Silk Road Kung Fu Friendship Tour Part 39: Chiang Mai, Thailand’s Rose of the North & Martial Art Heaven

For The Silk Road Kung Fu Friendship Tour Part 38, click here.

Pay respects atthe city’s ancient origins at Chiang Man Stupa, and Wat Suandok Royal Temple, visit to the Chiang Mai National Museum, Welcome to the Lanna Empire and the Ping River, Halal Street, Tai Chi-Qigong in the parks, and Sepak Takraw’s swing kick.

After Phuket and teaching in public schools for two semesters in small towns, this Silk Road Kung Fu nomad moved to Chiang Maiin November.With its cooler temperatures, green, quiet,friendly relaxed lifestyles, fresh air, thousands of years of trading at least since the Stone Ages (that ended about 3,000 BC), more than 300 ancient and modern mostly Buddhist temples, with masjids, churches and other spiritual guideposts around town, and some of the world’s best martial art trainers and champions, Chiang Mai must have been and still is a “must stop” for any and every Silk Road martial art wanderer; a cheery old world oasis where just about everyone has time for a chat and there are no strangers here.

The great huge, beautiful bus departing Bueng Kan, a lovely small town along the Mekong with Laos just on the other sidewhere I taught for six months,was like a luxury ocean liner for me after almost a year of teaching in small towns and only taking rural buses a couple of times because I ride a bicycle or run most places. That huge, beautifulfancy inter-city bus had air conditioning, and suspension (!) which was nice for the 11-hour 800 km ride from the northern tip of Isan Province in the northeast with its very unique flavors, to Chiang Mai way far to the west next to Myanmar.

During the last month in Bueng Kan, and a few months in Chiang Mai now,I’ve started working with video more and YouTube and TikTok channels.  So, I’ve spent ¾ of my time during the four or whatever months here in Chiang Mai on video production with the rest of my time going places, meeting people and so on.In other news, the Silk Road Kung Fu Friendship Tour, while maintaining autonomy, is joining with other friendship tours subsumed under “Silk Road Martial Arts Friendship Tour,” which is alongside Silk Road Traditional Medicine Friendship Tour. So, now we have a small family and are inviting practitioners of all different arts and sciences to start a “Silk Road Friendship Tour,” like this one! World Peace through Trans-Pacific sharing of real human experience mostly focused on individual interest areas in exotic locations made even more interesting byfree multi-media presentations for the entire English-speaking world? Would KungFuMagazine Publisher Gene Ching like it? He’d probably laugh.

To understand the martial arts of a land, it is best to understand the culture a bit first. Having lived here for almost a year and a half on this visit, I can say the Thai cultureis unusually gentle, easy going, friendly and it certainly appears everywhere I go, remarkable as some may find it, happy. The most popular martial art, Muay Thai, on the other hand is sometimes equally fierce. In Part 40 of this series we will look closely at Muay Thai’s ancestor’s Muay Boran and especially Krabi Krabong, the surviving derivative of the ancient military arts of Thailand.

It’s December (to March) and“winter” here in Chiang Mai they say, so the temperature can drop down to a chilly 17°C (62 °F) in the early mornings, so of course many locals have winter coats for such events.

There are many older expats, and some younger ones, living here too and rivers of young foreigners visiting mostly from Germany and other more northern European countries, so Chiang Mai is– as always - a colorful, very diverse,ethnically rich, festive, but relaxed,generally half and half family and singles entertainment center.

After dropping bags at humble abode this Silk Road traveler likes to eat first and then pay respect to the ancient spirits of a city before anything else. Everybody does that, right?

Feasty for the beasty

Or is it “Sup for the Saint?” The jury is out.

When I think Vietnam, I think Pho, first. In Chiang Mai now,the first food addiction has been Kao Soi, a local traditional soup made usually with chicken, egg noodles, coconut milk and exotic spices,tastes divine and is balanced and nutritious.Please do not get me started on this subject. There, you did it.

The paste that makes the base of the soup usually has curry powder, chiles, shallots, garlic, ginger, coriander, and turmeric at least, plus local and family spins on the epic soup. But the story of food in different regions here in Thailand became even more interesting a couple of months later when I interviewed one of the Masters of Thai Traditional Medicine, and found out each region has its own local special herbal formulas that promote health specifically for the climactic conditions of that region.

The topic of food got more interesting again when I got to know the Master Chefs at a cooking school (but gosh I can’t squeeze even 1% of this city into less than a 10-volume set of books).

After that most satisfying repast, another adventure unfolds – spirits in the night.

The Old City

The Old City occupies a large, 1.5km perfect square – slightly less than a square mile at the center of the cityamidst a large number of older, newer and some sparkling brand-new town areas.The old town is amazing in several ways. For example, it’s a maze with almost all the bending forking little streets ending in cul-de-sacs. That is a great way to cut down on traffic promoting quiet relaxed streets, and great for totally decimating invading enemies that would invariably get lost in those mazes.

Wat Chiang Man and the Three Kings

Inside an ancient temple called Wat Chiang Man (or Wat Chiang Mon) in the northeast part of town, one can contemplate the three kings that met, worked, and lived there together in planning and building the city, as a defense should Genghis Khan cross south across the Mekong. It is more than anywhere else the seed from which this modern city grew – even though another temple, Wat Chedi Luang resides in the very center.

Walking in through the gated high walls one first is greeted by the naturaltranquility of the grounds and huge “new temple,” shining brilliantly with gold, white and red designs, dazzling finely arched Thai architecture and colorful expressive paintings. Nobody builds more finely and steeply arched, and intricately painted and decorated Buddhist temples than Thais.

But I go to the new temple second.

I’m first looking for the ancient spirits and know the old temple will be somewhere here, a brilliant legacy of King Mengrai. Luckily finding it only took a few seconds because it’s right behind the new temple.

That is lucky, because often I must search and/or ask to find the ancient monuments and sometimes, tragically, they have totally disappeared. But, not so usually in Thailand. Thailand is a very, very unique place unlike anywhere and they have their own ways of doing many things that really quite amazing, for example their truly universal great love for, and arts involved with – flowers.

This city in particular must have one of the highest densities of Buddhist temples in the world, with most abandoned and decayed sometimes beyond recognition, but they are still here. In some, maybe many ways Chiang Mai reminds me of Turkey, Bukhara (Uzbekistan), Mary/Merv (Turkmenistan), Taxila (Pakistan)and only a few other places, because of the high density of ancient temples, city walls, palaces and so on. For readers interested in archeology and linguistics of the southeast Asian regions, transitions through the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages (the Three Ages),  and so on, I put together a short English bibliography here and am still looking for other references in English.

Getting up close and personal with Chiang Mai Founders’ “Sacred Elephant Encircled Stupa,” age 727, is a humbling experience. What stories it could tell! This stupa is still looking quite awesome guarded as it is by 20 life-sized stone elephants, with a pair of stone dragons guarding the stairs. Why such elaborate defenses?

“King Mengrai the founder of Chiang Mai was born mixed race, with his father being of the Lua tribe and his mother a Tai Lue from a family which came from Xishuangbanna in Southern China. One of the main reasons he built Chiang Mai was to create an offshoot from the lucrative Silk Road during the Yuan Dynasty,” explained VithiPhanichphant, a dedicated historian, and a highly respected authority on northern Thai culture. “At the time it was the Mongols who had control of all the trade along the Silk Road reaching south as far as Bagan in Myanmar, an important city as it was a doorway to the Bengal Bay. Before Mengrai became king, the young prince travelled south towards what is now known as Northern Thailand, building cities along the way in a bid to create his own path to connect with the Silk Road in China. In 1243 he conquered Kengtung and by 1259 he succeeded his father and became the first king of the Unified Tai City States. During this time, he continued south, building, and conquering cities such as Chiang Rai and Fang. Following his successful conquest of Lamphun, he then built Wiang Kum Kam before finally founding Chiang Mai in 1296.”

In front of the venerable Stupa is an engraved marble stele reporting the following:

The Sacred Elephant Encircled Stupa

In B.E.1839 (1295 AD), King Mengrai (from Chiang Rai), King Ngam Muang (from Payao) and King Ruang (from Sukhothai) built a Royal Residence, and sleeping quarters at this site, and began construction of Wat (Temple) Chiang Man. At the same time, they also began construction of the new city Chiang Mai. When the Temple and the city were fully completed, they then constructed this Chedhi (Stupa) where the Royal Residence and sleeping quarters has been enshrined. A sacred hair relic of the Buddha is stored inside the Chedhi (Stupa).

This was the right place to visit first. King Mengrai has a towering reputation as the first King of the LannaEmpire(1296–1558) and founder of the capital of that Kingdom, Chiang Mai. His father appears to have been quite a towering individual as well.

There are benches around the ancient places, so taking a while to listen to the bird songs, meditate, smell the flowers, and appreciate, is perhaps wise. If there are questions, there are kindly English-speaking monks to be found at a small office not far from the front gate.

My YouTube videos about that ancient, hallowed place are here and here.

Those were two of the first videos I “produced” in Chiang Mai; the beginning of my learning curve regarding video production for YouTube and TikTok using only the finest free software from MS Store.

Wat Suandok Royal Temple

Wat Suandok Royal Temple is about a kilometer west of the Old City and is very unique. Its royal, old too, dating to 1373 under the reign of Lanna King Keu Na.They also have an English language“Monk Chat” Monday – Friday from 5pm so visitors can learn more about Buddhism from a practicing monk, and, within the temple grounds is also Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University where local monks and foreigners alike are all welcome. Adding to its uniqueness, this institution of higher education has meditation retreats some distance from the city in tropical paradise-like places.

As for the temple itself, its quite a bit larger than most and a meditation retreat inside the meditation retreat of the entire nature-rich peaceful grounds.Almost like Wat Chiang Mon, Wat Suandok Royal Temple has an amazing history.

Chiang Mai National Museum

Some things have to be seen to be believed, and their collection is wide and deep from the dawn of time as our most ancient ancestors saw it, to the modern era. It was so inspiring this Silk Road Martial Art Nomad/Caveman-Style Producer felt compelled to make a video.

Chiangmai - Capital of the Lanna Empire

Archeological finds in the former Lanna Empire (1259–1317, “Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields”) capital city now called Chiang Mai show very early precursor local, regional and international trade routes through the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages (the “Three Ages”). Chiang Mai’s location along the Ping Riverfrom the north that feeds directly into the Chao Phraya River in the south was essential for its early growth and development. Now the Ping River is a scenic flowing meditative bridge to cross, or boat ride, everywhere else except Chiang Mai because there are only a few road bridges across it in the town area so they’re rather busy. In tracing ancient trade, civilization and martial patterns, however, follow the water – which was probably pretty busy in ancient times too.

Map by Kmusser, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons Location of Chiang Mai added by this author.

About 93.46% of Thais are reported to be Buddhist, about 5.37% Muslim, and 1.13% Christian. Chiang Mai among other spiritual options has “Seven Fountains Jesuit Spiritual Centre,” demonstrating if nothing else the diverse nature of this town.

In all places with long histories there are also local indigenous traditional folk stories, legends, and philosophies woven in their language and culture. Adding to that I might mention Thursday Dec. 8, in the early afternoon at a café I met an interesting man maybe in his 30s from a Scandinavian country who likes German philosophies and recommended an entertaining book with a bit of a nihilist perspective. Another young foreigner getting on his motorcycle that afternoon just got back from a month at a mountain resort that was a lot cheaper than most apartments in the US,and was smilingear to ear.He didn’t appear to be studying too much abstract philosophy these days, but rather experiencing more of a phenomenological, obviously happy approach to life.

One friend I spent a few days with was on his way to Nepal to join a specific monastery. He’s still on my Line APP and I’d love for him to send reports… I don’t think I’ve made so many friends from every corner in the world in such a short period of time as here in Chiang Mai.

Most people basically want to have fun, relax and not think too much, which appears to be the central point of Chiang Mai. It’s a trading/tourism/vacation center as it has been for a few thousand years so they don’t appear to have biases I’ve heard of or noticed in any way.On an amusing note, according to this Silk Road Nomad’s informal random sample survey there is a bit higher than average percentage of 1970s American hippies retired here than any other Asian city I’ve visited yet, and that in some ways might add a certain mellowing flavor to the city.

Simultaneously I’m sure private, district, city, regional, national, and international, ideologies, businesses and institutions compete here in numerous ways but that’s really not in sight of the normal visitor or resident at all – zero from what I have seen in 4+ months.

One Thai business owner I met here in Chiang Mai doesn’t want advertising because they’re functioning at maximum capacity now and don’t want to bother to expand for a variety of family related reasons, with the primary one being they’re happy now. Imagine that!

Halal Street

China's Southwestern Silk Road in World History By: James A. Anderson

“Islam began to spread more widely in the region in the 13th century with the Mongol Conquest of Southwest China, but after that point Muslim Hui merchants were able to settle in communities along the trade routes. The Mongol ruler Kublai Khan appointed Sayyid Ajali Omar Shams ud-Din, a native of Bukhara (now Uzbekistan), governor-general of Yunnan, and filled other positions with high-ranking Muslim personnel. From the Ming dynasty caravan routes used by Hui merchants from Dali and Kunming southwest to Chiang Mai (in modern-day northern Thailand) became important trade routes, carrying 700 to 1,000 mules in trade by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From Chiang Mai and the Burmese trade market, this overland trade would also link up with ports on the Indian Ocean trade network, and circulate goods throughout the region. Chinese Muslims with roots in Yunnan were among the seamen taken on board by the eunuch admiral Zheng He, himself a Yunnan native, when he sought out able sailors for his famous seven voyages of the Star Fleet (1403-1433).”

James A. Anderson, “China's Southwestern Silk Road in World History,” World History Connected March 2009.

Chiangmai is also kind of unique in Thailand because it has festive Muslim Halal Street known for its large popular night market on Friday afternoons usually after 4:00 or 5:00 and evenings. According to Bangkok Post reporter ParittaWangkiat, “Generations of Muslim migrants have helped shape the culture of Chiang Mai.” Along part of one side of Halal Street is “Banhaw Masjid,” officially called “Masjid Hidayatul Islam Banhaw.” It is the location of the oldest Masjid in the city.

The modern version of the mosquewas built in the 1970sby Yunnan (province of China) Muslims, and it runs a large free religious school. The night street market however is usually a mix of 50/50 foreign tourists and locals, and the food? The food? Divine, representing many cultures from Thai, to Turkish Kababs, Peshawar Restaurant (Pakistani) and so on. The Thai version of south Asian “Chai” (usually black tea with condensed milk) has coconut milk I learned on Halal Street a few weeks ago along with: “Wow! That’s an incredible combination!”

Most local Muslims I’ve met aretruly local or from Yunnan in southwest China and mostly anywhere from first to fourth generation Chinese. Most speak some English, and many speak English quite fluently which is hardly surprising given the internationality of Chiang Mai. One can find people of all nationalities in Chiang Mai, but most importantly peace, in a mix of mostly traditional Thai and some modern settings.

It should be noted that though the city of Chiang Mai was founded by three kings led by King Mengrai (from Yunnan China) in 1295 AC, scattered around the entire region are smaller archeological sites of villages as natural links in the chain of development from the Three Ages, along withtechnological advances for making cloth, pottery, metallurgy, agriculturalitems from China and India with multidirectional information and commodity trading.

Surrounded by mountains, a bit cooler than the south, villages in Chiang Mai region have beenfavored places for long distance trading for millennia.

With at least glimpses into the ancient foundations of this city and regionit’s time to get to know some of the Kung Fu masters and their schools.

Tai Chi/ Qigong in thePark

Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022: On this lucky morning I first visited Nong BuakHaad Public Park for a one-hour Tai Chi / Qigong practice session.

The park is easy to find being located in the southwest corner of the Old City of Chiang Mai which is easy to find because it’s a one-milesquare right in the center of the newer city. Up till a little more than a century ago it was surrounded by walls and a moat. The moat is still there as are some parts of the ancient wall.

Sometimes I go jogging to Nong BuakHaad Park and run along some of the remaining parts of the ancient wall dotted with trees, broken by time but still standing which is kind of cool thinking of the thousands of others who ran along the inside and outside of those same walls during the past 700 years. Were they running to or from, in love, fear or rage, as a group or alone, as an army or messenger? No doubt all a thousand times over.

Luckily Chiang Mai isn’t that big, and it only took about 20 minutes to ride my bicycle to the southwest corner of the park that morning. The air before sunrise is refreshingly cool, the skywashed with stars and there was almost no traffic, so it was a nice little ride.

On this auspicious Sunday I’d brought cameras, notebook and so on, but upon arriving found the class had started about two minutes before I got there, precisely at 6 AM I presumed. Not wishing to interrupt, or just start videoing and taking photos without introducing myself first, I was happy to join the class in the back falling into the breathing rhythm and movements of Tai Chi/Qigong practice. That is the best introduction to any class anyways.

Monday, December 5, 2022: I revisited the park determined to get there before 6:00 am and arrived 5:45 with enough time to set up tripod, etc. and chat a few moments.

This time however I had to forego the pleasure of joining this treasure of a class, and instead set up tripod, video camera, and took photos. It was quite dark outside at the start of the routine, but the park lights were good enough to get generally clear videos.

Omni-phonic bird symphony accompanied the rosy dawn and sunrise during the one-hour free, slow motion Tai Chi and Qigong class in the park.

After class, I learned the class leader, Shifu Di Sana Da, doesn’t speak English, but there was another very nice lady there with the Chinese name of Chun Yan Ju (and Thai name of Ba Li Cha) that speaks Thai fluently having been born here, so I did the interview in my so-so Putonghua as my Thai language is still quite limited.

Shifu Di Sana Da is Thai and learned Qigong and Tai Chi in Beijing some twenty years ago from a master named Lin Ho Sun. He also taught other forms of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as well. Shifu Di is married, has two children and one grandchild. She leads the free early morning Tai Chi/Qigong class every morning just for the love of the art. This is notremarkable as her skill is extraordinary and I have met some other martial art masters along the Silk Roads that hold their arts above mundane interests. That is a great virtue.

Unfortunately, they had to go all too soon, so I stuck around the park and took a few short videos of some men playing“kick volleyball,” sort of.

Sepak takraw

Sepak takraw is sometimes called “kick volleyball,” and is played with a lightweight ball made of rattan. The word Sepak is from Malay language and means “kick” while takraw is Thai and refers to the woven rattan ball. It’s not just “kick” because one can use knees and head for example.

Most of the time players stand in a circle and kick, head, knee or kick the rattan ball to other players. At other times two teams of two to four players compete on a court the size of a badminton court. This game is very popular in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Myanmar and is the national sport of Malaysia. It appears like it might be good for kicks, in fact the “swing kick” used in Sepak Takraw is rather similar to the Muay Thai swing kick.

Part 40 of this series includes a visit to a Traditional Chinese style school with a courtyard for Tai Chi and Qigong, in-depth interview with Thai Kru Cho abouttruly ancientThai traditional weapons and fighting art called “Krabi-Krabong,” some history, philosophy, meditation and tigers, Thai Traditional Medicine, and visits to Muay Thai stadiums and schools.

It’s been a busy few months here in Chiang Mai. Part 40 of the Silk Road Kung Fu Friendship Tour is 98% completed (maybe) and planning for the next stops is underway as well, though a Part 41 from Chiang Mai might be possible before departure depending on 7 ± 2 factors.

For Silk Road Kung Fu Friendship Tour Part 40, click here.

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