Temples, Tribes & the Golden Triangle
North of Chang Mai in Thailand is the city of Chang Rai and the famous White Temple, and nearby, several different Hill Tribes make their homes. A little further north, is the Golden Triangle, which makes for a very full but fun and interesting day.
First, on your way, stop by the hot springs, where you can buy and boil eggs (quail or chicken) in the steaming water…
Then head to the White Temple, which rises like a sparkling white sugar confection.
A very successful Thai artist, a painter who made his fortune, decided around age 40 to give something back, and he’s created, paid for, and continues to oversee the White Temple’s construction, which has been going on for 17 years, and is predicted to take 90 years altogether. He wanted to design something with some of the Thai tradition intact, but also with a modern bent. The main temple rises up towards the sky, reflected in a glassy pond out front.
As you enter the grounds you’re greeted by gruesome heads hanging from trees spewing Spanish moss, others scattered around on the ground, and a sculpture of more gruesomeness surrounding a whisky bottle.
As you cross the bridge leading up to the temple, looking down you realize you’re hovering over a sea of hands reaching up towards you – the rest of the bodies down in hell?! You aren’t allowed to take any photos inside the temple, and it’s pretty simple compared to the ornateness of the exterior. The walls are mostly covered with contemporary paintings of people down on earth, in a sort of hell, trying to make their way up to Nirvana and the Buddha. Included in the murals are the likes of Elvis Presley, George Bush riding a missile, Michael Jackson, and items like Rolex watches, the hell of the material world.
Across the pond, there are what look like tall silver Christmas trees. Upon closer inspection, they’re made up of flat silver ornaments that people have written messages on (paid for first, of course!)
There’s also a hole in the ground in a gazebo, a sort of wishing well, full of coins. Lots of ways for you to make a wish and a prayer, and donate money.
Even the restrooms are ornate – they’re in a huge gold building, quite distinct amongst all of the white. You’d think the scene would be quite peaceful, after all, isn’t a temple for worship and meditation? But there are hordes of people and some guy on a super loud speaker moving the crowd along. That’s the tourist aspect.
Artists can be seen throughout the grounds continuing to add their creative touches.
From there, head up to the Golden Triangle, the confluence of rivers where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. You can eat lunch overlooking the river, and even at tourist prices, it’s Thailand, so for Americans it’s still inexpensive.
There are many giant golden Buddhas overlooking the scene…
…then it’s on to see the Hill Tribe Villages.
It’s really quite something, a village of dilapidated huts, filled with minority women from the Karen and Palong tribes. Each tribe has its own language, spiritual beliefs, customs and colorful costumes, and the Karen are known as the long neck women…
…while the Palong are known for their big earrings (as in giant holes in their lobes to fit said earrings).
You pay a 150baht entry fee (less than $5), which goes to help the tribes. They are considered aliens, not Thai citizens, so the Thai government doesn’t help them financially. To support themselves, they do some subsistence farming, and they make handicrafts, like woven scarves, wood carvings, and brass jewelry, and sell it to the tourists. You are allowed to take photographs of them, in exchange for your shopping patronage, a fair deal. It’s just that you want to buy something from each and every one of them.
They are so beautiful, the young girls, the mothers, and the old women. It was also hard to see the women with those brass rings stretching their necks, that can’t be comfortable. They can weigh upwards of 4 kilo (about 9 lbs).
And the young girls don’t have any choice, they’re brought up this way, starting at age 5, and once they have the rings on, they can’t ever take them off. They sometimes wear them on their legs as well.
And then modern technology makes an appearance…
It’s a very interesting day, from elaborate temples and buddhas to poor villages of Hill Tribes, and brings up many different emotions about spirituality, money, tourism, and what constitutes happiness. No big answers, but plenty of food for thought.