Meet the Tree Spirits of Thai Folklore

The Thai spirits of the Nang Ta-khian and Nariphon lure men to their deaths or entice them to have sex — with drastic consequences.

These ribbons and dresses are offerings to the Thai tree spirit, Nang Ta-khian, who can help you win the lottery, heal, help with a pregnancy — or lead you to your death

As Wally and I were following the trail that led to Mae Ya Waterfall, part of Doi Inthanon National Park, we stumbled upon a clearing with picnic tables and an impressive tree with lengths of colorful satin cloth tied around its trunk — complete with a small altar. I knew of the traditional belief of phi, or spirits, that inhabit trees, but was trying to process what the addition of vibrant jewel-toned silk women’s dresses was all about.

Nang Ta-khian sings mournful songs to beckon wandering men. Those who get too close are drawn into her powerful embrace, eventually subsumed by her branches.

Tree-hugging Wally is part of a long-standing worldwide tradition of worshiping trees

Tree Worship Around the World

Tree worship exists in many cultures and is often associated with fertility, longevity and rebirth. It’s not surprising, given that their roots reach down into the underworld while their branches extend to the skies. Many mythologies, from Greco-Roman to Celtic and Druid, stated that the gods themselves took the form of trees. In Buddhism, the bodhi tree is a sacred symbol for having provided shelter to the Buddha while he attained enlightenment.



Where Buddhism and Animism Meet

When the Thai adopted Buddhism as their national religion, they folded their ancient animistic beliefs (that every natural object, such as mountains, trees and animals, has a soul) into their practice of Buddhism.

I later learned that the brightly colored dresses and ribbons are part of a sanctuary shrine to Phi Nang Ta-khian, an ancient female spirit named for the takian tree. Found near rivers or streams, she can anthropomorphize, shifting her tree form into that of a slender, long-haired, beautiful young woman wearing a traditional pha tung, or long wraparound skirt.

 

The Sacred Takian Tree and the Legend of Nang Ta-khian

Takian trees are considered sacred and are rarely felled for lumber, since her spirit will become furious and curse whoever uses the wood. The only ones holy enough to cut down a takian are monks, and they must hold a ceremony requesting Nang Ta-khian’s permission first. She is considered a mostly benevolent spirit but can become malevolent, releasing a dreadful shriek that fills the air when proper homage is not paid to her.

In certain versions of the story, Nang Ta-khian is said to sing mournful songs to beckon wandering men. Those who get too close can be drawn into her powerful embrace, eventually subsumed by her limbs.

Devotees of Nang Ta-khian place traditional Thai silk dresses at the foot of the takian tree as an offering. Like the famous ghost Mae Nak, the spirit can be asked to protect those who are pregnant, provide safe passage to travelers and reveal winning lottery numbers for material gain. (Thais are obsessed with their lotteries.) Nang Ta-khian is also known to heal, and the resin from the takian tree is a popular medicinal styptic used to stanch bleeding and as an ointment for wounds. A takian growing near the bank of a river with its roots protruding above ground is to be avoided, for the spirit of that tree is a fierce one. Whoever relieves himself near the base of such a tree will suffer from ulcers.

The nareepol tree’s fruit turns into hot 16-year-old girls who tempt hermits to have sex with them

The Nareepol Tree’s Strange, Sexual Fruit

Equally intriguing was a discovery we made one evening while at the Anusam Night Market. I noticed a pair of tiny gray male and female figurines for sale. Of course I wanted to purchase them simply because they looked old and exotic, but was discouraged by Wally. (They were quite expensive — the vendor was asking 2,500 baht, or about  $75.) As I was researching Nang Ta-khian, I stumbled upon an interesting folk tale about these powerful talismans.

According to the Vessantara Jataka, the god Indra was afraid that his consort, Lady Phusati, would be attacked by lustful ruesi, forest-dwelling hermits. So he created a grove of nareepol trees bearing fruit in the shape of identical beautiful maidens in Phusati’s likeness known as nariphon to distract them.

If a man plucks a nariphon and has sex with her, he will become sterile. And if he had any magical abilities, those would also be lost to him. The nariphon are born as 16-year-old girls (sans bones) and have a short life, dying after only seven days. They then wither and shrink into themselves and become fertility amulets like those we saw at the market. –Duke

If a man plucks a nariphon fruit maiden and has sex with her, he’ll become sterile.

Top Tips for U.S. Travel to Cuba

For Americans traveling to Cuba, here’s advice on what to do in Havana, from the jinetera prostitutes to staying at a casa particular.

Magestic yet crumbling buildings and classic American cars are the magical formula for Havana, Cuba’s appeal

Magestic yet crumbling buildings and classic American cars are the magical formula for Havana, Cuba’s appeal

“I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Cuba,” our friend Joe says. “Any place someone tells you you can’t go, you of course want to go to.”

That kind of comment is par for the course with Joe. He’s the kind of fun-loving guy who views life as an adventure — and his enthusiasm is contagious.

There are prostitutes everywhere in Havana. They’re known as jineteras, and they’re particularly aggressive, always on the lookout for foreigners.

With such a tantalizing (and forbidden) destination so close to the United States, Joe and his boyfriend Scott had planned an illegal excursion to Cuba by flying through Canada.

Then, suddenly President Obama reversed the United States’ long-standing travel ban, and Joe and Scott booked a trip within a week. (Of course, President Trump has made it more difficult to travel to Cuba, part of his attempt to undo everything Obama accomplished.)

Life’s a beach for Scott and Joe

Life’s a beach for Scott and Joe

Joe and Scott flew down to Miami, Florida and booked a $500 charter flight on an Aruban air carrier.

“It was a surreal experience,” Joe says. “We were some of the first people we know that got to go.”

“Go to Havana while you can,” Joe says. “Witness this city before it changes forever.” For Americans, it sadly might be too late

“Go to Havana while you can,” Joe says. “Witness this city before it changes forever.” For Americans, it sadly might be too late

Here are some of Joe’s tips about what to expect and how best to enjoy a vacation in Cuba. (Just keep in mind that Joe himself admits that he’s a tad prone to exaggeration.) He says that four days in Havana should suffice.

It’s hard to take a bad photo in Havana, our friend Joe says

It’s hard to take a bad photo in Havana, our friend Joe says

Keep in mind it’s a Communist country.

There are hardly any ads anywhere, and you won’t see large supermarkets. Instead, there are shed-like structures where people line up every morning to get their rations. Sounds like something out of Animal Farm.

In one of the buildings Joe and Scott went in, they passed a server taking a catnap

In one of the buildings Joe and Scott went in, they passed a server taking a catnap

If you see an open door, go in.

This is very Joe — he’s the type to sneak into a building and worry about getting in trouble later. He insists, though, that this was some of the best advice he got during his research, perusing blogs and travel guides about Cuba.

Once you go through the door, climb up to the rooftop and you’ll be able to take a gorgeous picture of the Havana skyline — and really get a feel for the shabby beauty of this city.

Just be careful, Joe warns. There could be loose wires hanging down, and the stairwell might be so dilapidated your foot could fall through a step.

In the squares of Havana — and, heck, pretty much everywhere in the city — you’ll hear music and see people dancing

In the squares of Havana — and, heck, pretty much everywhere in the city — you’ll hear music and see people dancing

You have to be prepared for the money situation.

Because there are no ties to American banks, you can’t use credit cards or U.S. currency, and there aren’t any ATMs available. That means you’ve got to plan for how much money you think you’ll spend on your entire trip and bring that with you.

“It’s very nerve-racking,” Joe tells us. He wishes they had brought an extra $500 so they had a nice cushion and weren’t constantly worried they’d run out of money.

The two of them converted their money into Canadian dollars and then into CUC, the Cuban convertible peso. $1 US = 1 CUC, but most everything in Cuba is “dirt cheap,” according to Joe. (The one exception: Cuban cigars are still expensive.)

To make things more confusing, locals use one currency, and tourists another.

Havana is a crumbling, withering, exotic and alive city. It’s too audacious, too contradictory, and — despite years of neglect — too damned beautiful.
— Joe

Don’t fall for money scams.

Joe and Scott obviously weren’t the only Americans frustrated with the money situation. A swindler on the street insisted he could take them to state banks that would let them convert money, but it ended up being a wild goose chase. The man of course still wanted to be paid for his time and effort.

Everything in Cuba is a ghost of its former glory

Everything in Cuba is a ghost of its former glory

Understand exactly what you’re getting with a casa particular.

When Joe was looking into accommodations, he wanted to find something akin to Airbnb. He found what’s called a casa particular, and the place looked wonderful in the pictures. Best of all, it was only $30 a night.

“Lower your expectations, though,” Joe warns.

He and Scott arrived at the building, “which looked like a prison — I like to embellish a bit,” Joe adds in an aside. They climbed up to the 7th floor and were greeted by an extended family lined up in the living room, from niños to abuelos. One of the family members gave Joe and Scott a key and pointed to a door in the corner of the room. The two of them went in and kept whispering to each other, “They’re gonna leave, right? Right?!

No such luck. Turns out they were just renting a room, and the family remained during their stay.

It ended up being all right; the mother cooked them and the children breakfast every morning, and they made their best attempts to communicate or just kept to themselves.

“You’re gonna rough it a bit,” Joe says. “But really: AC, a toilet and a bed — that’s all you need.”

They ended up staying at the casa particular, but looked into hotels. The rates were affordable. “If you pay much more than $60, you’re paying too much,” according to Joe.

The Malecón, Havana’s waterfront district, is popular with the gays

The Malecón, Havana’s waterfront district, is popular with the gays

Cubans tend to be OK with gays.

On the plus side, Joe says they don’t aggressively punish people for being gay in Cuba. They’re starting to get more open-minded, he adds, and there’s a small gay scene along the Malecón, the waterfront strip downtown.

The Malecón is the best spot to watch the sunset — and to pick up a prostitute!

The Malecón is the best spot to watch the sunset — and to pick up a prostitute!

Watch out for the whores.

There are prostitutes everywhere in Havana, Joe says. They’re known as jineteras, and they’re particularly aggressive, always on the lookout for foreigners.

One day Joe and Scott were sitting at a café, when a Cuban woman who had teeth missing started chatting with them. They thought it was great to meet such a colorful, friendly local. Then she disappeared, soon returning with two young jineteras in tow. Turns out she was a madam and wanted to pimp out a couple of her girls!

Joe took Scott’s hand and indicated that the two of them were together. “You should have seen the look on their faces. They acted like they had never heard of such a thing,” Joe says, laughing.

Go right into a hotel, climb up to the rooftop, which usually has a pool and bar — and enjoy the ideal spot for an afternoon siesta

Go right into a hotel, climb up to the rooftop, which usually has a pool and bar — and enjoy the ideal spot for an afternoon siesta

Learn the secret to a perfect siesta.

Remember how you’re supposed to go into every doorway you come across? Joe especially recommends this with hotels. In the afternoon, after a morning walking in the blazing sun, he and Scott would head to a hotel and go straight up the stairs.

“Every hotel has a rooftop pool and bar, so that was our afternoon delight,” he says. “We took naps there instead of our room.”

The streets of Havana are filled with classic American cars from the 1950s. You might say time stands still, after Fidel Castro’s revolution and the subsequent U.S. embargo

The streets of Havana are filled with classic American cars from the 1950s. You might say time stands still, after Fidel Castro’s revolution and the subsequent U.S. embargo

The shopping isn’t great.

There’s not a huge tourist economy in Cuba, though it’s somewhat popular with Canadians and Europeans. Joe found that many locals hadn’t met too many Americans.

He was surprised and disappointed to discover that there weren’t any local handicraft markets like you’ll find in other parts of the world.

And because Joe and Scott were worried about running out of money too soon, the two of them did most of their shopping at the airport before they flew home, loading up on Caribbean rum.

They did hear about a big shopping warehouse by the harbor. “There was booth after booth,” Joe says, “but it was all the same T-shirts and crap. And it all said, ‘Made in Canada.’”

Many cafés are found in interior courtyards of buildings

Many cafés are found in interior courtyards of buildings

Search out (or stumble upon) the secret cafés.

As Joe has suggested, “You really do have to walk into every building you can.” Some of them will suddenly open into what can only be described as gorgeous interior courtyards that house cafés.

“Walking through Havana really is a voyage of discovery,” our intrepid traveler tells us.

 

Take a “cab.”

The taxis in Havana aren’t anything like those in the United States, Joe says. They could be a flatbed truck you’re sitting in the back of, holding on for dear life. “Whatever has wheels could be your cab,” he explains.

Needless to say, there aren’t any meters in the cabs, so tell your driver how much you’ll pay and agree on a price before you even get in.

Spend some time exploring the Colón Cemetery, where Christopher Columbus’ remains were once enterred

Spend some time exploring the Colón Cemetery, where Christopher Columbus’ remains were once enterred

Visit the Colón Cemetery.

One of the cab trips Joe and Scott took (in the previously described flatbed truck) was out to the Colón Cemetery. Like us, Joe loves graveyards and added this one to their itinerary. It’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the Americas, and once housed the remains of Christopher Columbus — before his body was relocated elsewhere.

You can spend a pleasant couple of hours wandering the elaborately carved stark white monuments near a lemon yellow chapel.

The Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba

See a show at a historic hotel.

Wanting to go to one of the famous Tropicana shows, Joe and Scott got tickets for the Cabaret Parisien at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a large hotel on the Malecón, where mobsters and celebrities hung out in the gilded past.

The show was everything they expected: “a definite Caribbean feel, with Carmen Miranda types in frilly shirts and bongo drums,” Joe says.  

“I kept waiting for Ricky Ricardo to come out,” he adds.

“Did you see Charo?” Duke asks, to which Joe exclaims, “Everyone is Charo there!”

 

Bring goodies for the kids.

As Joe mentioned, the Cuban people get only the essentials. As such, the kids don’t have many toys.

Joe hit up Target and brought toys and school supplies and books and Barbies and balls.

“We spent one day just handing out toys,” Joe says, “like a gringo Santa Claus.”

Don’t just think about the kids, either: “The women will bow at your feet if you bring them a hair scrunchie!” Joe adds. “It’s better diplomacy, PR for Americans than Trump’s policies.”

Joe and Scott hopped on a bus and spent some time at a resort on Varadero Beach

Joe and Scott hopped on a bus and spent some time at a resort on Varadero Beach

Get out of the city and hit the beach.

Joe and Scott decided to take a day trip to Varadero, a beach destination three hours away. They stayed at an all-inclusive resort, where everyone was very friendly and the beach was beautiful.

To get there, they could have taken a cab for about $70, but with their cash limited, they decided to hop on a rickety old bus, which took them to Varadero for about 10 bucks.

 

Be a bit daring when you visit Havana, Cuba — and adopt the party lifestyle. You’ll see people listening to music and dancing everywhere you go. You might as well join them. Who knows when you’ll next be able to visit what Joe calls the Forbidden Land? –Wally

The Flower Cart. #Cuba #havana #carribean  #streetphotography #urbandecay

A post shared by JK_Urban / Joe Koecher (@jk_urban) on

See more of Joe’s amazing photography on his Instagram page.

6 Things to Do at Doi Inthanon

Take a day trip from Chiang Mai, Thailand to this national park to see the Vachiratharn Waterfall and King and Queen Pagodas.

No trip to Doi Inthanon National Park is complete without visiting the modern King and Queen Pagodas atop the mountain

Known as “the Roof of Thailand,” Doi Inthanon is the country’s highest peak at 8,415 feet above sea level. It’s also part of the Himalayan mountain range (the world’s largest), extending from Bhutan through Nepal and Myanmar to Northern Thailand. Situated  in the Chom Thong District of Chiang Mai Province, Doi Inthanon National Park includes majestic waterfalls, a diversity of forest plants and countless species of mammals and birds. The peak of the mountain is punctuated with modern twin pagodas.

The cooling spray of mist is an excellent way to cool off, and if you’re lucky you might catch a monk taking a selfie (#monkie?).

Plus it’s a mere 36 miles west of the tourist mecca of Chiang Mai via Highway 107. It’s not at the top of our day trip list (if you can only take one, head to Chiang Rai instead), but you can spend a fun day exploring this park.



The spiritual heart of Doi Inthanon is King Inthawichayanon, the last ruler of Chiang Mai, whose passion project was the preservation of Thailand’s forests for future generations. When he passed away in November 1897, his ashes were interred within the park and the forest was renamed Doi Inthanon, a more manageable shortening of his name.

Here are 6 things to do on a trip to the park in a recommended order:

TLC be damned! Wally and Duke did go chasing waterfalls

1. Chase Waterfalls

The park has several magnificent waterfalls. One of them, Vachiratharn Waterfall, is located on the lower slopes of Doi Inthanon. What’s nice is that it's reached by a short, easy trail from a parking area, so you don’t have to hike to it.

Stop by the Vachiratharn Waterfall — no hiking necessary

Stop by the Vachiratharn Waterfall — no hiking necessary

There’s a wooden observation deck where you can view the power of the water plummeting over the edge of the granite escarpment into the pool below. The cooling spray of mist is an excellent way to cool off on a hot day, and if you’re lucky you might even catch a monk taking a selfie (#monkie?) like we did.

#monkie? It’s not every day you see a monk taking a selfie

The Royal Project is an ambitious plan to get hill tribe people to have a source of income other than opium

2. Admire the Royal Agricultural Station

The Royal Project was initiated in 1979 by King Bhumibol to fight poverty and encourage rural hill tribe farmers to cultivate sustainable crops other than opium. Vast swaths of land are covered in terraced steps where the Hmong and Karen hill tribe farmers grow fruits, vegetables and flowers. The Royal Project also serves as a model center to disseminate knowledge and promote innovation.

Grab lunch near the Royal Project garden

3. Take a (Lunch) Break

The Royal Project boasts a casual al fresco restaurant offering a variety of signature and traditional fare. Wally and I sat at a table on the covered terrace overlooking a copse of banana palm trees. A tour guide at a neighboring table helped us order two Beer Chang, and we didn’t complain when they came out in giant bottles — quite refreshing after a morning spent in the sun.

We ordered one hit, roasted duck medallions with coffee glaze, and one miss, Inthanon spicy fried rice with Thai-style sour pork sausage. Neither of us have ever had pig knuckles, but we imagined this might be what they taste like. We gnawed on the gristly bone stubs, though, and put bits of fried pork rinds into the spicy veggie sauce. It's amazing what you’ll do when you're hungry. But hey, who’s complaining, when the entire meal came to $12?

Keep an eye out for the black swan in the Royal Project pond

4. Stroll Through the Gardens

After lunch you can meander through the immaculate flower garden, which features a large pond with a pair of swans, one white and one black (much less harrowing than Natalie Portman’s off-the-rails performance as a tragic ballerina).

It started raining right as we got to the pagodas atop Doi Inthanon

5. Head for The Hills and See the Pagodas

The Royal Thai Air Force erected the modern tiered pagodas at the summit to commemorate the 60th birthdays of the late King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. Because it was raining, we pretty much had the site to ourselves and were free to explore. Each pagoda has a flight of steps leading up to it and a covered escalator, which was not working on our visit but provided some shelter from the rain. Thankfully, we had remembered to bring umbrellas with us, though we still got soaked while exploring the gardens outside of the King Pagoda.

The Buddha inside the King Pagoda sits in a teaching position

King Pagoda

The octagonal bell-shaped ochre-and-gold-hued pagoda, named Phra Mahathat Naphamethanidon, stands 197 feet tall and is comprised of three distinct levels. These symbolize the main principles of Buddhism: karma, reincarnation and impermanence.

The multicolored stonework bas reliefs outside the King Pagoda tell the story of the Buddha

The multicolored stonework bas reliefs outside the King Pagoda tell the story of the Buddha

Inside is a Buddha image seated in the Vitarka Mudra position, symbolic of the Enlightened One teaching his disciples. The circle formed by the thumb and index finger of the left hand indicates the constant flow of energy — there is no beginning or end, only perfection.

Not sure if Buddhists believe in Hell — but this sure doesn’t look like a pleasant spot

Stone panels inside and outside of the pagoda depict important events from the life of the Buddha. The tilework reliefs encircling the King Pagoda have amazing depictions of mythical creatures, including the giant eagle Garuda fighting the snakelike Naga.

Hey, Garuda! Back off of Naga! The eagle god and giant snake are seen battling in this carving

Explore the quaint park with a pond behind the Queen Pagoda

Queen Pagoda

The 12-sided lavender pagoda, named Phra Mahathat Naphapholphumisiri, is crowned with a golden lotus bud and is 16 feet shorter than the king’s, indicating that the queen is 5 years younger (not sure how that math adds up).

The Buddha inside the Queen Pagoda stands in a posture of reflexion

Inside, the Buddha image stands in the Pang Ram Pueng posture, symbolic of reflection. If you have visited a wat or temple in Thailand, you may have noticed depictions of the Buddha standing, sitting or reclining. Some of these represent the days of the week, and the Pang Ram Pueng is known as the Friday Buddha. Devotees who were born on this day pay respect to this image, which incidentally marks the day Queen Sirikit was born.

There are so many crazy carvings to check out at these pagodas, including this one of a female being with frightening head

The tiled mosaics surrounding the pagoda illustrate stories relating to the lives of famous bhikkhunis, ordained female followers of the Buddha.

Three ladies go for a swim in this cool bas relief at the pagodas atop Doi Inthanon

Mae Ya Waterall is farther afield but worth visiting

6. Visit Mother Ya

Nestled amongst the spectacular backdrop of a lush, serene forest, Mae Ya Waterfall is located on the other side of the mountain, about seven miles from Chom Thong Village within Doi Inthanon National Park. The water flows from the Mae Ya River, cascading over a series of tiers as it plunges from an impressive 853-foot-high cliff. We arrived just before what we refer to as the magic hour, when sunlight casts a diffused golden hue, an hour or so before sunset.

Wally takes one of his famous jumping shots at the edge of the Mae Ya River

You’ll notice a tree wrapped with colorful ribbons with dresses in front of it. That’s a shrine to Phi Nang Ta-khian, a tree spirit. –Duke

Duke at Mae Ya Waterfall


บ้านหลวง ซอย2 Ban Luang
Chom Thong District
Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50160, Thailand

7 Fun Facts About the Milan Cathedral

What to do in Milan, Italy? Visit the gorgeous Duomo di Milano, covered with statues of saints and gargoyles — and don’t miss the amazing view from the rooftop.

Somehow the Milan Duomo was even more beautiful in the rain

If there’s one thing you absolutely have to include on a trip to Milan, Italy, it’s the massive Milan Cathedral. (Unless, of course, your tastes lean a bit more to the macabre, in which case, I recommend spending an afternoon wandering the impressive artistic grounds of the Cimitero Monumentale — see the photos here.)

Locally, the cathedral is known as the Duomo, which confused me since there’s no visible dome like the one in Florence. Its white exterior features delicate carvings so fine you could almost imagine they were made of lace. Despite its size, it feels a bit dainty — odd for a church in the Gothic style.

My favorite part of the Duomo is the part closest to Heaven: the rooftop, where you can look out at the bustling city beyond.

Holy moley! Here are 7 stunning facts about this breathtaking cathedral:

Delicate spires topped with religious figures are part of the elaborately decorated Duomo

1. The Duomo is big. Like really, really big.

In fact, it’s the second-largest Catholic church in the world, behind only Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome — which was built after the Duomo. Milan’s cathedral takes up an entire city block.

A carving of David slaying the giant Goliath. Somebody send that boy to juvie!

2. It boasts more statues than any other building in the world.

That’s what the tourist literature tells you, at least. And it’s hard to argue: The entirety of the façade is covered with carved architectural elements portraying flowers, fruits and fantastical beasts, including delightfully grotesque gargoyles. There are plenty of saints sprinkled throughout as well. Sources disagree on the exact number, but it seems to be over 3,300 statues total, including about 100 gargoyles and 135 spires.

Milan’s most popular attraction, the cathedral, took over six hundred years to be built

How can this Christian take a nap with all those wolves baying?

The best part of the Milan Cathedral is its expansive rooftop

3. It has the best views in the city.

My favorite part of the Duomo is the part closest to Heaven. You can go up to the rooftop (accessible by stairs and an elevator) and look out at the bustling city beyond, as well as get closer views of the needle-like spires, each topped with a religious figure.

The terraza atop the Milan Duomo is a popular (and absolutely stunning) hangout spot

There’s one main area of the roof, the terraza, and, indeed, I wasn’t the only one with the bright idea to go up there. Businessmen in suits, young kids playing games and canoodling couples filled the space. Imagine having a rooftop like this as one of your regular lunch spots.

Wally wandered around to the back of the roof and found a quiet spot to read in the sun

I noticed a side walkway and set off on an exploration. The path wound its way around the roof, underneath the arches of flying buttresses. The crowd thinned out, until it was just me and the odd visitor. I found a secluded nook, got out my book and read for an hour or so in the sun, atop one of the largest churches in the world, utterly delighted.

4. One of the statues has gained fame and is part of a local legend.

The symbol of the city and patroness of the Milanese people, the gilded Madonnina (the Little Madonna), stands atop the main spire of the cathedral. The tallest of all of the many statues on the cathedral, the open-armed Madonna rises 354 feet high. Built in 1774, tradition holds that it must be the tallest man-made object in Milan. So, when a modern building surpassed this height, a replica of la Madonnina was placed atop it.

During World War II, the Madonnina was covered with a cloth for five years to avoid providing an easy target for fighter-bombers.

The Duomo is gorgeous at night as well

5. The construction of the Duomo took over six centuries.

Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo, supported in the endeavor by the Lord of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, began building the cathedral in 1386. At least 78 different architects from around Europe were invited to work on the structure, and construction dragged on. By 1418, they had decided it was time to consecrate the cathedral, even though only the nave was actually finished at the time.

For the next two centuries, construction continued, but politics, lack of funding and local frustration with a massive, seemingly endless project smack-dab in the middle of the city kept causing delays.

Napoleon helped finally wrap up construction of the Duomo’s façade — so he could be crowned King of Italy in the cathedral

6. Napoleon played an important role in the Duomo’s construction.

How did the façade finally get finished? This was accomplished by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, in the early 1800s, after he had conquered the city. He wanted to be crowned King of Italy in the Duomo and wanted the exterior completed beforehand. A generous (if vain) guy, he offered to pay all expenses — after a talk with the French treasurer. Seven years later, the façade was completed, and the ceremony took place as the diminutive leader wanted. This explains why there’s a statue of Napoleon atop one of the many spires.

Milan’s Navigli District is a restaurant and art hotspot

Milan’s Navigli District is a restaurant and art hotspot

7. The Duomo’s construction is responsible for the navigli, the city’s canal system.

The cathedral’s edifice is made of Candoglia marble from Lake Maggiore to the north of Milan. To transport it from the quarries, canals were constructed, some of which remain to this day. In fact, the Navigli District is quite a hotspot, known for its restaurants and art galleries. –Wally
 

The Ghost of Mae Nak Phra Kanong

Thailand’s most popular ghost story tells the gruesome tale of a woman who dies in childbirth but returns to her unsuspecting husband.

The ghost of a mom and stillborn baby have caught the Thai imagination, as seen in this 2012 movie poster

Everyone loves a ghost story, and Thais are no exception. The country’s most enduring ghost story features the spirit of a woman named Mae Nak and her baby. Her tale is so popular it has been told in numerous films, comic books and even a musical.

According to Thai folklore, this tragic tale took place in the village of Phra Khanong during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV). A beautiful young woman named Nang Nak was pregnant, when her husband, Nai Maak, was summoned to battle. Due to complications during labor, Nang Nak and her unborn child both perished.

He returned home to greet his wife and child — not realizing that they were both, in fact, ghosts!

Nai Maak, though, never heard this news. After a long period of absence, he returned home to greet his wife and child — not realizing that they were both, in fact, ghosts! Her powerful spirit had lingered and created the illusion that she and the baby were still alive. At this point, she became known as Mae Nak, with mae meaning “mother.”

A dead mother and her baby pretend to still be alive in the Mae Nak legend

Concerned neighbors who tried to warn her husband of the deception met untimely demises at the hands of the furious ghost.

One day, as the phantom Nak was preparing a meal, she absentmindedly dropped a lime. It slipped through the floorboards to the ground. In her haste, she extended her arm right through the floor to retrieve it. Maak witnessed this and finally realized that the woman he thought was his wife was actually a ghost.

The infamous ghosts haunt this 1959 movie as well

That evening, filled with a sense of dread, he wished with all his being that he could forget what he had seen. Heart racing, he excused himself to go to the bathroom, but instead ran to the safety of the nearby Mahabut Temple; he knew he’d be safe because a soulless spirit cannot enter consecrated ground.

Finding Maak gone, the ghost pursued him, and in her grief terrorized the village. However, a powerful forest-dwelling ruesi, or shaman, captured her spirit. He confined it to an earthen jug and tossed it into a canal.

Like any good story told in the oral tradition, there are actually several versions as to how Mae Nak was eventually captured. In addition to the ruesi tale, there’s one in which the venerated monk Somdet Phra Phutthachan performed an exorcism. He obtained a buckle-size piece of bone from the skull of the exhumed remains of Mae Nak. He then confined her spirit to the skull fragment, which he wore on his waistband until his death, when the relic was given to a member of the royal family.

Yet another film adaptation of Thailand’s fave ghost story

Mae Nok’s Shrine

A shrine dedicated to Mae Nak is located within Wat Mahabut in Bangkok, where she is worshipped as a benevolent mother goddess. Devotees make offerings of dresses and children’s toys in hopes of ensuring health and prosperity. Worshippers also pray to Mae Nak for winning lottery numbers, and in the days before the drawing, the shrine is active with ticket sellers, fortune tellers and merit-offering vendors.

Mae Nak’ s name is also commonly invoked as a boogeyman to make a child behave, as in, “Be quiet or Mae Nak will come and eat you!” –Duke

Be quiet or Mae Nak will come and eat you!

Why Elephant Trekking and Elephant Rides Are Evil

Before you participate in elephant tourism, learn about the barbaric abuse called phajaan, or “the crush.” Choose an elephant sanctuary instead.

As fun as elephant treks sound, they perpetuate a brutal practice of animal abuse

As fun as elephant treks sound, they perpetuate a brutal practice of animal abuse

At first it seemed harmless, even charming. Big, lumbering elephants doing astounding tricks. I understand how tempting it is to want to ride an elephant or see an elephant show when you’re in a part of the world that offers such experiences, like Thailand and other countries in Asia.

But there’s good reason circuses in the United States have stopped having elephant acts. The process to get elephants to obey orders involves “breaking” them — and once you learn about this barbaric, heartbreaking practice, you’ll never want to be a part of elephant tourism again.

Baby elephants are taken from their mothers and kept in small pens, where they’re beaten and starved for several weeks.

Of the 45,000 or so Asian elephants left in the world, up to 4,000 are held captive in Thailand, according to PETA Asia.

Before you book a trip to an elephant park when you’re in Chiang Mai or a similar region, do some research. Find a spot like the Elephant Nature Park that rescues abused elephants instead of inflicting intense pain upon these noble creatures.

“Behind the exotic façade of elephant tourism is a world of merciless beatings, broken spirits, and lifelong deprivation,” attests PETA Asia. “Once revered, elephants in Thailand today are treated like slaves.”

This poor baby elephant is undergoing the torture known as “the crush,” or phajaan

This poor baby elephant is undergoing the torture known as “the crush,” or phajaan

To train an elephant, it must undergo a horrific process called “the crush,” or phajaan.

Baby elephants — some still nursing — are taken from their mothers and kept in small pens or have all four legs tied up, and are beaten and starved for several weeks. The level of suffering elephants undergo is “severe,” according to World Animal Protection, which released a report about elephant tourism in 2017.

Bullhooks, long metal poles with a hook at the tip, are used to stab the elephant’s head, slash its skin and pull its ears. At an elephant show, you might notice torn ears or scarred foreheads caused during the crush.

 

The crush is a hill tribe ritual.

The practice began in the hill tribes of India and Southeast Asia, according to Thailand Elephants. During the phajaan “ritual,” the tribe’s shaman tries to separate the spirit of an elephant from its body.

“In reality, however, the phajaan has nothing to do with the separation of spirit and everything to do with torturing an elephant until it is so fearful of its human captors that it will do anything to avoid being hurt again,” the site writes.

As we learned on the ride to the Elephant Nature Park, during the crush, elephants have to be monitored around the clock because they’ll try to kill themselves by stepping on their trunk. If that doesn’t break your heart, I’d check your chest cavity — it’s probably empty.

 

The living conditions are brutal.

Elephants by nature are intelligent animals who have complex social groups. But in captivity, more than three-quarters of elephants are chained when not used for entertainment purposes, according to the World Animal Protection report. They have very little interaction with other elephants, are fed poor diets, have no access to proper veterinary care and are often exposed to loud music and throngs of tourists — stressful situations that go against their nature.

Elephant painting also involves abuse 

Elephant painting also involves abuse 

Even elephant painting involves abuse.

I always thought this was cute — and what was the harm? They just give an elephant a brush and it creates a work of art.

Turns out to get the elephants to paint, the handlers, known as mahouts, hold the elephant's ear, hiding the fact that they’re stabbing a nail or sharpened fingernail into its skin.

 

The cruel treatment of elephants has tragic repercussions.

Elephants used for entertainment live shorter lives, have behavioral problems (for which they’re surely abused even more), are more likely to come down with chronic diseases and are less likely to reproduce, The Guardian reports.

 

Elephant tourism got started because of the decline of logging.

For centuries, elephants were used to haul teak logs, but realizing how depleted the forests were becoming, the Thai government completely banned commercial logging in 1989. Those in the logging industry were desperate to find a use for their elephants — and tourism became a lucrative alternative, according to EARS Asia.

Instead of patronizing an operation that offers elephant rides or tricks, go to a sanctuary like the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, which rescues abused elephants

Instead of patronizing an operation that offers elephant rides or tricks, go to a sanctuary like the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, which rescues abused elephants

Elephant tourism, sadly, is growing.

There’s a huge demand for elephant tourism — a 30% increase in recent years — but you really should resist. Give your money to a place that rescues elephants; don’t be a part of the problem.

Elephant tourism remains popular because it’s “a hidden form of cruelty,” Chiara Vitali, a wildlife expert at World Animal Protection, told The Guardian. The crush “will happen before any tourist sees an elephant, so they might see an animal that’s quite chilled out — but it had that beaten into it when it was an infant,” she explained.

“Venues that offer tourists a chance to watch elephants in genuine sanctuaries are beacons of hope that can encourage the urgently needed shift in the captive elephant tourism industry,” said Jan Schmidt-Burbach, global wildlife and veterinary advisor at World Animal Protection.

Now that you’ve learned about the horrors of training elephants, we hope you’ll never forget. –Wally

During the crush, elephants have to be monitored because they’ll try to kill themselves by stepping on their trunk. If that doesn’t break your heart, I’d check your chest cavity — it’s probably empty.

The Secret Jungle Temple of Wat Palad

Hike the Monk’s Trail and explore this little-known temple near a waterfall on Doi Suthep mountain outside Chiang Mai.

Perhaps Wat Palad has seen better days — and perhaps that’s part of its charm

The promise of a magical, less-trodden temple secreted amid the folds of dense tropical flora filled my head. I often search for places that are a bit off the beaten path, and after reading about Wat Palad on the TravelFreak blog by Jeremy Scott Foster, I knew it was a destination Wally and I wouldn't want to miss.

The sala at Wat Palad feels less wild than much of the rest of the complex

This naga staircase sits to one side of the waterfall

Blazing the Monk’s Trail

Our driver for hire, Tommy, drove us through the Chiang Mai University campus to the temple’s back entrance and carpark, which is located a short distance off a busy highway. The more adventurous can hike the well-worn stone footpath known as the Monk’s Trail, which leads to the temple, marked by trees with saffron cloth wrapped around their trunks.

The tranquil forest setting was something for the soul, the perfect place to wander and rediscover a simplicity that our everyday lives often lack.

Follow the saffron markers as you hike the Monk’s Trail

Wat Palad must have once been a magnificent 14th century temple. It originally functioned as a refuge for devotees undertaking the pilgrimage on foot up the mountainside to worship at Wat Doi Suthep and sustained growth through regular visitation and patronage. Not long after a road was built in 1935, the temple became a monastic residence focused as a meditative retreat. Buddhism uses meditation and isolation as a way to achieve enlightenment.

Old statues are found throughout the grounds of Wat Palad

Old statues are found throughout the grounds of Wat Palad

Worshippers add squares of gold leaf to statues of the Buddha like this one at Wat Palad

Worshippers add squares of gold leaf to statues of the Buddha like this one at Wat Palad

A welcome reprieve from the more popular temples in Chiang Mai, Wat Palad has an overlooked and faded presence — nothing here is glaring or loud, there’s no central viharn, and best of all, there aren’t any crowds. The only sounds of life were our footfalls and the hum of cicadas as we took a path from the carpark. A pair of manussihas, mythological Burmese sphinxes, rested on their haunches at the temple’s entrance. I’m grateful they didn’t challenge us to a riddle before we entered.

These Burmese sphinxes, known as manussihas, guard the temple complex of Wat Palad

The jungle has reclaimed parts of Wat Palad — which makes it a fun change from most other temples in the Chiang Mai area

The temple name roughly translates as “Forest Monastery of the Sloping Rock,” named for the broad bluff the temple sits perched upon. The grounds are comprised of an impressive menagerie of statues and shrines that share an almost otherworldly relationship with the tropical jungle surrounding them. We passed a small cave with some very old-looking Buddha images within and made our way to an arched footbridge that dates back 100 years.

Jungle Temple for the Soul

A waterfall lies at the heart of the temple complex, but as it was the end of the dry season when we visited, the smooth surface of the riverbed lay exposed and the waterfall was reduced to a mere trickle.

When we visited, the waterfall at Wat Palad was almost entirely dried up

It’s believed that the white elephant of the local ruler, King Kuena, made its first stop here to rest near the waterfall while transporting the sacred relic of the Buddha’s shoulder up the slope of Doi Suthep. I took a moment to pause and imagine the mahout and elephant stopping here to get a drink of water before moving on.

The sun had already begun to peek through the canopy as a gentle breeze passed through the trees; a bead of sweat rolled down the bridge of my nose before I wiped it away with the back of my hand.

I could sense a new sort of calm. The tranquil forest setting was something for the soul, the perfect place to wander and rediscover a simplicity that our everyday lives often lack. When the time came to leave, I felt a tug and couldn't help but wish to linger. –Duke


Wat Palad
Highway 1004
Tambon Su Thep
Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand


The Monsters of “Supernatural,” Season 2, Episodes 10-12

Predictions from sibyls, psychics and the Oracle at Delphi. Hoodoo practices, including quincunx and voodoo doll spells. Plus, how to kill a werewolf.

 

One of the first recorded psychics in the world was the Oracle at Delphi, whose cryptic messages were much sought after

One of the first recorded psychics in the world was the Oracle at Delphi, whose cryptic messages were much sought after

S2E10: “Hunted”

Monster: Psychics

Someone's hunting the psychic young men and women whom the yellow-eyed demon is enlisting as soldiers in the coming war. Sam’s one, as is Ava, his new acquaintance, who has seen a horrific vision of things to come.

Are all the “special children” ticking timebombs, sure to turn evil at some point? Ava’s financé lying in a pool of blood with his throat slit seems to point to “yes.”

Where it’s from: Cultures from all around the world have believed in psychics, but perhaps the first mention are the sibyls of Ancient Greece.

The sibyl at Delphi sitting upon her tripod and inhaling those potentially hallucinatory fumes

The sibyl at Delphi sitting upon her tripod and inhaling those potentially hallucinatory fumes

Description: Only a woman could be born a sibyl, which translates to “prophetess.” As a kid, I dreamed of what it would be like to visit the most famous, the Oracle at Delphi on Mount Parnassus.

The temple of the Oracle at Delphi in its heyday

The temple of the Oracle at Delphi in its heyday

What it does: These psychics would work themselves up into an ecstatic frenzy. There’s some debate as to whether or not the priestesses were helped along by natural gas emissions in their cave (think of them as the first huffers!).

Either way, once in this altered state, the sibyl would become a conduit for a deity and would speak a somewhat cryptic response to a petitioner’s question.

Emperor Nero was one of the many who visited the Oracle at Delphi, stopping by in 67 CE, when he was 30 years old. Even at that relatively young age, he’d already ticked some things off his bucket list, including having his own mother killed. The sibyl’s unforgiving prophecy went:

“Your presence here outrages the god you seek. Go back, matricide! The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall!”

Needless to say, Nero wasn’t too pleased and had the poor woman burned alive. He assumed he’d live to the ripe old age of 73 — but there’s typically some ambiguity in these psychics’ predictions. Instead, the emperor was defeated during a revolt by a man named Galba…who happened to be 73 at the time. Nero then committed suicide.

When the original Oracle at Delphi died, legend has it she became a disembodied voice that would wander the world, whispering prophecies. I’m sure you’re happy to learn the reason behind the voices in your head.

How to defeat it: They’re still humans. Killing them just because they might go bad one day — or because you don’t like their predictions — seems extreme. (Though the trail of corpses left behind on Supernatural might speak otherwise.)

 

Would you stay at an inn that had a murderous spirit?

Would you stay at an inn that had a murderous spirit?

S2E11: “Playthings”

Monster: Spirit

Where it’s from: All over the world

Description: A little girl named Tyler lives at an inn, where she plays with her “imaginary friend” Maggie. Turns out this friend isn’t so imaginary after all; she’s the spirit of her great aunt, Margaret, who drowned in the pool when she was young. Maggie haunts the inn and prevents it from being sold so she doesn’t have to lose her playmate, Tyler.

What it does: There’s a giant dollhouse that’s a scale model of the inn, and the position of the dolls, which seemingly move on their own, reveals a death as it happens. The first to go is a property appraiser who is found hanging in his room.

When Dean sees all the dolls in the house they’re investigating, he says, unconvincingly, “They’re not super creepy at all.”

A quincunx symbol can connect a spell to a place and make it stronger

A quincunx symbol can connect a spell to a place and make it stronger

How to defeat it: Take some cues from the innkeeper’s Creole nanny, who used some hoodoo tricks to protect the B&B and its inhabitants, including the quincunx, or five spot symbol. It looks like the five you’re familiar with from dice: four dots in each corner of a square, with one in the middle. This is a technique to fix a spell to a specific location and empower it.

On the show, a quincunx amulet filled with bloodweed becomes a powerful way to ward off evil, Sam tells us.

You can also bind a spirit with a poppet. (I did one on President Trump, but it really doesn’t seem to have done much good.) You can find the spell in this previous Supernatural post.)

If you’re more inclined to curses or bodily harm, there’s the option of using a voodoo doll on your enemy.

I’d hate to think what someone did to get this voodoo doll treatment!

I’d hate to think what someone did to get this voodoo doll treatment!

Voodoo Doll Ritual

Take some sort of doll (you can buy them all over New Orleans, make one out of wax or cloth, or even borrow someone’s Barbie for these nefarious purposes).

You’ll need some part of your victim, ideally a strand of hair or a fingernail clipping — though a photograph will work in a pinch.

Create a magic circle. Take your voodoo doll and chant, “I command you; I control you” four times. Then: “Hear my voice! The pain you have caused me I shall cause you!”

Here’s where you can get creative with your punishments. Take a needle, candle or something else to poke, prod, burn or create general mayhem upon your doll. Note that you won’t kill your victim, but they should feel the pain, stinging, burning, cold or whatever you’ve subjected the doll to.

Repeat if necessary.

(Adapted from SpellsOfMagic.com)

When all else fails, you could try striking a deal with the spirit. In this case, Grandma Rose offers her life to spend eternity playing dollies with her dead sister. Who says there’s no such thing as Heaven?

 

A Werewolf in Geneva, 1580

A Werewolf in Geneva, 1580

S2E12: “Nightshifter”

Monster: Not a mandroid! It’s a shapeshifter

Where it's from: Europe

Death of the Werewolf. I hope that arrow has a silver tip on it!

Death of the Werewolf. I hope that arrow has a silver tip on it!

Description: The Winchester boys tell us werewolf stories come from these shapeshifters, even though their methods don’t match up.

Believe it or not, there were stories of werewolves even before Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books.

A werewolf attacks a village in this woodcut from around 1512

A werewolf attacks a village in this woodcut from around 1512

Werewolves are humans who morph into the shape of a wolf during the full moon. The inflicted don’t remember what they’ve done during their wolf phase — which is probably a good thing, since it tends to involve mauling people to death.

One of the first written accounts of werewolves comes from Herodotus in 440 BCE, who described a tribe in Scythia who seem to have gotten stoned out of their gourds and transformed into wolves once a year.

A werewolf enjoys a tasty treat — but it’ll probably regret it in the morning

A werewolf enjoys a tasty treat — but it’ll probably regret it in the morning

In her book Giants, Monsters and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend and Myth, Carol Rose writes, “In ancient Greece it was believed that a person could be transformed by eating the meat of a wolf that had been mixed with that of a human and that the condition was irreversible.”

Centuries later, the methods said to create werewolves expanded colorfully to include “being cursed, or by being conceived under a new moon, or by having eaten certain herbs, or by sleeping under the full moon on Friday, or by drinking water that has been touched by a wolf.”

What it does: You never know who to trust. The Supernatural shapeshifter sheds its skin in a goopy mess and keeps jumping bodies.

“God, it’s like playing the shell game,” Dean exclaims. “It could be anybody. Again.”

How to defeat it: It makes sense that silver, associated with the moon, seems to be the only thing that can end a werewolf’s life. (On a somewhat silly side note, if werewolves were to travel to the moon or touch a moon rock, it’d be even more harmful than silver — at least according to Ask Mystic Investigations, that is. The same site insists that silver can kill werewolves “due to cleansing away the demonic DNA that dwells in them.”) Ruff life. –Wally

 

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A Brief History of Chiang Mai

From its roots as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom to its incorporation into Siam.

Elephants have always played an important role in Chiang Mai’s history, used for transport and as beasts of burden in the teak trade

When Wally and I decided to make the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand our destination, I was eager to learn about its history and pondered what strange spell it would cast on me.

Nestled among the rolling green mountains of Northern Thailand, Nopburi Si Nakhon Ping Chiang Mai, since shortened to the much more manageable Chiang Mai, was founded by the King Mengrai in 1296. Its name translates as New Walled City. The city became the new capital, its site chosen because of the auspicious presence of herds of spotted deer, white mice and a giant fig tree.

The Three Kings Monument in Chiang Mai — that’s Mengrai in the middle

Mengrai had previously established the city of Chiang Rai and had also conquered Lamphun. Legend has it that King Mengrai, King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Ngam Muang of Phayao formed an alliance and built the new city of Chiang Mai together.

Mengrai’s short-lived previous capital, Wiang Kum Kham, situated about three miles south, was abandoned due to repeated flooding during the intense monsoon rains that caused the Ping River to overflow. The settlement, since buried beneath alluvial sediment, was unearthed in 1984.

Lanna women in traditional garb (hey, it gets hot there!)

Deeper Roots: The Birth of the Lanna Kingdom

The province became known as Lanna, which translates as A Million Rice Fields. At its height, the kingdom's territories spread over an area as far southwest as Tak, the Pai Valley in the west and as far north as Luang Prabang in Laos.

Mengrai reigned from Chiang Mai for 20 years, until his unexpected death in 1317 — according to legend, he was struck dead by a bolt of lightning. For the next two centuries, rulers were chosen from Mengrai’s supposedly divine lineage.

Wat Chedi Luang as it stands today. The building was completed during the reign of King Tilokoraj

There were some greatly distinguished kings of the Mangrai Dynasty, particularly the sixth ruler, King Kuena (1355-1385) and the ninth, King Tilokoraj (1441-1487), both of whom brought about cultural, social and artistic renaissances. They turned their interests to architecture, erecting many Buddhist temples and chedis that are now referred to as classic Lanna style. The mountain temple of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep remains the spiritual symbol of Chiang Mai today.

An old map of Chiang Mai shows the square city center

Chiang Mai, Where Its Hip to Be Square

The fortified Old City, surrounded by a moat, is square in shape. The remnants of earthen walls with ramparts designed to protect and defend against Burmese invaders still stand, although many have been restored.

The Lanna Kingdom largely functioned autonomously, but became fragile as its principalities expanded, making Chiang Mai a pawn and allowing the Burmese to seize the city in 1556. Abandoned between 1776 and 1791, the former capital was recaptured by Prince Kawila, who began a ritual circumambulation of the city at Wat Buppharam (which has since established a connection to a certain Disney character) to reoccupy it after two centuries of Burmese rule.

Kawila mobilized the diverse segments of the population from all the nearby villages — many had since moved to Lamphun — to resettle in Chiang Mai. The prince led the reconstruction, restoration and renovation of many historic buildings, especially the revered older temples that had been built during the Mengrai Dynasty. He eventually took the throne and established the Chuea Chet Ton Dynasty, meaning the Dynasty of the Seven Lords.

The ancient ramparts that surround the Old City still stand (mostly)

As king, Kawila followed tradition, dressed in full Lanna regalia like all rulers of the Mengrai Dynasty had done in the past, and he entered the Old City through the auspicious northern gate, Pratu Chang Puak, the White Elephant Gate.
 

Becoming a Part of Siam — But Escaping Colonial Rule

Although Siam (the previous name for Thailand) was never colonized, it felt the pressure from the British, who won the Anglo-Burmese War, annexing Burma in its entirety between 1824-1852. The French, meanwhile, had colonized Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In 1885, the Bowring Treaty was negotiated and signed, allowing liberal trade between the United Kingdom and Siam. The British were at this time heavily invested in the teak trade and established the Borneo Trading Company headquarters in Chiang Mai’s Wat Gate district, the foreigners’ enclave (where we stayed at the utterly charming Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette).

A historic shot of a Chiang Mai market. There’s a lot less mud nowadays

A historic shot of a Chiang Mai market. There’s a lot less mud nowadays

The Lanna Kingdom’s political independence ended in the late 19th century with the arrival of the railroad, and it was eventually incorporated into Siam.

Exploring the city’s streets, Wally and I could feel its storied past resonate amongst the shops, cafés, crowds and timeworn temples. –Duke

Baan Dam, the Black House Museum of Chiang Rai

This Northern Thailand museum is the polar opposite of the White Temple. You certainly don’t get to see a penis shaped like an eagle there.

The dark, weathered exterior of Baan Dam’s Main Sanctuary Hall appears a bit sinister

Baan Dam, literally the Black House, is the macabre vision of one of Thailand’s most famous artists, Thawan Duchanee. In many ways, the museum acts as a dark reflection of Wat Rong Khun, commonly referred to as the White Temple, located on the other side of the city of Chiang Rai. Where the White Temple strives for pristine perfection, the Black House Museum revels in a melancholic primitivism.

The museum, including the Sanctuary of Rama, is the vision of one of Thailand’s most famous artists, Thawan Duchanee

Baan Dam is the yin to the White Temple’s yang. The Black House was conceived over a period of 36 years and functioned as Duchanee’s residence and studio. Though the White Temple feels much more like a traditional wat (Thai for temple), neither of these are actually religious structures; they’re both essentially museums.

Where the White Temple strives for pristine perfection, the Black House Museum revels in a melancholic primitivism.
You could imagine pagan rituals taking place in front of the Xieng Thong House

You could imagine pagan rituals taking place in front of the Xieng Thong House

Black List

The museum campus struck me immediately as foreboding — especially after the pureness of the White Temple. The Main Sanctuary Hall, off to the left, looks like a temple, but it’s made of wood and is stained black and dark brown. The more you look at it, the more something seems off. Its gables are steeper, and the barge boards look like they’re coated with dried blood. The tips are made of metal pointing upward like sword blades, giving the structure a menacing demeanor. The building literally looms above you.

The doors to the main building have intricate carvings of demons with animal-headed penises like the eagle seen here

As you enter the front doors, be sure to admire the elaborate carvings. One set features contorted demons with animal-headed penises — the eagle one certainly brings a whole new meaning to the word “pecker”!

A bizarre self-portrait with a string rising up to an image of the Buddha

Inside, the soaring exposed-beam ceiling rises above, and you’re greeted by two likenesses of the artist: an abstract obsidian black figure standing within a silver offering bowl with a string tied around his waist and a larger detailed white bust elevated upon a flurry of mythic beings. The string rises high above to a likeness of the Buddha, symbolizing the yearn for enlightenment.

Duke peeks out from the grouping of pillars in this one-of-a-kind museum

Where’s Wally? Having fun in the Main Sanctuary Hall, the largest gallery space 

Within the hall are a forest of elaborately carved wooden columns, screens, thrones and long wooden tables. Crocodile skins lay splayed open atop one of the tables, while another features a runner made from a monstrously large snake. It wouldn’t surprise me if I learned the Dothraki from Game of Thrones gather here.

Light wood arches balance out the overall darkness of the space

Light wood arches balance out the overall darkness of the space

A throne made of animal skins and horns

The chairs, some evoking thrones, are constructed of leather and animal horns. They don’t particularly appear comfortable, but as Aegon the Conqueror said in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, “A king should never sit easy.”

Supposedly, all the taxidermied animals at Baan Dam died of natural causes — which makes the place more spiritual and less sadistic, Atlas Obscura reports.

A painting of a bull by Duchanee

A painting of a bull by Duchanee

A couple of Duchanee’s large paintings hang in the middle of the hall, bright crimson canvases covered with black slashes and swoops in his signature style.

Escape the sun at the Rest House. There are skulls and horns galore at Baan Dam, giving the museum a primitive feel

Escape the sun at the Rest House. There are skulls and horns galore at Baan Dam, giving the museum a primitive feel

We exited through the back door. Most of the buildings on the grounds aren’t open to the public. But you can wander through an open-air gallery to the right that houses more bones, horns, skulls and animal skins, laid out in symmetrical rows, covering the tables and beams. Keep an eye out for the phallic sculptures sprinkled throughout.

Baan Dam’s exploration of the darkness lurking within humanity is somehow avant garde and primitive at the same time. It’s said to have the largest collection of animal remains made into furniture in the world. There’s a sense of death everywhere, the impermanence of life being a major Buddhist theme.

The white domes are modern takes on stupas (the reliquaries of Thai temples) and are covered with cool graffiti

A glimpse inside one of the stupas

The white domes off to the side are modern takes on chedis, or stupas, the spired monuments that house sacred relics that are found on every wat complex. These, though, seem like American Indian sweat lodges (Duke read a story they were designed for a hill tribe farting ritual), and they feature really cool street art graffiti on their exteriors.

This strange building called the Hornbill House was the artist’s home when he was on site

A big black submarine/sea creature-like building with round glass porthole windows, half sunken into the landscape, was said to be where Duchanee slept when on site. It wouldn’t surprise me if his ghost roamed the complex now.

Once we were finished exploring the museum, we bought ice cream at a little stand out front and some caffeinated beverages at the nearby coffeeshop before our driver Tommy took us to the crazy fun Wat Sang Kaew.

Thawan Duchanee, the man behind the Black House Museum

Portrait of the Artist: Thawan Duchanee

As mentioned, the man behind this dark museum is Thawan Duchanee. The local boy earned a Ph.D. in metaphysics and aesthetics from the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He first took up studies at Bangkok’s Poh Chang Academy of Arts before moving on to study under the Italian painter Corrado Feroci.

I’ve read that Duchanee was a student of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the man who created the White Temple, and that Kositpipat was a student of Duchanee. I’ve also read that both were freelance artists and never taught a day of their lives. Either way, they tend to get lumped together: One created a vision of Heaven, while the other created a version of Hell.

In 2001, Duchanee was officially lauded as a National Thai Artist, but his controversial style wasn’t always popular. “Some of his early work shocked a conservative Thai nation and accusations of disrespecting Buddhism resulted in some people physically attacking his paintings,” Thaizer reports.

Leading figures in Thai society, including the former prime minister Kukrit Pramoj, championed Duchanee’s work. This helped the artist score contracts to paint murals at a number of Thai embassies, and prominent Thai companies to commission work from him to display in their headquarters.

Duchanee combined various elements from traditional Burmese, Tibetan and local Lanna Thai art to create a singular style of his own.

At the end of his life, he was bald up top and sported a long, flowing snow white beard — evoking the stereotype of the wise old man.

He died in 2014 at the age of 74. His unique legacy lives on at Baan Dam Museum. –Wally

The White Temple is a vision of Heaven, while the Black House Museum is a version of Hell.

Baandam Museum
414 Moo 13 Nanglae, Muang
Chiang Rai, 57100 Thailand