Onto the last few days, which I've spent in the north of Thailand: I'll save Chiang Mai (the "New City", established 1296) for the next post, and concentrate on the first Lanna capital, Chiang Rai (and the north in general). There's lots of fascinating history in this whole area--for one, they've only been part of Thailand for about 130 years. That's just an eyeblink for these civilizations. The Lanna kingdom had their own language, as well, and its descendants seem to want to hold onto some of the old traditions. The Rama come lately factor may be why I hear "hello" and "thank you" at the shops and 7-11's much more than "sawadee kha" and "khwap khun khrap" (another possibility is this place is lousy with westerners, so the service folks here may just be accustomed).
Wat Rong Khun: The White Temple
Months ago, back in the states, thumbing through the guidebooks and looking online, nothing excited me more about Thailand than images and the story of Wat Rong Khun. I imagined coming back day after day, studying its intricacy and commentary to understand greater truths and, perhaps, get closer to enlightenment.
That didn't happen. One, we had just 45 minutes there, as our tour was on a strict schedule. But two, even with more time, the crowds, ever-present at these "most important" wats, meant the experience is more about shuttling through, pausing for a bit to observe perhaps, then making merit via the donation box.
True, there were unique opportunities at this wat: a gallery where artwork by Chalermchai Kositpipat was for sale, and the legendary golden toilets. Given enough time and peace perhaps I could have connected Iron Man to the Buddhist battle of doing right and wrong. Perhaps when his full vision is no longer under construction.
Don't get me wrong--my experience there was enjoyable. It was simply unable to meet my unreasonable expectations. I'm learning that all these wats, while incredible and beautiful and at times awe-inspiring are, at the end of the day, buildings. They don't hold The Answer any more than the Taj Mahal or the Chrysler Building.
Standing where the Mekong River meets the Ruak, I again mused on how fortunate I am. I'm just a poor kid from Kentucky. I lived just a few miles from where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet--from the banks you can see the Commonwealth plus Illinois and Missouri. The tri-state area, the call it (as if there were only one in the US).
Yesterday I got to see three countries at once: Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (formerly Burma) [Sidenote: how long we gonna have to keep pointing out that Myanmar used to be called Burma? It's been almost 30 years, y'all--get with the program.]
Before the day was out I got to visit Laos for a bit to shop (sadly not at the casino they referred to as Laos Vegas), then we were given time back on the Thai side to shop. I didn't feel like buying anything, so I found another wat--this one dating from 759 or the 14th century (there remains debate). Guess I can't quit my habit yet.
Pics or it didn't happen. It happened: