Just occasionally I find a museum quite by accident and in a place where I least expected it. Northern Thailand and the adjacent areas of Myanmar, Laos and even Southern China are part of a cultural area called Lanna. To try to understand the area and its importance to past and the modern nation states of the region I decided to visit some key temples. The most important of which is the Wat Phra Kaew at Chiang Rai. The original Buddhist temple was built over six centuries ago. The present structure dates from 1890. The stupa however is much older and still retains its Lanna style despite earthquakes and lightning strikes.
Unlike some of the other temples in the area, the Wat Phra Kaew is a serene spot, relatively off the regular tourist routes, especially on week days. It is also a site that several Thai and western royals have visited because of its significance to Thai culture and the devotion to the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok.
Within the cluster of religious buildings is an ornate wooden structure built in 1995 in the Lanna style. This is the double story Hong Luang Saenkaew Museum which houses a varied collection of religious and non-religious artefacts. It was a surprise to find stone blades and a Dong Song drum among well over a hundred buddhas in jade, rock crystal, wood and metal. Like many countries in Southeast Asia it’s easy to get “templed-out” and in so doing you fail to distinguish the different styles and poses of Buddha. But here with these statues arranged in proximity you can easily discern and appreciate these differences.
The downfall of the Hong Luang Saengkaew museum is that though there are guide-pages at the entrance, much of the collection is poorly marked. For example, there is no information on the Dong Song drum. Is it from Vietnam, Laos or Northern Thailand? How did it end up at the museum? Sadly, there is no information on how this collection was amassed. This is not the only Buddhist shrine to be attached to a cultural repository in Thailand. But it is worth a visit if only to learn about how Buddhism came to Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia, how it binds the region culturally and how heritage beyond Buddhist religious art and architecture are so closely connected. I suggest that you visit the temple first and then visit the museum.Museum Information: www.watphrakaew-chiangrai.com (note this is in Thai and is for the temple)