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Heaven and Hell

Chiang Mai and Chaing Rai, Thailand

23 °C

Chiang Mai is a mountainous town tucked away in the Northwestern corner of Thailand. It is close to the borders of both Laos and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and is famous for its beautiful geography, temperate climate and the wonderful wildlife that inhabit the area. My first stop was to a beautiful refuge for the mighty Asian elephants located just 40 miles outside the city.

In 1989, Thailand passed legislation to ban logging in order to prevent further deforestation. Many elephants were employed in this industry to haul logs from one location to the other and were put out of work as a result of these laws. Some were taken and forced to beg on the streets to appease their owners whereas others were outright abandoned. The Elephant Nature Park was established by Sangduen "Lek" Chailert in 1996 as a sanctuary for abused and abandoned elephants. The sanctuary started out with just two elephants but is now home to over forty resident pachyderms.

The first elephant that I worked with at the park had been one of the first rescued by Lek. This elephant's calf had fallen down a steep bank and died rather young. Depressed and distraught, she refused to work for her owner at the time. The owner was angered by her insolence and stuck a rod into her eye which effectively blinded her.

We gathered the food needed for breakfast, and she slowly sauntered to our position to commence feeding. As I picked up each banana bunch, I had to touch her trunk softly to indicate that I was going to hand her food since the incident left her with severely limited sight. When she felt my touch, I extended the bananas so that she could grasp them with her trunk and place them in her mouth.

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Time for breakfast

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Gently placing the bananas in her trunk

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Smiling at the success of the handoff

After breakfast, we took a journey to the pen to see the newest arrival to the herd. Baby Navaan was born on October 28th, 2012 and weighed 213 pounds (97 kilograms). When he was born, the entire heard trumpeted in unison to celebrate the birth; a common practice in elephant communities. The staff had only rescued the mother 9 months prior and had no idea that she was pregnant until she began to have contractions (elephant pregnancies last between 18 and 24 months). The baby seemed happy and healthy and is only being kept in the pen so that he is not trampled by his older kinsmen. Once he is large enough, he will be allowed to roam with the others in the 2,000 acre open space of the sanctuary.

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The two-month-old calf, Navaan

As we observed the new edition interact with his mother, I noticed that one of the elephants was seemingly tossing dirt at me. I asked our guide if I had somehow offended the creature, and she reassured me by saying that it was actually throwing dirt onto its own back. Elephants do this for many reasons including a way to keep cool in the afternoon heat and protect themselves from mosquitoes.

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Adding a layer

We had lunch and then put on our swim trunks so that we could go bathe their trunks. We splashed water on them (and a little on each other) as they patiently stood by. Once they had had enough, they trotted off seemingly to dry themselves in the hot afternoon soon. We found them only five minutes later playing joyfully in a puddle of mud. Although I don't have children yet, this is probably the frustration that comes with trying to clean a slightly rambunctious child.

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A family of elephants migrating to take a dip in the river

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Getting clean

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Drying Off

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...And then getting dirty again

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A good end to the day

The next day was tailored a bit more towards my adrenaline side. Those of you who have followed me before know that I have a slight penchant towards the physically extreme (for those of you who haven't seen the In Vivo film, Check it out here). While this trip has been fantastic so far, it wouldn't be complete without at least one activity where I needed to sign a death and dismemberment waiver.

A van arrived at my hostel early in the morning and took me and 8 other individuals to the Flight of the Gibbon Zip-line adventure in the mountains of Chiang Mai. While the gibbons were sparse to say the least, the flights were definitely plentiful.

My guide for the day was a slightly unhinged and hilarious man named Cash. He would often shake the line as we went through the jungle and crack jokes to make those afraid of heights feel a bit more at ease. There were 18 zip-lines throughout the course with the longest measuring over 2,400 feet in length. This last zip-line is the longest in Asia and shot me through the jungle with dizzying speed (video below).

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Ready to go

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Hooking up to the first platform

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has nothing on me

The 2400 Foot Monster

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A nice view from the top

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Me with the man in black

On the third day, I hired a car to take me on the three and a half hour journey North to the town of Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai is a sleepy hamlet that has recently gained fame as the site of Wat Rong Khun (translated as "The White Temple"). In 1997, famed Thai architect Chalermchai Kositpipat decided that he wanted to give something back to his place of birth and embarked on a mission to build a new age Buddhist Temple in Chiang Rai. He has labored on the structure tirelessly and has taken on 67 disciples to assist in the completion of his vision. This temple is still very much a work in progress with an estimated completion date of 2070.

The edifice is purely white with small reflective pieces used to accentuate the elaborate statues. As I approached the temple, I noticed a small bridge that I needed to cross over before I arrived at the main structure. Underneath the bridge were dozens of arms reaching up from a pit which is meant to symbolize hell. As the artist puts it, "to reach heaven, you need to pass suffering." The image was powerful, but it would not prepare me for the darker images that I would see later that day.

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At first glance

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The exhibition of suffering

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From the depths of hell

Once I passed over the bridge, I was flanked by two angels that guard the entrance to the temple itself. I gently removed my shoes to enter the temple and marveled at the incredible interior as I walked inside.

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True serenity

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And incomparable beauty

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Entering the temple

The interior was nothing short of otherworldly. However, I began to notice odd quirks that distinguished it from the more ancient temples within the country. The mural within the shrine has been under construction for over three years. A large Buddha image is surrounded by tiny figures from American pop-culture including: Michael Jackson; Bumble Bee from Transformers; Leonidas from 300; Neo from the Matrix and a picture of an Angry Bird next to a collapsing World Trade Center. Other oddities include a Predator writhing in agony as well as a few peculiar traffic cones just outside the main hall.

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No pictures are allowed inside, but I managed to capture this blurry photo. You can see Neo to the upper left, the speeder used by Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, Episode I; Bumble Bee from the movie, Transformers and one of the dragon-like creatures from Avatar.

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More like prey

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Not your average traffic cone

The project has cost the architect over 10 million US dollars since its inception in 1997. He raises money through the sale of prints of his paintings as well as pendants. After a pendant is purchased, the buyer writes the name and birth date of the person he/she wishes to bring luck and hangs it on special trees within the temple grounds. This ritual is a common practice among native Thais, and there are literally thousands of these pendants hanging throughout the park.

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One of the pendant trees

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Hanging the newest pendant

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Dedicated to Danielle Davis, born nearly 26 years ago

Just 15 miles up the road from the White Temple sits a structure in stark contrast, Black House. Whereas the White Temple emphasizes purity and heavenly ideals, Black House is filled with items highlighting death and suffering. As I approached the first massive black pagoda, I literally felt like I was walking into hell. The entrance hall was barren aside from a few possessions carefully arranged within the cavernous interior. The most imposing piece was a massive table that is over a hundred feet long that straddles the front and back entrances. At the heads of this table sat massive chairs make of tusks and horns from various animals. The table itself was adorned with numerous table runners made out of snake skin and still containing the heads of the vanquished creatures. The periphery contained numerous massive wooden pillars which depicted animals in their final moments of life with skins carefully strung across them.

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The infamous and imposing Black House

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The door to hell

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The chair of a fallen angel

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A table runner complete with snake head

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Not optimized for comfort

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Heads of dragons

Beyond this entrance hall sat numerous other pagodas in the same signature black coloration. The most disturbing was a pagoda enclosing a table seemingly set for meals. Turtle shells rested where the plates normally were placed, and the centerpiece was a likeness of a man who was near death from overwhelming hunger. The chairs surrounding the table were in the same sadistic style as the main entry hall, and I could just stare in morbid fascination at the sites that were laid before me.

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Elephant bones carefully placed

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Cryptic signs pointing to nowhere

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Carving out the sky

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A demonic table set

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An ironic center piece for a feast

As I walked through the grounds with my visibly shaken tour guide, she whispered to me that the artist was sitting near the main pagoda talking to a few other visitors. I decided I wanted to pay my respects to this man, and I ventured over to meet him. As I approached, I became more scared of the figure that sat before me.

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The master of his domain

"May I take your picture?" I sheepishly asked, not fully sure he understood English.

"It would be my pleasure," he gently responded.

I fumbled with the camera, but eventually took his picture all the same. "Where are you from?" He asked me with an affable smile.

"Los Angeles, California," I responded, eyes pointed towards the ground.

"I have a house in Pasadena, but I decided that I wanted to be among my things if the world did in fact end on December 21st," he mused.

We exchanged smiles, and I began asking him questions about his career, his current work, the 36 year labor that was before me, and the inspiration to start it all.

"In my twenties, I was inspired by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. I was later inspired by Francis Bacon and other thinkers in that period. But one day I was talking to Jackson Pollack, and I suddenly didn't care what anyone else thought. In my forties, I became enlightened, and I just created what was in my heart," he said with a peaceful smile.

I thanked him for his time and bowed in reverence as I took my leave. I entered the car and began to think about what I had seen for the long ride back to Chiang Mai. I had seemingly witnessed heaven and hell, and I reflected a considerable amount about my own mortality. I struggled to determine why a man would create something so frightening and simultaneously be so at peace with the work. Was it an outlet for his inner demons, or was it just acceptance that death was as much a part of the world as living?

Where the White Temple brought inner peace and childlike fascination, the Black House brought turmoil and fear of the unknown. I don't know if I will ever truly understand the magnitude of what I witnessed today, but I know that I am deeply grateful for the lessons that this experience afforded. It's off to the Southern peninsula and the island of Phuket, more to come soon...

Posted by mbeymer 25.12.2012 05:10 Archived in Thailand

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