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Bo Klua – Visiting the Salt Ponds

Michael Babcock, Sunday, June 1st, 2014

We recently traveled to Bo Klua (also spelled Bo Kleua or Boklua) – บ่อเกลือ – a district in Eastern Nan province in Northern Thailand right on the border of Laos. A translation of the name would be “Salt Ponds”  (เกลือ (klua) means salt). This blog explores some of the sights we visited. Bo Klua is well worth a visit.

The town of บ่อเกลือใต้ – Bo Klua Tai  (ใต้,  tai, meaning south) is some 90 km from Nan, about a two-hour drive up twisty, windy mountain roads, to an elevation of around 1,100 meters. (Here’s the Google map of the route from Nan to Bo Klua Tai.) Along the way we stopped to enjoy numerous mountain views.

View #1

View on the way to Bo Klua

View #2

View on the way to Bo Klua

(Click images to see larger version.)

Doi Phu Kha National Park

Doi Phu Kha National Park – อุทยานแห่งชาติดอยภูคา – in the Luan Prabang Range in Nan province, is the largest National park in Northern Thailand. It is directly adjacent to the district of Bo Klua and a good place to visit on the way. Its most noticeable feature is Doi Phu Kha – Phu Kha Mountain – which is 1,980 meters high. There are numerous trails for hiking; accommodations (cabins) and camping are available.

Park Sign

Michael & Sun at the park

Park View #1

One of the views at the park

Above left are Michael (that’s me) and our driver, Sun, standing in front of a park sign on the way into Doi Phu Kha National Park, with Phu Kha mountain the background. The park is full of beautiful views, such as the one above right.

"Cherry" Blossoms

Flower blossoms at the park

Park View #2

Another beautiful view

The National Park is home to Chumpoo Phu Kha (Thai: ชมพูภูคา – Bretschneidera sinensis), a tree with attractive pink flower bunches. Although they were not in bloom when we visited in January (they bloom later, in the spring), there were other trees with beautiful pink blossoms. The trees we saw (see above left) are often mis-called “sakura,” after the Japanese cherry tree; they are actually a completely different tree (not a cherry) indigenous to Thailand.

I’ve put in another of the stunning views at the park above right.

For further exploration:

The Rock Salt Pits

The name of the district – บ่อเกลือ (Bo Klua) – “salt ponds” – tells you about the main attraction here. For centuries salt has been extracted from these ponds and the salt has provided prosperity and power for the region. People still come here to see how the salt is extracted and to purchase it for their own use.

Salt Pit #2

Getting salt water from a well

Salt Pit #2

Another way to draw salt water

Salt is still manufactured much as it has been for centuries here. The first step is to extract the salt water from the wells. On the left it is being extracted in the traditional fashion: by lowering a bucket down into the well, hauling it up and putting it in a clay pot. The second operation we saw (picture on the right) used more modern methods: pumps were used to draw up the water rather than relying on manual labor.

Salt Oven #2

The two ovens

Salt Oven #1

Boiling away the water

The next step in the extraction process is to boil the salt water until much of the water has evaporated. The resulting salt is then put in baskets and suspended over the ovens to further dry it out.

Then the salt is packaged and sold. These days, iodine is often added to the salt to prevent goiter due to iodine deficiency. We saw it for sale in both forms: iodized and non-iodized.

The following blog has some good information on how the salt is produced:

Town Walk

Strawberry Patch

Pick your own strawberries!

Temple Sign

Sign for Wat Bo Luang

The best way to see everything is to walk through the town, from the one salt operation to the other. On our walk, we passed a temple with a sign also in Northern script (above right) and continued to the edge of the buildings to a field where you could pick your own strawberries; you could also buy strawberry plants. On our way back, we stopped in at the temple.

Wat Bo Luang – วัดป่อหลวง

Temple

A temple building

Temple View

Temple view

The temple is a good example of a local northern Temple. There were two simple buildings open with different Buddha statues. As with many northern temples, there were murals on the walls, both behind the main altar and along the sides leading to the altar. When we were there towards the end of our day this January, the sky and clouds provided a lovely backdrop for one of the buildings and the naga protecting it.

Buddha #1

Buddha & Murals

Mural Close-up

Mural close-up

Here is the main Buddha statue and a close up of the wonderful mural behind it. (Click on the pictures for a larger image.)

Mural #1

Buddha’s moment of enlightenment

Mural #2

Buddha’s “Parinirvana”

These two images are murals that were found on the side walls of the same building. The mural to the left depicts the Buddha at his moment of Enlightenment. Mara (represented by the green demon and the black elephant to the left) is mocking Buddha and asking how can he say he is enlightened. Mara asks: “Who will vouch that you are enlightened?” Then the Earth Mother Goddess (in the center) arises and says: “I will vouch for his enlightenment.” She then wrings out her hair and the resulting flood washes Mara away.

On the right is a representation of the Parinirvana of Buddha, where he gives his final sermon, lying on his right side, prior to leaving his body for nirvana.

Buddha #2

Another Buddha statue at the temple

Mural Close-up #2

Another mural close-up

One of the other buildings was also quite interesting: it had two Buddha statues under a mural with yet another Buddha image. The mural behind these statues had two fantastical creatures, one of which is shown as a close-up on the right.

(Click pictures to see a larger image.)

A Bo Klua Breakfast

When we stayed in Bo Klua this last January, we went looking for a quick and easy breakfast place. We found a place typical of so many restaurants in Thailand, with very basic decor and basic food that was delicious.

This roadside place had a menu that was in Thai and English, indicating that Bo Klua gets a fair number of foreign tourists. The menu was called เมนูอาหาร – menu ahaan (ahaan means “food”) – and the English on the menu says “Fast Foods Menu.”

Restaurant

Roadside restaurant

Thai Omelette

Thai Omelette over Rice

You can see that there’s nothing fancy about it: a roadside restaurant that opens onto the street. Our driver ordered an omelet – ไข่เจียว (Khai Jiow) – over rice. The menu had a “Minced pork omelet” – ไข่เจียวหมูสับ (Khai Jiow Moo Sap)  – but our driver doesn’t eat pork so he ordered it without pork instead.

Noodle Dish

Rice Noodle Dish

Pork Dish

Stir-fried Pork dish

Kasma ordered a noodle dish (above left), which the menu called “Wide rice noodles with vegetables and meat” – ก๋วยเตี๋ยวแห้ง (Kway Tiow Haeng). The dish on the right, which I ordered, is called “Rice topped with stir-fried pork and Sacred basil + Fried egg” – ผัดกะเพรา + ไข่ดาว  (Pad Kaprao + Khai Dao). A dish made pad kaprao (stir-fried with holy basil) – prepared with any kind of meat or seafood you can imagine – is one of Thailand’s favorite dishes. (See my blog on Basil Pork – Moo Pad Kaprao.) Here the dish came with a typical Thai-style fried egg – ไข่ดาว (Khai Dao) – literally a “star egg” – with its crisp-fried edges.

Where to Stay or Eat Lunch or Dinner

My previous blog was on Pongza Restaurant and the Boklua View (Resort).

Further Exploration


Written by Michael Babcock, June 2014

Pongza Restaurant in Bo Klua

Michael Babcock, Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Pongza Restaurant – ร้านอาหารปองซา (Raan Ahaan Pongza) – is found in the town of Bo Klua Tai – บ่อเกลือใต้ – in eastern Nan province in Northern Thailand, about 85 kilometers from Nan city. Here are my impressions from eating at this popular restaurant in a beautiful setting in January 2014. I’ll also talk briefly about the Bo Klua View (Resort) where the restaurant is located. My next blog will be on Bo Klua itself

Pongza Restaurant is located at the Boklua View (Resort) (see below) in the foothills of Doi Phu Kha, nearly 700 meters above sea level. Both restaurant and resort are owned by Toun Upajak, an English speaking Thai who is a trained chef. The restaurant serves a combination of Western and Thai dishes, including local (jungle) specialties. They make their own bread and desserts (western-style) and use produce from their own organic gardens whenever possible. Although the menu is not extensive because of the difficulty in getting ingredients at their remote location, there are still plenty of interesting dishes to choose from.

I’ll start with a couple of the dishes for, after all, the main reason to go to any restaurant is the food.

Fried Chicken

Fried Chicken with Mak Wan

If the restaurant has a “signature dish” it is ไก่ทอดมะแข่วน – Kai Tod Mak Wan – Fried Chicken with Ma-kwaen Herb. มะแข่วน (ma-kwaen or ma kwan) is usually identified as Zanthoxylum Limonella Alston and it is apparently fairly common in Northern Thailand (including Mae Hong Son & Chiang Mai). The genus Zanthoxylum (in English commonly known as prickly ash) includes the more commonly known Sichuan (or Szechuan) pepper. It has an exotic flavor and, like Sichuan peppers, a somewhat numbing effect on the mouth. It adds a very interesting, almost floral, taste to the chicken. It is used medicinally in Thailand to treat toothache, gum disease, nausea, dizziness and certain menstrual problems. Its oil can also be used as a mosquito repellant and has been investigated with some promising results as a possible bactericide for multi-drug resistent bacteria.

If you want more information about this interesting spice, do an Internet search using the Thai name (copy & paste) – มะแขว่น. Nearly all of the articles will be in Thai so you’ll need to hit the “Translate this page” link. There’s a company in Canada – spicetrekkers.com – that sells it under the name of Mah Kwan Wild Pepper;  all-in-all they have over 25 different kinds of pepper.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Fern Salad

Fern Salad

Fried Fern Salad

Fried Fern Salad

The restaurant has a number of dishes with a type of fern growing in the local jungles, called ผักกูด – pak kood. The dish on the left above is Yum Pak Kood Ruam – ยำผักกูดร่วม – a “yum” salad with the fern, ground pork and squid. We had this on our visit this January (2014).

Above right is a Fried Fern Salad – Yum Pak Kood Tod – ยำผักกูดทอด – Kasma had this dish on a visit during December 2012. This particular dish wasn’t on the menu when we visited in 2014.

Green Curry

Green Curry with Crispy Catfish

Limeade

Two blended fruit drinks

On our visit we ordered one other dish, the Green Curry with Crispy Catfish – เขียวหวานปลาดุกกรอบ (Kiow Wan Pla Dook Krob) – shown to the left. It had a lovely presentation, as you can see; however I found the curry itself a bit disappointing. It was ok, just not terrific (which somehow I come to expect in Thailand).

Incidentally, the food here is served with a lovely purple rice (that’s what it’s called, in English, on the menu); it’s a whole grain rice with a couple different varieties cooked together.

The restaurant can be excellent when it comes to presentation, as you saw with the green curry and can see with the two glasses of blended fruit drinks above right, taken by Kasma in December 2012. (When we visited in 2014 the drinks were a bit plainer, probably because the restaurant was absolutely packed.)

Caramel Cream

Caramel Cream

Banana Banoffee

Banana Banoffee

If you are so inclined, Pongza does have some very tasty desserts. Above left is what the menu calls “Caramel Cream” – it looks very much like a delicious Crème Brûlée.

The dessert on the right is called “Banana Banoffee” and looks mildly decadent. Kasma (who took these pictures on the December 2012 trip) said that they were quite tasty.

View #1

A view from the restaurant

View #2

Table with a view

The restaurant is in a lovely physical setting; it is quite pleasant to have a meal next to the mountain views from the dining room. You see a couple of examples above: some of the tables are right at the edge of the deck, giving a memorable dining experience.

If you’re ever in Bo Klua, I recommend eating at Pongza Restaurant. The food is very good  – some dishes excellent, others good –  the presentation is lovely and the views are quite nice indeed. Give it a try.

Check out:

Boklua View (Resort) – บ่อเกลือ วิว

I can’t end the blog without at least mentioning the Boklua View (Resort) where Pongza restaurant is located.

Boklua View

Front of Boklua View (Resort)

Resort View

View from a room

It’s a wonderful, peaceful place to stay. Many of the rooms overlook beautiful views, such as the one above right.

Bedroom

Bedroom at Boklua View

Wash basin

Wash basin

The resort is very nicely appointed, as you can see from this shot of the bedroom above right. There are numerous beautiful and tastefully done details, such as the wash basin above right, and the flowers floating in water (further down the page)  It’s a great place to stay while in Bo Klua.

Boklua View (Resort)
209 Moo 1 Baan Bo Loung
Bua Kluea Tai
Bo Kluea 55220, Thailand
Phone: 081 809 6392 or 054 778 140
Email: admin@bokluaview.com

Also see:

Floating Flowers

Flowers floating in water – another nice touch at Bo Klua View (Resort)


Written by Michael Babcock, May 2014

Mae Salong – Tea & Beautiful Views

Michael Babcock, Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Mae Salong – แม่สลอง – (or Doi Mae Salong – ดอยแม่สลอง – doi meaning “mountain”) is an area in northern Thailand in Chiang Rai province where one of the main activities is growing tea, primarily high mountain oolong tea. The village there is called Santikhiri – สันติคีรี.

Mae Salong reminded me of the village Baan Rak Thai in Mae Hong Son province, mentioned in Thailand Trip – Favorite Moments, Part 2 (scroll down in that blog). Both places are found up in the hills and are home to ex-Kuomintang soldiers, many from Yunnan province in China, who eventually began cultivating tea. The soldiers in Mae Salong were from the Kuomintang’s 93rd division and they continued fighting the Chinese through the 1950s, growing opium to fund their continuing military operations. They were granted asylum in Thailand in 1961 and, later, Thailand enlisted them to fight a communist insurgency in Thailand until 1982 when they laid down their arms and were granted Thai citizenship. There’s a fascinating article on China’s Forgotten Army.

View

View driving to Mae Salong

The drive to Mae Salong, found about 80 kilometers from Chiang Rai, wends its way up to Santikhiri, which is at an elevation of around 1,300 meters. It is quite close to the Burmese border. When we went in January, the climate was decidedly cool. Along the way we stopped several times to admire views, such as this one to the left. In addition to the ethnic Chinese living there, you also find Akha, Yao, Karen and Hmong hill tribes, many of who originally came from southern China or Myanmar.

In addition to the tea, Mae Salong is a popular destination for trekkers.

Tea on a Hill

Tea plants on a hill

Tea Plants

Close up of some tea plants

(Click images to see larger version.)

As you approach the town, everywhere you look there are rows and rows of tea plants hugging the contours of the hills. In the background, you see the hills and mountains: it’s truly a lovely area.

Tea & Blossoms

Tea plants with “sakura” blossoms

Blossoms

Close-up of “sakura” blossoms

When we were there in mid-January this year (2014), we were lucky enough to see some trees with pink blossoms in bloom – they gave a lovely backdrop and accent to the rolling hills with the tea plants. These trees are often called sakura trees, the Japanese cherry tree. Although reminiscent of sakura trees, they are actually a tree native to Thailand and not a cherry tree at all; this variety is taller than the sakura trees and the blossoms are smaller. It is advertised as such because of the fame of cherry blossom time in Japan and is therefore more familiar to people.


Pu-erh Tea

Mae Salong Villa

Mae Salong Villa

Tea Info

Pu-erh Tea Package

A real treat for me was finding a high quality pu-erh tea. Pu-erh (or pu-‘er or pu’ erh) tea is a type of tea, the most famous variety coming from Yunnan province. Pu-erh teas are first oxidized in the sun, then fermented and then rolled and pressed into differing forms. Because it is compressed and takes up less space, it is much easier (than loose tea) to transport over land. Because of the unique processing, pu-erh teas get better with age, unlike un-fermented teas. There are a wide variety of forms and tastes. (Check out the Wikipedia Entry on Pu-erh Tea.)

Tea Package

Pu-erh tea package

Pu-erh Tea

Thai Pu-erh Green tea

We tasted the pu-erh tea at the Mae Salong Villa, where the Choke Chamroen Tea Company provides tastings. It is a high quality pu-erh green tea, aged 8 years. We went through roughly 12 different infusions of the leaves during the tasting; it was marvelous to note how the flavor changed throughout the process. The tea left a lovely aftertaste that spread throughout the entire mouth.

I bought disk in lovely packaging to bring home. The cost was 2,000 baht (about $63, at the time) for 357 grams, about 12-1/2 ounces. It may seem expensive but when you realize how many infusions you get out of each set of leaves, the cost isn’t that outrageous. I will enjoy it here in the states for many weeks to come.


Tea Tastings

Tea Tasting

Tea tasting

Hills and Sign

101 Tea Plantation sign

In the area there are numerous places where you can taste the local teas. There will be a set-up such as the one above left where different teas will be prepared for you to taste. We found an oolong tea that we liked very much at 101 Tea Plantation. We saw the sign above right on the road, right in front of rows of tea overshadowed by the blossoming “sakura” trees.

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea leaves

Blossoms

Blossoms for the tea

At the tasting counter the tea leaves were displayed in cups so that you could see what they looked like before brewing. At this place they also add blossoms to some of their teas for added flavor, such as the ones above right. I don’t know what the name of this blossom is.

Tasting Cups

Cups used for the tasting

Tea Packages

The oolong tea we bought

To the left you see the set-up used to taste tea: there’s a whole ritual to it. Tea is steeped and poured into the tall cup. Then the smaller cup is placed on top, you flip the cups over and pour the tea into the small cup. You then smell the aroma of the tea from the tall (now empty) cup and taste from the small cup. We liked a particular oolong tea with blossoms very much  and bought a couple bags (packages on the right) to take home for gifts.


Yunnan Food

View

View from Mae Salong Nilla

Steamed Fish

Fish dish

If you go to Mae Salong, be sure to stop and have some Yunnan Chinese food. We had dinner at the Mae Salong Villa, which is where we purchased the pu-erh tea. Above left is one of the views from the front of the Villa.

Above right is a fish dish we had, smothered in a lovely sauce, that included mushrooms. It was quite tasty.

Pork Leg

Pork leg with buns

Mushrooms

Mushroom dish

We also ordered Stewed Pork Leg with buns, Yunnan-style, a truly delicious dish. And since the area grows mushrooms, we ordered a stir-fried mushroom dish that was very good.


Morning Market

Akha Vendor

Akha vendor

Main Street

Market street with lanterns

There is an interesting morning market at Santikhiri. It is definitely a local market and most of the vendors are from ethnic hill tribes, mostly Ahka. This is not a tourist market – it’s meant for locals. It’s best to go early; it starts at 6:00 a.m. or even earlier. By 8:30 a.m. or so many of the vendors have already packed up and left.

The area does get a lot of tourists and the Akha vendors are savvy to this: they do not want their picture taken unless you buy something from them or pay them for the privilege.


Written by Michael Babcock, May 2014

Wat Nantaram in Chiang Kham

Michael Babcock, Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Wat Nantaram – วัดนันตาราม – is a quite beautiful Tai Yai (Shan-style) temple in Chiang Kham, which is in Phayao province, Thailand. Thailand has so many temples that at times you can get “temple fatigue;” then you come across one such as Wat Nantaram and all fatigue is forgotten.

Windy Road

The road to Chiang Kham

View

A view along the road

We drove to Chiang Kham from Nan up twisty, windy roads (such as the one to the left) through the hills and mountains. Although it is only 400 or so meters above sea level, it seemed higher. We stopped many times to enjoy beautiful views such as the one above right.

Note: There is a slideshow of all of the images at the bottom of the blog.

Entryway

Entryway to Wat Nantaram

Deva

Celestial being on a pillar

(Click images to see larger version.)

We arrived about mid-day and, after having lunch right next door, we approached the temple compound on foot. Through the gate was a long driveway lined with pillars topped by statues of celestial beings. We lingered a while to take some pictures of these statues.

To the left of the driveway there were a number of Sai trees, popularly known in the U.S. an the cannonball tree, with their lovely blossoms. These trees are often found on temple grounds, for the Buddha was born under a Sai tree, which lowered one of its branches to help support his mother.

The Exterior of the Viharn

Temple Front

Wat Nantaram viharn

Temple Door

The entryway to the viharn

When I first saw the main building, the viharn (sermon hall), it literally took my breath away. It’s a golden teak wood temple in Burmese (Shan) style, with the distinctive roof architecture. It was built in 1925.

In the picture upper left you can see that two singh (mythical lions) flank the entryway as protectors while two (presumably celestial) beings wai (clasp hands in the front) in greeting.

Celestial Greeter

Celestial greeter

Roofs

Some roofs of the temple

It took us awhile to even enter the viharn. First, the two lovely greeters called out for our attention. Then there were the interlocking roofs to admire along with the lovely juxtaposition of the carved wooden scrollwork on the various roofs with the decorated wooden shutters on the windows.

Temple Front

Close-up of the front

Entry Detail

Further detail at the front

We took some time to admire the lovely details of the front, some of which are shown above.

Inside the Viharn

Temple Interior #1

Inside the viharn

Temple Interior #2

Another view of the interior

I found the interior of the viharn to be immensely calm – a sacred space. Dark and somewhat mysterious, there is a feeling of quiet devotion here, of goodness, of peace. There are golden pillars, decorated ceilings and varnished, dark wood floors. The room compels silence and reflection.

Buddha Statue

The main Buddha image

Buddha Statue

Close-up of the Buddha statue

The main Buddha image is very appealing. It portrays a younger Buddha with a luminous smile. (Do click on the image to the right to see a larger version.)

Buddha Statue #2

Another of the Buddha images

Statue Close-up

A close-up of the second Buddha

On the left side of the main Buddha image are two Burmese-style Buddha statues. For some reason the Burmese-style Buddhas are often (always?) white. The statue is resting on a lotus blossom and, like the middle image, has a radiant smile.

2 Buddhas

The statues from the side

Buddha Statue #3

Another Buddha statue

In temples I like to walk around the entire area and look at the statues from all angles.

The picture on the left shows the two Buddha statues mentioned above as photographed from the side.

On the right is another one of the Buddha statues, this one found to the right of the central Buddha statue (as you face the altar).

Temple Ceiling #1

Part of the ceiling

Temple Ceiling #2

Detail of the ceiling

At any temple in Thailand it pays to look everywhere, even at the ceiling. The ceiling at Wat Nantaram is quite elaborate, as these two pictures of separate details show.

Other Buildings at Wat Nantaram

Other Buildings

Other building on the temple grounds

Building Interior

Inside one of the other buildings

We spent quite a bit of time inside the main building (viharn) before exploring the rest of the temple grounds. Above left are two of the other buildings. The picture to the right shows the interior of one of the more interesting remaining buildings.

The altar here has a distinctly Chinese character. It shows three representations of Quanyin, the Goddess of Compassion. In the middle (see picture above right) is a statue of Quanyin in her guise as Avalokiteshvara, a many-armed Bodhisattva personifying perfect compassion and who refrains from entering the bliss of Buddhahood in order to help all beings attain enlightenment. The two flanking statues in back, looking very Chinese, are also representations of Quanyin showing her holding a vase with the dew of compassion.

Many-armed Statue

Close-up of the center statue

Wood Carven

Close-up of a wooden carving

On the left is a close-up of the center statue, Quanyin as Avalokiteshvara with her many arms.

To the right is a close-up of the wooden carvings that surround the room.

This temple is definitely worth a special trip from Nan when you are in the region.


Slideshow of Wat Nantaram

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

Windy Road
View
Entryway
Deva
Flower
Temple Front
Temple Door
Celestial Greeter
Roofs
Temple Front
Entry Detail
Temple Interior #1
Temple Interior #2
Buddha Statue
Buddha Statue
Buddha Statue #2
Statue Close-up
2 Buddhas
Buddha Statue #3
Temple Ceiling #1
Temple Ceiling #2
Other Buildings
Building Interior
Many-armed Statue
Quanyin
Wood Carven

The road to Chiang Kham from Nan is quite windy!

One of many beautiful views on the road from Nan to Chiang Kham

The gate and entry to Wat Nantaram

The entryway is lined with celestial beings on posts

Blossom of a Sai tree, which the Buddha was born under

The viharn at Wat Nantaram

Close-up of the entry door to the viharn at Wat Nantaram

A pair of celestial beings greet you as you enter

The Shan-style roofs of the temple

A close-up of the entryway to Wat Nantaram

Further detail of the front of Wat Nantaram

Inside the viharn at Wat Nantaram

Another view of Inside the viharn at Wat Nantaram

The main Buddha image and altar at the viharn of Wat Nantaram

A close-up of the main Buddha image at the viharn

A Buddha statue to the left of the altar

Close up of the second Buddha image

The two Buddha statues from the side

This Buddha statue was to the right of the altar

The ceiling of the temple is elaborately decorated

This is a detail of part of the ceiling

Two other buildings on the temple grounds

Inside one of the other temple buildings at Wat Nantaram

This many-armed statue is Quanyin in her guise of Avalokiteshvara

One of the flanking statues of Quanyin

A close up of one of the wood carvings that surrounds the room

Windy Road thumbnail
View thumbnail
Entryway thumbnail
Deva thumbnail
Flower thumbnail
Temple Front thumbnail
Temple Door thumbnail
Celestial Greeter thumbnail
Roofs thumbnail
Temple Front thumbnail
Entry Detail thumbnail
Temple Interior #1 thumbnail
Temple Interior #2 thumbnail
Buddha Statue #1 thumbnail
Buddha Statue thumbnail
Buddha Statue #2 thumbnail
Statue Close-up thumbnail
2 Buddhas thumbnail
Buddha Statue #3 thumbnail
Temple Ceiling #1 thumbnail
Temple Ceiling #2 thumbnail
Other Buildings thumbnail
Building Interior thumbnail
Many-armed Statue thumbnail
Quanyin thumbnail
Wood Carving thumbnail

For further exploration:


Written by Michael Babcock, May 2014

Black House (บ้านดำ) Museum in Chiang Rai

Michael Babcock, Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

In Chiang Rai we visited one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever experienced anywhere. The Baandam Museum – พิพิธภัณฑ์บ้านดำ – บ้าน (baan) meaning “house” and ดำ (dam) meaning “black” – is actually (also) the residence of National Artist Thawan Duchanee. And what a residence it is!


Spoiler alert: When I visited here I had no preconceptions of what I was going to see. The experience was probably much stronger because of that. If you’d prefer an experience unfettered by knowledge, you may want to skip this blog.

Here’s a link to practical details about the museum (hours, location). There’s also a slideshow of images from the museum (with many more images than in the blog).


2 Houses

The front two buildings

The “museum” or “house” is actually a compound with over 40 buildings spread across a wide area. The house of the artist is one of the buildings, one of several not open to the public. The other buildings vary in degree of access: some are open and you can go into them; on others the doors are locked and fettered; others are closed but you can see into the windows; others are covered spaces easily visible and accessible.

(Click images to see a larger version.)

At the entry there are two beautiful buildings: a smaller one in front with a larger one behind, both reminiscent of (echoing? based on?) temples or of buildings you’d see on a temple ground. At this point, I though that these two buildings were the entire museum.

Small Building

Smaller building in front

Wood Carving

Wood carving on the small building

From the very start, encountering the front building, the eye is arrested by details: glorious and detailed wood carvings flanking and on the doors and above the lintel; statues in front; crushed rock enclosing the base of the building; triangular wooden carvings of nagas supporting the upper sides, just as they do at most temples in Thailand.

Carved Door

The front building’s carved door

Carving Detail

Detail of front door carving

To the left is the entryway to the smaller, frontmost building: a carved door  with a fanciful scrollwork of leaves and branches above the door.

To the right we see the carving on the door itself up close: an array of courtiers or celestial beings.

This frontmost building is not open to the public.

The second building, from the outside, could be a viharn, an assembly hall for the laity at a temple, which usually houses the principal Buddha image. It’s plainer on the outside (by comparison to the first building) and has some lovely wooden carvings on the facade. The lower portion is all natural wood.

As you enter the building, the interior is mostly dark, lit only by light through the doors and windows. It is a vast, open space with beams, filled with objects everywhere you look. The architecture of the building may resemble a Thai Buddhist temple but the interior of a temple was never arrayed like this room.

Here’s some of what I saw.

Columns

Columns of wood carvings

Carving Detail

Close up of a carved Garuda

Carved wooden pillars in groups.

(Do click on the pictures to see a larger version with more detail.)

Long Table

The long table

Hornbill

Hornbill head surrounded by feathers

A long table laid with two long snake skins and statues, the table surrounded by large black chairs with legs made from buffalo horns.

A hornbill head mounted in the middle of a circle of peacock feathers.

And more.

This building is just the beginning of Thawan Duchanee’s world.


Exit the back door to the rest of the compound. There are at least 40 other buildings, each one compelling attention in a different way. There are: many temple-like bulidings; open air structures (salas); circular white buildings (which echo certain temple structures as well); a building like a giant whale; an open building with huge drums; skulls lining a building’s perimeter.

Rock Garden

Rock garden in front of a building

Although there was a great deal of black, there was also quite a bit of natural wood in the buildings, with salas and a few white buildings acting as a counterpoint. Very little feels modern here. Rather than plastic or shiny metal (with an exception or two), there is wood (lots of wood), stone and clay tile – materials that call to mind the world of nature.

One of the most striking features for me were the stones. Many buildings are preceded by areas with crushed stone of various sizes, often with other large stones, reminiscent of a Zen rock garden.

Wooden Carving

Wooden carving, scrollwork

And everywhere there are the wooden carvings: lovely, detailed depictions of nagas, devas and courtly figures with exuberant scrollworks of leaves and branches.

With all the differing structures and the differing features there is still a coherency to the compound, the indication of a single vastly creative mind at work, a mind fascinated with natural objects: bones, skulls, snake skins, horns, wood, shells, crocodile skins, rocks and stones.

It was fascinating to wonder through the compound, a bit dreamlike and almost outside of normal time and space – going from structure to structure, first caught by an entire building, then focusing in on a whole carving, then captivated by a detail and then drawn into a further detail.

Statue

Statue guarding the door

There are many temple motifs: nagas on buildings and doors, carvings of celestial beings, here and there a Buddha statue. There also is an erotic component, such as the statue with the stiff phallus guarding a white circular building or in the arrangement of a row of conch shells.

I’ve heard the opinion that the museum is very dark or even “creepy” (because of all the black and the bones, the skulls). I disagree. I found it incredibly life-affirming. The whole of life is arrayed here: the sublime and the earthy, heaven and hell. Always, the natural objects return you to this world.

Entering some of the buildings is like entering a shrine more than a museum. To enter one of the small, white circular buildings you first must pass the phallic guardian. The room is surrounded by chairs made from water buffalo horns resting on animal skins with an animal skin on the seat. Some chairs are interspersed with statues. The center of the room is filled with a huge alligator skin surrounded by hundreds of large shells.

Interior Shot

Inside a small circular building

You tread softly here. There is a stillness that you hesitate to break. You are careful not to change the position of anything: everything is just where it belongs. Why the chairs? What kind of a assemblage would take place here?

Traditionally, round buildings such as this on temple grounds house depictions of Buddhist hell. Certainly, the Thais who visit the room have this context for what is inside. In such a building at a temple there might be statues or paintings depicting the horrors of hell and often a deva or spirit in a chair sitting in judgment: in (some) Buddhist cosmology when you die, you are sent to a place where your entire life is appraised.  In this room there are animal elements (the horn, the animal skins), a strong element of the sea and water (the shells and alligator) and the chairs: perhaps they are an invitation to sit, to examine the totality of one’s life from a different, wider perspective.


Thawan Duchanee was born in Chiang Rai in September 1939, making him 74 years old. There’s a marvelous photograph of the artist here looking like a Taoist sage. He studied both in Thailand and Europe (at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam).

When he returned to Thailand, he became controversial. According to The Nation, “Thawan developed a unique style of artistry using black and red tones, based on the styles of traditional Buddhist art to explore the darkness lurking within humanity.” (The Nation article on “The 40 Most Internationally Acclaimed Thais”.) The Black House was begun in 1976. He was named a National Artist in 2001.

A blog devoted to him explains his work like this:

He then began to explore and reexamine the insanity, degeneration, violence, eroticism, and death lurking in the heart of modern man as they are involved with religion. Mr. Thawan expressed these concepts with a startling technique utilizing a black tone, drawing from the wellspring of traditional Thai Buddhist art and Buddhist thought.”

                          – Quote from thawanduchanee.blogspot.com.

Some of his exhibits were so controversial that they were attacked.

Talking of his home and the museum, the artist said:

The Black House evokes the past Thai civilization in a contemporary manner. I try to bring the spirit, heart and soul in their life [into the pieces]. (From Time Magazine’s The Dark and the Light Side of Thai Art.)

The Black House Museum contains almost no paintings or drawings: it is composed of buildings, objects and sculptures. The whole compound is a three-dimensional work of art.


I’ve put together a slideshow that details some of my wanderings that day at the Baandam Museum. I hope that some of the numinous nature and sense of wonder comes through, some of the sense of wandering and discovering yet another unique vision. What the slides can not convey is the solidity of the objects, the visceral reaction to bone, shell and skin.

Details about the museum (hours, location) are found after the slideshow.

I’ll close with this quote from the artist, taken as printed (no punctuation or line breaks) from  thawanduchanee.blogspot.com):

Do not seek for understanding, in the temple of mysterious Feel them my friends from heart to heart Do not ask the meaning of the stars in the constellation Smile of the baby in the cradle of mothers Sweet fragrance in the pollens of flowers It is the work of art !

my friends… In the deepest of my mystic mind, come closer to my spirit Listen to my heartbeat, without word


Slideshow of บ้านดำ (Black House)

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

2 Houses
Small Building
Wood Carving
Carved Door
Carving Detail
black-house-06
Columns
black-house-08
black-house-09
black-house-10
Carving Close-up
Long Table
black-house-12
black-house-13
black-house-14a
black-house-14
Hornbill
black-house-16
Wooden Carving
Wooden Carving
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black-house-20
black-house-21
black-house-22
black-house-24
Rock Garden
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black-house-28
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Statue
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Interior Shot
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You see these two buildings at the very front of the Black House Museum

This is the smaller building in the front

Carving of a naga on the frontmost building, similar to those found in temples

The entryway to the first building is a carved door flanked by elaborate carved scrollwork

Figures carved on the first building's doorway

An elaborate wood carving, part of the second building

A forest of carved, wooden pillars inside the larger second building

The pillars cry out to be looked at, examined

A naga on one of the carved wooden pillars

Garuda head on one of the wooden columns

Further close-up of the Garuda carving

The long table in the front building

This statue is found on the long table

A close-up of the statute

Interior shot with hornbill sculpture

Fanciful sculpture utilizing a hornbill head encircled by peacock feathers

Close-up of the hornbill sculpture

Another building on the grounds after exiting the front buildings

The wooden scrollwork on the front of the building

One of the nagas guarding a building entry

A different naga at a different building

The roofs of yet another building

A cage with a bird on the compound

Bones and a skull underneath one of the buildings

This building has a stone and rock garden in the front

A close-up of the stone and rock garden

Stone monoliths on the grounds

One of many statues found around the property

A multi-bodied/headed naga, just as you'd find in a temple

Door panel behind the multiple naga

Close-up of a similar panel showing nagas

More carving (with many celestial beings) above a door

Two of the buildings on the compound

One of the artisans at work

This building is reminiscent of a Christian church (on the outside)

It has this elaborate array of items at the door

The inside is surrounded by chairs covered in animal hides

There are three, smaller white circular buildings together

This statue guards the door of one of the small, circular buildings

The interior houses an array of large shells

One of the statues on the surrounding wall

Chairs with animal hides line the walls

The interior of another of the small, white circular buildings

The interior of the 3rd of these buildings

A fanciful building, reminiscent of an exuberant whale

The outside of this sala is lined with skulls

Close-up of one of the skulls,

A bathroom in one of the buildings, perhaps a guesthouse

Another rock and stone garden precedes one of the structures

One of the doors on the structure

The eye focuses in . . .

. . . and keeps going

A "singh" (mythical lion) at the bottom of the carving

A further close-up of the "singh" (mythical lion)

An area with a circle of bones underneath a building

A close-up of the bones

Another edifice with its temple-like roof and its wooden carvings

The carving above the lintel

This sala has rough-hewn tables and chairs

Two favorite motifs: wooden carving and animal skull

Another of the buildings

A statue of Ganesh

On my way out I focused in on this building . . .

. . . housing 3 Buddha statues

Here's a close-up of the two frontmost Buddhas and an end to the slide show

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Details About Black House

Baandam Museum
414 Moo 13 Nanglae
Muang, Chiang Rai, 57100 Thailand
Tel/Fax : (66) 53 – 776 – 333
Mobile: (66) 83 – 336 – 5333
Open Daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed from noon to 1 p.m.)

Leave plenty of time to wander.

Here are two maps:

It is found 1.9 kilometers pas Chiang Rai University by turning left on Soi 13. After nearly half a kilometer turn left note a small soi and you’ll soon see it on the left.

Links to Other Sites


Written by Michael Babcock, April 2014

Coffee in Thailand, Part 3 (The North)

Michael Babcock, Saturday, March 15th, 2014

Over the 2+ decades I’ve been visiting Thailand, coffee has become increasingly popular and available. This blog explores a few of the coffee experiences we had early in 2014 when we traveled extensively in the north of Thailand, in Phrae, Pua, Nan and Chiang Rai.

It’s a continuation of two blogs published in April 2013 and continued in January 2015:

General Observations

Caffe Mocha

Caffe Mocha at Phu Coffee in Nan

I see more and more coffee shops or “huts,” as they are frequently named, everywhere in Thailand. Driving through a town, or even just on the highway, there will be a coffee hut. In addition to individual coffee huts, there are many chains: Coffee World, Black Canyon Coffee, Doi Chaang, Amazon, Doi Tung (see below) and more. There are, of course, Starbucks – at over 140 in Thailand.

I did try Starbucks this year, mainly so I could write a bit about it. My advice: don’t go there. I find the coffee so-so and the drinks are larger, weaker and more expensive, costing about the same as in the states. Increasingly many of the coffee places (Amazon, for example) have free wi-fi; at Starbucks the only option was an all-day password for 150 baht – about $5.00. For their prices: it should be free. Doi Chaang is a fairly well-known chain out of Chiang Mai that serves Doi Chaang coffee beans. I was going to try it when I saw a branch at the Krabi airport but it was even more expensive that Starbucks – 100 baht for a latte, which, even accounting for inflated airport prices, was too much. I got a coffee at Black Canyon instead for 20 baht less. (It was good.) Of all the chains, we’ve had pretty good coffee at Amazon.

Sign

Sign for Café Doi Tung at Chatuchak Market

Coffee culture is young and still evolving in Thailand, so often baristas don’t quite have all the details down about the various drinks. At a coffee shop at a temple in Chiang Rai I ordered a cappuccino, typically espresso topped with equal parts steamed and frothed milk. At this shop I was served my first frothless “cappuccino” ever; it was basically coffee blended with sweetened, condensed milk, served after about a 10 minute wait. This was extreme. Usually the drink somewhat resembles what you expect. Although when we were at Pak Meng beach in Trang (down south), Kasma ordered a latte and I ordered an Americano, which is supposed to be a black coffee. When the two drinks came, they looked identical. Kasma asked “Which is the latte?” The waitress looked dumbfounded for a brief time, then put one down in front of Kasma and said: “This can be the latte. They’re the same.” There was one difference: my “Americano” cost 5 baht less.

Coffee counter

Counter at Phu Coffee in Nan

My advice from the first blogs holds: order what you want, don’t be impatient if it takes awhile and enjoy whatever it is you get. Next time, try another place. Consider it a tasting adventure and see yourself as being part of an evolving cultural phenomena.

Traveling in the north, we encountered a number of coffee fields. Coffee is cultivated up north and it’s not unusual to see coffee shops which serve locally grown and roasted beans. At Tha Wang Pha in Nan we sought out some coffee fields and when we saw beans drying in the sun we stopped to see if we could buy some unroasted coffee beans for a friend in the United States. Unfortunately, they would only sell us wholesale quantities so we couldn’t make the purchase.

For the rest of the blog, I’d like to showcase 3 of the places where we had coffee up north, beginning with Phu Coffee in Nan.

Phu Coffee (ภูคอฟฟี่) – Nan

Sign

Sign for Phu Coffee

Coffee Shop

Phu Coffee sitting area

Phu Coffee (pronounced “poo” in Thai), is found in the tourist center across from Wat Phumin. There’s a coffee shop out front – Nan Coffee – that wasn’t bad but we preferred Phu Coffee, which is located inside the courtyard and off to one side. Look for the yellow umbrellas. All of their coffee is grown locally.

Coffee Shop

Indoor seating at Phu Coffee

Caffe Latte

Latte and tea at Phu Coffee in Nan

The indoor seating was cozy and comfortable. This was very much a local coffee shop. The beans were local from Doi Phu (Phu mountain) and they also sold coffee beans to take home. Service was quick and efficient and the prices were more than reasonable: hot mocha, cappuccino and latte were only 25 baht while iced drinks were 30 baht.

The coffee was  quite good, and presented very nicely (see the first picture of the blog of the mocha and the picture of the latte above right). The coffee was served in what I think of as traditional Thai style: accompanied by a cup of tea to serve as a chaser after you finish your coffee. The tea was surprisingly good here: it was brewed to order, which is not usually the case at Thai coffee shops.

We came here 3 mornings in a row while staying in Nan. I highly recommend it.

Café Doi Tung (กาแฟดอยตุง) – Doi Tung (& Chatuchak Market)

Sign


Sign for Café Doi Tung

Coffee House

Street view of Café Doi Tung

While we were in Chiang Rai we made an excursion to Doi Tung, perhaps the best known tourist destination in Chiang Rai province, known for the Royal Villa of the late Princess Mother (mother of the current and previous king) and the Mah Fah Luang Garden. When we arrived that morning, we stopped first at Café Doi Tung.

Seating area

Outdoor seating at Café Doi Tung

The seating is outdoor in a covered area and there’s a lovely view of the mountains in the distance. The beans served here are from those mountains (doi means mountain so Doi Tung is Tung mountain) and have been grown as part of the Doi Tung Development project (started by the Princess Mother) since the late 1980s.

The café is a bit more like a coffee house such as is found in the U.S. The drinks are larger – 12 ounces rather than the more prevalent 8 ounce size in Thai coffee places – which was reflected in the price – 75 baht for a latte, 70 baht for a cappuccino, 85 baht for a mocha (more usual prices for the smaller drinks elsewhere are 40 – 45 baht).

Coffee & Brownie

Our coffee and brownie

They also had a substantial array of pastries and sweets (which is not the norm in Thailand), such as coffee cake, carrot cake, layer chocolate cake, green tea cake, macadamia fruit cake, macadamia mocha cake and macadamia nut brownies. We sampled the brownies, which had good flavor (great with the nuts) but could have been a bit moister for my preference. Still, they were very good.

Slush drink

Macadamia Nut Slush

I had a latte and Kasma a mocha. It was excellent coffee and served very efficiently. After spending the day at the various attractions, we returned to the café in the later afternoon and enjoyed a Macadamia Nut Slush: it had lots of cream, some caramel and crushed macadamia nuts. It tasted heavenly: a perfect way to end the day.

The café also sells a number of other items that are produced locally, including roasted coffee beans in three different roasts (light, medium and dark). We purchased a number of items, including macadamia nuts (which they grow), macadamia nut cookies (very good), macadamia nut butter (my, was this good) and a box with 6 pouches of Doi Tung coffee, each one used to make an individual cup of drip coffee.

We enjoyed the coffee so much that we were pleased to learn there are a number of branches in Bangkok. We were very happy to visit the branch at Chatuchak market (on Kamphaeng Pet 2, directly next to the parking lot) later in the trip. Check out the Café Doi Tung Website.

Bomb March Coffee – กาแฟแห่ระเบิด – Long (Phrae Province)

Bomb

The bomb that grabbed our attention

Street view

Another street view of Bomb March Coffee

Driving from Phrae to Sukhothai we drove past a coffee hut with a bomb in front and did a quick u-turn.

Exploding coffee? We had to give this a try!

This, by the way, is a good example of a coffee place pretty much in the middle of nowhere, something you did not see very much even a couple of years ago.

Counter

Counter at Bomb March Coffee

Sitting area

Sitting area at Bomb March Coffee

It was a lovely coffee house named กาแฟแห่ระเบิด, which they translate as Bomb March Coffee.  There was greenery and inviting places to sit, a water feature (water falling through bamboo) and some modern art on the wall. In the background, Christian devotional choral music played (?); this is the only time in my 21 years visiting Thailand I’ve heard such a thing.

Latte

Latte at Bomb March Coffee

Mocha

Mocha at Bomb March Coffee

The coffee was quite good, the barista efficient.

Posters

Information on the walls

Kasma was able to get the story mainly from information on posters and pictures on the walls, which were all in Thai. During World War II Thailand was essentially occupied by the Japanese; Thailand allowed them into the country to prevent bloodshed on her population. There was an important bridge on a main supply route in this area, which the U.S. bombed. Three unexploded bombs were later found in the river and surrounding mud, which the villagers collected. They took the gunpowder out to make into smaller explosives to use for fishing (though another story has the Thai soldiers emptying the bombs first). After some 30 years, in Buddhist year 2516 (1973, Western calendar), the heavy metal bomb casings were cut to make into large bells and, with a great procession, intsalled in 3 of the local temples.

Temple Bell

Once a bomb, now a temple bell

A fascinating history at a fascinating coffee house.

Kasma later found out, by talking to some locals, that the coffee hut had been there for some time and was in danger of closing. After transforming it into Bomb March Coffee, adding the historical information and bomb decor, it has flourished.

We visited the temple Wat Sri On Khom in Long where we saw one of the 3 bombs that were transformed into temple bells.

You can check out Bomb March Coffee’s Facebook Page. Here’s a Map of their location for next time you’re motoring through Phrae province!


Written by Michael Babcock, March, 2014