Three Things Thursday; three shades, none of which are grey

One thing travel involves a lot of is colour; whether it’s colourful individuals (we’ve all encountered ‘colourful characters’ in a hostel), colourful language (as in “f*@! this sh?#, why the hell don’t the buses work here?!?!?” or a number of other travel frustrations which can build up on a long journey), or in this case, colourful architecture and some creative protests.

This month I’m sharing some recent and not so recent colourful places from north Thailand and the Macedonian capital, Skopje.

Thing 1 ~ the White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

The laid-back northern city of Chiang Rai has beckoned to me since my first visit to Thailand, nearly 20 years ago. I finally made it last December, once the evils of the Delta module 1 exam were behind me, and Wat Rong Khun was high on my list of places to visit.

Probably the most spectacular sight in Chiang Rai, the Wat sits on the final turn to go in to the city, about 15km from the town centre. The work in progress of a local artist with a global mindset, Chalermchai Kositpipat, the White Temple is a functioning place of worship, tourist destination, and dazzling work of art. Under the bright Thai sun, the white paint and thousands of tiny mirrors and tiles leave you squinting even through sunglasses.

macabre but so glittery

macabre but so glittery!

Take an hour or so to mill around the temple itself and enjoy the mixture of religious imagery ranging from Ganesh to Jedi knights, and don’t miss the art gallery over the road; a well-laid out showcase for the artist’s paintings which range from the sublime to the satirical.

As the last main town before the border with Burma, buses between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are frequent and easy to get. Instead, Wonderboy and I swapped in our rented Honda Dream for something with a slightly larger engine and took off on the pretty but agonizingly bum-numbing four hour drive through the mountains and national parks of the north. My tip for fellow travellers – take the bus.

Thing 2 ~ the Black House, Chiang Rai

Another shade, another artist. This time Dr. Thawan Duchanee. The Baan Dam, or Black House is as dark and mysterious as the White Temple is glitzy and uplifting. Fantastical wood carvings frame the entry of the main hall, which is also adorned with carved, feathered and horned banqueting furniture, for want of a better description.

Horns, huge animal horns, provide much of the theme of the many rooms and outbuildings of the Black House. If, like me, you’ve just finished watching the NBC / AXN series Hannibal when you visit it may prove quite disturbing. The small outhouse bathroom decorated with gourds carved as genitals hanging from the walls comes as a bit of light relief from the towering black carved thrones surrounded by horns.

The work here is also a living piece of art, and a workshop down the hill towards the lake attests to huge pieces of wood still being shaped and worked as well as a variety of other crafts taking place, albeit not by the original artist. The lake at the bottom of the grounds is peaceful, with swans gliding about as swans do. There is also a series of small domes hosting more skulls, horns, and thrones; a white church, and a fantastic gilded temple within a low building housing another workshop for more detailed creative work.

The Black House is not that far from the centre of Chiang Rai although it is down a back street and not easy to spot. I recommend hiring a bike and spending some time here wandering. It is featured on the city map (although use an online map to make it easier to find, if you can) and you’ll need to check on opening times, as there was a siesta period in the middle of the day while I was there. Make sure you have a good hour to look around.

Thing 3 ~ multicoloured monuments, Skopje, FYR Macedonia

Six days in to my most recent, cross-Europe adventure and I landed in Skopje after a night bus from Istanbul to Sofia, a whistle-stop tour of Sofia, and a further bus to Skopje. I was tired and pretty disoriented. A twenty minute walk from the bus station towards the centre of town and our not-so-easy-to-find apartment and I was sitting in a park, looking at a quite impressive statue which was covered in colour bursts.

Me “Do you think that’s supposed to look like that?”

Wonderboy “Uh? Like what? Oh. Um. I dunno.”

My eye wanders to the large brick building across the road from the statues. It looks big. It looks municipal. It’s got flags. It is also covered in colourful starbursts.

Many hued building

Many hued building

Me “What about that one? Is this colourful artistic expression or has someone held a paintballing protest?”

At this point Wonderboy highlights that one reason he expressed a strong desire to make a stop in Skopje (rather than pass through as advised by friends) was that he’s read about Skopje being a secret haven for artistic expression and somewhat of a European hidden gem. We later also walk past the Triumphal Arch – covered in paint blobs, the law courts – covered in paint blobs; and a few other key statues, also covered in paint blobs. There’s a theme developing. It’s cool, whether intentionally so or not.

Later the same evening we return to the street we’re staying on to find it barricaded by riot police. Hoots and bells can be heard approaching from a distance. A large and colourful column of protesters files down the street minutes later. We investigate via the Internet.

Wikipedia informs us that the people of Macedonia (FYRo) are conducting a protracted series of protests known as the ‘Colourful Revolution‘ (Шарената револуција) against a corrupt government. This had most recently involved waterballoon-bombing high profile statues and buildings, the structures themselves a part of the scandal which has seen public money disappearing into Skopje’s peculiar statue-and-impressive-buildings project since 2014, rather than being spent on more needed public resources, presumably.

Given the more violent scenes of protest that appear on news programmes on a regular basis, and the incredible welcome that we received around the country from an array of wonderful people, the Colourful Revolution appears, from my outsider’s perspective, to be a great, eye-catching way to support an important point and raise interest in the ongoing argument from a group of citizens who have a clear and informed vision of where their country should be heading. A stark contrast to my own native land, and it certainly got at least two visitors interested in what’s going on.

Triumphal colours

Triumphal colours

Turning up in Skopje and expecting very little, I was really pleasantly surprised by my stay, protests and all. Yes, other than the Stone Bridge there isn’t much ‘old city’ to see.  If you’ve been to any other eastern European old town, there’s little here that will impress or amaze. The new town is just as all cities are in the region. The complex of faux-historical buildings currently under construction or recently finished along the riverfront are very bizarre, and the monolithic new statues are equally baffling, although impressive in scale. However, …… I left a little of my heart in Skopje, for all that.

I had a great welcome to a lovely flat housed in a huge old Soviet-style housing block. The early summer weather was mild and pleasant. The one museum I went to (the city’s Jewish museum) was free. The food I had was plentiful, delicious, and even though it was on the main drag, it was relatively cheap. There was a street theatre festival about to take place in the main plaza and surrounds, and, best of all, when I went for a run in the evening, I found the river banks full of hundreds of keen exercisers. Families, groups of mates our for a jog, solo runners, cyclists, and rollerbladers. For me, Skopje proved a warm, welcoming and enlivening city.

It also looked great!

Colour bombed Justice

Colour bombed Justice

The links:

Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) information on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wat_Rong_Khun

and Wikipedia information on the artist: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalermchai_Kositpipat

Baan Dam (the Black House) an article from The Chiang Rai Times: http://www.chiangraitimes.com/inspired-in-chiang-rai-baan-dam-the-black-house.html

and the artist’s web page (in English): http://www.thawan-duchanee.com/index-eng.htm

Getting around in Chiang Rai, especially bus info to get to sites, courtesy of Wikitravel, which was quite useful for a couple of days in Chiang Rai. http://wikitravel.org/en/Chiang_Rai

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