Catmosphere Cat Cafe

Good mews! Chiang Mai has a pet cafe where you can get your cat crazies on.

If you love cats, stop in Catmosphere for a caffeine and feline fix

It’s one of the great debates of the ages: They say you’re either a cat person or you’re a dog person. Growing up, my family had both, and I don't claim to be biased towards one or the other. Oh, who am I kidding? I get dewy, giant-pupiled anime eyes when I see a basket full of kittens, and when it comes to having a pet at home, I prefer the company of a cat.

Zoey graced us with her presence, sleeping on our table for most of our visit

Wally and I have two cats with decidedly different personalities: an antisocial but beautiful calico named Caribou and a sweet gray and white one who is perpetually hungry by the name of Bowzer. If we didn't live in the city, we would probably (definitely) have more.

As we knew we’d be missing our beloved animal companions, Catmosphere Cat Café pawed its way onto our list of things to see and do while in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I mean, where else can you can sit and enjoy a coffee, and at the same time play with or stroke some cats?!

The latte art was enough to make us regret our decision to go with iced

The Catmosphere we visited is located on Huay Kaew Road, but it’s situated in a plaza of shops that sit a short distance from the road. We might have walked right past it had I not spotted the sign. When we got closer, we admired the fun marquee lights above the entrance.

Before entering, we were asked to wash our hands and remove our sandals. There’s a rack to stash your footwear, and they provide colorful quilted slippers to wear inside. You also have to wash your hands before going in.

This rapscallion is named Eve. She darts about the café, causing a ruckus, looking adorable all the while

The “Catstronauts,” as the space-themed café refers to its residents, are living their nine lives in style. There is pinstriped seating on the floor, low wood tables and coordinating toss cushions, for patrons and felines alike. Playful sci-fi elements, such as a retro-inspired mural with cats in space, featuring a black cat whizzing around in a rocketship wearing a bubble-style space helmet, while another kitty sticks an orange flag into a lunar surface. (As an interesting aside, on October 18, 1963, the French, eager to stake their claim in the space race, sent a black and white female cat named Félicette 130 feet into the air on a non-orbital rocket flight. She was recovered safely after the capsule parachuted to Earth.)

Wally names this one the Duchess — but later found out his name was Luke

The Cat’s Pajamas

Choosing a time to visit the café can be a gamble, as cats are unpredictable, and in those few hours each day when they aren’t sleeping, can be bundles of spastic energy. According to the Catmosphere website, it’s best to visit either early in the morning when they first open, or in the evening. After all, cats are nocturnal creatures.

On our evening visit, some slept, some were curious, and some chose to observe from afar. One of the most playful resident cats, Eve, skittered across the room in pursuit of something we couldn’t see.

Wally nicknamed a docile Scottish fold sitting on a cushion across from us “the Duchess,” who after a particularly thorough grooming session fell fast asleep, half sitting up. We found out later from one of the owners that she is actually a he named Luke.

A modern cat tower featuring different levels of square white boxes faces the café window and is the perfect place for the kitties to hide, climb, take a catnap, or perch and observe the world beyond.

Obi Wan rules over his domain, a wall of cubby holes 

For those felines looking for a quick escape route, a tri-level wall mounted variation of the tower functions as the perfect getaway. A white cat named Obi Wan decided to commandeer this as his lookout point, and when another cat joined him, he chased the interloper away.

 

Coffee and Kitties

How’s the coffee, you ask? Catmosphere serves a full range of coffee drinks and desserts. Wally ordered an iced latte, which was 95 baht, or about $2.75, and I ordered a Thai iced tea (80 baht or $2.35) — I’m a cheap date and will always go for a mix of black tea, spices, sugar, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk.

As long as you order something from their menu, entry is to the café is free. If you’re simply craving a feline fix, a fee of 100 baht (or $3 at the exchange rate at the time) per hour will be charged. All proceeds benefit the care of the resident Catstronauts.

 

Catiquette

I read the laminated list of rules sitting atop our table. One suggested keeping an eye on your food and drink. A young woman who had ordered a delicious-looking slice of cheesecake left her table to photograph a few of the cats. It was then that I noticed one of the cats balanced on the table’s edge, licking the blueberry glaze off said slice of cheesecake, until one of the young female employees noticed and shooed them away.

The café sells an assortment of souvenir items including tote bags and T-shirts. We purchased a tote with an illustrated portrait six of the resident cats.

The experience was truly unique and we met a menagerie of cats, including Apollo, Athena, Blue, Cooper, Eve, Letty, Luke and Yoda.

Nhoon and Ben, the owners of Catmosphere in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Nhoon and Ben, the owners of Catmosphere in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Q&A With the Owner of Catmosphere

We reached out to Ben, one of the owners of Catmosphere in Chiang Mai, to ask him some questions about the coffeeshop. Curiosity killed the cat, they say, but it hasn’t harmed Wally or me yet.

When did this location open?
In June 2014.

How did the concept come about?
Well, for one not many people know that cats have actually been to space! The credit always goes to dogs and monkeys, which is clearly unfair. Our café is a tribute to all those brave cats who have dedicated their lives to space exploration.

Seriously though, we think that it is a fun concept. We are basing it on mid-20th century space exploration and science fiction themes. There’s a lot of creative potential in that, and it allows us to do fun, tongue-in-cheek stuff. It’s cheesy, but in a good way.

Are the cats adopted from shelters or are they purchased?
It’s a mix of both. In the beginning, we purchased cats, but since we opened we have chosen to adopt cats instead, because homeless kittens are available all the time in Chiang Mai.

Are apartments and condominiums pet friendly in Chiang Mai?
Pets are forbidden in most condos. I used to rent a condo before, and we always had to smuggle the cats in and out in boxes, hoping they wouldn’t meow at the reception.

The Catstronauts of Catmosphere. How many can you spot on your visit?

The Catstronauts of Catmosphere. How many can you spot on your visit?

Any funny stories you could share about the cats’ personalities?
Each cat has their own personal quirks! Just a few examples:

  • Yoda waits for the first batch of customers in the morning to go on each person’s lap and give them a cat massage. But he never gives one to Nhoon or me.
  • Eve loves sneaking out to the street specifically to annoy us. She is incredibly good at it — she’ll wait far away at the side of the door and pretend to be busy, then once the door opens, escape efficiently and silently, in a straight line between the customer's legs. Sometimes, nobody notices that she’s gone until she’s at the door half an hour later.
  • Letty shows her love by gently biting people on the nose.
  • Every time a new plaything or other item arrives, Apollo takes first ownership of it, usually by lying on it or rubbing his cheek on it. After a day or so, it is then made available to the other cats.
  • Athena likes to randomly jump on customers’ tables from above and spill the coffee.

I could go on indefinitely.


You’ll just have to experience this quirky cat café for yourself. –Duke


 Catmosphere
Huaykaew Road
Thesaban Nakhon Chiang Mai
Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
Chang Wat
Chiang Mai 50300 Thailand


Wat Buppharam, the Donald Duck Temple

One of our favorite Chiang Mai temples, this complex feels a bit like a Disney theme park.

The gorgeous Dhamma Hall exterior is a highlight of Wat Bupphram in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Can you spot Donald Duck eating a bowl of noodles out front?

Chances are that wherever you happen to be in Chiang Mai, you’ll find a temple nearby. It’s like Chicago and bars. The city is a melding of cultures, where the architectural influences of Thailand’s neighbors can be seen in its many religious buildings.

Dharma wheels decorate the exterior wall of the temple complex

An example of this integration can be seen in the Buddhist temple of Wat Buppharam, situated a short distance from the Old City. Once you cross the Narawat Bridge, there’s a quick succession of temples, and if you were to simply cast a fleeting glance at this simple whitewashed outer wall topped with dharmachakra wheels that face the busy street, you'd be missing out on a very special place. You’d also be missing out on a depiction of a Disney character wearing a familiar sailor shirt, cap, and a bowtie.

Duke and Wally on the steps of the Dhamma Hall at Wat Bupphrama, resplendent in deep red with elaborate gold details

An Earth-Shaking History

Once you enter through the gate on southern side of Tha Phae Road, you’ll soon discover a temple that has developed a character all its own. A reminder of King Muangkaeo’s legacy, Wat Buppharam was constructed shortly after his ordination in 1495 on the site formerly occupied by the palace of his great grandfather King Tilokarat. Royal courts sponsored artists and erected temples as an act of religious merit making (a way to gain points toward enlightenment).

In 1497, Muangkaeo dedicated the monastery to the Lord Buddha, and according to historic documents, an intense earthquake occurred at the time of donation, but the temple withstood, undamaged. Seeing this as an auspicious sign — according to legend, an earthquake occurred prior to the Buddha’s death — the king had a silver Buddha image cast and placed within the temple chapel.

Duke says this Buddha is telling you, “Talk to the hand”

Talk to the Hand

The first building you’ll likely encounter is the large two-story Ho Phra Monthiantham, or Dhamma Hall, a communal center for Buddhist teaching and meditation. In front of the hall is a Buddha statue standing beneath a golden parasol with his right hand, palm out, raised to shoulder height. My first thought was of the dismissive ’90s phrase “talk to the hand,” which isn't completely off the mark. The posture is known as the pang ham yati, or pacifying the relatives position.

More surprising however is the appropriation of the Disney cartoon character, Donald Duck, standing and eating a bowl full of noodles in the library hall garden. Like Ta Phrom in Angkor, Cambodia taking on the moniker of the Tomb Raider Temple after the Lara Croft film shot there, Wat Buppharam is referred to by some locals as the Donald Duck Temple. Wally and I found that many of the temple grounds in Chiang Mai have an element of whimsy to them, most notably in the form of statuary.

 

These sluglike creatures are called moms. You know how moms are: They’re never satisfied

Viharn 1

We decided to visit the small viharn, or prayer hall, located to the east of the Ho Monthiantham, first. It’s an elaborate affair of dark teak wood, stucco and ornate inlaid glass tiles with a low-slung, double-tiered roof. At its entrance you are welcomed by the curious mythological creatures hilariously called moms, one in silver and one in gold. A message beneath the gold one reads, “Please take off your shoes.” These aquatic creatures are from the Himavanta, a legendary forest that surrounds the base of Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology. Looking like a blunt-faced, late-stage-development tadpole-ferret hybrid, they serve as a reminder against clinging to impermanence and materiality. Moms are unable to satisfy their cravings — they endlessly gorge themselves, and because of this, they lack the necessary self-awareness to achieve enlightenment. 

The viharn was originally erected in 1819 by Prince Thamalangka, who restored and renovated many of Chiang Mai’s temples after the Burmese had abandoned the city during the long skirmish between the two kingdoms.  

Duke in the archway that leads to the chedi courtyard

The principal Buddha image was cast around 500 years ago and is seated in the Bhumisparsha mudra, or earth witness position, a gesture that represents the moment of enlightenment. Just before the Buddha reached nirvana, the demon king Mara tried to frighten him with armies of demons and monsters, including his daughters who tried to tempt Buddha to get out of meditation beneath the bodhi tree. When the Buddha’s hand touched the earth, it bellowed, “I bear you witness!” which in turn caused Mara and his minions to disappear.

Cats aren’t that common in Chiang Mai, but we found one resting in the second viharn, or prayer hall

Viharn 2

This prayer hall, found behind the other, has a large triangular pediment featuring a detailed carved wooden relief with a floral motif. The sacred structure is believed to be over 200 years old and contains a brass Buddha image cast around 500 years ago. It contains murals depicting scenes from one of the Jataka tales about the previous lives of the Buddha. This story, called the Vessantara Jataka tells of Prince Vessantara, who gives away everything he owns, demonstrating charity, one of the virtues of a bodhisattva.

A detail from the elaborately carved viharn doors

The richly carved front door panels of the Himavanta forest were replaced in 1983. We didn’t spot any moms, but a pair of hamsas, Buddhist geese, a symbol of purity and enlightenment, can be seen in the ornamental gable niche above the entrance.

A half-lion, half-dragon creature from Burmese mythology known as a chinthe helps protect the pagoda

Chedi

As Wally and I exited the second viharn and made our way to the chedi behind it, we passed a sign calling out a makeshift museum. Below the sign, a family of chickens happily strutted around, occasionally pecking at the dirt beneath.  

This Buddha in a red niche is one of four at the base of the tower that is said to hold a sacred relic

The original chedi, or reliquary tower, was believed to have contained a sacred remnant of the Buddha. Its present form is a bulbous Burmese bell shape decorated with a combination of gold leaf and glass mosaic. The chedi was restored in 1958 and has a tiered square base supporting three rings of diminishing volume. Each side features a bright red alcove containing a golden Buddha, while the spire at the top is crowned by a hti, a finial ornament symbolic of a sacred umbrella.  

A hen sits on her eggs in a pot by the chedi

We sat on a bench in the shade of one of the temple trees for a moment to take in the monument and while doing so, we heard a rustling in a nearby potted plant. Looking over, we saw a speckled black hen sitting atop the eggs she had laid in there.

Wally has a special affinity for these snakelike creatures called nagas

Dhamma Hall

Wally and I then proceeded to the largest and most recent structure within the complex. The two-story Ho Phra Monthiantham was erected by Abbot Phra Udom Kitti Mongkun and replaced the original wooden building that occupied the site in time for the 50th anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign. Its entrance is guarded and flanked by makaras, creatures from Hindu mythology that possess the body of a dolphin combined with a crocodile.

The mondop style structure was influenced by the mandapa temples of Northern India and is characterized by a cruciform-shaped building, multi-tiered roof with upturned flame-like naga finials and a wraparound porch on the upper floor, topped with a spire.  

Buddhist temples are filled with various statues in all sorts of mismatched styles

We took the staircase to the second floor, which contains the largest solid teak Buddha image in Chiang Mai. Painted in white and pale yellow, it was carved after a vision by King Sanphet II in the late 16th century, when he defeated the Burmese forces near Ban Muang Ngai, Thailand. This vision is depicted in the carved wood panels on the east wall. It’s believed to be 400 years old, and like the small viharn Buddha, is seated in the Bhumisparsha mudra, with additional smaller cast metal Buddha images in this position as well.

This playful mural by the artist Pornchai Jaima shows people worshipping a sacred tree

Expressive contemporary hand-painted murals by Thai artist Pornchai Jaima cover the walls of the lower level and possess a vivid, dreamlike depiction of traditional village life rendered in richly saturated hues.

Wally at Wat Bupphram, one of his favorite temples in Chiang Mai

Wat Buppharam features a combination of traditional elements and a dash of humor, which ended up making it onto Wally’s shortlist of favorites. Part of that had to do with Donald Duck I’m sure.


Wat Buppharam
Tha Phae Road
Tambon Chang Moi
Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
Chang Wat
Chiang Mai 50300, Thailand

The Appeal of Buddhism

What to expect and how to behave in a Thai temple — and why we prefer them to Christian churches.

Thai temples, like Wat Ket Karam in Chiang Mai, have worship halls (viharns), towers containing relics (chedis) and a mix of other buildings

The first time you step into a Thai Buddhist temple as a Westerner, you might get overwhelmed. Temples in Thailand are called wats — but they’re not a single building, as you might imagine.

They’re actually entire complexes with multiple buildings, each a mélange of various styles. Faded carved teak, lichen-covered stone, glittering gold and green and red, gaudy ceramics, serene Buddhas, Chinese zodiac iconography, Hindu deities and bizarre hybrid creatures from mythology — they’re all jumbled about. 

Women aren’t allowed to touch monks, and there are parts of certain wats where females are forbidden to enter.

And while I do love to visit a Zen garden or a sleek, austere sacred space, I’m truly a maximalist by nature. There’s something cozy and comforting about the mishmash found in wats. They’re fun to explore — you never know what lies around the next corner. You might even be startled by a wax figure of a famous monk that’s creepily lifelike.

No, this isn’t a real monk — it’s a wax replica at Wat Phra Sing that could fit right in at Madame Tussauds. Wax monks are all the rage in Northern Thailand, and they’re sure to startle the unwary traveler

We recommend adopting this open-minded attitude if you’re visiting Chiang Mai. It’s a city filled with quirky and often beautiful wats, and wandering through them should be a part of every tourist’s agenda.

Duke and I probably enjoy wats more than your average travelers — we visited at least 12 in our week in Northern Thailand. More than churches, they’re all unique in their own way.

 

Follow the Rules

If you’re worried about how to behave in a wat, don’t be. I remember the first time I went to Thailand I was scared I’d do something wrong. I closely watched native worshippers, hoping to mimic their actions.

The good news is that, aside from some universal rules, there is no wrong way to pay your respects to the Buddha.

 

Follow these three simple rules when you’re in a wat:

 

1. Take off your shoes.

It’s good to have shoes or sandals you can easily slip on and off — you’ll be doing it multiple times in a wat complex.

 

2. Cover your shoulders and knees.

Some temples are more strict than others, though most in Chiang Mai are quite lax. If they’re strict about dress code, it often only pertains to women and they’ll have wraps you can borrow. (There’s a strain of sexism that runs through the country, where every man goes off to become a monk for a period of time, and many women enter the sex industry. Women aren’t allowed to touch monks, and there are parts of certain wats where females are forbidden to enter. With the exception of the amazing Wat Sri Suphan, the Silver Temple, most of the time these spots aren’t too remarkable, so you’re not really missing out on too much, ladies.)

 

3. Don’t point your feet at the Buddha.

The easiest way to avoid this is to never sit with your feet in front of you. Instead, play it safe and kneel, or sit cross-legged.

Otherwise you’re free to wander around at will and worship as you see fit.

Sorry, ladies. Only men can feast their eyes on the interior of Wat Sri Suphan, the amazing Silver Temple in Chiang Mai

What Should Tourists Do in a Wat?

The main temple, known as a viharn, has an open hall that faces at least one — but usually many — often giant, depiction of the Buddha. They’re places for quiet prayers and contemplation. I could certainly benefit from more meditation. Or, heck, let’s face it: any mediation. These are the most like churches. You probably want to speak in quiet, reverent tones so as not to disturb worshippers.

As I mentioned, there’s no wrong way to pray in a wat. I like to kneel down, maybe extending my arms out in a bow. Then I do a wai, the Thai sign of respect, with your palms pressed together in front of your face. I bow three times and then sit there, still waiing, and have a little chat with the Buddha, like you might with God or Allah. If there’s something you’d like, ask for it. Give thanks for something. Or just sit still and try to clear your mind.

By the way, I don’t do this in every viharn I go in — only those that have a special feel that calls to me. Otherwise, I just walk around and take pictures.

Another appeal of Thai Buddhism is that outside of these solemn structures, wats are a thriving part of the community. Some have massage schools and offer rub-downs for an affordable price. Some have open-air food courts; with others, handicraft markets spill onto their grounds. The line between sacred and social blurs.  

As religion in the U.S. fades, with atheism on the rise, it’s interesting to experience a culture where it seems almost everyone is religious. Perhaps it’s because Buddhist worship seems pretty chill. You go to the temple whenever, you spend as much or as little time as you want, maybe you make a small donation to light a candle or ring a bell. There might be times when monks chant, but it’s not like a church service that’s so regimented.  

Honestly, wouldn’t you rather pray to this peaceful man than to one who’s being tortured to death?

Honestly, wouldn’t you rather pray to this peaceful man than to one who’s being tortured to death?

If we lived in a place where Buddhist temples were as common as churches, I would pop into them every so often, spend 10 to 30 minutes praying, meditating or walking around the chedi.

I suppose it’s not that different than the people who go into a church to pray.

I guess I just prefer looking at a serenely smiling man to one nailed to a cross in agony.  

Can you tell? I’ve fallen for Buddhism. –Wally

Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette: Your Oasis in Chiang Mai

East meets West at this chic boutique hotel.

The open-air lobby of the Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The casual chic 19-room Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette is perched on the east bank of the tranquil Mae Ping River in the Wat Ket district of Chiang Mai. The premises are a 15-minute walk from the Old Quarter, where ancient Buddhist wats (temples) and winding sois (side streets) await. It’s close to the action and yet seemingly a world away from the tourist hordes.

What makes the hotel even more spectacular is its saltwater infinity pool. We made it a priority to immerse ourselves in its refreshing water once a day.

One of our many favorite spots at this charming boutique hotel was the saltwater infinity pool

Inside, the minimalist, airy central courtyard opens dramatically, serving as the main architectural element that connects the main floor with the restaurant and guest rooms. Composed of concrete walls, the clean-lined contemporary structure was designed by the Bangkok-based husband and wife team Sitt and Preechaya Therakomen of Studio Agaligo. Along one wall, crisp white quatrefoil porticoes offer a glimpse of the outside world, contrasted against a dark gray wall. A rectangular pool containing goldfish is flanked by a pair of Tang Dynasty-style horse statues.

Taking cues from the enclave’s Chinese merchant past, Thai interior designer Rachan Chokenana has woven elements of chinoiserie throughout the hotel’s public spaces.  

What makes the hotel even more spectacular is its saltwater infinity pool. We made it a priority to immerse ourselves in its refreshing water once a day.

 

We stayed in one of the Willow Suites, with our own patio in a quiet courtyard

Get a Room

We stayed in one of the Willow Suites, located on the ground floor. The room was intimate, but the 14-foot-high ceilings made it feel spacious — plus we had our very own private terrace with a nook to relax with a good book. The room’s interior is thoughtfully laid out and included a mini refrigerator that’s stocked with bottled water daily, a real plus when you are heading out first thing in the morning and don’t want to stop for provisions.

Our bed at the Ping Silhouette

Luxurious textures and materials like quartz, marble and brass make up the bathroom. A sculptural vessel sink and a dark green tiled shower, complete with a rain shower head, gave us serious bathroom envy.

We dined on the patio every morning in the Café des Artists

Café des Artists

 The hotel has an onsite restaurant that occupies the ground floor off the courtyard. Named Café des Artists, the interior references the merchant shophouses that once occupied the alleyways of the Wat Ket neighborhood. A black steel and glass wall serves as a partition with glass louvers that open to the outdoors.

Breakfast kicks off with these delicious beignets

This fresh basket is just one of three courses included with breakfast

You can get a rice dish for breakfast — or eggs, if you prefer

Accents of green and blue used in the restaurant echo the narrative of the hotel’s public and private spaces. Vibrant touches, including bursts of freshly cut brightly colored orchids displayed in blue and white ginger jars, are balanced by the staff’s monochromatic cement gray three-quarter sleeve jersey cotton shirts paired with modern-cut linen wrap pants.

Turn left to the coffeeshop; turn right for the restaurant

We sat on the covered outdoor patio every morning and gazed out onto the terrace, which is filled with graceful willow trees whose branches flutter gently in the breeze, or are perhaps swayed from the weight of a lone squirrel racing from one branch to another. In the early morning, the sound of myna birds is replaced by an orchestra of cicadas.

It didn’t take long for the friendly and attentive staff to learn our coffee preferences

For breakfast, Wally and I enjoyed the delightfully decadent fritters served with a delicious dipping glaze in a small bamboo steamer basket. These were followed by an assortment of fresh fruit, sliced into wedges, including dragon fruit, watermelon, honeydew and papaya. Toast is served in a small paper bag with a silver butter spreader. Wally particularly liked the creative variation on eggs Benedict, which are perfectly paired with a curry twist.

A bright blue floor and chair offer a delightful surprise at the top of the stairs

Above you, pink paper lanterns offer a bit of modern whimsy

By blending local elements with modern amenities, the Hotel Ping Silhouette provides a comfortable and memorable stay. Honey and Bird, who manage reception and concierge duties at the hotel, are outstanding and found us an excellent driver to take us to take on a day trip outside the city.

Duke peeks from an opening in the three-story lobby

The waitstaff, including Ball, Keng and Tan, remembered our room number and our afternoon coffee preference: an iced unsweetened latte for Wally and a Thai iced coffee for me.

Duke rests by the Ping Silhouette’s front door

Wally plays in a detail off the lobby

If you’re visiting Chiang Mai, we highly recommend Ping Silhouette, where the grounds are gorgeous, the style astounding and the service impeccable. –Duke


Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette
181 Chareonraj Road
Wat Gate
Muang, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand

Wat Lok Molee

Add this to a tour of Chiang Mai temples — and make a wish on the silver or gold trees.

It never makes the list of must-see temples in Chiang Mai, but we both fell under the spell of Wat Lok Molee

Chiang Mai is overflowing with temples and 7-Eleven convenience stores, although on occasion it might be easier to find the latter. I say this as Wally and I took a tuk-tuk to a lesser-known temple, Wat Kuan Kama, dedicated to a royal soldier’s beloved horse — only to arrive at the wrong one a couple of blocks away. The driver had dropped us off on Sriphoom Road on the eastern side of the Old City, near the Chang Puak Gate, when Wally pointed out the multi-tiered roof of a temple across the moat.

Guarding the temple are what look like evil demons — but they’re actually nice nature spirits known as yakshas

A kiosk sells heart-shaped wish leaves to hang on the trees. Wally and I couldn’t resist purchasing one.

The day was young, so we agreed to see what it was, crossing the two-lane thoroughfare and moat via a small footbridge. A pair of yaksha statues, benevolent nature spirits, stand vigilant at the temple gate. Wally and I glanced at each other and grinned as we both knew we had happened upon a special place.

 

Holy Molee

The temple was none other than Wat Lok Molee, sometimes spelled Moli. One of the city’s older temples, its founding date is unknown, but it was mentioned in a charter in 1367 CE, when King Kue Na, the sixth ruler of the Mengrai Dynasty, invited a group of 10 monks from Burma who were pupils of Phra Maha Thera, a revered monk, to reside at the temple and spread the intellectual disciplines of Theravada Buddhism.

Two stone elephants line the pathway to the viharn, the main temple building

The viharn, or ordination hall, although old in appearance, was rebuilt in 2003. Its dynamic low-slung triple-gable roof telescopes outwards and is typical of traditional Lanna architecture. What’s atypical is its north-south axis alignment, as most Buddhist temples are orientated on an east-west axis, symbolic of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The bargeboards of the roof are decorated with shapes that evoke the heads of snakelike nagas. Perched at the roof apex are cho fa, decorative finials resembling the beak of a bird, possibly the mythical eagle warrior Garuda. These two elements represent the eternal struggle between these powerful entities. Naga is known as the sworn enemy of Garuda, who feeds mainly on — you guessed it — snakes.

The Buddhas in Wat Lok Molee’s viharn

The temple was likely linked to the royal family as the cremated remains of members of the Mangrai Dynasty (1292-1558) are interred within the chedi. In 1527 King Muangketklao, the 11th king of the dynasty, also known as King Ket, commissioned the chedi and viharn.

Buy a leaf from the stall out front and write a wish on it. Then hang it on the trees that stand on either side of the main temple

Make a Wish

The courtyard in front of the viharn contains two sacred wishing trees: one in silver and one in gold. There’s a small kiosk selling amulets, refreshments and symbolic heart-shaped wish leaves to hang on the trees. Wally and I couldn’t resist purchasing one. Wally wrote, “Please bless Wally & Duke” and hung it on the tree. I should also mention that the refreshment stand had a random collection of big-eyed Blythe dolls. I’m convinced the one sitting on the end was totally giving me the side eye.

Silver and gold wishing trees were Wally’s favorite part of Lok Molee

Silver and gold wishing trees were Wally’s favorite part of Lok Molee

We entered the majestic wooden hall, walked down the center aisle and approached the large principal Buddha image. The figure is seated in the Dhyana mudra position, formed when the two hands are palm-up, overlapping, with their thumbs touching, the gesture promotes the energy of meditation.

The temple’s ornate ceilng

Looking up, the coffered ceiling is decorated with glittering glass mosaic lotus flowers and gold leaf images depicting the story of the Buddha’s life.

We exited the ordination hall to investigate the intriguing variety of devotional statues scattered throughout the temple complex. A wooden pavilion near the outer gate contains a statue of Queen Chiraprapha, whose brief reign lasted from 1545-1546.

Some of the shrines on the grounds of Lok Molee

One of the ornamented stucco pavilions is dedicated to the 18-armed Guanyin Bodhisattva, the goddess of mercy. An ornate crown with an image of the Buddha, whom she serves, rests atop her head. This figure reflects Mahayana Buddhism, showing elements of Chinese influence in Thailand.

Also amongst this menagerie is a raised brick platform with no less than five representations of the Hindu deity Ganesh.

A statue of the four-faced Hindu deity Brahma and a sacred tree

Ubosot

The ubosot, or chapel, has a rustic lodge feel, with wood floors and built-in cabinetry. The Buddha image is seated in the Dharmacakra Pravartana mudra position, which represents the wheel of dharma being set into motion. A smaller figure of my guy Upakut is seated beneath.

More wishing leaves are hung by the ancient brick chedi

Chedi

We passed through the open-sided shelter known as the sala baat with monks’ alms bowls for people to leave offerings, before arriving at the massive 16th-century chedi pagoda. Golden life-size statues, a who’s who of venerated monks, sit upon decorative stands.

The monks’ alms bowls and statues of their famous predecessors in an open-air pavillion

I was delighted to see a statue of Upakut in front of the chedi and began to make a game of finding him at the various temples Wally and I visited. I imagined he was part of symbolic plot development of a new Dan Brown novel set in Thailand.

Duke’s patron deity Upakut makes an appearance beneath the chedi at Wat Lok Molee

The exposed brickwork is a stark contrast to the gilded or stuccoed chedis of other Chiang Mai temples. The structure has three tiers and a large square base capped by a tubular ring-like detail called a torus. The sides of the reliquary chamber are double-redented, an architectural detail that looks like an accordion-folded piece of paper. It contains four niches facing the cardinal directions. The chedi’s main chamber houses the cremated remains of King Muang Ketklao, who was assassinated in 1545, and Queen Wisutthithewi, who reigned from 1564-1578. On top of this chamber are more torus, followed by a lotus bud crowned with a tall golden spire.

Perhaps it was the presence of Upakut, the wishing trees, or the fact that it was an unexpected discovery. Either way, this temple ended up being one of our favorites in Chiang Mai. –Duke

 

Wat Lok Molee
Si Phum
Mueang Chiang Mai District
Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Art in Paradise: One of the Most Fun Things to Do in Chiang Mai

Photo opps galore at this museum of illusion art, where you can insert yourself right into the 3D paintings.

The optical illusions that fill Art in Paradise will result in some of the best (and funniest) photos of your entire trip to Chiang Mai

We’ve got tons of gorgeous photographs from our trip to Chiang Mai: stunning Buddhist temples (pristine white, pressed silver, mysterious blue, bold red, shimmering gold), adorable rescued elephants, ziplining through the rainforest.

But what are the pictures everyone asks us about? The goofy trompe l’oeil photos we took at Art in Paradise. And really, who could argue? They’re mind-blowing. They’re hilarious.

Who could argue? The pics are mind-blowing and hilarious.

Billing itself as an illusion art museum, Art in Paradise is a fun way to spend a couple of hours. If you like taking silly pics (as you know we do), you definitely have to make this a stop on your Chiang Mai itinerary. It’s outside the Old Town, but it’s an easy tuk-tuk ride away.

A group of three or more people is ideal. Duke and I wanted some pics of both of us, so we kept bugging a poor Japanese girl who happened to be just in front of us as we worked our way through the museum.

Get ready to be amazed and amused! –Wally


No trip to Chiang Mai is complete without a fun-filled trip to Art in Paradise

No trip to Chiang Mai is complete without a fun-filled trip to Art in Paradise

Art in Paradise
199/9 Changklan Road Changklan
Muang Chiang Mai Thailand 50200

137 Pillars House: Where Luxury and History Meet

Searching for Chiang Mai hotels? How’s a personal butler, serene grounds and an epic pool sound?

The Drawing Room at 137 Pillars, a lovely spot for tea

The Drawing Room at 137 Pillars, a lovely spot for tea

While researching our trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I came across the fascinating story of the meticulous restoration of the former Borneo Trading Company headquarters, which was transformed into the stunning 137 Pillars House luxury hotel. As luck would have it, this special place was located in the Wat Gate enclave, where we were staying. 

Upon our arrival at the property, we stopped in at reception, where we were welcomed by a lovely woman named Charm, who led us along a footpath through the lush and serene compound to the original teak homestead where the eponymous Jack Bain’s Bar, named after its previous inhabitant, is located.

The plan was to have it as a vacation home. But the new owners decided, we can’t keep this to ourselves. We have to share this with everyone.
The Jack Bain’s Bar got a whole new look (and an actual bar!) last year

The Jack Bain’s Bar got a whole new look (and an actual bar!) last year

A Trip Back in Time at the Jack Bain’s Bar

The spirit of the past still lingers in the air, and you feel as though you’re stepping back in time as you enter the intimate space. A photo of two of the home’s illustrious past residents, Jack Bain and Louis Leonowens, hang behind the bar.

Louis was the son of Anna Leonowens, the tutor to Prince Chulalongkorn, son of King Mongkut, from the fabled story of Anna and the King of Siam, or more famously known from the fictionalized 1950s Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. Louis joined the Borneo Trading Company in 1886 and established its Chiang Mai headquarters in 1889. He was the first resident of the home.

 The bar is named after Jack Bain, whose father bought the compound from the company.

“Jack was a colorful character and a bit of a playboy. He loved drinking and loved the company of women, which was quite the opposite of his Scottish father, William” said Santhiti Arunsit, who goes by San, the director of sales for 137 Pillars.

His family compound remains close by.

The bar’s interior was refurbished in December 2016 — it used to have more of a library feel, and there wasn’t an actual bar. A luxe leather-tufted bar was added, giving the interior the aura of a prestigious British gentleman’s club. Black and white images documenting the history of the Borneo Company hang on its richly paneled walls, and jazz music plays through the speakers.

We sat upon an avocado green leather grid-tufted sofa and met with San, our cordial host for the afternoon.

One of the most luxurious hotels in Chiang Mai, 137 PIllars has a rich history

One of the most luxurious hotels in Chiang Mai, 137 PIllars has a rich history

He had recently visited the 32-story sister property in Bangkok, which includes 179 residences and 34 suites on the top nine floors. Located in the capital’s Thonglor business and shopping district, the hotel boasts a rooftop infinity pool with 360-degree views of the city.

“It carries the same DNA as 137 Pillars but is more modern,” with such features as a freestanding circular bathtub that comfortably fits two, San told us, adding that every property will have a Jack Bain’s Bar.

I contemplated getting the theatrical Signature Cocktail, which is served in a flaming coconut, but in the end I’m a sucker for a well-crafted old-fashioned. The Jack Bain’s Bar version does not disappoint and is appropriately named the Aged Teak, which Wally and I both chose. 

The Aged Teak cocktail is a take on an old-fashioned — but with cinnamon smoke in a cloche for a dramatic reveal

The Aged Teak cocktail is a take on an old-fashioned — but with cinnamon smoke in a cloche for a dramatic reveal

We were captivated as we observed the bartender masterfully prepare our drinks. After mixing the cocktail, a piece of cassia bark, the tree that cinnamon comes from, was burnt over the boozy beverage and a glass cloche placed atop. This imbues the cocktail with a slightly smoky note and makes for a spectacular presentation. Like a genie leaving its bottle, a wisp of cinnamon-scented smoke escapes the glass when the cloche is lifted.

 

The grounds of the hotel are gorgeous and quiet

The grounds of the hotel are gorgeous and quiet

The History of the 137 Pillars House

When Bangkok-born Panida Wongphanlert arrived in Chiang Mai looking for a relaxing getaway from the capital city’s frenetic pace, I’m betting she had no idea the role a centuries-old colonial teak estate would play.

After enjoying the laidback northern city of Chiang Mai as a casual visitor, Wongphanlert began putting some serious thought into purchasing a weekend home there, where she could stay when she desired an escape from urban life.

Encouraged by her family, she repeatedly revisited the northern city intent on finding the perfect vacation home. On one of these sojourns, she discovered the historic residence referred to by locals as the Baan Dam, Black House — so called as the teakwood had acquired a sinister and charred hue, due to natural weathering and the repeated application of linseed oil by its previous inhabitant to ward off termites. It’s located in the Wat Gate district, where foreigners, many of whom were involved in the teak trade, were required by law to live at that time.

These bicycle tuk-tuks sit out front of the 137 Pillars hotel

These bicycle tuk-tuks sit out front of the 137 Pillars hotel

Wongphanlert was told that the property belonged to the Bain family, and when she was granted permission to the visit the compound, the house was vacant, neglected and hidden by dense tropical overgrowth. The walls of the structure sagged, but despite this, the charm and character as well as original features, including detailed fretwork, remained intact.

Once she learned the layered history of the Black House, Wongphanlert fell in love with the property and felt compelled to share its story. With the vision to return the homestead to its former greatness, and the permission of Bain’s eldest daughter, she acquired the compound in 2005, and the Wongphanlert Holding Company was established.

 

Scale and Potential

“The original plan was to have the home as a vacation home,” San told us. “But they decided, we can’t keep this to ourselves. We have to share this with everyone.”

To get it right, Wongphanlert, herself a trained architect, sought to restore the weathered teak homestead, which took over four years, enlisting the expertise of Chiang Mai University architect and lecturer Julaporn Nathapanich. She also collaborated with Habita Architects on the design of the surrounding British colonial-style structures to create a relaxing 30-suite luxury hotel. The suites are named after three of the original founders of the West Borneo Trading Company.

The distinctive heritage Anglo-Malay-style structure that houses the Jack Bain’s Bar gives the hotel its name: 137 Pillars (alluding to the number of teak posts that once elevated the structure to protect it from flooding). Architectural elements, such as the ornamental fretwork, had to be painstakingly repaired, revived or created anew.

Step into another world behind the whitewashed wall 

Step into another world behind the whitewashed wall 

This approach maintained the integrity of the original teak house, which involved moving the house via hydraulic lift — “slowly,” San says — to the middle of the property. Deteriorated parts that were unsalvageable were removed and faithfully reproduced, keeping the historical features intact. The pillars were replaced, and the structure was raised, allowing adequate air circulation beneath the building to avoid rot. Load-bearing steel beams were added to ensure structural integrity. If floodwater comes, it doesn’t compromise the structure above.

During this process, an odd mix of relics was discovered, including an Edison light bulb, crockery fragments, ornate wood carvings, bottles and even a bathtub. A few of these curiosities are now displayed under the home next to the glass-walled gym.

The Dining Room serves up breakfast and Asian dishes

The Dining Room serves up breakfast and Asian dishes

The homestead now accommodates two restaurants. Palette is so named as it features the works of local artists, and the striking Dining Room, in an adjacent building, with indoor and outdoor seating, is where breakfast is served daily. Palette offers Western cuisine and the Dining Room serves Asian food.

137 Pillars also offers a cooking class where guests can learn how to prepare Thai cuisine. Appropriately named the Kitchen, you are not simply shown how to prepare a dish but are taken to a local market, accompanied by the instructor, to shop for ingredients.

 

Two of the hotel’s cabañas

Two of the hotel’s cabañas

Garden Sanctuary

The grounds were transformed by landscape design studio P9. The old house provided the starting point and conceptual foundation, making it the foremost element within. The courtyard includes mature native trees that were incorporated into the design, with plaques identifying their genus.

A dramatic five-story living wall of climbing green vines cleverly obscures the view of the world beyond the hotel walls. If you want to cool off, take a dip in the sapphire blue pool beneath

A dramatic five-story living wall of climbing green vines cleverly obscures the view of the world beyond the hotel walls. If you want to cool off, take a dip in the sapphire blue pool beneath

The stunning swimming pool is shielded on one side by a 50-foot-high living wall of vines.

 

The Suite Life

Guests can experience accommodations reflecting the stately colonial era, with the comfort of modern amenities. Each room has a personal butler and a spacious suite set amid the tranquil tropical grounds.

San showed us two of these opulent suites, which any guest would be remiss not to let their worries float away in the idyllic setting.

 

Rajah Brooke Suites

The Rajah Brooke Suite’s bedroom

The Rajah Brooke Suite’s bedroom

The charming porch is a highlight of the Rajah Brooke Suite

The charming porch is a highlight of the Rajah Brooke Suite

Who wouldn’t want to take a bath in this adorable tub?

Who wouldn’t want to take a bath in this adorable tub?

There are a total of three Rajah Brooke Suites. The rooms include a personal bar, pre-loaded iPod, four-poster king-size bed and walk-in wardrobe. The tiled veranda has a daybed and a rattan rocking chair. The spacious bathroom with dual washbasins leads to a private garden patio with an outdoor rain shower.

 

Louis Leonowens Suite (the Pool Suite)

The sitting room of the Louis Leonowens Suite, better known as the Pool Suite

The sitting room of the Louis Leonowens Suite, better known as the Pool Suite

The Leonowens Suite’s bedroom

The Leonowens Suite’s bedroom

This spacious suite is as luxurious as it gets. Consisting of a large sitting room with a library of curated books and comfortable sofa and chairs, it would be easy to never want to leave. This room even comes with a private plunge pool. Elephant-motif sculptures and black and white framed photos of old Chiang Mai on the walls evoke the city’s history.

If you’re looking for distinctive luxury lodgings with a glimpse into Chiang Mai’s colonial past, 137 Pillars House has it all and then some. –Duke


137 Pillars House
2 Soi 1, Nawatgate Road
Tambon Wat Gate
Muang Chiang Mai, 50000 Thailand

The Monsters of “Supernatural,” Season 2, Episodes 4-6

A zombie attack, hypnosis and H.H. Holmes all make appearances. Learn how to talk to the dead and prevent corpses from becoming revenants.

Not all zombies want to eat brains. Some go right for the guts

Not all zombies want to eat brains. Some go right for the guts

S2E4: “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things”

Monster: Zombie

Where it’s from: This type hails from Greece

Description: While there are zombie traditions from around the world, this episode deals with the Greek version. Sometimes called revenants, they’re people who have returned from the dead. They still inhabit their old bodies, so they’re often subject to decay.

What it does: The idea of Greek zombies might relate back to the Keres, female spirits of violent death. Their mother is Nyx, the goddess of darkness, and they’re aligned with the Fates, a trio of goddesses who determine people’s destinies (indeed, the Keres are sometimes referred to as the Death Fates).

“Murder Castle,” a massive boarding house, had labyrinthine hallways and secret rooms — including a gas chamber and a large kiln convenient for disposing of bodies.
Zombies are corpses come back from the dead — and they’re not the brightest of the undead

Zombies are corpses come back from the dead — and they’re not the brightest of the undead

This graphic description of a battlefield from Hesiod shows their mad fury for blood and gore, a key part of our modern takes on zombies (such as The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later):

The black Keres, clashing their white teeth, grim-faced, shaggy, blood-bespattered, dread, kept struggling for the fallen. They all wanted to drink black blood whom first they caught, lying or fallen newly wounded. Around him they threw their mighty talons, and the shade to Hades went, in icy Tartarus. Their hearts were glutted with human blood: They threw away the corpse, and back to the tumult and fighting rushed, in new desire.

You can tell a person has returned from the dead from the unholy ground around their grave, revealed by a circle of dead grass.

How to defeat it: Dean: We’ve got a full-on zombie running around. We have to figure out how to kill it.

Sam: Our lives are weird.

There are many reports on how to kill the walking dead — set them on fire, or Sam’s personal favorite: cut out the heart and feed it to a wild dog — but the Winchester Bros. decide to go with silver bullets. Trouble is, this hardly slowed her down: “Damn, that dead chick can run,” Dean says.

In the end, they go with nailing the undead creature back into its grave bed. This means of stopping zombies has been practiced for centuries.

“Ancient Greeks on the island of Sicily had a fear of revenants so dire they weighed bodies down with rocks and amphora pieces to keep them from rising from their graves to haunt the living,” Ancient Origins reports.

On Supernatural, a divination ritual brings the corpse back to life, but divination is really a way to predict the future.

Who hasn’t wanted to speak with the dead? Well, we’ve got just the ritual for you!

Who hasn’t wanted to speak with the dead? Well, we’ve got just the ritual for you!

Necromancy Divination Ritual to Speak With the Dead

Make a figure out of dough to represent the person you want to talk to. Dress it with a few bay leaves and some fennel.

Dig a ditch deep enough to stand in and surround it with incense. Pour in a mixture of wine, honey and milk. Then nick your finger and squeeze a few drops of blood into the mixture.

Work yourself into an ecstatic state (“a few cans of Red Bull will probably do the trick,” jokes the blog’s author) before finally speaking to the dead.

Source: Creating Weirdness on a Daily Basis…

 

Ever done something you regret? Blame it on mesmerism!

Ever done something you regret? Blame it on mesmerism!

S2E5: “Simon Said”

Monster: Mind control

Where it’s from: Germany

Description: This episode focuses on a young man with a strong power of suggestion (think about the famous Jedi line, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”). In fact, he doesn’t even have to speak — he can make you do something just by thinking it. Yikes. That’s quite a power, and would be easy to use for evil.

What it does: Mesmerism, the idea that a person could be healed via thought while they were in a trance, became all the rage in the late 1700s.

Franz Mesmer, for whom the practice is named, was a German physician who devoted his life to the study of energy transfers (or “artificial tides”) he called animal magnetism. It wasn’t until later that mesmerism focused on hypnosis.

Hypnotism is a powerful tool — just imagine getting people to do whatever you want!

Hypnotism is a powerful tool — just imagine getting people to do whatever you want!

How to defeat it: Perhaps the best way to steel your mind to hypnosis is to know how it works. Learn how to put people under your hypnotic spell from the Hypnosis Training Academy.

 

S2E6: “No Exit”

This charming gent is H.H. Holmes, one of the worst serial killers in history

This charming gent is H.H. Holmes, one of the worst serial killers in history

Monster: Spirit of H.H. Holmes, America’s first (and potentially most prolific) serial killer

Where’s it’s from: Holmes lived in Chicago in the late 1800s, during the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Description: This man was truly a monster. Born Herman Webster Mudgett, he went by numerous aliases. He’s infamous for having created what became known as “Murder Castle,” a massive boarding house with labyrinthine hallways and secret rooms — including a gas chamber and a large kiln convenient for disposing of bodies. He admitted to 27 murders, but the death toll could actually be in the hundreds. His gruesome tale is told in Devil in the White City, which is pretty much required reading for Chicagoans.

Holmes’ spirit leaves ectoplasm, which the Winchesters say is only generated by extremely angry spirits.

What it does: Why let death stop you from killing? Holmes’ murderous spirit captures and murders innocent victims.

A rare image of Holmes’ Murder Castle, a boarding house for single women on Chicago’s South Side — quite close to the Columbian Exhibition

A rare image of Holmes’ Murder Castle, a boarding house for single women on Chicago’s South Side — quite close to the Columbian Exhibition

How to defeat it: Stab him with a pure iron dagger to make his pervy hand disappear. And trap him in a circle of salt. It might be a good idea to entomb the spirit in concrete as well, even if that means “borrowing” a cement truck like Dean does. –Wally

Fah Lanna Spa: A Thai Massage and Tok Sen Escape in Chiang Mai

Which direction will you go?

Which direction will you go?

What is tok sen? How is Thai massage different? This spa and café provide a relaxing retreat from a busy vacation in Thailand.

Sadly, Wally and I don’t indulge in spa treatments as often as we’d like. Between everything fitting into a day, making time to pamper ourselves becomes a low priority. After days spent exploring ancient temples, ziplining through the jungle and bathing pachyderms at the Elephant Nature Park, a relaxing respite from our adventures was just what we both needed.

A boardwalk across a koi pond creates an enchanted world at the spa

A boardwalk across a koi pond creates an enchanted world at the spa

With the ethos “easy to find, but hard to forget,” Fah Lanna Spa is located on a quiet street in the northern part of the Old Town in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We were warmly welcomed by the lovely Miss M on our arrival. As we passed into the reception area, the sound of the outside world receded and we found ourselves in a tranquil and intimate open-air courtyard framing the blue sky above, which is appropriate, as the word fah is Lanna for sky.

I felt like a tuning fork as the mallet made contact with the wedge, resonating deep into my musculature. The knocking was precise and never painful and left me feeling blissfully relaxed.
Miss M will hook you up with a customized massage

Miss M will hook you up with a customized massage

We were seated in the garden terrace and served a cup of ruby red roselle tea accompanied by a cooling cloth lightly scented with Fah Lanna’s signature scent. The tea has a flavor similar to a less tart cranberry and is made from the dried outermost crimson-colored sepal of the hibiscus flower.

“We choose roselle tea because it’s refreshing and it cools the body,” M explained.

A few of its additional health benefits include antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which help reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

The foyer at Fah Lanna incorporates elements of a traditional Lanna kitchen, including these drying baskets

The foyer at Fah Lanna incorporates elements of a traditional Lanna kitchen, including these drying baskets

As we enjoyed our tea, we filled out our consultation forms, which included a diagram asking us to circle the specific areas we would like our massage therapists to focus on and what level of pressure we would like applied. I tend to hold tension in my shoulders, so I circled both shoulders and lower back and specified medium pressure. Wally chose the traditional Thai massage, while I decided to give the tok sen massage a try. M reviewed our preferences, confirmed our treatments and gave us a tour of the grounds.

The rooms at Fah Lanna Spa are named for local regions and the handicrafts they’re known for

The rooms at Fah Lanna Spa are named for local regions and the handicrafts they’re known for

Paying Homage to Local Culture

M explained that the award-winning interior reflects traditional Lanna style. The reception area where we were seated is modeled after a Lanna kitchen, complete with handwoven rattan rice-sifting baskets suspended in the air and filled with medicinal roots and herbs left to naturally desiccate. A wooden walkway framed by lush tropical greenery traverses the freshwater pool of the inner courtyard, which is filled with koi. Each of the 25 treatment rooms are named for different districts in the Chiang Mai area and reflect a captivating mix of the traditional regional handicrafts for which they are famous.

The muted palette combined with a wonderful olfactory component further enhance the feeling of peace and calm. I asked M what this was and she smiled and led us to one of the sources. A clay pot typically used to steam rice acts as a conduit for a combination of 108 herbs, slices of kaffir lime and cassumunar ginger, known as plai in Thai, releasing an intoxicating scent. The house-made ginger tea steeping on the terrace also contributes to this wonderful sensory mélange.

“The Lanna people walk and talk slow,” M told us, “which is good for a spa environment.”

After our tour, M introduced us to our massage therapists. Wally’s was named Joy and mine Nok. Could their names be any more perfect? We were led to our private treatment rooms and changed into comfortable, loose-fitting pajama-like clothing.

As my session began, Nok asked me to place my feet into a basin of warm water. She squeezed the juice of two kaffir limes into the water and exfoliated my tired feet with a botanical tamarind and salt scrub.

Thai massage is a bit different than the typical type of massage you get in the States

Thai massage is a bit different than the typical type of massage you get in the States

Thai Massage: Time to Get Bent Out of Shape

Combining elements of acupressure and yoga-like stretching, Thai massage is a pleasantly intense way to start the day. This technique dates back over 2,500 years and was developed by the personal physician to the Buddha himself, Shivago Komarpaj. Considered to be one of the four pillars of Thai traditional medicine, it’s an important component to relaxing the body after extended meditative practices.

There isn’t any oil used, as you might be used to. Instead, Thai massage increases flexibility through stretching, pressure-point manipulation based upon acupuncture points to increase circulation to promote overall health.

Joy got right up on the table with Wally to knead his aching muscles, and a few times she bent him into various positions. “She stretched muscles I never knew I had,” he told me.

After being gently pulled and pummelled, Wally was left feeling relaxed and refreshed.

The tok sen tools of the trade

The tok sen tools of the trade

Tok Sen: This Knock Knock Is No Joke

While Wally tried the Thai massage, I chose the tok sen therapy, a signature specialty of Northern Thailand and the spa. This technique requires special tools: a mallet and wedge blocks made of tamarind wood. Legend has it that the best tok sen mallet and hammer comes from the wood of a tamarind tree struck by lighting. (I can neither confirm or deny that mine was.)

This traditional type of Lanna massage takes its name from the rhythmic sound of the wooden hammer hitting the wedges. Tok means “to hit,” while sen refers to lines of energy that run through the body. By working these pressure points with a steady staccato rhythm, the vibrations release toxins from your body and clear blocked energy. The tapping is carefully applied at either a medium or strong pressure.

Before the vigorous tapping began, Nok applied a menthol balm to my back, which first felt cool on my skin and then warm. I had chosen medium pressure as I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to handle anything above that. I felt a bit like a human tuning fork as the mallet made contact with the wedge, resonating deep into my musculature. The knocking was precise and never painful and left me feeling blissfully relaxed.

Lots of goodies in the gift shop

Lots of goodies in the gift shop

Making Scents

After our treatments, we visited the well-curated gift shop and were served Thai sweet rice crackers and ginger tea. Wally was more dignified than I and only ate one of his rice crackers, while I greedily devoured both of mine and had a second cup of tea.

The spa has its own signature line of exceptional organic wellness products that are available for purchase in its gift shop and online. So even if you can only go as far as your bathroom, the aromatic scents of their products will inspire your own Lanna sanctuary.

Whether or not you stop in for a spa treatment, Fahtara café is a chill place to enjoy a coffee, smoothie or delicious meal

Whether or not you stop in for a spa treatment, Fahtara café is a chill place to enjoy a coffee, smoothie or delicious meal

Fahtara Coffee

We enjoyed lunch at Fahtara Coffee, part of the spa complex, and although I would have loved to have ordered a coffee after our treatment, it seemed counterintuitive, so we each got smoothies: passionfruit for Wally and mango for me. For lunch, Wally ordered the spicy Bangkok-style glass noodle salad with shrimp, calamari and mussels, and I decided on the pad krapow, Thai basil chicken, which had a nice amount of lingering heat to it. Lunch for two, including the smoothies, came to 460 baht or roughly the equivalent of $13.

We were joined by one of the spa’s owners. When he learned this was our last day in Chiang Mai, he said, “You saved the best for last.”

While we sipped our smoothies, he told us more about the spa, which opened at the end of 2011 and has since expanded. The concept came entirely from his boyfriend, who’s from Northern Thailand, while he handles accounting and business operations.

“He’s the artist and I’m German,” he joked.

In short, Fah Lanna is an incredible experience, where you’re sure to find a treatment that is right for you. You can even arrange complimentary pickup from your hotel.

The goal of the spa was “to have something beautiful inspired by traditional culture, but rustic, homey and cozy,” the owner told us. Mission accomplished. –Duke


Fah Lanna Spa

57/1 Wiang Kaew Road, by the corner of Jabhan Road

Near Chang Puak Gate, Old City

50200 Chiang Mai, Thailand


The Bizarre Origins of Phra Upakut

Upakut wears a lotus leaf atop his head and was born from a mermaid swallowing the Buddha’s sperm. We visit his temple in Chiang Mai — and potentially save it from destruction.

Did you know that if a mermaid drinks sperm she can get pregnant? At least according to Buddhist folklore, that is! That’s how Upakut, seen in the middle here, was born

When I first read of Upakut’s bizarre origins, I was instantly drawn to him. So perhaps that’s why fate presented his temple as the first one we stumbled upon on our trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Wally and I walked across the Ping River via the Nawarat Bridge on Tha Phae Road, one stretch of the main thoroughfare that bisects Chiang Mai and leads to the East Gate of the Old City. A large attention-grabbing digital billboard stands on the east corner, and it’s  a challenge to cross the busy street — it’s worth going a bit out of your way to use a crosswalk.

Upakut was conceived when a mermaid ate some of the Buddha’s semen that came off while he washed his robes in a river.

Tha Phae Road is lined with handicraft boutiques, antique shops, banks, restaurants and hotels. Not far from this intersection, we encountered our first temple, Wat Upakut. The temple was built in 1300 and predates the former ancient capital.

Upakut pops up in many of the temples in Chiang Mai. Here he is at the base of the chedi at Wat Lok Molee. Make a game of seeing if you can spot him at the Buddhist temples you visit

Phra Upakut is an important figure in Burma, Northern Thailand and Laos. He is a benevolent deity who protects against all evils and physical harm and is an auspicious attractor of wealth.

There are many different stories regarding his origin. According to Sanskrit legend, he was the son of a perfumer and one of the early adherents of the Buddha. Before the Buddha entered nirvana, he asked Pra Upakut to remain alive until becoming Maitreya, the second coming of the Buddha.

With his lotus cap, alms bowl and upturned smiling face, there’s just something Duke found so appealing about Phra Upakut, seen here at Wat Sang Kaew

Thai Buddhists believe that Upakut is still alive to this day, residing in the middle of the Great Ocean, with a lotus leaf on his head. On the ninth full moon of the year, he roams the streets of Chiang Mai as a monk seeking alms. The first devotee to make an offering will be blessed with good fortune.

 

Under the Sea — and also on Fire

The most colorful story, and my personal favorite, claims that Upakut was the son of Buddha and his mother was a mermaid. He is also known as Bua Khem, whose name means “Needle-Sharp Lotus,” referring to the stem that appears like a point atop the floppy lotus leaf upon his head. According to this version, he was conceived when a mermaid ate some of the Buddha’s semen that came off while he washed his robes in a river.

This unusual offering at Wat Upakut had caught fire — and Wally ran off to tell the monks and save the day

In the wat complex, we meandered to the whitewashed chedi located adjacent to the monks’ living quarters. An offering of a pig’s head and feet sat alongside a black plastic laundry basket with cling-wrapped fruit. Wally was mesmerized by the strange setup, as was I — until I focused and realized that a votive candle had caught the basket on fire and the plastic was half-melted.

“I don’t think that’s supposed to be burning,” I said, and Wally came out of his daze and yelled,“I’m going to see if I can find a monk to put it out!” and dashed off.

After trying to pantomime flames and a melting basket (the monks looked at him like he was crazy), eventually one followed Wally over to the chedi. Not long after, they had found a hose and put out the fire.

Here are some pictures of Wat Upakut, the temple dedicated to him:

My Patron Saint

I purchased a statuette of Upakut, which a monk carefully wrapped and packaged for us. He excitedly told us of the upcoming Phi Ta Khon, the Festival of Ghosts, where an invocation of Upakut takes place at the temple in the wee hours of the morning. Both our eyes lit up as we asked the monk to tell us when this was happening. He seemed bewildered by our question, smiled and placed the small box with Upakut into my hands. We later learned that the festival does not take place until the end of June.

I quickly adopted Upakut as my patron saint, pointing out his likeness at the different temples in Chiang Mai. There’s something comforting in the cross-legged figure with an upturned head, eating from his alms bowl with a serene smile on his face.

Wally couldn’t seem to remember his name and jokingly referred to him as Ipecac, a syrup used to make a child vomit after swallowing poison. Whenever he did so, I tried my best not to smile. –Duke


Wat Upakut

164-166 Tha Phae Rd.

Tambon Chang Moi

Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Thailand