Cabbages and Condoms
Our next destination was the border town of Chiang Khong, located on the banks of the Mekong River, directly opposite the town of Huay Xai in Laos. Armed with snacks, water and charged iPods we set off from Chiang Mai in our mini-vans, for the six hour drive to the border.
We were headed first to the town of Chiang Rai, on the edge of The Golden Triangle – the area bordering Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos and infamous for Opium cultivation and traffiking. The area is home to interesting and colourful ethnic minorities, known as the hill tribes. We were stopping in Chiang Rai for lunch and a wander through the Hill Tribe Museum. There are six broad hill tribe groups: Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha and Mien. Each tribe has its own customs, language, dress and spiritual beliefs. Most of the hill tribes living in the remote upland areas practice subsistence farming. They were pretty much left alone until the 1950s, when the increase in their numbers, extreme poverty, statelessness and threat of insurgency forced the Thai government to establish the National Committee for the Hill Tribes.
Opium cultivation was a major source of income for many of the hill tribes and the government has worked hard to eradicate this cultivation by successfully substituting it with other cash crops, such as cabbages and fruits. This is known as the Royal project, initiated by his Highness King Rama IX, and commended internationally for its success.
The success has led to the loss of the traditional way of life, however. The tribes have increasingly had to abandon shifting cultivation in favor of rotational cropping and permanent field systems. In addition they have often had to relocate from their preferred habitats in high areas near primary watersheds.
The museum sits above a very interesting restaurant, called Cabbages and Condoms. You may wonder how the Cabbages and Condoms or “C&C” got its peculiar name. Mr. Mechai (aka- Mr. Condom) said that you can go to any shop around Thailand and you will always find cabbages. Condoms should be like cabbages – ubiquitous. And so the name Cabbages and Condoms (C&C) was conceived.
C&C is PDA’s public-benefit restaurant used to promote family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention in Thailand.
Our other stop along the way was just outside of Chiang Rai, at Wat Rong Khun (yet another temple)
We thought we had pretty much been templed out – following our previous trip to Cambodia (Once you’ve seen Angkor Wat is there really anything else?) However this temple really is worth seeing. Wat Rong Khun is different from any other temple in Thailand, as its ubosot (Pali: uposatha; consecrated assembly hall) is designed in white color with some use of white glass. The white color stands for Lord Buddha’s purity; the white glass stands for Lord Buddha’s wisdom that “shines brightly all over the Earth and the Universe.”
The bridge leading to the temple represents the crossing over from the cycle of rebirth to the Abode of Buddha. The small semicircle before the bridge stands for the human world. The big circle with fangs is the mouth of Rahu, meaning impurities in the mind, a representation of hell or suffering.
All the paintings inside the ubosot (assembly hall) have golden tones. The four walls, ceiling and floor contain paintings showing an escape from the defilements of temptation to reach a supramundane state. On the roof, there are four kinds of animals representing earth, water, wind and fire. The elephant stands for the earth; the naga stands for water; the swan’s wings represent wind; and the lion’s mane represents fire. The paintings also contain many modern elements, to represent the times we are in now. Depictions of the destruction of the Twin Towers, modern movie characters, recent events are cleverly woven into the mural – unfortunately though photography inside the ubosot is forbidden.
In 1997, Chalermchai Kositpipat volunteered his service to carry out the construction of the ubosot at his own expense as an offering to Lord Buddha, but he later altered the plan as he saw fit in such a way that Wat Rong Khun developed into a prominent site attracting both Thai and foreign visitors.
Nowadays, Wat Rong Khun is still being constructed. When completed, the construction project will consist of nine buildings: the ubosot, the hall containing Lord Buddha’s relics, the hall containing Buddha images, the preaching hall, the contemplation hall, the monk’s cell, thedoor façade of the Buddhavasa, the art gallery, and the toilets.
(EDIT OCTOBER 2014) In May 2014 the temple was partially destroyed by an earthquake in the region. It is forbidden to enter many of the buildings until structural repairs have been carried out although photos can be taken from outside.
Back in the mini-vans, it was on the road again to our resting place for the night, Chiang Khong, meaning “City on the Mekong”. In the 1260’s Chiang Khong became one of the Lanna Thai Kingdom’s major principalities. In 1558 along with the rest of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Khong was captured by the Burmese only to be returned more than 200 years later. Chiang Khong is an important trading town for the hill tribes of Mien and White Hmong who live nearby.
On first inspection the town, seems merely the gateway to Laos, but dig a little deeper and you can always find something of interest. Small but quaint guesthouses line the river banks and you can relax on their verandahs with a cold Chang Beer and watch the evening roll in over the Mekong, Laos beckoning across the water. Strolling down the street in the early evening, music blares out, instructions being shouted in Thai – it sounds suspiciously like an aerobics class and sure enough it is, but we were a little late to join in this time. A bit further on and we come across the local night market, vendors pedaling all sorts of local delicacies, fried crispy crickets, eels, catfish, sweet sticky rice in bamboo. A sudden downpour results in a sprint back to our guesthouse, ending our exploration of Chiang Khong. Time to settle in for one last Chang before finally making our way to Laos.
Tiger Ted managed to find the only bar and pool table in town…. Naturally he was accompanied by Paul and Dave, strictly to keep him out of trouble of course. And lucky they did, because he almost got into a fight with a crazy Belgian.