The first of several heritage walks
After almost two years of Covid-induced hibernation, a small group of intrepid individuals met to look into Chiang Mai’s history as part of the Payap University Lifelong Learning programme. The walk, led by Graham Jefcoate, focussed on the east bank of the Ping River. This was where Chiang Mai’s early farang (foreign) residents – an odd mix of missionaries and mercenaries – lived and worked in the late 19th century.
The walk began opposite the former First Church of Chiang Mai, which is now part of the Chiang Mai Christian School. It was designed and erected in the 1880s by Marion Cheek, a medical missionary turned teak trader who was one of the city’s most colourful foreign residents. Besides this church, he was responsible for building the first sturdy bridge over the river and the city’s first hospital.
Next stop was the current First Church of Chiang Mai, which occupies spacious grounds just north of Nawarat Bridge. The strong presence of Christianity in this once-remote outpost of Asia was due to the efforts of Dr Daniel McGilvary, who established the Laos Presbyterian Mission in 1868. Beneath the modern church, a small museum displays old books, pianos and watercolours depicting early events in the mission’s history.
Charoenrat Road, which runs parallel to the east side of the river, is lined with trendy shops, cute lodgings and popular night spots such as the Riverside and the Good View. While it’s an interesting area to explore, the road is narrow and busy, and lacks pavements (sidewalks), so it is not at all pedestrian friendly.
The exploratory tour stopped for a coffee break in the grounds of Baan Orapin – an attractive, shuttered colonial building that has stood for over a century. Incidentally, with teak furnishings and local textiles decorating its rooms, it’s one of the most atmospheric places to stay for out-of-towners.
From there the walk escaped the busy riverside road to go through Wat Ketkaram, commonly known as Wat Gate. This is the hub of the local community and contains all the typical features of a Thai temple compound – an assembly hall, ordination hall, stupa and bo tree, as well as a small teak museum. The buildings are lavishly decorated, particularly the ordination hall with its bas-reliefs of mythical beasts.
Probably the highlight of the walk was a wander round the grounds of 137 Pillars House, a luxury hotel that incorporates the former office of the Borneo Company as its centrepiece. Along with the Bombay and Burmah Trading Company, the Borneo Company made massive profits during a teak boom in the late 19th century.
The original occupant of 137 Pillars was Louis Leonowens, who worked for a while as Agent for the Borneo Company in Chiang Mai. He was the son of Anna Leonowens, whose book The English Governess at the Siamese Court brought her notoriety and is still banned in Thailand, although the films based on it, The King and I (1956) and Anna and the King (1999) were hugely popular in the West.
Last stop on this walk was a small museum-cum-antique shop called the Dragon and Phoenix, which houses some striking examples of traditional clothes and accessories from all across Asia. These include some lavish Chinese costumes, Java batiks, Japanese kimonos, French and English silver mesh purses and Lomi Akha headdresses laden with silver.
After this short exploration of Chiang Mai’s past, participants were left looking forward to further excursions into the rich cultural history of this ancient city. For more information about upcoming Heritage Walks, visit lllpayap.com.
I’m sad to hear of the death of Keith Mundy, a long-time friend and colleague, from prostate cancer in Bangkok.
I first met Keith in around 1975 when we were both living in hippy ‘squats’ in Sydenham, London – vast Victorian mansions adapted to a lifestyle radically different from their original intention, with their servants’ quarters, tennis court in the garden and so on.
We were never really close (Keith was always something of a loner) and we might never have met again if we had not shared the dream of teaching English abroad as a way to an exciting life, which we then both followed.
Keith went to Libya and I went to Sudan, then later to Venezuela, and we must have kept in touch (by good old-fashioned letters), as some years later Keith joined me in Venezuela, looking for a change from the limited social life in Libya.
For some reason things didn’t work out for Keith in Venezuela and he made the move to Bangkok in around 1980, where he held a respected post at Chulalongkorn University.
I visited Thailand briefly in 1982 and saw he was doing well, then in 1987 I arrived in Thailand myself with a contract to work for the British Council in Bangkok.
Living in Bangkok can be a back-breaker, but fortunately Keith had a friend who knew of a huge apartment to rent for cheap in the Soi Aree area, which is now one of the hippest districts in the city. So I had a soft landing in the Big Mango.
I moved to Chiang Mai in 1989 and once again, we might not have kept in touch were it not for the fact that we both started getting articles on travel and culture accepted by local newspapers like the Bangkok Post.
We often shared lengthy phone chats, grumbling about publications not paying on time or sharing tips for new contacts, as we both tended to sell our stories to similar publications such as inflight magazines.
Keith was always a ‘bookish’ person and his apartment was stacked high with reference books on topics such as modern art and CDs of Latin music and jazz.
As a tribute to Keith, I’ll post a story he wrote recently about three artists in Chiang Rai for the Thailand Tatler, and for which I provided some images, here.
Keith’s demise was rapid and it was chilling to hear it evolve. Within a matter of weeks, he went from being lucid and fully aware of his predicament to talking gibberish and finally not talking at all.
Rest in peace, Keith; the struggle is over.
A review of the novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain
Everybody knows that Bangkok will drown one day. It sits a precarious 1.5 metres above sea level, which continues to rise steadily due to climate change, while the city is sinking under the weight of its concrete jungle by a few centimetres each year. Some give it ten years, others fifteen. For the city’s 10 million or so inhabitants, this is a cause for concern, and the government’s efforts to stave off the inevitable with multi-million dollar flood barriers have all the pathos of a madman trying to hold back the tide.
The scenario is ripe for a dystopian novel, which Pitchaya Sudbanthad has provided in the form of Bangkok Wakes to Rain. This wildly ambitious debut novel jumps back and forth through the city’s history from the mid-19th to the mid-21st century, and by the end all that remains of the former capital are the tops of the tallest skyscrapers, with floodwaters splashing at their windows.
One of the many reasons that I love living in Chiang Mai is the nearby presence of Doi Suthep, the city’s ‘guardian mountain’, which rises about 1600 metres above sea level. The most popular place on the mountain is the temple called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which sits at an elevation of around 1300 metres and on a clear day offers sweeping views of the city and valley below.
While this temple is one of the must-see sights of Chiang Mai for visitors, there’s a place I much prefer to go to enjoy the mountain’s tranquil, natural surroundings. It’s a trail that leads up the mountain about 300 metres, taking about an hour, and ends at a dramatic waterfall that runs all year. I never fail to finish that walk in a better mood than I started.
Life is tough for us folks who live in Chiang Mai, former capital of the Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields (Lan Na). The problem is that there are so many festivals and ceremonies to celebrate that we never get time to rest, and it seems we’re out dancing in the streets almost every day.
Take this week for instance. Traffic was brought to a standstill by the Poy Sang Long parade, which snaked its way around the perimeter of the old city moat. Poy Sang Long is a Shan ordination ceremony, which is accompanied by plenty of singing and dancing.
A few weeks ago I made a trip to Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard (the area between Bangkok and Cambodia) to update that chapter of the Rough Guide to Thailand. I relished the opportunity to spend some time on Thai beaches, and to visit some islands that I hadn’t been to before, such as Ko Mak and Ko Kood. As a result, I’ve put together a small gallery of images, which I’ll post here along with a few words about each island.
This tiny, hilly island is little more than an hour’s journey from Bangkok, but it’s rarely visited, perhaps because it doesn’t have any stand-out beaches. However, it’s got a great, laid-back vibe, some comfy lodgings, super-friendly locals and several low-key attractions which you can visit in a ‘skylab’ (a glorified tuk-tuk).
Putting the world to rights in five minutes
Our planet is in a mess—environmentally, economically, socially and politically. Hardly a day goes by without some horrific news about villages buried under landslides, politicians arrested for corruption or suicide bombers blowing themselves and everybody nearby to bits. Despite amazing advances in technology during the last century, we don’t seem to have learned anything about how to live together despite our differences. Even the modern sciences of psychology and sociology have no blueprint for improving relationships.
Time to freshen up the website for the new year, so I’ve made a few additions and changes. Firstly, I’ve added a few scans of stories that appeared in printed magazines (an increasingly rare form of media!) during 2016. These are:
- Deep in the Delta, a photo essay on the Mekong Delta for Jetstar Asia magazine.
--Strange Town, a focus on Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar, for the South China Morning Post.
--Blissful Bloom, a story about the sacred lotus for Morning Calm (Korean Air inflight).
I’ve also changed the sample story from my collection ‘Searching for Shangri La’. ‘Sweeping Meditation’ is a chronicle of my changing attitudes to the fascinating activity of sweeping leaves. There’s also an audio version of the story, so rest your eyes for ten minutes and listen to the tale unfold.
"Goodbye hello!”…reminds me of an old Beatles song, but the website hola.org is something much more insidious than anything we knew when we used to go round singing “I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello”.
A friend recommended it as a useful site that would enable me to watch programmes on the BBC iPlayer, which is generally not available outside the UK, as well as any other websites that are generally blocked in the land where I live—Thailand.
Being a sucker for anything that makes life a bit easier or more fun, I downloaded it and for a couple of weeks enjoyed my new-found freedom—watching the final of Wimbledon tennis and a few insightful documentaries—but then the trouble began.
To be a successful guidebook writer, you need not only good research and writing skills, but also a good sense of direction. This is one area of the job in which I normally feel quite confident, as I spent a few years driving minicabs in London as well as driving buses for London Transport, and I reckon if you can find your way around London, you can find your way anywhere.
When I’m on the road researching a guidebook update, I often have a list of 30 or more hotels, restaurants, bars, spas, pharmacies and so on that I need to locate each day in order to decide if they are worth recommending for the new edition of the guide. With the help of maps in the guidebook and online, I usually manage OK, but sometimes things go wildly wrong, and I always get messed up in Mae Sot.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.