From hell to heaven: benediction at Chiang Rai.

If I told you that I thought I might have come down with dengue fever, you could be forgiven for considering that diagnosis over-the-top. Still, since we are so far away from home, and I just spent three days and nights alternating between sweats and chills, and drifting in and out of sleep for 20 out of 24 hours, the thought crossed my mind. I was able to  reassure myself, as apparently the dengue headache is mindblowingly painful, (mine was medium, but constant) and the fever is referred to as “bone break” for a reason. As much as I love a good story, it would appear that so far I have escaped a tropical ailment; just caught the good old-fashioned flu. Woke up this morning, “It’s a miracle! I’m alive!”

It began four days ago, on our travel day from Pai to Chiang Rai. First the three-hour mountain road (762 curves – someone has counted) to Chiang Mai. Then a three-hour wait in the bus station, where we both fell asleep upstairs in the waiting room on bus seats that were so dirty I normally would not have sat on them. Then, a three-hour bus ride to Chiang Rai with no air-conditioning. At one point, I was sweating and shaking and feeling so sick, I didn’t know how I was going to last. I asked our hostess to please turn on the air-conditioning and she walked down the bus, reaching for the vents and frowning; a small sea of hands began waving in front of their vents. She appeared encouraged to find the faintest little “pfff” coming from our vents, but nothing improved. I believe it was either faulty or deliberately turned very low to save on fuel. We finally rolled into Chiang Rai, grabbed a songtaew and made it to our hotel, where I have spent most of the last 48 hours in bed.
Briefly, I did get outside for short walks with Stephen, but until today, he has been on his own. Yesterday, he ventured into town for a bit of sightseeing and first came upon came upon this portly golden Buddha.

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A bit further down the street, he discovered Wat Phra Kaew, unbeknownst to him, but the more important temple in Chiang Rai; site of the original Emerald Buddha.
In 1434, a bolt of lightning struck the chedi to reveal the original Buddha hidden inside (made of jade, not emerald, as was first thought). This treasure was moved about until it found its final place in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. Over 500 years later, A new Buddha was commissioned for Thailand’s Princess Mother’s 90th birthday in 1990, using jade imported from Canada (maybe Jade City, BC?)

Our country’s contribution to Thailand’s history:

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The city of Chiang Rai has been described as being more liveable than touristy and that is an accurate assessment. Although it is packed with temples, it is more a launching spot for hill treks, trips to the Golden Triangle, and in our case, the last stop before we leave for Laos.
We’re staying at the Chiang Rai Condotel, which offers large condo studio suites with kitchenette, seating, a balcony and use of a very large and welcome pool – for $25 a night. We were originally booked for just two nights, but extended our stay by another two, to let me get better before we took on our two-day boat trip down the Mekong.

We found these very curious mannequins in a local shop two nights ago. I have seen laughing mannequins just once before – in a hat shop in New Orleans – and now here they were in all their garish glory in a nondescript dress store in Chiang Rai. I have Googled them, would love to know if there is any significance to them – let me know if you’ve heard of them.  Stephen grabbed this shot with the proprietor proudly sitting beside them.

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There are a number of innovative motorcycle-driven vehicles to travel around Thailand, but we thought the old-fashioned rickshaw had largely disappeared.  Stephen grabbed a photo of this driver, asleep. I could not imagine how we would feel sitting in the cab, watching his frail back as he cycled us along in the heat.

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They say if you do one thing in Chiang Rai you should visit the White Temple, so we headed out this morning, hoping to beat the heat and the crowds. We were largely successful on both counts; by the time we left, tourists were being herded across the bridge by bullhorn-ed directions,”Keep moving, please. Don’t stop on the bridge, please.” Ours was a far more leisurely and zen-like experience.

The White Temple has to be seen to be believed – our pictures cannot capture the excess,the sugar-froth confection, and the forces of good battling evil, that is the brainchild of visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.

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Self-described as a devout Buddhist, the Buddhist church would have kicked him out but for the support and admiration of the late King, who bought a number of his paintings. That patronage has helped to make the artist a very wealthy man, and his themes of moving from hell and damnation to nirvana by means of eschewing all earthly desires may be suspect. Cardboard cutouts of the artist portray a more bon vivant pitchman than humble holy man.

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Walking up the bridge toward the temple, one must first pass by hundreds of hands, reaching and begging for help; a reflection of human suffering.

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Other frightening symbols from the dark side.

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The Gate of Heaven is guarded by monstrous creatures, who will decide our fate. This one does not show one speck of benevolence.

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And then…over the bridge, and we have crossed to nirvana. We entered the temple (no photos allowed) – rather simple, but for the pop culture and superhero images inside. Apparently Keanu Reeves’ image is in there somewhere – I did not notice it.

The rest of the park is all about the details – surreal and outlandish as they may be. The artist covered the temple in pure white plaster to reflect the purity of Buddha and in embedded mirrors to reflect His glory.

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I loved this tree and its gnarly vines – there were a number of big, older trees like this on the property, as well as bromeliad orchids.

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Everyone was lining up to have their photo taken with this fellow, so I did as well.

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We leave Thailand by sending out good wishes to all of you. Seriously – we bought a silver leaf for 30 baht (just over $1), and wrote on one side “Health and happiness to our families”and on the other side “Health and happiness to our friends.” That silver leaf hangs on the tree, preceded by thousands of others on other trees and rafters. We are confident it will work. See you again in a few days.

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