Black and White

Trip Start Nov 20, 2013
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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

We arrived in Chiang Rai a few days ago, which is just a few hour bus ride north east of Chiang Mai. Most people come here to trek, explore hill tribe villages, and view the art masterpieces due to two famous Thai artists. We got to Chiang Rai and wandered around the downtown core looking for a place to stay. The third guesthouse we went to had what we wanted, so the cozy little Chez Nous guesthouse is where we've been! It's not luxury, but the bed is comfy, wifi is decent and costs $8 CDN!

Yesterday we went to the Hill Tribe Village Museum. This museum houses artifacts and information about each of the ten tribes that live in the hills around Thailand. Some of these tribes are native to Thailand, but most have come as refugees over many decades from China, Burma, and Laos. These tribes used to live very nomadic lives and have a long history of growing opium, but the Thai government has put an end to opium crops and has also encouraged the tribes to find more permanent residences. Many of the hill tribe people also practice shifting cultivation, in which they burn their crops and this causes a lot of haze and smoke around the "Golden Triangle" where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet.

The most famous tribe here came from Myanmar (Burma) and they are called the Karen people. It is customary for the women of this tribe to elongate their necks with rings. The heavy rings push down their collar bones making their necks longer. The people of this tribe came to Thailand as refugees from a civil war taking place in Myanmar between the government and the hill tribe people who want independence. Unfortunately, life isn't necessarily any better for them in Thailand as they are exploited in large numbers for tourists. In fact, many faux villages have been created for the Karen to live in simply for the business of tourism. The people in these "villages" are given just enough money for basic food and the women are given more than the men since they wear the rings, making them the "main attraction". Sometimes the people living here are allowed to leave and go into towns during the day, but they must come back and night and are not allowed to leave.

To make matters more complicated the hill tribe people of all ten tribes are not considered Thai residents or citizens. The Thai government is hesitant to give status cards to these people because they believe it will encourage more hill tribe villagers to relocate to Thailand. Since they do not have the same status as Thai residents or citizens, they do not have access to services that Thai people get such as medical or educational. There are some non profit organizations who work to help give them these services they lack and the organization that founded and maintains this museum we visited is one of them. PDA and the restaurant below, Cabbages and Condoms, both help with these initiatives. The restaurant is named very fittingly, as they educate and assist the people of the villages with family planning and sexual education. Jason and I were interested in doing a trek with PDA to visit some of the authentic villages and ensure we were being responsible tourists rather than joining one the many tours offered around the town to fake villages where none of our money goes directly to the villages. But in the end, we decided it was more than we wanted to pay and were thankful to have contributed through our visit at the museum and our meal at the restaurant.

After visiting the museum, we took the public bus to visit the White Temple. This is one of the most famous buildings in Chiang Rai, designed by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The artist began creating the temple complex in 1997 and it is expected to be completed in 2070! This is how intricate and large the complex is. The White Temple itself is one of the most beautiful and unique buildings I have ever seen. It completely looks like it's out of a fairy tale, or a Tim Burton film! The building is beautiful and the white is meant to represent purity and peace, but the artist shows suffering as well because he believes people need to suffer before feeling at peace. So along with the beauty, there are skulls hanging from trees and hands reaching out from a "bottomless pit" in a way that looks like they are seeking a way out. I was absolutely amazed by the beauty and detail of this area.

Where there is heaven, there is also hell. Another famous Thai artist, also local to Chiang Rai, Thawan Duchanee, designed the Black House complex. We read before we visited that this is not a place animal lovers should visit and after walking through just the first of many dark buildings here, we quickly understood why. The Black House is full of animal bones, skulls, and skins as both functional pieces and decor. There are numerous alligator skins, bear furs, snakes skins, and so many more. I didn't quite understand the artists' vision, other than the darkness the structures here show, but it was interesting to walk around and see the designs. Many tour companies say they prefer the Black House, but I definitely enjoyed looking at the beauty of the White Temple more than the darkness of the Black House.

That's it for Thailand for us after 27 days in the country. Tomorrow morning we hop on a bus and head to Laos, which we're excited about as it is not near as popular for tourists as Thailand. We enjoyed Thailand a lot and think it's quite liveable. It was also easy to travel here and we're ready for a new challenge!
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