Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Rainy Day Excursions to Chiang Mai Museums

                                       by Jim Goodman

model of the King of Lanna's coronation procession
       When the sticky hot dry season of long days of temperatures hovering around 40 degrees C. finally ends, usually late June, it comes as quite a relief.  Early rains clear and cool the air and it becomes possible to walk around, even in the sunshine, without perspiring heavily and risking exhaustion.   Intermittent, heavy cloudbursts are followed by a couple intervening dry hours before another rain.  And the longest periods of precipitation only start late at night.
model of ancient city protection rites at Hua RIn Corner
     That changes after several weeks.  Tropical storms batter the coast of Vietnam and, while the mountains between Vietnam and Laos block the winds, the torrential rain proceeds westward into northern Thailand.  Then Chiang Mai might have all-day rains.  If not constant precipitation, the weather will anyway be very cloudy.  This precludes any trips to the lovely countryside or even much time outdoors in the city.  It’s the Buddhist retreat season, so there are no festivals to watch, either.  
       In such conditions, the best way to appreciate Chiang Mai is to spend time in the museums, for the city has many.  Some are for specialists, like those for stamps, coins, textiles and even insects.  But others are more multi-faceted, highlighting the most interesting aspects of Chiang Mai’s history and culture.  Conveniently, five of them are right in the heart of the old town.
historic photo of elephants in the city streets
       A block north of the old town center is the Three Kings monument to Mengrai of Lanna, Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai and Ngam Muang of Phayao.  Behind it stands a wide, three=story white building that was City Hall before the administration moved a few kilometers north.  Now it is the Arts and Culture Center, dedicated to various aspects of the city and its development.  In the first room, visitors watch a short film, narrated in English, introducing the city’s attractions.  Other rooms feature exhibits of historical photos, models of ancient activities, key moments of development and aspects of rural life.
       The old photographs date from the late 19th to early 20th century.  A view of the iron bridge from the west bank of the Ping River shows how heavily forested the east bank side was back then.  Other photos show elephants in the streets and old-fashioned bamboo and wood houses with thatched roofs, right in the heart of the city.
opening scene of a film on the Burmese occupation
       One room displays small models inside glass cubes that depict city protective rites at the four bastions of the old town.  They include small crowds of officials and a line of monks connected by a thread.  Oddly, though, since this was a rite performed in the Kingdom of Lanna days, the bastions look like models of the ruins of them that stand today.
        In another depiction, of a royal procession into the city, at the head of the line is a man leading a dog on a leash.  This actually was the old Lanna coronation rite and the man with the dog was a Lawa tribesman, representing the original settlers of the Chiang Mai area.
Ping River scene from a century ago
       Thematically, the exhibits then jump ahead historically to a century ago and Chiang Mai’’s modern development.  Another glass cube model depicts elephants at work in the logging industry.  Then comes a scale model of the railway tunnel north of Lampang.  Next is a room with a film of events like the opening of the railway station and airport, plus the establishment of churches, corporations and schools.  The remaining rooms include a rather perfunctory introduction to the hill tribes and an exhibit on rice production, with a very informative film about the entire growing cycle.
old photo of a Chiang Mai nobleman
       Behind this building is the separate Chiang Mai Historical Center, which deals with periods not covered by the Arts and Culture Center. Exhibits cover the entire story of Chiang Mai, beginning with before the Tai Yuan even came here.  Then the area was the home of Lawa, or Lua, a Mon-Khmer people who were hunter-gatherers, whom visitors learn about at the first exhibit.
        Next is the story of King Mengrai, Chiang Mai’s founder, and of the laws he made for the kingdom, with samples of these, written on palm-leaf manuscripts, displayed in cases.  A large map identifies the boundaries of Lanna and the other kingdoms in the region during the centuries of its heyday.  At that time it was a commercial hub for the region, with resident traders from so many different neighboring states that Chiang Mai was known as ‘the city of twelve languages.’  Another map shows the main trade routes of the times, by river and by land, and lists Chiang Mai’s principal exports.  These included things travelers recognize; like salt, leather, ivory, rhinoceros horn, gold, silver, minerals and honey, and a few unexpected resources; like lac, an insect product used for making dyes and shellac, as well as gum Benjamin and civets.
model of King Tilokarat in the Inthakin Museum
       Another room covers the period of the Burmese occupation from 1558 until 1774.  A short film montage here covers that period, with actors in historical costumes portraying the events.  Apparently Burmese rule was not particularly oppressive, at least in the beginning, for the film doesn’t have any such scenes and only mentions that there were revolts occasionally, especially in the last decades, and two invasions by Ayutthaya.  The film ends with the expulsion of the Burmese, but emphasizes the role of Siam more than that of the northern rebels. 
mural of 15th century daily life, Inthakin Museum
       The final exhibits deal with the repopulation and resurrection of Chiang Mai, its development over the next two centuries and a room full of photos from the early 20th century.  Only a few have captions, however, but among the most arresting are of a nobleman dressed in fancy clothes and a shot of a large water wheel on the east bank of the Ping River, with the iron bridge in the background.  Since water wheels are used to convey river water to farms, one can assume that back then farms lay close to the river.  Now that area is all urbanized.
       A museum devoted to Lanna’s Golden Age under King Tilokarat (1441-87) stands just across the lane south of the Arts and Culture Center, next to Wat Inthakin.  This small temple used to house the City Pillar, a sacred icon of Chiang Mai, but it was removed to Wat Chedi Luang after the city was restored as Lanna’s capital in 1796.  The small temple, built with black wood and gold trimming, is still one of the city’s most attractive.
model of a spinner, Lanna Folk Life Museum
        Next to it is the Inthakin Museum, with exhibits dedicated to the life and times of King Tilokarat, who reigned in a period of great prosperity and prestige.  Tilokarat expanded the kingdom’s territory in all directions, which is shown on a map inside, and was also a great promoter of Buddhism.  He had Wat Jed Yod built, now on the other side of the super highway north of the city, to host a World Buddhist Council. 
antique loom, Lanna Folk Life Museum
       The museum exhibits include wall murals depicting scenes of the daily life of the commoners, like weaving, cooking, carrying water and dancing, as well as elephants going off to war.  Elsewhere there are statues of the king in his court, models of events in his reign, including a life-size elephant transporting the Emerald Buddha, warriors with their weapons and famous monks of the times.  Altogether, the Inthakin Museum gives a well-rounded picture of everyday life in Lanna’s Golden Age, from daily chores to royal spectacles, and even the 15th century style of punishing criminals.
basketry exhibit, Lanna Folk Life Museum
       Still in the same neighborhood, across the street from the Three Kings monument stands a two-story, white, 19th century building, originally a royal palace, that for a long time served as the city’s courthouse.  When that, like the City Hall, was moved north of the city, the building later became the Lanna Folk Life Museum.  Intended to be an exposition for both foreigners to understand the lifestyle, art, traditions and culture of Northern Thailand, and Chiang Mai’s residents to appreciate their own heritage, the museum has eighteen exhibition rooms covering a variety of cultural themes.
antique house, now the Lanna Architectural Museum
       Some displays deal with the material side of daily life, such as the spinners, thread winders and looms used to make cloth, including a fine antique loom with carved decorations on the lower horizontal beams.  Samples of antique sarongs from the collections of famous Chiang Mai noblewomen hang inside glass display cases.  Another room shows the craft of weaving baskets, in others various types of betel boxes and other lacquered containers, eating utensils and rich people’s ornaments. 
       Other exhibits deal with traditional arts, like the golden stenciling on red backgrounds known as laikhram in Thai, the techniques of painting murals, like the ones at Wat Phra Singh, with the pictorial outlines stenciled on one side and fully colored on the other, and the casting and styles of bronze Buddha images   Other rooms are dedicated to describing the elements of temple architecture and displaying the typical kinds of artworks the people give to the temple, from flower displays, images and lanterns to the long, thin, woven cotton banners called tung.  Models and photos also depict activities at the temples, the festivals and entertainment such as the graceful fingernail dance.
bedroom in the antique house
       Certainly this is the place to become familiar with the traditional aspects of the Thai lifestyle. Much of it is still going on, both within the city and especially in the rural villages.  For a look at how the upper class used to live one can visit the Lanna Architectural Museum, just a block south, opposite Wat Phantao.   This temple features dark teakwood walls and roofs and was originally part of a royal palace in the mid-19th century.  The temple went up after that king died and his successor lived elsewhere.  It was the heyday of the teak trade and many of the city’s finest old houses date from that period.
Highland People's Museum
       The two-story house across the street is a beautiful example.  Rectangular and built of teak, a plastered white colonnaded façade surrounds the ground floor.  Living quarters are upstairs, with comfortable elevated beds, mosquito nets, some elegant furniture and a balcony all around the building. The house sits within a walled compound because in the past all the houses of the nobility had walls around them, which were forbidden for commoners’ houses.  There is no class division anymore, so nowadays everybody has compound walls.
Lisu life exhibit, Highlands Museum
       Other than a desultory description in one of the Arts and Culture Center rooms, Northern Thailand’s hill tribes do not get any attention in the city museums.  To become acquainted with these fascinating people’s culture one goes north of downtown Chiang Mai, a little beyond the super highway and then west to the museum dedicated to the hill tribes.   Three stories high, at the edge of a large pond, with restaurants lining the banks, it is commonly known as the Hill Tribe Museum.  Yet signs in the vicinity identify it as Highland People’s Learning Museum or Highland People’s Development Museum or Tribal Village Museum.
model of a Hmông opium smoker
       On the first floor each exhibition room features one of the hill tribes.  Models depict domestic scenes with typical male and female activities—weaving, embroidering, whittling, etc.  Various traditional items like baskets, containers, tobacco bongs, musical instruments, trays and containers lie around the exhibit floor and are also mounted on the walls.  Varieties of ethnic clothing hang from the opposite walls.  Besides typical domestic chores, the exhibits include one of a reclining Hmông man smoking opium and another of Hmông children spinning tops and musicians on lute and gourd-pipe in the background. 
       The hill tribe museum doesn’t get the traffic the others do.  Unlike the old town museums, which are all within a short walk of each other, visitors to the hill tribe museum need a vehicle for transportation to and fro.  In an effort to boost interest, the city government this year sponsored a Tribal Life Festival for four days in August.  Stalls lined the lane leading to the entrance.  Some of them had tribal women doing embroidery, others were just mixed handicraft stalls.   At times entertainers took the stage at the end of the lane, like Lisu dancers or a Karen harp player.  Many dances were Thai however, and with rain constantly a threat, the audiences were a moderate size.  The most splendidly dressed participants were the Palong women, from a tribe not even mentioned or given an exhibit in the museum; perhaps because they‘ve only been here about 25 years.
Akha exhibit , Highlands Museum
Palong woman at the Tribal Life Festival
       The festival, like the museum, laid emphasis on entertainment and handicrafts.  But entertainment is part of traditional life.  And the handicrafts are like relics of a bygone age, when people made themselves what they wore and used every day, unlike these modern times, when folks simply buy readymade, manufactured items in the shops.  We cannot bring back Chiang Mai’s past, but thanks to its museums, it has been preserved for us to remember and appreciate.

Karen women at the Tribal Life Festival

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Sunday, August 5, 2018

Yaks in Yunnan

                                                                          by Jim Goodman

yaks grazing in Diqing Prefecture, Yunnan
       The road running from Lijiang, which sits on an elevated plain at 2400 meters, to Shangrila, high up on the Tibetan Plateau at nearly 3300 meters, offers some of the greatest scenic variety in Yunnan province.  After leaving Lijiang the road cuts through hills speckled with Naxi villages to the Jinshajiang, then turns upriver as far as its confluence at Qiaotou with the Chongjiang, a cleaner, swifter river than the usually muddy, sluggish Jinshajiang.
       From Qiaotou Shangrila County begins and about 20 kilometers north the road passes into Yi territory, characterized by log cabin hamlets and potato and maize farms high up on the slopes, gurgling streams below and pine forests all around.  After another 15 kilometers the road begins winding its way uphill until it reaches a chorten with strings of prayer flags attached, marking the entry into a broad, high, rolling plain.  This is the southeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, studded with villages of whitewashed houses and flat tile roofs, with huge wooden drying racks in the fields and thickly forested mountains behind them.  And in the pastures between the settlements and along the rural streams roam the yaks.
yak on a village path, Shangrila County
       Bigger than the largest breed of cattle, with a hump over the shoulders and cloven hooves, these domesticated yaks are yet smaller than their wild yak progenitors.  Long gone from Yunnan, and now found mainly in northern Tibet, southern Xinjiang and Ladakh, India, the wild yak males are 1.5-2.2 meters tall at the shoulders and 2.5-3.3 meters long, with a tail of 60-100 centimeters.  They can weigh from 300-1000 kilograms.  Females are smaller, about one-third the size and weight.
       No doubt in prehistoric times people living at high altitudes hunted wild yaks for their meat.  Eventually they realized the animal could be of greater use to then if they domesticated it, which ethnic Qiang herdsmen achieved about 4500 years ago.  This proved to be quite successful.  Nowadays estimates of the wild yak population range around 15,000, while domesticated yaks number in the millions.  They are classified as a separate species—bos grunnians, the ‘grunting ox’, after the sound it makes, rather than the ‘moo’ of cattle.
spring plowing
       Domestic yaks are somewhat smaller than their wild cousins, but are still pretty bulky, males weighing up to nearly 600 kg, females usually about 250 kg.  The male’s horns extend 49-100 cm, slightly curved upward at the tips.  The female’s horns are straight and 27-64 cm long.  Yaks primarily use their horns to dig through snow and ice to get at the edible plants underneath.
       The layer of atmosphere at this altitude is about two-thirds the density of that at sea level and even significantly thinner than that at Lijiang.  Visitors coming up from lower altitudes notice this right away in their breathing, suddenly a little laborious, especially if walking around or uphill too much.  The usual advice is to take it easy the first couple days until the body is used to it.  Presumably, the same thing happens to lowland animals brought up here, though that’s rare anyway.
milking a yak
       Yaks, and their human keepers the Tibetans, are already physically adapted, for they have bigger hearts and lungs.  Yaks are also better fitted against the cold than people, who must don layers of clothing to insulate themselves.  Yaks have a thick layer of subcutaneous fat and their chests, flanks and thighs are covered with long, shaggy hair over a thick woolen undercoat.  Able to withstand sub-freezing temperatures in the winter, they can suffer from heat exhaustion when temperatures climb above 15 degrees Centigrade.  Likewise, they can become sluggish, with breathing difficulties, if taken to the denser atmospheric layer below 2600 meters altitude.
selling yak cheese in the Shangrila city market 
       Mating season is July-September, with a single calf per mother born in April-June.  The newborn yak calf can stand and walk ten minutes after birth.  After about five years they are fully grown and usually live about twenty years.  They do not eat grain, but feed on grasses, herbs, leafy plants and occasionally lichens and mosses.  Because they ferment the food slowly, they only consume 1% of their body weight daily.  Cattle, by comparison, with a faster digestive system, require 3%. 
       People also cross breed yaks with cattle, producing a slightly smaller animal called the dzo.  The male dzo is infertile, so the female may later be mated with a full-blooded yak.  The Shangrila plain has many of these, but still has a vast number of pure yaks.  All types are used the same way as draft animals and sources of food.
yaks on the road north of Diqing
       Tibetans use their male yaks for heavy tasks like pulling plows and hauling logs.  Being bigger and stronger than the females, they are the pack animals carrying loads on the caravans.  The females are more valued for their milk, with its high butter fat content, from which Tibetans produce butter and cheese, essential parts of their diet.
       Usually men milk the yaks and women turn the milk into butter and cheese.  To make butter they pour milk into a meter-tall wooden tube and churn it with a pole until it reaches a certain temperature.  Then they add a little cold water (warm in winter) and the butter floats to the top and congeals.  Scooping it out, they next press it into round cakes in cold water.  To make cheese they heat the milk over a low fire, which separates it into curds and water.  After cooling, the resultant curds are strained into a cloth and dried into lumps of cheese.  Each area produces a different taste.  That of Shangrila is slightly tart, while that of Diqing tastes best when boiled and served in melted butter.  That of Benzilan, where they add sugar to the milk, is rather sweet.
yaks in winter on the Shangrila plain
       Most rural families own one or two yaks, or at least a female dzo.  Yaks are tame by nature, easy to train and don’t require breaking in like horses.  When not put to work they roam freely to feed and can be easily led back to the owner’s compound.  They are kept in a separate shed or occupy a ground floor room of the house, as the family living and sleeping quarters are on the upper floor.
       The life of a yak follows a seasonal pattern.  During the winter they stay on the Shangrila plain.  The only work required of them might be to haul timber to the site of a new house.  In the spring farmers yoke a pair of yaks together to pull a plow across the barley fields.  A woman guides the animals in the front, while a man operates the plow behind them. 
Yaks in Baimashan
       Spring is also the time the yaks shed their downy undercoat, which people comb out to collect, then process into a fiber similar to cashmere.  The long outer hair makes belts, ropes and bags.  The undercoat and outer hair grow back during the summer.
       Besides the farmers’ family yaks, herders manage numbers of them in the open spaces between the villages, especially in the glens around Bita and Shudu Lakes, east of Shangrila city, Napa Lake to the north and the valley beyond Songzhanlin.  These yaks won’t be put to work as draft or transport animals, but instead are raised for their meat and hides.  In the summer the herders take them up into the mountains, to elevations over 4000 meters.  Baimashan, between Benzilan and Diqing, is a favorite destination.
yak herders' summer camp in Baimashan
Each family takes charge of up to 40 animals.  They must stock up ahead of time on rice, barley flour, tea and other provisions, for the nearest villages are often quite distant.  To ensure they have the means to ignite fires they carry chips of resinous spruce, and pieces of flint and steel.  They build temporary shelters for themselves, either simple log cabins or tents, often reinforced with a stone foundation.  The rains having brought out fresh grass, flowers, herbs and plants to the pastures, the yaks fatten quickly and the cows yield lots of milk.  In October herders bring them back to lower altitudes, like the Shangrila plain, to stay for the winter.
dueling male yaks
       Herds can be as large as 200 animals, but they are usually much smaller, of 10-20 females and their calves.  Males stay solitary or in groups of four to six.  They can be cantankerous towards each other, sometimes fighting by ramming their heads and pushing the opponent until he gives way.  At night the females huddle together, with their calves in the center, to protect against the cold.
yaks in Yao Shan, Ninglang County
      Besides Shangrila and Diqing Counties, yaks also live high up on Yao Shan—Medicine Mountain—in northern Ninglang County.  The herders here are Yi and the yaks are raised for their meat, hides and milk products and not put to work.  Yak meat is very nutritious, full of protein and with low fat content—3.9%, compared to 9% for chicken and 24% for beef.  The hairy hides make warm blankets and the tails are sold as flywhisks.  In areas short of firewood, dried yak dung serves for fuel.  People also use the skulls as house decorations, sometimes inscribing them or the horns with prayers.
skinning a yak in Shangrila city
       Beyond their ubiquitous physical presence on the Shangrila plain, the importance of yaks in the lives of the local people is plainly evident on a trip to the city markets.  Tibetan women sit behind tables laden with lumps of yak cheese and discs of yak butter.   Nearby stalls sell yak tail flywhisks, belts and bags made from yak leather, slings and pouches of yak hair, tubular wooden churns for making yak butter, combs and pipes carved from yak horn and rows of dried skulls.  Vendors sell fresh meat as well as strips of dried yak meat jerky. 
yak jerky on sale in Shangrila city
       When receiving guests into their homes Tibetans traditionally set them by the fire or other warm place and prepare refreshments.  The hostess will churn some butter, add hot tea and serve the standard Tibetan drink—buttered tea, believed to warm the body better than tea without butter.  A bowl of barley flour and a plate of cheese slices come with the tea.
       Yak products are also found in the temples.  Monks use yak tail flywhisks to shoo away insects indoors.  Rows of small yak butter lamps line the altars in front of the images, some of which are yak butter figurines painted with bright colors.  Butter images melt when the temperatures warm up.  Like the sand mandalas swept away after their ritual use, they are thus symbols of impermanence and new ones made for the cooler months.
yak tails, Shangrila city market
       When welcoming visiting dignitaries, high officials or renowned lamas, or at the start of an important festival, Tibetan communities will stage a yak dance.  Two performers dance under a single yak skin, one at each end.  They cavort while surrounded by spectators and occasionally dash into the amused crowd and scatter them out of their way.
       Yaks are also part of Tibetan mythology as embodiments of gods and demons.  The wild yak was an obvious inspiration in ancient times.  It was unpredictable and prone to violence much more severe than the head-butting contests of domestic yaks.  It was a dangerous prey, too, and so difficult to hunt that those hunters who did succeed were feted as village heroes.
making butter tea for the guests
yak skulls, Shangrila city market
       In the usual Good vs. Evil contests, the Lords of Heaven may assume the form of a white yak, in one story a huge white yak that emits blizzards from its mouth and nose.  Black yaks, with fiery eyes, are the incarnation of the demons of Hell.  In the Tibetan epic of Gesar of Ling, the goatherd Palé happens to witness a duel between a white yak and a black yak.  When he sees the latter is about to win, suspecting it as a demon in disguise, he kills the black yak. 
yak passing by the barley drying rack in autumn
       The surviving white yak reveals itself to be Gyamzhin, the Lord of the Gods, and offers half his palace or half his kingdom or whatever his rescuer demands as reward.  Palé requests that one of Gyanzhin’s sons be sent down to rule over Ling.  Eventually Heaven sends Gesar to be born in Ling.  Among the adventures Gesar has in his career are periodic duels with yak demons.   
       During the winter festivals at Songzhanlin and Dongzhulin, as well as the Horse Racing Festival the fifth lunar month in Shangrila city, masked lama dances are part of the program.  The skits depict some kind of gods vs. demons battle and both sides wear horrific masks.  And on Hell’s side will be at least one performer in the mask of a black yak demon.
       When the dances conclude and there’s a pause before the next event, the audience breaks up into small groups for refreshments.  Most likely this will be buttered tea from a thermos and pieces of jerky and cheese.  They might even consume it while sitting on a yak leather mat.  Yaks are in one way or another connected to practically everything Tibetans do.  It’s hard to imagine what they would do without them.
herder milking a yak in his sumer Baimashan camp
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We’ll see plenty of yaks on Delta Tours Vietnam’s route through northwest Yunnan.  See the schedule at https://www.deltatoursvietnam.com/northwest-yunnan