Phangan Paradise

Far away from the chaos and noise awaits an enchanting beach. On the Island of Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand, you can find the perfect hideaway–Tong Nai Pan Noi. Silky white sands, crystal clear waters…where the sea washes away all your worries.
Please take a moment to enjoy the sights and sounds of paradise:

Many people know Phangan Island (or Koh Phangan) for its wild Full Moon beach parties on the southern end…but this beach gem is isolated on the northeast coast of the island, offering quiet relaxation and rejuvenation. It has gained a reputation as one of the most perfect beaches in Thailand, discretely hidden away and yet just accessible and developed enough to make it convenient and pleasant.

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Accommodation: Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan Villas

The Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan Villas offer the beach’s most luxury accommodation, although there are other choices available for different budgets. The following review focuses on my own experience at Anantara Rasananda and a few local restaurants, but I’m confident in this beautiful setting, one can experience the magical charm of Thong Nai Pan Noi beach at many different levels.

Our first visit to Rasananda came three years ago when we stepped off the deluxe speed boat from Samui into the gentle surf, greeted with smiles and fragrant flowers by the entire staff, including the General Manager.

The Anantara offers many units with plunge pools where you can look over the picturesque beach from privacy, or you can chill out under brilliant red canopies on the beach chairs, where the attentive staff caters to all your needs. As a luxury resort, you enjoy many little extra touches of service, such as free drinks to start your day on the beach chairs, occasional offers of free fresh fruit throughout the day, and complimentary liquors in the room.

Anantara has free use of water sport equipment, such as kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, and even a new stand-up peddle board, for relaxed floating in the well-protected waters of the bay.

The resort recently opened an atmospheric Japanese teppanyaki restaurant, and offers international and Thai dining as well as a large wine selection. They run special events throughout the week to entertain the guests, such as Thai dancing, movie night, and special buffets. To make someone feel really special, you can arrange romantic personalized candlelit beachside dining under a dreamy flowered canopy.

Local Restaurants

The local scene, especially at night, is quiet, but still offers nice choices for dining or drinking. Close to the beach is a large seafood barbecue restaurant which usually features a live singer or band, and a few nicely appointed bars offering cocktails, local beers, and a small selection of imported beers. Further from the shore, along the single road that accesses the area, one can find a couple of humble places serving Northeast Thai cuisine (which tends to be spicier), as well as other Thai restaurants, the largest of which is probably Jib Shop. A reggae bar, Rasta Baby Bar, tucked up in the tree-covered hill usually has something going on, while a “Mexican” restaurant, Hacienda Happy Days, nearby is often lively with margarita and rum drinkers. One has to appreciate the challenge the Finnish owner of this Mexican restaurant faces, as authentic ingredients are usually impossible to find in Thailand; but the food provides a change in taste, and the avocados made for a fresh guacamole. Just down the road from this establishment are several other excellent fine dining choices offering quality western cuisine, including That’s Amore Pizzeria Trattoria, Valentino Restaurant and Wine Bar, and Luna Restaurant. For cheaper eats, check out the small shacks on the small side road leading to the back of Anantara, where you can order Pad Thai noodles (about 2 USD), mango shake (About 1 USD), or dessert crepes with choices like Nutella, banana, and ice cream (3 USD).

How to Get There

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If you can’t afford the rather pricey deluxe speed boat service of the resorts, the best cheap alternative is to take one of the ferry services. Seatran offers passenger-only service from Surat Thani (Donsak Pier) or from Samui. If you want to take a car, you’ll need to use Raja Ferry service, which has trips from Surat Thani, Donsak Pier, every two hours (except over lunch time) starting at 6 am. The trip takes 2.5 hours to Thong Sala pier on the Southwest side of Phangan, but the road across to Thong Nai Pan is very well maintained and takes only about 20 minutes.

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It’s a little bit off the beaten path, but of course, that’s the point! Thong Nai Pan Noi is my favorite beach in all of Thailand…I hope you have a chance to taste a little bit of paradise as well!

Dovetail Groove Method Tunes and Had Yao Beach, Krabi

Pictures taken during an eventful jog along Had Yao Beach, Krabi, Thailand on June 10th, 2017. Music by my son, David Cummings, from his newly-released album “Dovetail Groove Method.” It’s available at https://agargara.bandcamp.com

 

Making Long-tail boats (so named because of the long propeller shaft on the back once the engine is installed) is an important cottage industry in this area.

Our quiet, wide and long beach makes a great area for motorized paragliding. From a previous conversation with one of the aviators, they are making plans to build a small airstrip for ultra-light aircraft in a field just off of the beach. Great potential for some adventure tourism!

With beautiful sunsets every night over the Andaman, you can’t help but raise your arms and kiss the warm sea breeze.

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The Hidden Temple of Chiang Mai: Wat Phalad

A tranquil, hidden treasure away from the bustling crowds of Chiang Mai.

Enjoy a refreshing hike on shady trails, escorted by hundreds of colorful butterflies, serenaded by tropical songbirds, accompanied by the flowing sounds of the babbling mountain stream. The hike’s reward is the tranquil, meditative atmosphere of Wat Phalad (วัดผาลาด), tucked away on Suthep mountain, perched at the head of a gentle rock waterfall. Come along the transformative journey with us in the music and natural sounds video below.

According to blog author Jeffrey Warner, legend says that an earth god visited a hermit and company resting on Suthep mountain, and began teaching them spiritual wisdom. Upon making a prophecy about the future greatness of Chiang Mai in the valley below, he left a footprint in the rock, visible only to those worthy to see it, and left the hermits to guard it.

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Stone angels greet the hiker at the top of the trail entering into the temple.

Eons later, a Chiang Mai king sent a white elephant carrying a Buddha relic to find a sacred place to keep the treasure. Three times on the journey up Suthep mountain, the elephant stopped and knelt. On the final stop near the top, the elephant circled and cried out 3 times and died.

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Saffron cloths mark the path and add to the atmosphere of a mystical journey.

Each stop became a temple site. At the bottom of the mountain are the ruins of the first, Wat Samyob, also known as Wat Sodapunnaram. The third stop, near the present-day Sirintorn Astronomical Observatory, is Wat Anakamiwanaram. The final resting place of the ill-fated elephant, where the relic was preserved in a chedi, was Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, one of the most renowned temples of the Chiang Mai area.

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Barustraded steps draw one from one inspired world to the next.

The second resting place was Phalad Temple, built approximately 650 years ago. Wat Phalad literally means “Temple of the Sloping Cliff,” as it sits atop a sloping rocky waterfall. It is very much integrated into the surround jungle, shrouded in lush green foliage. Along with the unobtrusive monks, stone angels and mythical creatures watch over the nooks and crannies of the grounds. The multi-tiered layout draws one into a magical journey, up and down balustrade stairs from one tranquil world to the next.

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The trail starts on a small road that leads to a communications tower, and is marked by a green, covered sign with a map of the trail. Expect a moderate workout on a well-defined trail for about 45 minutes. Informative nature signs, explaining some of the flora and fauna of the area, are scattered along the trail, but the most enchanting and helpful guide to stay on course are the saffron-colored cloths, made from the same cloth monks wear, tied around the trees. I recommend a sturdy pair of walking shoes, some water, and mosquito repellant may be helpful.

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The trail starts at the green marked area “Wat Pha Lat Hike.” Use the road that goes to the communications tower to find the trail head.

The trail and temple are not heavily traveled…a welcome alternative to the bustling and more commercialized Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. For those who love the beauty of religious sculpture and architecture in a natural setting, try a meditative journey to Wat Phalad.

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Author Robert Cummings and Ariya Chittawong

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Had Yao Beach, Krabi

 

Had Yao (which means “Long Beach”) is a quiet beach located in Krabi, Thailand, populated mostly by Muslim fishermen, long-tail boat artisans, and farmers. It is my occasional home, where I enjoy jogging, biking, or just strolling to the gentle sounds of the surf rolling in. The local long-tail boat craftsmen are renowned throughout the southern regions of Thailand for their exceptional skills, and there’s nothing like the smell of the freshly-hewn wood as you stroll by their cottage industry. It’s a delight to see local fishermen and women wading out in the shallow surf casting their nets in the early morning or evening, often with rambunctious children in tow. Low tides bring out crowds of clam seekers, digging up a local delicacy which titillates the tongue with the spicy lime and chili seafood sauce. On special Chinese days, we even witness colorful rituals honoring gods of the sea. We have several boutique resorts here, and villas for rent…but mostly it’s a lovely, rustic setting with a daily symphony of birds, cattle, and goats with a chorus of frogs and crickets to welcome our cool, unpolluted, star-filled evenings. Please enjoy this video of my adopted home.

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Authentic Italian at Ciao Ciao Italia

Set in a charming labyrinth of cobblestone paths and artisan shops, experience the passion of an Italian chef serving authentic cuisine.

Art is passion, and passion abounds in the Nimmanhaemin area of Chiang Mai. Capturing the spirit of this arts, culture and entertainment center is a unique retail area called Think Park.  At the southwestern corner of Nimmanhaemin and Huaykaew, across from the Maya Lifestyle Mall, its small arts and handicrafts shops and street café-style restaurants, located in a labyrinth of cobblestoned and wooden pathways allows patrons to feel like they are entering into a different world. And one of those worlds belongs to Italy, where Italian Chef Robby produces his pizzas and pastas with passion.

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Source: Google maps

The best part of the visit at this humble and homey shop was watching Chef Robby practice his art with meticulous care. From kneading the dough, to creating a fresh lasagna layer by layer, he obviously enjoyed creating authentic dishes and serving his customers. It’s a small operation, with just the chef and one industrious wait staff, with probably about 10 tables, and a limited size kitchen, so one will need a little patience during busy times—but the wait is worth the taste. We arrived on a Thursday evening, about 7 pm, and seated ourselves among about four other tables of guests, outside, with a front row view of the kitchen. The outside seating is in a courtyard area with some greenery and small artisan shops, giving it a cozy yet cosmopolitan feel.

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We ordered a half liter of the house red wine for 300 baht; I’m afraid I didn’t ask for the brand or type, but it had the smooth but not overly sweet taste of chianti. The bruschetta Pomodoro starter that we ordered came out fairly quickly, with four thin crusts of toast topped with marinated tomatoes and garlic (120 baht). The taste was light and fresh, not too heavy on the garlic.

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Next came the pizza calabrese (260 baht), with a thin and delicious crust covered with small salami slices, fresh tomato sauce and a good amount of cheese. The pizza was satisfying with a big enough portion to have about half left over for my favorite breakfast menu item!! The highlight of the food, though, was the handcrafted lasagna al forno, or as the menu proclaims, “the classic” (280 baht). The pasta and cheese layers were silky smooth, and the meat sauce (apparently a combination of ground beef and pork) was full of rich flavor.

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The menu contains the basic Italian classics, at prices that are comparatively reasonable for non-Thai food choices in the area…and in fact, a bit cheaper than some of the other foreign food restaurants in this trendy area. When you’re in the mood for some authentic Italian food in Chiang Mai, I highly recommend Ciao Ciao Italia.

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Art Without Borders: Murals of Phumin Temple, Nan, Northern Thailand

I love maps! I’ve always been fascinated by them, probably because they drew me into an imaginative world of travels. My parents had subscribed to National Geographic since time immemorial, and I loved getting the magazine in the mail, wrapped in brown paper, special issues bearing the prize of a folded map inserted in the pages—it was more exciting to me than pulling out the prize in a box of Cap’n Crunch! But what I understood as “boundaries”…those little solid lines on our two-dimensional representations of a multi-dimensional world, were less solid and real than I could have imagined. If you Google a map of southern China and continental Southeast Asia, you’ll see something like this:

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Source: https://www.google.com/maps/

What you won’t get from this Google map, though, is the fluid nature of people, culture, language, and art. You miss the incredible stories carried in the minds of wandering peoples, the innumerable ways of looking at and drawing the world. Sure, in the world of taxes and security and welfare states—who gets benefits and who pays for them–boundaries are important; but in the world of ideas, the boundaries are fluid, and much to the benefit of the human race. Look again at the map above, and find the small area in the most southern part of Yunnan Province in China. You’ll see a long place name called Xishuangbanna (西双版纳 สิบสองปันนา). Now, erase in your mind those lines separating China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, and imagine a verdant, undulating mountain landscape of networked villages filled with wooden houses on long stilt columns, with groups sharing many similar cultures, languages and lifestyles. One broad categorization of these groups is the Dai, or Tai peoples (傣族 ไท), and this group accounts in large part for the wonderful and uniquely beautiful mural art style in several temples of Nan province, in the northern part of Thailand. The genius of one particular mural painter from the late 19th century delights one with its creativity and blending of multiple influences, while creating a style found only in Nan.

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Author with a mountain ethnic group member in the Thai province of Mae Hong Son. 2010.

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Nan Province, Thailand, highlighted. Source: NordNordWest (self-made, using  Thailand location map.svg) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

The most accessible and well-known example of Nan’s unique mural art style is located in the heart of the small community situated on the right (West) bank of the Nan River, in Phumin Temple. Phumin Temple, like nearly all temples of the Tai people, is of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, linking Tais more closely to the Buddhist tradition of Southeast Asia, rather than the predominant Mahayana Buddhist tradition of China. Established around 1596, it’s a modest-sized structure, forming a cross pattern with entrances from the four cardinal points, with fearsome snake-like Naga creatures protecting the north and south approaches.

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Views of the exterior of Wat (Temple) Phumin

Source: Robert Cummings

The most interesting features of the temple are the enchanting murals covering the inner walls from top to bottom. Fortunately, we know the name of the talented artist who created these wonderful images of Tai people’s life—Nhan Buaphan, an ethnic Tai Lue (one of the subcategories of Tai people), who was commissioned to complete the renovation of the temple from 1867 to 1895. His handiwork exhibits a sense of eloquence, playful romance, and appreciation for the art and tradition of the region. As in some other Thai temples, the murals are split into various levels

–a heavenly realm telling stories of the Buddha

–a princely realm detailing royal deeds, including military accomplishments, often casting actual contemporary rulers in the roles of ancient heroes and spiritual figures

–a lower level relating local peoples and their customs, often extolling their hard work or depicting them in an idyllic natural setting of contentment with life

–an area portraying the tortures of the underworld as a warning to disobedient people

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Views of the upper levels with various pictures of the Buddha and a heavenly realm.

Source: Robert Cummings

The murals depict stories of the Buddhist tradition, in this case a series of stories known as Jataka tales from a Bhodhisattva predecessor to the Buddha, named Khattha Kumara. According to local Nan artist Winai Prabripoo, this “pre-incarnation” of the Buddha traveled around to help suffering beings.  On one of his travels, accompanied by two friends, he came upon a desolated city of Khwangtha Buri. A previous ruler of the city had been so full of vice and disrespect for the ten kingly virtues that the gods sent venomous snakes to kill all but the king’s daughter, Nang Kong Sing, who hid in a large wooden drum. Khatta Kumara serendipitously discovered this woman when he hit the drum with a stick and noticed the unusual sound. The lovely young lady let Khatta Kumara know that if smoke were to reach into the sky, all those vicious snakes would descend to earth from the sky, prompting the heroic character to light a huge fire to bring down the snakes and kill them. He then rebuilt the city, giving the young princess to one of his friends, who would stay behind and rule the reborn community. As Khatta Kumara traveled on to his next adventure, he found a similar deserted city of Chawathawadi. Again, he discovered a beautiful young princess hiding in a pillar in the palace, who told of the folly of her father that brought about tragedy to the city. Out hunting, a bird defecated on him, causing the king to become so enraged that he ordered all the birds to be killed. Again the gods were affronted, sending a great swarm of vicious birds that killed all but the hidden daughter. The hero repeated his bold act to bring down the murderous birds, dispatching them just as he had the snakes, and handing this beautiful maiden to his second companion to rule the city. Thus, the religious story is imbued with not just one, but two romantic unions of heroic leaders and virtuous beauties, which is reflected in many of the mural scenes of couples, princely warriors, and beautiful women.

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The Whispering of Love

Source: Robert Cummings

By far the most well-known of the couples is a scene that artist Nhan Buaphan captioned with the words “poo marn yar marn,” or literally “Burmese man Burmese woman.” Reproductions of this touching painting, or some creative version of them, are ubiquitous throughout Nan; it has gained the moniker “Whispering of Love” and become a visual symbol of the city. The shirtless, tattooed man tenderly rests one hand on the shoulder of the woman, an act that would only be allowed between husband and wife. His other hand seems to conceal a whispered secret between the two, while the wife touches his knee and thigh and gazes lovingly into the eyes of her partner. Local guides will recite a love poem translated from the local northern Thai language to tourists to complete the ambiance, roughly translated as the following:

“This love of mine, I would keep in the river’s water, yet I fear it would be cold.

I would keep it in the sky, but I fear the clouds would cover it and make it disappear.

If I kept it in a royal palace, I fear the prince would discover it and steal it away.

Then I will keep it in the depths of my heart, so that I will think of you every waking and sleeping moment.”

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A reproduction of the mural, cheerfully promoted by a smiling monk, for sale just behind Phumin Temple. Source: Robert Cummings

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This painted teak door panel has a more erotic version of the “The Whispering Love” with the poem written in Northern Thai dialect. Source: Robert Cummings

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A coffee shop with the whispering love. Source: Robert Cummings

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One of the best coffee and breakfast shops in Nan, Sweety 9, displays a version of Whispering Love. Source: Robert Cummings

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You can even find 3-dimensional replicas! Source: Robert Cummings

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And two thoroughly modern versions by artist Winai Prabripoo, whose works can be seen at the Nan Riverside Gallery, a worthwhile visit about a 19 km drive from the city. The top picture is titled, “Poo Farang Ya Farang,” or “Foreign man Foreign woman,” and the bottom is “Foreigners at Phumin Temple.” Source: Robert Cummings

The following gallery, all taken from my trip to Phumin Temple on 25 January 2017, depict five categories of mural paintings:

Couples and Beauties

Heroes and Military Exploits

Foreigners

Local People and Their Customs

The Underworld

Couples and Beauties

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Khatta Kumara finds the beautiful princess hiding in the pillar.

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Likely another scene from the Khattha Kumara Jataka story, perhaps one of Khattha Kumara’s friends receiving his wife?

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An amorous man catches this beauty sitting at a type of spinning wheel. Colorful woven cloths are a hallmark of the Tai ethnic minority clothing. In Nan courtship rituals, women prepare cotton thread in the evening while serenading young men come to woo them with love songs.

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IMG_5775.JPGIt’s possible that this depiction of two couples on a stairwell is intended to be homoerotic, as the two men intently gaze at one another.

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The artist indulges in some naughty depictions of copulating monkeys, which, juxtaposed with the numerous couple images, projects an image not normally associated with temples.

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Note the similarity of the women’s costume, as if it may be a story of the same woman as she seems to peer back at an intimate session with a strong tattooed male.

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This bathing beauty by artist Nhan Buaphan is a lovely image of one of the princesses discovered by Khatta Kumara, Nang Sii Wai.

img_5739The detail of this particular woman, one of many in a royal cohort scene, struck me as sublimely beautiful, with a mesmerizing, wistful look in her turned face, as if thinking of a lover.

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Heroes and Military Exploits

The following murals depict heroes, such as those fighting snakes from the Khatta Kumara story. The weapons, however, along with some of the costume details, indicate that the figures represent real-life rulers cast into the role of ancient heroes.

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This is a scene of one of Khatta Kumara’s friends, Nai Kwienroilem, ascending the throne of Chawathawadi.

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Foreigners

Although the Nan River is not navigable for foreign ships coming from the Gulf of Thailand, the artist Nhan Buaphan spent time studying in Bangkok, including at a very well-known temple, Wat Pho. During the latter part of the 19th century, under King Rama V, what was then known as Siam was opening to many foreign influences. The following mural paintings show the fascination with these foreign elements. The warships would be French, which patrolled the Chaophraya River in Bangkok in a tense political standoff. Westerners weren’t the only foreigners, either. Many of the people, both men and women, in the pictures are from Burma and beyond. The presence of these foreign elements fits in with the Khatta Kumara story, as the Bhoddisatva traveled to many foreign lands to do good.

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img_5700A Chinese boat plies the waters of the Chaophraya River in Bangkok, with a French warship drawn belching smoke from its steam engines, recording an incident from 1893.

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Local Customs

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Beautifully composed gathering of young men and women in traditional clothing, and consistent with the playful flirting motif.

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A traditional musical ensemble.

img_5732This male sports a traditional hairstyle, a Chinese style shirt, a Burmese style skirt, and a pierced ear decorated with a flower, smoking the local herbal kiiyo cigar, demonstrating the multiple cultural influences in the region.

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Traditional weaving of the distinctive local cloth.

img_5765The hard toil of the people shows through strongly in this pose of weariness.

img_5766According to a description in the Nan Riverside Gallery, “This image narrates a scene from Khattana Kumara Jataka, when the prince sees the hole from an elephant footprint, from where his mother drinks water for survival. This is the departure for the adventurous searching for his father. The topic of orphanage considerably intrigues Professor David K. Wyatt. According to his book Temple Murals as a Historical Source: the Case of Wat Phumin, Chao Ananta [the ruler who commissioned the renovation of Phumin] commanded for this Jataka narrating an orphan boy’s life because it connects to the king’s personal life himself as well as the status of Nan as a dependent isolated state.”

The Underworld

Many temples include frightening images of a Buddhist hell in order to encourage people to do good deeds and avoid evil.

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These may be demons from the underworld, but also may be intended to resemble foreign invaders, such as Burmese, who invaded Thailand several times.

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This scene probably relates to the attack of the ferocious birds in the Khattha Kumara story.

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That ends our tour of the murals at Phumin Temple. Although Nan province is not often on the itinerary of travelers, it really is a treasure to discover, and more so when one appreciates the connection with cultures and histories that transcend borders. Nan, even with a small population just over 21,000, is served by a small airport, and can be reached by car from Chiang Mai in about four and a half hours, through some lovely mountain scenery.