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299th Meeting - Tuesday, March 11th 2008

Chiang Rai and the Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park

A talk by Rebecca Weldon

Present: Renee Vines, Celeste Tobias-Holland, Vithi Phanichphant, Kongkaew Inthanon, Louis Gabaude, Bonnie Brereton, Dianne & Mark Barber-Riley, Carol Grodzins, Tawee Donchai, Martin Spring, Liz Spring, Reinhard Hohler, Lisa S. Keary, (name illegible), David Steane, Roy Hudson, John Butt, Martha Butt, Bob Vryheid. An audience of 20.

The full text of Rebecca’s talk and presentation:

When, in 1886, August Pavie was forced by Siamese authorities to take the long route from Bangkok to Luang Prabang, he spent a month and a half traveling to reach Chiang Mai. On the way there, he counted no less than 264 rafts of teak, comprising 34,400 trees felled in what was the most lucrative trade of the time. He refers to Chiang Mai as the capital of the principalities of Western Laos and the only city in the “country” of Lan Na, or that a “Million Rice fields”, the name of which “evoked a vast, inhabited, cultivated area which in fact did not constitute it’s richest resource, since the population, having engaged in the exportation of teak, had neglected the fields in the exploitation of this valuable wood.” Delayed in Chiang Mai for two months, he occupied himself by collecting 2 stone inscriptions from Lampoon and another 14 in Chiang Mai, in addition to a “manuscript on the history of Western Laos: History of Nang Kiam Maha Thevi”, which he set to translating, aided by his Cambodian secretary, Ngin. In early January 1887 he set out for Chiang Rai by elephant and noted that the route traversed forests still filled with teak. On his way there he crossed a number of caravans heading for Chiang Mai, comprised of 623 men, 31 elephants, 285 mules, 27 horses and 803 oxen. The mules originated in Yunnan, the elephants and oxen originated in the northern T’ai “countries” and all of them transported goods from China.

I mention this account for two reasons. When I was first married, my husband’s grandfather, Jean Dauplay, told me of his first trip to Chiang Rai in the 1920s; he used the same route as Pavie, also traveling by elephant. He told me it took him three days to leave the Chiang Mai valley and another eight to reach Chiang Rai. He said that one could not imagine a day when there would be no teak; the forest was full of it. This made him happy, because he was traveling to take up his position as supervisor of the teak concession in the lower Mae Kok and Mae Ing valleys. And he mentioned the caravans, because he married the daughter of one of the traders, my husband’s grandmother. Of course, by the time he arrived there, the high walls around Chiang Rai described by Pavie upon his arrival in 1887, had been leveled by a conspiracy between the local Chao Muang and the mission doctor, Dr. Briggs, to bring modernity and public health by “ventilating” the old city. And Papa Dauplay then set to cutting down all the teak. When we built our family compound on the southern edge of Chiang Rai, I planted, much to my mother-in-law’s dismay, a single teak tree in front of Papa’s house so that he could point at it and tell his great-grandchildren why there was none left.

He was the third generation of Frenchmen to travel to Chiang Rai. First, Pavie, then Jean-Jacques Dauplay, then the son. I was the second generation of Americans, a relative newcomer to the region, following in the footsteps of my parents, physicians working in Laos, who had flown up the Mekong where the French had drifted down. All of them were taken by the natural beauty of the land and the gracious ways of the inhabitants, but, by the time I arrived, there was no teak and the ancient culture described in many accounts had been replaced by a thriving agricultural economy. The rice fields were no longer abandoned, for the cold war had closed hitherto open communication routes up to China and down to Laos and there was no more teak to cut. Chiang Rai in the early 80’s, a hundred years later, has transformed itself into a modern little town, proud of its missionary heritage, to which we owed a number of imposing colonial style buildings and a busy road upon which cars and trucks traveled back and forth to Chiang Mai and Bangkok. There was almost nothing from China and it was only at the borders of Burma and Laos that one could discover some hint of the future: Shan handicrafts and cheap Chinese dry goods. It was there that one could still see some of the past in the tiger skins and forest pets, strange medicinal ingredients, teak artifacts from dismantled temples; venison and giant catfish were regular fare in the riverside restaurants. It was the end of an era that barely survived amidst the shophouses and behind the new facades of the homes built by families educated in Bangkok who wore western dress and drove Japanese cars.

I duly took my place in this society, opening the Golden Triangle Café on the family property in the center of town, cooking steaks of uneatable beef for the writers and artists who came together for conversation, regretting the passing of the past, but, getting on with life, building homes and studios, creating books and paintings, each of them carving into the modern landscape a romantic interpretation of their antecedents. Rong Rongsawan and his nostalgic Bangkok, Tawan Duchanee with his black house and buffalo horn furniture and Nakorn Pongnoi and his garden. All of them came through the Golden Triangle Café and this is how I became introduced to what is now celebrated as a cultural phenomenon. At the time, we had no idea how things would turn out. I remember how surprised we all were when the road to Sop Ruak was paved and the Golden Triangle was declared to be there. We all knew it had little to do with that deserted part of the world, since the real Golden Triangle existed in the commerce represented in the towns scattered across those borders. We had no idea that Chiang Rai would become a tourist destination with 5 star hotels. No, we were simply delighted when someone threw a party and we all showed up, invited or not. This was the case at Rai Mae Fah Luang, a small haven on the edge of town, residence for hilltribe participants in a student scholarship program. Acharn Nakorn, as we call him, would throw a bash every year, just around the time when our forebears would travel to Chiang Rai – in the dry, cool days of January and February. It quickly became transformed into a cultural festival highlighting the northern arts and a “must” on the social calendar.

The “Wai Sa Mae Fah Luang” tapped into romantic longing for the past. Artists suddenly discovered a venue for their art close to home, poets were able to declare their northern verses in procession, craftsmen struggled to manufacture recreations of things long gone, fantasies of the past and low and behold, one day, the foam floats, blaring Thai western music and beauty queens of the modern day were replaced by a somber procession through town in loincloths and hand woven textiles, accompanied to the sounds of gongs, underneath a waving canopy of tung. Not content to be confined to Rai Mae Fah Luang, we had broken out, arriving at the Chiang Mai gate following an elephant, as had many in generations past. “Our” acharn had divined a need to do something different, something that had a deeper meaning than the humdrum social roundabout of school based cultural activities and official festivals. What we did not expect was the tremendous surge to sweep up this recreation and make it into something that would transform Chiang Rai and revitalize a memory of what has been lost. At this point, one must give credit to Nakorn Pongnoi, who would be terribly embarrassed were he standing here now, for he was the one who perceived the will to go some steps further than an annual costume party. It was he who fused the desire of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation to develop a museum with the aspirations of northern Thai people to express some measure of value for their heritage.

All this transpired in the early 80s. As a result, Rai Mae Fah Luang was smiled upon by the proverbial “Dheva” and the Haw Kham was offered to HRH the Princess Mother, who in turn offered it back to the people of Chiang Rai in the form of a museum to house their cultural heritage. It is a contemporary neo-traditional building, inspired by Wat Pong Sanuk in Lampang. The collection is, for the most part, representative of the north of Thailand, but also of the related cultures to the west, north and east. Haw Kham means “Golden Pavilion”, a term used to refer to the locus of royal power in the Lanna princedoms. It was visualized in a painting by an artist and built by village carpenters from Phrae. The interior was modeled upon the temple storage buildings and the collection of religious and ceremonial artifacts was respectfully placed upon a raised shelf with no barrier between them and the visitor, as they would have been perceived in the temple environment. Now 19 years old, the building is beginning to be understood as an example of traditional preservation, but, more importantly, it brought together people in the hills with people in the towns and villages of the province, explored their historical ties and facilitated contacts and connections with the T’ai speaking peoples of the region. At Rai Mae Fah Luang, a new approach to museology is being researched, using traditional techniques combined with international museum standards. And, moving into the future, the museum has put its collection online as a member of the Asia-Europe Museum Network. The Virtual Collection of Masterpieces brings together Asian collections in Europe with collections in Asian Museums, deepening ties that have underlain research and exchange in the region that can be traced back more than a century.

Meanwhile, in Chiang Rai province, many things were happening outside the confines of Rai Mae Fah Luang. The Mae Fah Luang Foundation had begun a 30 year project in the hills. Conceived at Rai Mae Fah Luang by M.R. Disnadda Diskul, the Doi Tung Development Project extends over an area of 150 square kilometres and runs adjacent to the border between Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) for a distance of 25 kilometres. The region is dominated by the Nang Non mountain range with Doi Chang Mub, its tallest peak, at 1,509 metres above sea level. Within the project area, there are 26 villages, home to a population of over 11,000 people, consisting mainly of hill tribes. Half of the villages are Akha communities. Other important minority (ethnic) groups represented are the Shan, Lahu and Lawa. In addition, there are approximately 1,100 descendants of members of the Chinese nationalist army – the Kuomintang – living in the area, who, after the Chinese civil war, migrated and settled along the Thai-Burmese border. Ostensibly a crop substitution project, in the fight to eradicate opium production, it has evolved into a complex project which has implemented projects in and maintains contacts with neighboring countries, such as Laos and Burma, but also farther afield to China and even as far as Afghanistan.

The International Knowledge Centre at Doi Tung constitutes a body of knowledge acquired by the Doi Tung Development Project in the following areas of expertise:
• Sustainable Alternative Development
• The alleviation of rural poverty
• Self-sufficient Village Communities
• Drug eradication
• Initiatives to eradicate opium supply and demand
• Initiatives to eradicate child prostitution and trafficking
• Crop Substitution
• Agriculture/Horticulture
• “Value-Added” approach
• Quality of life
• Social development
• Health services
• Education systems
• The preservation of culture and heritage
• Tourism development

This knowledge is now being shared with development projects throughout the Mekong Basin and Chiang Rai has become a regular venue for workshops, conferences and meetings on the above issues.

The Greater Mekong Subregion concept (GMS) was established shortly after the Doi Tung Project in 1992 on the initiative of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The GMS’s overall benefits are supposed to foster peace, stability and cooperation within the region in a post-cold war political climate. Including a wide range of infrastructure projects, it also brought to the foreground the desire to reestablish a road link between Chiang Rai and Kunming. This project was begun as a result of the initiative of the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce. Justified in terms of both cultural and commercial links, the “Road to China” became an icon of the romantic longing to recreate legendary Lan Na, that northern kingdom lost between political forces in the past, bringing together four homelands: China (Sipsongpanna), Burma (Shan States), Laos (Muang Sing/Luang Nam Tha) and Thailand (Chiang Rai) . In 1994, Dr. Tanet Charoenmuang, professor at Chiang Mai University, explored this phenomenon in his book entitled: Thailand, Burma, Laos and China, Economic Quadrangle, Cultural Quadrangle. Although he had previously characterized the Economic Quadrangle concept as an aspiration based upon a vision shared by radical Thai students in the 70s and their communist counterparts in China, both of whom were coming to power and influence in the late 80s and early 90s, even he succumbed to the romantic ideal of linking the T’ai peoples across borders.

The concession to develop the road was first given to the Economic Quadrangle Joint Development Company Limited (EQJD), a joint venture between Thai investors and the Lao government. Advisors to the project included Acharn Nakorn and myself. A preliminary study by a French consultant company based in Paris, researching the economic feasibility of creating riverine, rail and road links between Kunming and Chiang Rai had already indicated that, beyond opening up communication to remote areas, the projects offered little in terms of economic benefit. Nevertheless, we trekked up and down the track that has become a road, along with Khun Sujintana Chanyatipsakul, the Thai CEO, until we ran into an ADB delegation crossing from China, after having given the Chinese the news that the road would have to wait. By chance, one of the ADB officers, Craig Steffensen, had attended the “Wai Sa Mae Fah Luang” at Rai Mae Fah Luang. Recognizing us and having witnessed the transformation of Chiang Rai over time, he became convinced that perhaps the road had a chance, so the project was put back en route (excuse the pun). Of course, there were many other people involved in the project over the years, but the long and short of it is that now one can drive to the Chinese border from Chiang Rai on an asphalted road in a few hours instead of hauling a Land Rover over 12 hours of mud and the person who made the difference was Acharn Nakorn at Rai Mae Fah Luang.

The next set of prominent projects in Chiang Rai to be based upon the conceptual links between the T’ai peoples were the Hall of Opium, the development of Rai Mae Fah Luang as an ethnographic museum and Mae Fah Luang University. The first two were projects funded by the Thai government to the tune of 350 and 250 million baht respectively. The University has well passed several billion baht. All were conceived to international standards. The Hall of Opium and the University have received considerable Chinese government input in the form of research, collections and the Sirindhorn Chinese Language and Cultural Center. The University, in particular, is taught in English and open to enrollment to international students, primarily from the Mekong Basin countries. The Doi Tung Project in the meantime developed ties with UNDP and other UN agencies in developing a model for crop substitution and community development now being implemented as far as Afghanistan. All of this set Chiang Rai as a strategic center for regional economic, educational and cultural encounters. It was the ultimate expression of the romantic ideal inadvertently tapped by artists, writers and cultural workers in Chiang Rai in the early 80s.

With the Chinese commitment to build a bridge linking the road across the Mekong between Chiang Khong and Huai Sai, it has seemed that realization of the dream is finally arrived. However, there have been several problems in making the links a reality. The major barriers consist of the non-visible barriers to trade. There remain some 7 or 8 major agreements to be signed to facilitate free commerce across the communication routes. The fiber optic link between Bangkok and Beijing through the Economic Quadrangle has yet to be created. A lack of capacity in the economic sectors in Burma and Laos has delayed development of essential services along the road. Environmental issues, particularly the need to conserve biodiversity areas, have also complicated implementation of economic development projects. Energy requirements are lagging behind projected needs. It is almost as if, now that the links have been created, everyone is having second thoughts. Movement is increasing, small traders are marketing, academics are traveling, but, the promise of general development is yet to be realized. Public health issues are important. Closed borders in many ways isolated the communication of endemic diseases and attenuated the HIV/AIDS epidemic in remote areas. Basic infrastructure to control these is yet to be implemented.

However, by and large, the region is set to enter into a new phase of development. Chinese goods make their way down the Mekong River and ports and industrial parks are planned on both ends. Current discussions focus upon ways of managing the development to conserve the area as one of cultural interest, tourism having become the major industry. The population of Chiang Rai town has doubled in the past decade. It has become home to members of the board of the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Trade as well as former ministers, thinkers, artists and writers. The temples are thriving with donations, as exemplified by Chalermchai Kositpipat’s Wat Rong Khun project. Religion has become the most recent expression of exchange between the peoples of the region. Monks traverse the borders easily and pilgrimages by groups of devout Thai abound. The city managers have implemented zoning to control development, in particular commercial construction, which has been relegated to an area along the bypass highway. A new airport has been constructed, ready to support international air links. All of these elements make Chiang Rai an interesting and comfortable place to live. Those of us who live there now have access to the conveniences of modern life as well as alternative education, including a bi-lingual Montessori school. No one feels that they live in a stopover between Chiang Mai and the Mekong River. Chiang Rai has come into its own and we all, better grounded in our past, look forward to the future with considerable optimism.
Addendum: A number of links

The Golden Triangle:

Rai Mae Fah Luang:

The Doi Tung Development Project:

Hall of Opium:

Asian Development Bank GMS Project:

Mae Fah Luang University:

Sirindhorn Chinese Language and Cultural Center:

Wat Rong Khun:

Thawan Duchanee:

Doy Din Daeng:

After the question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Rebecca in more informal conversation over drinks.


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