Thursday, January 28, 2021

Chiang Dao—the City of Stars


                                   by Jim Goodman


      Doi Chiang  Dao, Thailand’s third tallest mountain at 2225 meters, stands on a broad plain, overlooking a rolling, forested landscape, a few km from the town named after it.  Originally called Doi Piang Dao (“mountain at the level of the stars”), the town beside it became known as Chiang Dao (“the city of stars”) and the mountain became more commonly referred to by the same name.  About 80 km north of Chiang Mai, it is popular day excursion, primarily for the caves within the mountain, sometimes including a stop on the way at an elephant riding camp.

       The entrance to the caves lies near the foot of the mountain, with two passage ways inside.  The upper one runs about 200 meters, is illuminated and contains, besides the usual stalagmites and stalactites, a number of Buddhist shrines.  The lower passage way is 750 meters long, full of twists and turns, rugged and narrow, no shrines and no overhead lights.  Taking this route requires a guide and lamps.  Even with a powerful flashlight, the novice is unlikely to know which turn leads on to something attractive and which runs into a dead end wall of rock.

       The shorter upper cave is easily negotiable with enough illumination, and not overly bright, to see everything clearly and maintain the atmosphere.  The stalactites are usually walls of rock with vertical fluted indentations hanging down from the ceiling, some with very jagged pointed ends.  The stalagmites are less numerous, some in breast-shaped mounds lining a ledge, others resembling human heads.  None of the rock formations are particularly arresting, but they provide a nice backdrop to the shrines.

       The biggest one is not far from the entrance, featuring large seated Buddhas in a niche in the cave wall.  Further on are other seated Buddhas, big and small, in rows on ledges and a reclining Buddha in a space between two boulders.  Perhaps the most interesting image, towards the end of the upper trail and next to a large seated crowned Buddha, is of a bewhiskered, crowned figure, shirtless and wearing pants and what looks like royal jewelry, standing within the coils of a seven-headed naga (mythical serpent).

       Buddhist imagery also graces the area in front of the cave entrance.  Stone chedis stand along the shore of a clear and clean, turquoise-colored pond.   Small Buddha images sit in niches in the cliff behind, while a small chedi rests on a dragon-headed boat in the water next to the path.  To the right of the pond a regal gilded Buddha sits on the coils of a naga, while all around it are similarly sculpted Buddhas, all in white.  Another chedi tops a nearby mound.

       The settlement beside the cave is a typical northern village with mostly stilted houses, whose residents work as guides in the caves or up the mountain.  Some of the women are involved in basketry.  Several quiet guest houses also exist in the vicinity, as well as in the town.  While a visit to the cave will not take much time, some visitors come for a longer stay, for the town and district offer other attractions.

       Around three hundred species of tropical birds fly around the area.  Bird watchers can spot some of them on early morning hikes around the base of Doi Chiang Dao and lots more by trekking to the summit.  This requires a local guide, for the mountain is a national park, heavily forested and the trail is not so easily evident to one who’s never taken it.  It’s 7.5 kilometers to the top and the journey up and back normally takes about eight hours.  While it can be accomplished in a day, most hikers arrange to stay the night camping at the summit, in order to appreciate the night stars and the splendid, panoramic view of the sunrise.  And the tropical birds will be more active as the hikers then make their way through the trees down to the mountain’s base.

       A less taxing excursion is a visit to Wat Tham Pha Plong, two km north of the cave.  The temple is on top of a small hill, surrounded by the jungle, accessible by a staircase of 500 steps.  For nature lovers, continuing north in the district are more venues.  The Pha Daeng National Park extends over a thousand square kilometers, a landscape of rolling valleys and forested mountains and isolated clearings with villages of the Karen and Lisu minorities.

       Besides the birds and the scenery, the park contains other attractions like the Pong Arn hot springs, which offers tubs for visitors wishing to soak in the therapeutic waters.  Closer to the northern border with Myanmar is the Sri Songwan Waterfall, tumbling off a high cliff.  Like Doi Chiang Dao, the mountains in the park are part of the Darn Lao Range, running north on the east side of the Salween River through northeast Myanmar up to Yunnan.  Doi Angkhang, west of Fang and Thailand’s second highest peak, is also part of this range.  Doi Thoai, west of Sri Songwan, is the source of the Ping River, which flows past Chiang Mai.

       From the cave a road runs a few km directly to the market area on the northeast side of the city.  Next to the road just a couple blocks before the market is Chiang Dao’s most unusual temple—Wat Mae It.  It has the usual compound elements of assembly hall, monks’ quarters and ordination hall and a large image of Upakhu, a famous 3rd century Indian monk.  Its broad courtyard, though, features displays of the tortures of the Buddhist Hell. 

       Figures with abnormally stretched arms, torsos and legs stand in a line taller than the viharn.  Below them Hell’s demons exercise various forms of torture on sinners both male and female.  The demons saw bodies down the middle, slice open heads, rip out tongues, mutilate genitals, force naked bodies up thorn trees and other nefarious maneuvers. 

       According to the Buddhist doctrine the sinners will experience excruciating pain but not die.  The inflicted wounds will heal and then be reopened.  The torture will last x number of years and then the victims will be reborn for another round of life on earth.  The “Temple of Hell” concept is not unique to Chiang Dao, for several exist in other parts of Thailand, including a bigger, more elaborate one at Wat Mae Ket Noi near Mae Jo, not far from Chiang Mai.  The idea is to scare believers into being good by graphic exhibits of what happens to those who are bad.


   There’s not much else of interest in the town itself, with a population of about 15,000 and no relics from its establishment in the time of the Kingdom of Lanna.  The one major and colorful exception is the weekly Tuesday morning market, for it draws not only Thais from all over the district but also some of the hill tribes, as the ethnic minorities are called.  Stalls and stands start setting up from 6 a.m., while other sellers simply lay out their goods on the ground next to the main street.  Further back from the road more stalls occupy a big field that is otherwise empty every other day.  Goods on sale range from basic consumer items like shoes, clothing, sunglasses, tools and small appliances to every kind of agricultural product, plus various food stands offering snacks, drinks or noodle meals.

       A few Hmong women show up, probably coming from the Chiang Mai area, managing stalls selling Hmong jewelry, clothing and accessories.  They can be recognized by their pleated batik skirts and their hair tied in a bun.  Much more numerous are the Lisu and Palong, both of whom have several settlements in the district.  The Lisu have been here much longer, in some cases over a hundred years, while the Palong began arriving only in the early 1980s, escaping the ethnic insurgencies raging in Myanmar at the time.

       The Lisu are the fifth largest ethnic minority in the country, after the Karen, Hmong, Lahu and Akha, living mainly in the northern border provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son.  Their language belongs to the Yi sub-group of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family, related to Yi, Akha and Lahu.  Wooden houses, and more recently concrete ones, characterize the settlements, usually sited on the higher and steeper slopes of the hills.  As a result they were relatively isolated from life in the plains. 

       In the late 20th century their forested habitat became a target of the logging industry, which began cutting down most of the forests throughout Thailand, not just the north.  To save what remained, the government banned logging and turned several northern areas into national parks, where cutting trees and hunting were outlawed and ‘encroachers’ evicted.  Despite the fact the rate of deforestation was much lower in the north than the rest of Thailand, thanks to the hill tribes’ traditional skills of land management, the government continued to see them as a threat to conservation and periodically has launched campaigns to evict them.  Just seven years ago, for example, authorities demolished the century-old village of Laowo and forced the removal of its people.  Fortunately, things have simmered down since then.

       By now most villages have switched from growing rice in plots rotated by the slash-and-burn method to cash crops—vegetables, tea, coffee—in fixed fields.  While their material life has thus altered considerably, the Lisu still hold on to their other customs, like the traditional clothing.  Even the men often prefer to wear the Lisu trousers, loose and wide to the knees and tight around the calves, usually brown or blue, both at home and when visiting the towns. 

       The women dress much more colorfully.  Traditionally, over plain black trousers they donned a long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket in bright colors, slit on the sides and front and back panels reaching to the knees, with thin bands of appliqué around the shoulders and neck.  A couple decades ago the favored colors were red, blue and green.  But nowadays the apparent uniformity has given way to different colors on the sleeves and front fastening flap and even cut differently.  Nevertheless, the current style is still authentically Lisu and definitely stands out in the crowds.  No one else wears anything similar.

       The other minority attending market day, more numerous than the Lisu, is the Palong.  Being relatively recent residents, the Palong are not Thai citizens and are restricted from traveling outside their district.  A few may turn up in Chiang Mai, like for Shan festivals, as the Palong are also Buddhist.  Government publications do not even list the Palong as one of Thailand’s minorities, though with a population around 5000 they are larger than registered minorities like the Khamu, Htin and Mlabri.  Chiang Mai’s Hill Tribe Museum does not include any exhibit or mention of them, though they are invited to set up a booth when the museum hosts a fair or special exhibition.

       Thailand’s Palong came from Myanmar.  The Palong also live in southwestern Yunnan, China, where they are known as the De’ang.  Their language belongs to the Mon-Khmer linguistic family and is related to Wa and Bulang.  Like the latter, and some of the Wa, they are Theravada Buddhists, following the same religious calendar and activities as their Shan and Thai neighbors.  In a typical Palong village their homes are stilted houses of wooden poles and beams, split bamboo walls and balcony and thatched roofs.

       Besides rice and vegetables, the Palong also grow cotton, which the women spin and weave to make their clothing components, using a simple back-strap loom fixed to a pole underneath the house floor.  The basic women’s outfit is an ankle-length red tube skirt worn with a long-sleeved jacket.  The jacket color is black or blue, with a wide strip of red running vertically down the front.  A narrow strip of cloth, studded with small silver disks, surrounds each upper arm sleeve, with coins, bead strings or long tassels suspended from the lower edge.

       The red skirt has very thin horizontal stripes of blue, white or gray and folds in front at the waist.  Lacquered black rattan rings wrap around the waist to secure it.  Instead of rattan rings, or in addition to it, Palong women may wear a thick silver belt, about 5 cm wide.  The only other kind of ornamentation will be small earrings and silver bangles.

       Since the warfare over the border has much subsided, hill tribes crossing into Thailand to flee the violence has also sharply reduced.  As a result the Palong (Lisu as well) are under less government pressure and their lives have become more stable and secure, even while still officially ‘stateless’.  Their weaving skills have aroused the interest of tour agencies, who have been arranging groups to visit Palong villages set up to showcase their weaving, providing an extra income for the villagers.  Meanwhile, for foreign and domestic visitors, every Tuesday morning the Palong, like the Hmong and Lisu, are the stars of Chiang Dao.

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