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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