowl’ painted in pure gold, how the ‘Chicken Bowl’ is shaped and painted, the original, now non-operative 24-metre ‘Dragon Kiln’, the Dhanabadee Ceramic Museum and much more.
When we thought we were all done there, we were made to sit on a workmen table and given a ceramic bowl each. Believe it or not, the task assigned to us was to turn those ordinary ceramic bowls into ‘Chicken Bowls’. We started hesitantly but then, the artist in us emerged and soon enough, each of us had our own brand of ‘Chicken Bowl’ ready!
While the Dhanabadee Ceramic Museum has the smallest ‘Chicken Bowl’ on display, the largest ones are also in Lampang. These lie stacked up outside Central Plaza Mall in the city.
We spent the night in Lampang River Lodge, a property ensconced in the lap of nature. This scenic property has scores of hundred-year-old trees, a lake filled with lotus, a meandering swimming pool and cottages built on aged wooden decks.
Textiles, Jewellery and Exhibits
Next stop – Long in Phrae province. We started the day by visiting Komol Antique Textile Museum (also called Komol Fibreland) founded by Komol Panichpun. The museum was both delightful and full of surprises.
The first section we saw had Tempera paintings. These are done on wooden planks that formed the wall of a house. The work was elaborate and well-preserved.
Another section of the museum had traditional Pha Sin (Thai tube skirts) with exquisite and detailed traditional work from various regions of Thailand. Not only it had contemporary work but had a sizable collection of ancient weaves too. Besides the tube skirts, this section also displayed ethnic jewellery.
Yet another section had a cute collection of dolls attired in traditional costumes from a large number of countries and regions across the globe like Portugal, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Brazil, China, Ireland, etc.
We then proceeded to the town of Ban Thung Hong in Phrae. This place is known for Thailand’s telling response to denim – Mo Hom (Mo = Pot; Hom = Indigo). The craft of Mo Hom creation belongs to Thai Phuan people who migrated from Laos and has been preserved and passed on from one generation to the next.
The town of Thung Hong is officially heralded by Thailand as ‘Champion of Handicrafts’. Here, the garments take shape from the dye produced by Indigo plant to the final output as varied as shawls, bags, scarves, shirts and more.
Here, we were made to experience how the ordinary white cotton cloth turns into the iconic deep blue Mo Hom. Not only that, as a souvenir we were gifted the scarves we had ourselves created!
From here, we moved on to Nan Town of Nan province and checked into Pukha Nanfa Hotel. This property had character, as it was an erstwhile Chinese Tea Room that has now been converted into a boutique hotel. It was a joy to sit in their all-wood open foyer and enjoy a relaxed cup of hot coffee.
Monks and more
We woke up early next morning to offer alms to Buddhist monks and found we were not alone. It seemed the whole town religiously followed this ritual. In and around the city centre market, we could see monks praying for all alms-givers at every street corner.
The city market offered an insight into the lifestyle of residents of the city. It offered everything – fresh vegetables, poultry, pork, spices and condiments, sweets and savouries, local ready-to-cook and cooked dishes, pots and pans, et al.
Our morning took us to Wat Phra That ChaeHang. This Thai temple has a 55-metre high golden chedi. Here, we visited the school for monks and were given a demonstration of ‘how Buddhist monks wear their robe’.
After breakfast, we visited Wat Phumin, an ancient temple that has famous Thai painting of ‘whispering man’ adorning its interior wall.
We then visited Wat PhraGerd and joined the locals in making ‘Tung’ (vertical flag). These vertical flags are an offering to Buddha and ancestors.
Our lunch was a traditional Northern Thai meal at Hong Jao Fong Kam, a sprawling noble house of Nan, built entirely of teak wood. In earlier times, these large teak wood houses were reserved for nobles.
Arts and Crafts
We spent the afternoon at Nan Riverside Art Gallery, a gallery with delightful display and blessing of bountiful natural beauty. As the name suggests, it is by the river and has been founded by Winai Prabripoo. Here, we painted the famous Thai ‘Whispering Man’ on to a canvas bag that was given to us as a souvenir.
While we were being driven back to Nan Airport, a vivid visual time-lapse of these three days went around my mind. It made me realise that ‘Amazing Thailand’ is not just a marketing slogan, but two words steeped in oodles of truth reflecting rich heritage spanning a few centuries that gives this land its arts, crafts and tradition. The experience is compelling and forces me to urge all readers to spend a few days here during their next Thailand sojourn. When you return and say thanks, you will find me magnanimously saying – “Mention Not!”
This article appeared in September 2013 issue of JetWings International.
Ayutthaya – A mirror of old Siamese Glory
While in Bangkok last September, I decided to visit Ayutthaya, a place of heritage, cultural and historical importance. With Pattaya, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Krabi, Phi Phi and many more similar exotica available during a Thailand visit, Ayutthaya seldom finds a place in any normal itinerary. My enquiries revealed it was around 85km from Bangkok, a driving time of 90 minutes or less.
During the drive, I did some reading up to realise that Ayutthaya is a brilliant amalgamation of Hinduism and Buddhism; and, it also holds a mirror to the glorious Siamese past.
The Capital City of 33 Siamese Kings
It is located in the valley of the Chao Phraya River. King U Thong, who went there to escape a smallpox outbreak in Lop Buri, founded it in 1350. He proclaimed it the capital of Ayutthaya kingdom or Siam.
Ayutthaya became the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai. The ruins of prang (reliquary towers) and gigantic monasteries reflect its past glory. From a population of mere three hundred thousand in 1600 AD, this city grew to a population of one million in 1700 AD – making it one of the largest cities in the world in those days.
Its complete name is Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya. It remained the capital of Thailand (erstwhile Siam) for over 400 years. And during these years, 33 different kings ruled the kingdom.
Ayutthaya is named after the city of Ayodhya in India, the birthplace of Rama in the Ramayana. Interestingly, the Ramakien (“Glory of Rama”) is Thailand’s national epic and is based on Hindu epic – Ramayana. Ramakien has its roots in Sanskrit word Ramakhyan, which literally translates into ‘a long story of Ram’. The storyline has its similarities in content, but has differences in context.
Of Attacks and Counter-attacks
The place has a glorious history. Starting around the mid 16th century, the kingdom was repeatedly attacked by Burma, the first such attack coming from the Toungoo dynasty. This attack of 1548 failed. The second Burmese invasion led by King Bayinnaung got King Maha Chakkraphat to surrender in 1564. The royal family was taken captive and the king’s eldest son Mahinthrathirat was made the custodian king. His father managed to escape as a monk in 1568 and Mahinthrathirat revolted. This led to a third invasion in 1569 in which Ayutthaya was recaptured, and Bayinnaung made Maha Thammarachathirat the custodian king.
Bayinnaung’s died in 1581 and Maha Thammarachathirat proclaimed Ayutthaya’s independence in 1584. Subsequently, the Siamese rebuffed repeated Burmese invasions over the following 10-year period from 1584 to 1593. In fact, in one of these invasions in 1593, there was an elephant duel between King Naresuan and Burmese heir-apparent Mingyi Swa. In this, Naresuan killed Mingyi Swa. This day (18 January) is even today observed as Royal Thai Armed Forces day.
Siamese people resented these attacks and counter-attacked Burma. They ended up capturing a fairly long stretch of Tenasserim coast in 1595. Subsequently, in 1602, they captured Lan Na. They even invaded mainland Burma and went as far as Toungoo in 1600, but did not succeed in their motive of capturing it. Once Naresuan died in 1605, Burmese people again attacked Siam and won back control over northern Tenasserim and Lan Na. Siam’s attempt to recapture these places in 1662–1664, failed.
Of ‘Trade’ Winds and Cold Fronts
By 1700, merchants from diverse regions, such as Japan, Portugal, Netherlands, India, Arabia, etc. started landing here. The merchants from Europe claimed Ayutthaya as the finest city they had ever been to. Many European maps of the city paint its stature vividly, marking it as a city of gilded palaces and ceremonials. They even portray it through a flotilla with a difference – that of trading ships from all over the world.
In the mid-seventeenth century, King Narai ruled Ayutthaya. Foreign trade brought to Ayutthaya not only items of indulgence, but also of war mongering. Thanks to this trade-boost, Ayutthaya became very prosperous. But, in the eighteenth century, Ayutthaya gradually started losing its hold over its provinces. These provinces started revolting against Ayutthaya and its rule.
In the mid-eighteenth century, Ayutthaya again got caught in wars with the Burmese. Though, the first invasion by the Konbaung Dynasty of Burma did not succeed, the second invasion led to ransacking of Ayutthaya city and led to the end of the kingdom in April 1767. Burmese almost completely burnt the city down to the ground, bringing the glory of Ayutthaya to a sudden end.
A Site of Suppression of Freedom
Here, in the Ayutthaya Historical Park, you can today see the ruins of the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam. And while there, do spare a thought to the fact that it is a site akin to Jalianwala Bagh of 1919 or Tiananmen Square of 1989, in an oblique manner, as all these reflect suppression of freedom of local people.
Considering its significance in the region’s history, Ayutthaya Historical Park has been included in UNESCO’s list of world heritage since 1991. The place still has some towering temples intact. And, ostensibly, these are the temples dedicated to Lord Rama of the Siamese epic – ‘Ramakien’.
Of Ramayana and Boddhisattava
During your visit, what is likely to fascinate you most is the omnipresence of Buddha statues in these Hindu God Rama’s temples. Current-day Buddhism’s influence cannot be overlooked here. Also, geographically, it is an island surrounded by 3 rivers, an interesting phenomenon.
The must-sees include the three pagodas of Wat Phra Si Sanphet which house the remains of King Borommatrailokanat, King Borommarachathirat III and King Ramathibodi II, and the ruins of the old city, or what is left after the Burmese invasion (Burma, now Myanmar).
Heritage hunters are bound to enjoy the sites and stories of Ayutthaya. And the scale and precision of planning of this city is likely to take your breath away.