Chiang Mai Thailand by Frédéric Réglain

Chiang Mai Thailand by Frédéric Réglain

The Sybarite city

Article et legendes egalement disponibles en Francais

Text Danielle Tramard

A smiling and modest aesthete, a breeding ground for artists and craftsmen, Chiang Mai charms one as much with the beauty of its rice paddies and mountain landscapes as with its style, that of the former Lanna Kingdom.

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Chiang Mai is one of those places where seeking pleasure for the senses becomes almost an obligation. There is so much to see: the soaring temples, the verdant landscapes of the North, the ever-present culture illustrated mainly by the traditional crafts.

And the layout of the city center is of biblical simplicity. Imagine an old square city, 1.2 km on each side, surrounded by moats in which reflect the trees and the walls cut out with five doors, two of which are to the south. A wide, falling down brick wall, moss-covered, worn away by the rain. The charm of fragility. With the Ping River to the east, the mountains to the west, it’s impossible to get lost in this market town, covered in half an hour.

There are three Thai smiles, one could say. “A business one in Bangkok, a commercial one in the South and, in the North, the smile that comes from the heart.” The Thais of the North are easy-going, relaxed and love festivities. For loi krathong at the end of November, they throw banana leaves dressed with flowers, a candle and small change into the Ping River, and into they sky, they release white cylindrical lanterns in which a candle flickers…

The density of the temples, more than three hundred of them, is higher than in Bangkok, for a distinctly smaller surface area. For a long time, though, Chiang Mai was the capital of the North. Often built by the kings, these temples present constant features: superimposed roofs like wings, with red tiles dominated by the fine royal umbrella, eaves falling low bordered by nagas, whose head and tail rise up towards heaven. Throughout Asia, the naga, a mythical animal represented as a serpent with a dragon’s head, protector of Buddha in the forest, flank the steps at the temples’ entrances. Its head comes out of the mouth of another animal, the makara. There are frescos on the walls and a sylvan décor on the inner shutters, often with gilded transfers. Near the doors, other demons, the tao wetsuwan, stand guard.

Wat Tjet Yod, the monastery of seven spires, was built in 1455 for the 8th Buddhist Council, proof of the influence enjoyed by the Kingdom of Lanna, which means “a million rice fields”. Eight Buddha statues stand at the entrance, “one for each day of the week, two for Wednesday which is governed by two planets”, explains Louis Gabaude, former member of the EFEO (Ecole Française de l’Extrême Orient or French School of the Far East). The branches of the ficus religiosa, the bodhi tree under which Buddha attained Enlightenment, are held up by white stays, another recurring custom, and the stupa’s structure imitates that of Bodhgaya in India. “Thailand, he continues, differentiates between the chedi, a stupa in the shape of a bell housing the relics, the vihan, “Buddha’s residence” and the ubosoth, surrounded by ornamented posts or simple stones stuck in the ground, which accommodates the chapter’s meetings twice a month, on the days of the full moon, for the recitation of the 227 articles of the rules and confessions.”

The imposing Wat Chedi Luang (1411) in the town center, which was decapitated by an earthquake in 1545, housed for a time the famous Jade Buddha, today in the royal palace in Bangkok. Opposite the main gate, the well-preserved, partially teak Wat Phra Sing, founded in 1345, enthralls you with its frescos depicting the inhabitants’ life: bare-breasted women with long tied-up hair smoking cigars, tattooed men sporting a loincloth and mustache. Separate from it, the library has a high base to protect the texts from termites.

The famous temple of the Doi Suthep (1383) sits 1650 meters high at the summit of the mountain with the same name. A heavy tropical rain turned the route into a torrential stream and sent the pilgrims running for shelter. Solitary, sitting humbly on the sands, the Wat Ton Kwen (1860) has everything to please: its blackened carved wood, wooden dowels in the place of nails, pink roof tiles, fine gilded parasols on the overlapping roofs, nagas without colour or gilding. Meanwhile, the Wat Umong (XVIe) will intrigue you with its communicating “meditation tunnels” below the chedi.

The temple Sri Supan, built to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the king’s reign, presented a never before seen show. Under a shelter, bare-shouldered novices in orange robes embossed with sharp blows the aluminum plaques representing flowers and other Buddhist ornaments. A statue of Ganesh stands near the shining temple, as well as a portrait of the king sitting on a base. Illustration of the Thais’ three objects of devotion: Buddha, Ganesh, god of the fine arts, and the immensely respected figure of the sovereign.

The craftspeople, whose ancestors built these magnificent temples, work outside the city. At one time, each village had its specialty, like Bo Sang, devoted to making parasols of mulberry paper, cotton or silk. The big white flowers dry around a lawn.

Like a hangar cluttered with old tree trunks given over to the chisel, another workshop produces the magnificent Buddhist and Hindi sculptures in old teak from the hand of the impassioned artist Kasem Tipkama. The trunks’ size and shape guides him.

In the silver workshop, men hammer away at the molds to produce the required motifs. To make the jewelry, the silversmith pours melted silver directly into the mold. The celadon, “ green porcelain”, came from China in the 13th century. Beneath the shiny glaze you can see the crackle. In front of Narumol, one of the ten artists, all women, stands a wide necked vase, Lanna-style celadon porcelain to which she applies delicate colors, letting her imagination run free.

The lacquer comes from the lacquer tree in the forests in the north of Thailand. On a bamboo or teak support, the craftsperson applies, after filling in the holes, seven coats of lacquer, each one followed by a week of drying. Then, the sanding and the painting or the application of 24-carat leaf, typical of the North.

The cotton by Huan Fai Dai Ngam, or Cotton Chic, is hand-worked and dyed with incomparable natural pigments. One woman puffs it out by lifting it with a thread stretched across an arc, then unravels it and spins it into a skein. Others weave. Explicative panels complete the demonstration: sowing in April, reaping from November to December…

And so the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom reveals itself, the land of “a million rice fields” and a hundred thousand smiles, of whitewashed monuments with black and gray streaks left by the monsoon. The round varnished leaves glimmer, just like the red tiled roofs. A good odor comes up off the saturated earth, a slight sultriness so pleasant in the heart of our winter.

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