Port Macquarie to Doi Saket
I just did’t wanted to play tourist! After a long day and night traveling, with very little sleep, Bangkok greeted me with a suffocating hug. The air was hot, humid, noisy and hard to breathe. The moment I stepped outside the Hotel, I became another walking business opportunity. There was nothing much I could do, the train to Chiang Mai wasn’t leaving till the evening. So I moved with the throng of tourists towards the nearest attraction within walking distance of the main railway station, to see the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit. I am glad that I did, as I was confronted, and comforted, by the world’s largest solid golden Buddha. I asked for a safe and prosperous time in Thailand.
Clearly many tuk-tuk drivers had made the same request, as I was leaving the temple I became a possible solution for a little prosperity. But this time I had to disappoint them, I was in no mood for a shopping-sight-seeing tour. Instead I amused my self by watching the sightseers, an occupational habit when you’re a photographer!
He didn’t look happy and I wasn’t pleased, ‘No tickets left for the sleeper train!’ With that sentence I was relegated to the next available overnight ‘seating up’ train. So I joined the steady stream of enthusiastic backpackers, tired looking families, keen grey nomads and even some locals, and boarded the train to Chiang Mai.
A long uncomfortable twelve hours later I was met by Ong and Katharina at the station, and together we made the final leg of my journey to Doi Saket, the home of the ComPeung art space. My reward for the three days travel from Australia, was a stunning looking two storey compressed earth building, my home and working space for the next four weeks.
The long march
I blame the lotus flowers! By the time I reached my hut it was nearly dark, I had beaten nightfall, but only just. I should have known better than trust my jet-lagged and tired mind to find my way around town. It was a simple mistake, I should have turned left, instead I kept walking along the lake, admiring the stunning lotus flowers that were growing in abundance in the local waterway. The path led me out of town, but I soon sensed I was heading the wrong way. Using a combination of instinct, watching the flow of traffic and being guided by the giant Buddha on the hill, I managed to locate Doi Saket. OK so it was more the golden glow on the hill than my sense of direction, but I was happy to take any guidance. My little wander around the neighbourhood turned into a three hour hike where I not only got to know the local area better I also introduced myself to all the local dogs.
Day three and I am settling in to my new routine. I am also starting to make some progress on my project. While I always arrive with some basic outline for the residency, it is only when I am in situe that I can get a real perspective of what the location can offer me for my work. July is still part of the monsoon season and also an active breeding time for the local butterflies. Northern Thailand has a vast butterfly population; 520 species have been recorded in the north around Chiang Mai. Both the North and South of the country are ideal places to see butterflies. It is a popular place for entomologists to visit and there are actual Butterfly Tours. Therefore part of my project will be the construction of a textile and bamboo butterfly sculpture. I will be visiting the local buddhist monastery and the local church to participate in the art making. I always like to have a balance in my working approach!
I am really liking the solitude at this residency, which will change in two weeks time when a group of fifteen students from Japan will arrive. Sleeping in my mud hut is just wonderful, even when the rain falls through the roof and wakes me up at night. I also don’t mind sharing the bathroom with the odd snake, as long as we stay out of each other’s way.
The butterfly dream
They came bearing fruit, fabrics and smiles. I am at the local school in Ban Mae Kaet, who have invited me to share the butterfly project with them. Did you know that there are 520 different butterfly species in Northern Thailand? By the end of the session, the number had risen to 525 as the students listened to a couple of butterfly stories and wove five beautiful new creatures.
When the weaving was done, I told them the story of the butterfly dream by the Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi.
Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)
The students then created many colourful drawings of the butterfly dream, of themselves dreaming to be a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming being them.
To finish off the session I was treated to many enthusiastic editions of this fun butterfly song;
To hell with this ….
He should have known better than this; now he was paying the price for that beer and sausage. His body was being cut in half, his eyes were infested with worms and what was left of his intestines were dangling from his open cut stomach! Welcome to hell, Buddhist style.
As a treat for working so hard on the butterfly project, the teacher invited me and the students to an excursion to the temple next to the school, complete with a theme park of heaven and hell. Right now, we were in hell, gazing at towering grotesquely disfigured and partially dismembered, human figures, who were paying for their sins. If this really is hell, I’ll never touch another sausage! The kids loved it, mostly. There were a few who closed their eyes and ears as one of the animated features was put into action and the blood curdling screams and gore just seemed a bit to real. This alternative to Disney Land, features sex, drugs and violence that makes Dante’s hell look like a nice holiday.
We then wandered over to ‘heaven’ where it was all very peaceful; the sick were being cared for and there were many serene looking Buddha sculptures. While I was taking in this peaceful scene and picturing myself being part of this in my afterlife, the students had all gone back to hell. It was just more fun in that part of the park.
Visiting this animated sculptural park depicting heaven and hell was one of the most surreal experiences I have had. There seems to be a few of these temple installations in Thailand, so if you are looking for a Wat of the heavenly and hellish kind, make sure you check them out. Oh and easy on that meat …. just in case.
And so ends my first week in Thailand. Next week I’ll visit the local monks to create another larger butterfly and begin a photo essay on the art of basket weaving with some local Hmong people.