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Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park in Chiang Rai

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

One of the highlights when we visited Northen Thailand earlier this year (January 2014) was the Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Hosting the region’s largest collection of folk art and teak artifacts from the Lanna Kingdom, the adjective I would use to describe it is gracious. The highlights, aside from the art, are a beautiful golden pavilion, an elegant peaceful garden and a museum of Lanna art, contemporary and old.

This is a rather long blog with 6 sections:

(Click images to see larger version.)

Haw Kham – The Golden Pavilion

Outside the Cultural Park

Approaching the Cultural Park

Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pavilion

When we came here, I knew nothing about the place at all. As we walked in on foot towards the Cultural Park, we came upon a wooden walkway over a lovely pond, surrounded by natural beauty and peacefulness. In the back we saw the Golden Pavilion: a beautiful teakwood building in the Lanna style of architecture that was presented as a gift to the Princess Mother to celebrate her 84th birthday in 1984. It was constructed by 32 wooden houses given by various people in Chiang Rai out of love for the Princess Mother. The Golden Pavilion reflects the deep love and gratitude towards the Princess Mother and all that she had done for the Northern people.

Covered Walkway

Covered walkway

Pavilion detail

Detail of the Golden Pavilion

The walkway itself is a work of art, with it’s wooden beams and supports. There are lovely details on the sides of the pavilion as well (see upper right).

Elephant Carvings

Elephant carvings on the staircase

Doorway Detail

Detail above the doorway

The stairway and door of the pavilion are rich in detail and beauty, as these two pictures show: a row of elephants walks you up the stairs and on the lintels above the door, celestial beings great you.

At the bottom of the stairs we were met by a young woman in a lovely Thai dress who was our guide into the pavilion.

The Pavilion is not a museum. The idea was to include notable religious and secular objects, many used in Lanna ritual and displayed within context; there are ritual items such as candelabras, wooden standards and containers for floral offerings. The interior is candlelit and there is a feeling of sanctity. One of the more prominent images is a wooden Buddha statue named Pra Pratoh, which, according to inscriptions, was created in 1693.

Pavilion interior

Inside the Golden Pavilion

Central Pillar

Central pillar

Photography is forbidden inside the pavilion. The ritual objects are around a hallway or balcony surrounding the interior of the building overlooking a central courtyard with a white sand floor. A red and gold pillar rises from the center of the floor. It’s a lovely, quiet space.

You can see the inside of the pavilion in this picture (above left) from down below, looking up from the white sand floor. If you click on the (left) picture (to enlarge) you can see part of the walkway with the objects displayed in the back of the photo.

Candelabra #1

One candelabra

Candelabra #2

Another candelabra

Many of the ritual objects displayed in the Pavilion were candelabras that hold 7 candles. The two photos shown above were taken from outside the pavilion where a number of these candelabras were displayed around the building’s base.


Background of the Cultural Park

Princess Mother

The Princess Mother

Mae Fah Luang is one of the titles of Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother, who was the mother of the current King of Thailand. It means “Royal Mother from the Sky,” in part a reference to the Princess Mother’s work in bringing medicine to the rural areas of the north by helicopter, often accompanying the medical teams herself. The Foundation grew out of all of her work on behalf of the Thai people. It began life as the Thai Hill Crafts Foundation that the Princess Mother founded in 1972 to offer market access for craft-making villages in Northern Thailand; it was renamed in 1985 to reflect the increasing emphasis on social issues, including education and sustainable development, that were being developed based on the Princess Mother’s philosophy and ideas.

Water Basin

Lanna water container

The Cultural Park was established at what was called the Rai Mae Fah Luang, a center for education and skills training for hill tribe youth in Northern Thailand. It was established to house the Royal Collection of Lanna Art in order to make the art available to the northern people in order to educate them about their cultural heritage. It is the largest collection of Lanna art in the region.

The word Lanna means “a million rice fields” and the Lanna Kingdom was founded in the 13th century AD by King Mengrai. It was basically a federation of smaller princialities in the north, including areas in Burma, Laos, Thailand and southern China. Conquered in the mid-16th century by the Burmese, it became a vassal state of Siam in the late 18th century, remaining a loose federation with up to 57 city states or principalities. In 1892, Siam officially annexed Lanna and it became part of Thailand.

The Garden

From the Golden Pavilion, we spent time wandering around the second main feature of the Park: the garden, a botanical collection with indigenous and rare plants from the northern region.

Air Plants

Giant air plants

Tropical Leaf

Tropical leaf

The garden has some beautiful specimens, such as these giant air plants (above left). Many plants have interesting leaf structures.

Pond

Pond and urns

3 statues

3 garden statues

There are graceful details throughout, such as these urns at the edge of a pond. Statues are nestled in amongst the plants.

Stones #1

Stone garden

Stones #2

Stone garden

There’s a lovely use of rocks and stones to add accents and interest, such as the two photos above.

Carving #1

Garden carving

Spirit House

Spirit house close-up

Carving #2

Carved pillar

These three photos show some of the other features in the garden.

Wall

Wall with carvings

Carving Detail

Carving detail

Even the walls of the building are interesting, with wooden carvings part of the structure.


Haw Kaew – The Museum

The other main part of the Cultural Park is the Haw Kaew. According to the brochure handed out at the Park, “Haw Kaew presents a permanent exhibition based on artifacts and religious items made from teak, as teak was used in people’s everyday lives. In addition there are revolving exhibitions featuring “topics related to the diverse ethic cultures of Lanna.”

Painting

Portrait of the Princess Mother

Museum Entry

Museum entry

One of the first things that you see when you come into the museum is a portrait of the Princess Mother. It is hard to convey the devotion that most northern people feel for this extraordinary woman. She was instrumental in bringing education, skills training, medicine and dental care to the rural northerners. In the west we seem to have a somewhat jaundiced view of royalty. It’s different in Thailand because of the dedication of the current royal family, which began with the Princess Mother. (See the Wikipedia entry on Srinagarindra (the Princess Mother).)

Painting

By Dr. Kamol Tassanaanchalee

Bas Relief

Creation by Jarron Chaijajit

Banner

Modern banner

The museum includes a collection of contemporary art by northern Thai artists. Above left is a painting by Dr. Kamol Tassananchalee based on what the sign calls “Thailand’s most popular love song” – Lovelorn Song, the lyrics by Chalie Intravichit. In the center is a wood carving – “Creation,” by Jarron Chaijajit. To the right is a banner, attributed only to “a Chiangrai artist.”

Modern Sculpture

Modern sculpture

Sculpture Close-up

Close-up of the sculpture

Sculpture Detail

Sculpture detail

I loved this wooden sculpture with all of it’s textures and folds.

Naga Carvings

Lanna temple naga carvings

Enshrined Buddha #1

Enshrined Buddha

Wooden carving

Wooden carving

Still, the bulk of the collection consists of older Lanna art. Above left is a row of nagas (the naga is a mythical dragon) taken from various Lanna temples. The museum includes a number of enshrined Buddhas, such as the one in the center above. There are numerous wooden carvings, such as the one above right, presumably of a celestial being or princess.

Manuscript Chest

Manuscript chest

Enshrined Buddha #2

Another enshrined Buddha

The picture above left shows a manuscript chest that would have been used to store Buddhist scriptures. To the right is a teak carving of the Buddha enclosed by 2 protective nagas; the sign for this piece says “Enshrining an image of the Lord Buddha Shan.

The Slideshow below has further images from the museum.


Note: There’s also a smaller buiding on the grounds called the Haw Kham Noi . It houses mural paintings originally done in tempera painted directly on teak panels in a temple in Phrae province; they were saved from sale as antique by the villagers and sent here for safekeeping. We did not see the murals when we were there.


Location

อุทยานศิลปะวัฒนธรรมแม่ฟ้าหลวง
313 หมู่ 7 บ้านป่างิ้ว ต.รอบเวียง อ.เมือง จ.เชียงราย 57000
โทร. 053 716 605-7, 053 601 013 โทรสาร 053 712 429
อีเมล : rmfl@doitung.org

Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park
313 Moo 7, Baan Pa Ngiew
Tambon Robwiang, Amphoe Muang Chiang Rai,
Chiang Rai 57000 Thailand
Phone: 053 716-605 (to 607), 053-601-013
Fax: 053-712-429
Email: rmfl@doitung.org

Hours 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., closed Monday
Entrance fee: 100 to 200 baht.
Bangkok Post Map of Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park
Mae Fah Luang Map of Chiang Rai (with center)
Website (in Thai only)

Explore Further

Information from this blog comes, in part, from the following websites:

See Also


Slideshow

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

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

Outside the Cultural Park
Golden Pavilion
Pavilion detail
Covered Walkway
Elephant Carvings
Doorway Detail
Pavilion interior
Central Pillar
Candelabra #1
Candelabra #2
Air Plants
Tropical Leaf
Pond
3 statues
Carving #1
Carving #2
Stones #1
Stones #2
Spirit Houses
Spirit House
Wall
Carving Detail
Princess Mother
Water Basin
Painting
Museum Entry
Paintingn
Bas Relief
Banner
Modern Sculpture
Sculpture Close-up
Sculpture Detail
Naga Carvings
Enshrined Buddha #1
Wooden carving
Wooden Carving #2
Manuscript Chest
Enshrined Buddha #2
Headboard
Naga
Enshrined Buddha #3
Buddha Statue

The pond and walkways approaching the Cultural Park

The Golden Pavilion - Haw Kahm - at Mae Fah Luang Cultural Park

Details on the side of the Golden Pavilion (Haw Kahm)

Covered walkway approaching the Golden Pavilion (Haw Kahm)

Elephant carvings on the staircase to the Golden Pavilion

Detail above the doorway to the Golden Pavilion

The white sand floor and the Golden Pavilion from below

Central pillar at the Golden Pavilion (Haw Kahm)

Candelabra at the base of the Golden Pavilion

Another candelabra at the base of the Golden Pavilion

Some air plants in tho Cultural Park's garden

Tropical leaf at the Cultural Park's garden

Pond with urns at the Cultural Park's garden

3 statues at the Cultural Park's garden

Carving found in the Cultural Park's garden

Carved pillar in the Cultural Park's garden

Stone feature in the Cultural Park's garden

Another set of stones in the Cultural Park's garden

Spirit houses in the Cultural Park's garden

Close up of a spirit house in the Cultural Park's garden

Wall with carvings in the Cultural Park's garden

Detail of the carving on the building wall

This relief of the Princess Mother is found outside the museum

A common Lanna feature outside homes - water for washing your hands

Portrait of the Princess Mother in the Museum's entry

In the entry room of the Museum

Modern painting By Dr. Kamol Tassananchalee based on the love song "Lovelorn Song"

A modern wood-carving titled "Creation," by Jarron Chaijajit

Banner by a (modern) Chiang Rai Artist

Modern wood sculpture

A close-up of the modern wood sculpture

Detail of the modern wood sculpture

Naga carvings from Lanna temples

Lanna depiction of an enshrined Buddha

Wooden carving

Decorated panel below one of the ceilings

Manuscript chest for Buddhist scriptures

Sign says "Enshrining an image of the Lord Buddha Shan (Teak)"

Carved demon on the headboard for a bed

Sign says "Naga, temple roof decoration"

Buddha enshrined in a painted, wooden cabinet

Buddha statue. So peaceful.

Outside the Cultural Park thumbnail
Golden Pavilion thumbnail
Pavilion Detail thumbnail
Covered Walkway thumbnail
Elephant Carvings thumbnail
Doorway Detail thumbnail
Pavilion Interior thumbnail
Central Pillar thumbnail
Candelabra #1 thumbnail
Candelabra #2 thumbnail
Air Plants thumbnail
Tropical Leaf thumbnail
Pond thumbnail
3 Statues thumbnail
Carving #1 thumbnail
Carving #2 thumbnail
Stones #1 thumbnail
Stones #2 thumbnail
Spirit Houses thumbnail
Spirit House thumbnail
Wall thumbnail
Carving Detail thumbnail
Princess Mother thumbnail
Water Basin thumbnail
Painting thumbnail
Museum Entry thumbnail
Painting thumbnail
Bas Relief thumbnail
Banner thumbnail
Modern Sculpture thumbnail
Sculpture Close-up thumbnail
Sculpture Detail thumbnail
Naga Carvings thumbnail
Enshrined Buddha #1 thumbnail
Wooden Carving thumbnail
Wooden Carving #2 thumbnail
Manuscript Chest thumbnail
Enshrined Buddha #2 thumbnail
Headboard thumbnail
Naga thumbnail
Enshrined Buddha #3 thumbnail
Buddha Statue thumbnail

Written by Michael Babcock, October 2015

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
black-house-19
black-house-20
black-house-21
black-house-22
black-house-24
Rock Garden
black-house-25
black-house-26
black-house-27
black-house-59
black-house-60
black-house-28
black-house-29
black-house-30
black-house-31
black-house-32
black-house-33
black-house-34
Statue
black-house-36
black-house-37
Interior Shot
black-house-39
black-house-40
black-house-41
black-house-42
black-house-43
black-house-44
black-house-45
black-house-46
black-house-47
black-house-48
black-house-49
black-house-50
black-house-51
black-house-52
black-house-53
black-house-54
black-house-55
black-house-56
black-house-57
black-house-58
black-house-61
black-house-62
black-house-63

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