Time rushes by, changing the shape of life, leaving traces of history in its wake.
Wat Lok Molee, Chiang Mai, Thailand: Lanna Architecture dating to the 14th and 16th Centuries
Chiang Mai, Thailand. I knew it by reputation only from other travelers who ranked the ancient city according to its satisfying food culture, internet connectivity, and ease of access along “the route” through Southeast Asia. In my mind, I supposed it existed as a fortified outpost of location-independent entrepreneurs and thoughtful sojourners sustaining themselves on cheap street eats and sharing the buzz through online media.
In many ways, it proved gratefully so.
In other ways, Chiang Mai revealed itself differently to us, giving unexpected gifts of retreat and solitude, a healthy disconnect and an appetite for observing, learning, and living well.
Naively we entered the former capitol of the Lanna Kingdom.
I readily admit I’m only just beginning to learn the outlines of Thai history.
I’d never heard of the Kingdom of Lanna.
We came based on Chiang Mai’s reputation as a worthwhile stop on the traveler’s circuit and instead stepped into a culture with roots deeper and wider than the boundaries of Northern Thailand and ripe with meaning to discover.
Thailand received its name in 1939. (And then reverted to Siam from 1945 until its re-renaming in 1949…but don’t get too caught up on details.) Now governed under a constitutional monarchy, it spans from the peninsula reaching the Gulf of Thailand to sandy islands strung through blue, mountains of deep green rolling into Myanmar and Laos, and ripe fields stretching through Cambodian horizons.
At one time, though, smaller kingdoms ebbed and flowed across the landscape.
Ebbed and flowed might be a nice way of putting it, since war and conflict typically drew the boundary lines. Point being, though, that before the modern monarchy and before the 19th century French rule of Indochina, a kaleidoscope of dynasties shaped regional civilizations.
In this context the the Kingdom of Lanna formed in the thirteenth century, spanning from the lands of modern day Myanmar in the west and Luang Prabang, Laos in the east.
Local Lanna tradition grew from a people’s way of living on the land, building with available materials, creating a cuisine unique unto themselves, and crafting artisan wares from a combination of local and Silk Route procured raw goods.
Here in the mountainous highlands of lush green and rushing water, traditional Lanna architecture is praised for being responsive to nature’s cycles. Tall foundation posts raise structures above the floodplain, providing sheltered outdoor workspace underneath during the dry season. Roof pitches accommodate rain and keep interiors cool during hot spells. Teak wood and nail-less joinings are functional and beautiful: the tell-tale “V” shaped Ka-Lae wooden extensions at the peak of the roof line may be easily spotted on city streets and along rural roads.
Subsequent kingdom power struggles pulled Lanna into the collective that would one day become a unified Thailand, and again the shape of people group and their way of life has shifted. Now, though, across political boundaries and despite globalization, a resurgence in Lanna pride is developing, and I’m fascinated by the plight of the Lanna people and their effort to preserve their identity and legacy.
Worth Reading: The Struggle to Save Classic Thai Architecture published Monday, May 7th, 2007 by the New York Times.
Here, in the heart of this ancient Kingdom, we settled into our own chapter of devotion and recovery, grasping for balance within the cycles of life on the road and relationship with each other, hoping to hold fast to our own identities while blending our lives with the world.
Departing Bangkok: Backpack and my well loved and tattered Sari Bari Bag in tow…
We began our stay in rural Chiang Mai Province, about 15 kilometers north of the city of Chiang Mai.
After departing Bangkok on the 14 hour overnight train and arriving the next morning a bit frazzled and sore from a night on a teetering bunk, we braved a ride our first in a songtaew (a taxi built from a converted pickup sporting canopy-covered benches in the truck bed), and once again, we forgot the first rule of taxi rides in Thailand: take the phone number of your destination!
After more than an hour of stop and go driving (not because of traffic, mind you, but because the driver kept asking random people for directions) through city blocks and built-up outskirts, we at last turned onto the quiet country road leading to Fueng Fah Riverside Garden Resort.
Here in the calm of the dragonfruit orchards and rice fields, we unpacked our bags and pedaled down country roads to observe the daily life of Thai families. See here for our full photo series and review of Fueng Fah Riverside Garden Resort. See below for the best moments.
Under shelter during rainy season in northern Thailand…
Traditional rice breakfast
Scenes from rural Chiang Mai Province
Pedaling while the world flies by…
Feeling admittedly worn and weary from so many months on the road, we reached out to The Well, a Chiang Mai based care center providing Christian counseling, spiritual formation, team building, and marriage enrichment, to seek some wisdom during this part of our journey. Through encouragement from kind hearts and access to the Seven Fountains Retreat Center, our spirits found a bit of rest and new direction.
In particular, I loved the opportunity to one of the The Well’s group events, a “Come and See” session, leading seekers through the practice of photography as a window into meditation and connecting with God during times of transition. A fitting theme for this period of life.
Upon moving from countryside to city, we snatched a motorbike and began our mobile exploration of Chiang Mai.
Pulling out into the flow of tuk-tuks, songtaews, mobile food carts, and fellow motorbikes, we circled the old town moat on one-way streets, stopping at temples that caught our attention and making note of the best looking spots for street food, used books, fruit smoothies, and decent coffee.
Note: Thanks to Chiang Mai’s wired-in traveler/expat culture, we received spot-on recommendations from Bessie and Lindsay when searching for honest to goodness high quality espresso. See the bottom of the post for tips!
The beautiful Wat Lok Molee on the north side of the north moat, dedicated in part as a school for the arts to preserve the heritage and craft of the Lanna culture.
We’d both been looking forward to finding the origins of rumored amazing and affordable Thai massage. I am here to say, yes, the rumors are true.
There are enough shops and spas around the city to spend a year trying therapists and services, but we found our favorite choice quickly: Lila Thai Massage at Tha Phae Gate, known not only for great service, but commitment to social justice here in Chiang Mai.
As good fortune would have it, the spot was right down the alleyway and around the corner from our guesthouse.
A wonderful one hour back, neck, and shoulder massage for $5.80?
An hour long foot massage and reflexology for the same?
An oil body massage for $12.90?
Every service ended with a steaming hot cup of tea accompanied by that feeling of complete contentment, and we visited multiple days, grateful for the wonderful treatment and happy to tip well.
Established by the former director of the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison as a way to counteract employment discrimination and support transformational opportunities for former inmates, Lila Thai Massage now has five locations in Chiang Mai, employing women therapists who have graduated from a 180 hour massage training course and demonstrate a determination to begin a new chapter in their lives.
“It is our cherished hope that you will see these former inmates in a positive light, and your kind patronage will allow them to proudly start a new life and support themselves and their families.” – Lila Thai Massage
One Lila Thai Massage’s skilled and kind therapists heading home from a day at work…
Each evening, we ventured out to the streets again in search of the color and sound and smells that would lure us to a satisfying dinner. The whirr of the blenders whipping bright, ripe fruits into liquid meals, the sizzles of veggies hitting hot oil, the the watery tears mixed with sweat at the taste of hot-hot-hot peppers overloaded our senses.
Mrs. Pa making the best smoothies in Chiang Mai.
Haggling for simple things.
Which traces of this world will we bring home?
There is no doubt.
On this trip, we are being changed.
Under the surface of the photos and stories are emotions and experiences yet to be shared, and as we unfold slowly, responding to the joys and pains of this unconventional year, we wrestle with the lessons, the meanings, the beauties and the terrors.
I wonder, at the end of this year, what legacy we will carry forward from our time of roots and our time of wings. I wonder what we will preserve and treasure and what we will yield to and become?
A friend from home sent me this quote not long ago, and I leave you with the raw honesty:
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese
for sharing the journey with us.
WHAT TO KNOW (a.k.a. our Chiang Mai Cheat Sheet):
Fueng Fah Riverside Garden Resort
81/2 Moo.4 Mueng Kaew, Mae Rim District, Chiang Mai, Thailand 50180
Traditional Lanna architecture alongside contemporary Thai construction, set on garden grounds adjacent to the Mae Ping River near the foot of the Doi Suthep Hills in Chiang Mai Province
Seven Fountains Retreat Center
Individual and Group Retreats in Chiang Mai
97 Huey Kaew Road
Retreats, Spiritual Direction, and Member Care for Organizations in Southeast Asia
Wat Lok Molee
400 Meters West of the Chang Phuak (North) City Gate
Lila Thai Massage
37 Ratchadamnoen Rd. Prasingh Maung
Open 10:00am – 10:00pm, Seven days a week
Mrs. Pa’s Best Smoothies in Chiang Mai
Pa Fruit Shake & Bualoy Stand, Chiang Mai Gate Night food market
Crowdsourced Best Coffee in Chiang Mai
Akha Ama – Serving quality brew and proudly displaying a Stumptown bag on their collector’s shelf. Don’t forget to take the bug spray if you’re sitting outdoors…
9/1 Mata Apartment, Hussadhisewee Rd, Soi 3
+6686 915 8600
Ristr8to – See the bliss here. For decaf drinkers like me (shh! I know, it’s an abomination. Ted forgives me, though) it’s a Swiss Water Processed godsend.
15/3 Nimmanhemin Road
Ponganes Espresso – Sadly, the shop was closed during our week and a half in Chiang Mai, but we have it on high authority that they’re serving top notch shots, and it we return to Chiang Mai, we’ll be making a beeline for this cute little shop.
127/1 Moon Muang Rd. Soi 5
087 727 2980