Chiang Mai’s deep-seated atmosphere of tradition conceals a vibrant art scene.
One’s first impression of Chiang Rai is likely to be of a provincial city that looks much like the rest. Certainly this ancient town, with its low-rise modern shophouse architecture, doesn’t live up to its grand billing as the first capital of King Menrai’s Lanna Kingdom and a place on the cusp of 750th anniversary celebrations.
I had heard rumours, however, that Chiang Rai is on the cusp of turning from a rural backwater into something more edgy and exciting. And, on a recent trip spent in culture vulture mode, this proved accurate – from its cafe culture to its crafts and neo-traditional art scene, this city really does have a lot more to offer than merely old temples and tourist bric-a-brac.
The first hint of this – Chiang Rai’s artistic spark – comes unexpectedly. Not while browsing one of the city’s cutting-edge galleries – although spaces like Angrit Gallery and 9 Art Gallery are both worth checking out – but while making my way to the city’s popular nightmarket, of all touristy places. Its form: an ornate gold-leaf clocktower shimmering in the middle of an otherwise drab round about.
“Come back at 7, 8, or 9pm,” advises a local walking past. We do just that, only to be treated to a gaudy five-minute light and sound show during which music plays, multi-coloured lights flashes and a mechanical lotus flower emerges from its bowels.
Intrigued by this nightly spectacle, the next morning we drive out to see a modern Buddhist temple called Wat Rong Khun built by the same local artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. Arriving at its location on the town’s outskirts, we’re again dazzled, this time by the sight of a blindingly white wat that appears to have been dusted in icing sugar or frozen in a blizzard.
To enter it you cross a bridge over a pair of giant fangs and a sea of tormented, hell-bound hands. And once inside you’re taken aback at the sight of some of the strangest temple murals ever conceived. New York’s smouldering Twin Towers, Doreamon, Batman and Neo from the Matrix are just a few of the modern icons to be spotted in a wild and flaming orange depiction of hell.
Riddled with allegorical allusions to Buddhism and Thai culture at large, it’s a structure that looks very Disneyland on Ice at first but takes on more significance the more you explore it. So unique is it that it’s also led to Chalermchai, one of the leaders of neo-traditional Thai art, being dubbed “the Frank Gehry of Northern Thailand.” That’s a bold claim that’s hard to square on a flying visit. What becomes clear at our next stop, Baan Dum, however is that he has stiff competition in the shape of Tawan Duchanee, another famous local visionary who dabbles in different artistic mediums.
Located just outside the city, his Black House, as it’s known, has a more tranquil artists retreat-like air, but is similar in its contemporary takes on tradition. There’s a colossal black teak pavilion that looks conventional out front but walk through it and you find yourself in a tree-studded garden compound dotted with outhouses (some smaller Lanna-style pavilions, others bulbous chedi-like capsules with steel doors) filled with Duchanee’s collections. Buffalo skulls, animal skins, and well-endowed wooden statues abound, offering a glimpse into his unconventional tastes.
As we discover, these two artistic storehouses – both must sees – are just the tip of Chiang Rai’s cultural riches. Equally striking, but much more affordable, avantgarde pieces can also be found at Doy Din Dang Pottery.
Founded by Japanese-trained ceramicist Somluck Pantiboon, this studio buried in the forest makes for a fascinating stop. Visitors can see potters at the wheel, talk crafts with him and his Japanese wife, and buy the beautiful finished products, with their organic forms and naturally uneven, vibrant glazes.
If museums are more your thing, then also head for the Mae Fah Luang Cultural Park. Founded by late Princess Mother in 1977, it was originally set aside for a hilltribe student program but later also became a repository for Lanna artifacts.
As well as botanical gardens teeming with rare species and the odd rotting spirit house, there are three buildings to explore. Hor Kaew features rotating art exhibitions and teak wood artefacts; Hor Kham Nooy is lined with old murals; and the biggest, Hor Kham, displays some of the finest examples of sacred Lanna-design in existence – ancient temple gables, palanquins candle holders and Buddha images from Lampang, Nan and Phayao.
Walking around this historical park – our last cultural discovery in a long weekend of them – does two things. Firstly it helps connect the dots between Chiang Rai’s neo-traditional art scene and its hoary past. Secondly, it reminds us to never judge a book by its cover.
Since the Le Meridien opened last year, Chiang Rai’s other offerings have been playing catch-up. The city’s first and only five-star, it’s a sprawling chic Lanna-style resort with 159 rooms, all spacious, contemporary and, with their subtle Lanna detailing, stylish. But the real headline feature here is the hotel’s location, right on the banks of a quiet green stretch of the Kok River. Features include landscaped gardens, man-made lake, tiered infinity pool, and tranquil river backdrop. Also on the grounds are two giant century-old rain trees, the aura of which is only enhanced by the folk tale, about a Burmese princess and Lanna Prince.[mappress mapid=”504″]