We’re at the Laotian border just ten miles from Vientiane, its biggest city, and we don’t go. I do the math; I want to see Sala Kaew Ku (Wat Khaek, meaning “Indian Temple”) here, and it’s an hour and $30 a person to get visas for Laos, and then there’s transportation to Vientiane, and we’d have to come back the same night or else have to carry our bags with us, and it’s a real pain to get from here to the northwest, with mountains in between and no trains or planes direct, and the flight to Bangkok is at 11AM, so let’s bag Vientiane and get on that flight. Vientiane is in Laos, and if I’m going to triage stuff out of the concept of “seeing Thailand”, Laos has to be saved for “Seeing Laos.”
Far weirder than that was Wat Khaek. It’s one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever seen – a 1978 shrine made by Luang Pu (“Venerable Grandfather”), a Brahmanic shaman who made his own mix of Buddhist and Hindu iconography and mythology. It’s essentially a huge, weird sculpture garden of cement statues of Hindu gods and Buddhas mixed with things that look like Munch paintings, Polynesian masks, 1930’s WPA art, people clubbing each other. I exposed maybe a roll of film on the place, which made me feel quite guilty, not about the money but about looking back on the trip and seeing where my aesthetic priorities are – kitsch over high art – but this is the Rolls Royce of kitsch, not even in the same ballpark as the 5 Temples shrine in Los Angeles, not even in the same ballpark as Gaudi Park in Barcelona. They had chickens and statues of chickens.
From there we went to see Phra That Nong Kai (the Holy Reliquary in the Middle of the River). It’s a Lao chedi which slipped into the Mekong river in 1847 – it’s now near the middle and continues to slide – and its top is only visible during the dry season, which we were in. You can just see the top of it; the rest is under water.
THAI Airlines had a bus which went the 1 hour south to Udon Thani, where we took a plane to Bangkok and then a connecting flight to Chiang Mai. (We made a V, flying southwest and then northwest; there was no other way of getting there directly.) The flights were wonderful, except for some turbulence on the second leg undoubtedly due to the heat.
Chiang Mai came very highly recommended by my friends the Ojalvos, but it reminded us of San Francisco – not in its topography, but being a picturesque but not lively enough. We arrived at 3, settled in, took Cos to a Yunan mosque (where Chinese people with skullcaps asked us if we were Moslem) and Cos prayed inside for ten minutes while we sat, and then we went to an overrated dinner dance at the Old Chiangmai Cultural Center. We met a biology teacher from Kansas who was teaching in Singapore; he didn’t know much and confused Jared Diamond with Richard Dawkins. The food was bland of course and the rushed dinner was accompanied by Thai dancing performed by the first ugly Thai women I’d seen; they were too young and rather inelegant. After dinner we were ushered outside to an amphitheater where we saw hill-tribe dances which were much better. After that ended, the hill-tribe people tried to sell us stuff.
(Beautiful hill-tribe stuff at The Lost Heavens Tribal and Primitive Art, www.thaiway.com/thelostheavens)