The Kingdom’s northernmost province captures the spirit of larger-than-life Thais who left their imprint on the land
The provocative take on time-transcending Buddhist values that is the signature style of National Artist Thawan Duchanee, who passed away in September, permeates his greatest masterpiece, Baan Dam, the Black House. In many of the 40-odd Lanna-style buildings of this museum village a short drive north of Chiang Rai town, and especially the biggest of them, images of animals leave and indelible imprint on the subconscious.
Baan Dam is most memorable for its wildly elongated, curvaceous chairs crafted from spiralling horns and massive antlers, as well as skulls built on a matrix of swooping buffalo horns affixed together in ways that somehow look as if nature intended them that way. The hooked beaks and signature protuberances of long-deceased hornbills stand high above massive clamshells they’ll never have a chance to pry open.
The power of Baan Dam is at its most poignant when viewing the surreal, improbable centrepiece of a crocodile head turned around and peering down its own metres-long hide on a table in the main building. Walk towards the outdoors past an elaborate buffalo-horn chair to the Ramayana Hall and another epic tale of Good battling Evil awaits.
In his book “Thawan Duchanee: Modern Buddhist Artist”, Russell Marcus opines that in Thawan’s paintings, crocodiles represent the dangers of grasping and craving in Buddhism. The powerful internal spaces, and long shadows create ample room for new thoughts to seep in and older ones to emerge. Yet the stillness resonating from less obvious, discreetly situated, small Buddha images somehow intrinsically override the more obvious animal energy of the room’s mind-catching cornucopia of horns, snakeskins and other various reptilian remains.
A quote of Thawan’s in Marcus’s book encapsulates the essence of it all: “What has a man got to leave behind except his wisdom brought out through his work? If I don’t leave something behind when I’m dead I shall be outdone by a buffalo.”
And Thawan left plenty behind. “The Lanna people will remember you,” reads one of the displayed tributes marking his recent death, revealing the deep affection of the locals for the artist. “You drew with your heart.”
Indeed, the overall feeling of Baan Dam is hardly one of foreboding, but one of serenity, as outside the creosote-blackened structures are Zen rock gardens that allow plenty of room for contemplation. Crowning the rather ethereal, elongated classical-Lanna structures, kalae, representing crossed buffalo horns and a symbol of Lanna culture, and swooping chofa finials, shoot skyward, reaching for daylight like branches in this peaceful, forested setting, blurring into the treetops and directing the gaze skywards, away from the mundane world.
Though best known for paintings and architecture, Thawan also had a way with words, including this inspiring poem: “May love bring us together; may we become the trees, streams and moments of forests, rivers and time.”
Motivation of a more earth-bound kind consumes a lesser-known attraction even closer to Chiang Rai town: Baan Jompon P Pibulsongkram, or the Home of Field Marshal Field Marshal P Pibulsongkram.
Built in 1941 on a thickly forested hilltop, the exterior of the cosy two-storey Swiss-style home with the almost-unheard-of-in-Thailand feature of a basement is beautified by flower gardens. The building served as the headquarters for the Thai force known as the Phayap Army, or Northwest Army from 1942-1946, when that fighting force led Thailand’s invasion of Chiang Tung in Burma. In the second-floor bedroom, a statue of the field marshal looks out towards a wall displaying a few of the Thai Cultural Mandates he promoted, including ones on the sacredness of nation building, and related powerful messages that echo all the way to today, such as, “We are not concerned about the war outside the country. We are more concerned about fighting each other. To whom will we sing the National Anthem if we kill each other?”
In 2011, the home was renovated and converted into a learning centre and opened to visitors last year. In rooms and alcoves on the second floor, the biography and times of Pibulsongkram are explained in Thai signage.
Pride of place in the hierarchy of motivational messages filling the home is this quote dramatically displayed beneath a portrait of the leader, “Even in the case of being defeated, we would only give up the land, not the people,” followed, by in small print, “These words are meant to motivate the Thai Army in the East Asia War”, or World War II, with the unwritten subtext being that a certain spin was required to digest the occupation by Japanese forces.
Looking past the figurines of muay-thai boxers at the elegant European-style garden in front of the home, visitors may be tempted to consider the Tai Yai people, or Shan, in Chiang Tung and the reasons for Thailand’s martial spirit in expanding and/or reclaiming its empire in all four of the country’s neighbours during World War II.
Transitioning from the military spirit to nature is smoothly accomplished in the adjacent Coffee Jompon cafe, promoted by a motto that seems right in line with the flow of things these days: “Happiness for the mind”.
Beyond the inspirational tales of larger-than-life characters that left their mark on Chiang Rai, lies the greatest source of awe in the province: nature itself. In jungles and gardens throughout the verdant province, creatures of all kinds celebrate the flora as they hunt, flirt or simply flit about. This spirit is perhaps most purely expressed in the province’s millions of multihued flowers, fragile symbols of an unshakable peace forever regenerated, and instigators of the seeds of highest inspiration.