Celebrating 720 years of history; Fon Leb in Chiang Mai, Thailand

_DSC1942Tuesday, April 12th. I arrived at the Three Kings Monument just in time for the key performance to begin. Soldiers were lined up on the courtyard. Many were there to represent immigration, as a symbol of both protection and as a warning to people who may be violating the immigration rules of the Kingdom. Everyone was smiling. There were hundreds of dancers, all wearing different colours and decorations, representing 25 different districts. Part of the Lanna royal family arrived for the event. This naturally drew the attention of the press, who were swarming like hornets upon the dancers and royal family all evening. Drones were everywhere. As the music began and the beautiful women in their decorated costumes and long brass nails began to dance, I looked up and felt that these machines were strangely fitting. The hum of those propellers and the way that they swayed overhead fit perfectly with the vibrations of the music coming from the loudspeakers and with the elegant movements of the Fon Leb dancers.
     _DSC1991There was a small market for souvenirs and food, serving the classic salty grilled fish, deep fried chicken, pork ribs, papaya salad variations, and omelettes served in banana leaves. I ordered a carrot smoothie between performances. A man was making announcements and orchestrating the crowd through the loudspeakers. Soldiers and policemen tipped their hats towards the dancers, who giggled or blushed in return. The road was blockaded for foot traffic and for the parade that was underway. I scanned the procession. There were bicyclists who must have been participating in a charity race, fleets of police and other public works vehicles, and a marching band. There was a man-sized yellow machine which looked like a jet turbine, though I believe its only purpose is to spew a heavy mist infused with jasmine over the procession. In Thailand, jasmine is often used in ceremonies for divination purposes, and during Sonkran it is mixed with water and thrown upon people as a symbol of cleansing one’s soul and for blessings of good fortune. I remember spotting a young family by the road, clinging to one of the barriers. The father was carrying a small child, and all three of them were clad with enormous dreadlocks. I felt a connection to these people, though I never saw their faces.
     I moved through the crowd feeling for a good photo angle. By the monument I noticed a collection of people being swarmed by cameras. I instantly thought, celebrity. I shuffled closer and saw an elderly lady resting in a throne adorned with all sorts of ceremonial gifts. She was smiling boldly at everyone. A woman stepped awkwardly out of the crowd, performed a wai and knelt before the lady in on the throne. For a moment I thought she’d kiss the elder’s feet, but it was only a request for a photoshoot.
     After the event, I sat on a bench next to a Thai couple who were busy texting and casually making comments to one another. It was another of those classic scenes of two people who were probably intimately involved, visiting an interesting place or event, but completely absent from the event and one another. They were sitting at different angles to each other, as if the urge to use their cellphones was so sudden and overwhelming that they’d dropped where they stood and that’s just how I’d found them.
     I said hello and managed to get their attention. The girl was wearing the kind of contact lenses that have become popular in Asia with the middle class. This pair were a deep marine blue, and starburst irises, almost alien. I’ll admit that I find that sort of thing extremely attractive. I rarely saw those eyes, because they remained glued to her phone for most of the time I was there. I directed my attention to her boyfriend, who was much more responsive._DSC1962
     He told me that this event, the Fon Leb, is part of a series of events that commemorate the founding of Chiang Mai, 720 years ago, as well as to honour the formation of modern Thailand. The performance is a traditional Lanna art form which dates back to many centuries ago and was initially performed to welcome royalty or important people into the Lanna Kingdom. You can see that their movements suggest this. Welcome, welcome. I enquired about the bizarre brass fingernails. “They are elegant dancers, but those claws make them appear a bit dangerous.”
     He laughed, “Everyone thinks that, but no, they are just decoration. Like the tall crowns that they wear in Bangkok.”
     “That’s a Siamese tradition.”
     “Yeah, and here the ladies wear flowers and other objects in their hair. Sometimes they dance with candles or hold bouquets. But the nails are no longer made of brass. We make them out of paper. Much easier.”
    “I noticed some people sitting on thrones beneath the Three Kings Monument. Who were these people?”
     “That’s the remnants of the Lanna royalty.”_DSC1953
      I’d assumed as much. They moved and dressed in a regal kind of way. One of them looked to be a prince. He was handsome, dressed like a general, and couldn’t have been much older than me. Another may have been a princess. She was wearing a simple black dress and a black cloth around her head, with flowers in the middle. She was texting. Another member of the party was heavyset, bearded, with a businessman’s gaze. He was wearing an emerald green turban, and he seemed to be looking for someone. Later he posed for the family picture, and he was with a woman who may have been his wife. I found this turbaned man to be the most enigmatic.
     “You mean those people are direct descendants?”
     “Yes. Their family is complex and goes back for many dynasties.”
     I asked him if they were directly related to any of the three kings towering over them in the courtyard. He pointed with an open hand toward the monument.
     “the one in the middle, that’s King Mengrai, the founder of Chiang Mai.”
     He reminded me that the kingdoms united to defeat a common enemy.
     “Myanmar.”
     He became grave and changed the subject. “Do you know about the Emerald Buddha?”
     I didn’t.
     “It is a very old and important relic. Long ago a king moved the statue from Chiang Mai to Laos, and now it’s in Bangkok. It used to sit in a temple just down the street from here, the one that used to have a stupa on top, but that collapsed.”
     “You mean Chedi Luang. I was told that it was a thunderstorm. Lightning.”
     “No, an earthquake.”
     It’s superstition, but I like to believe that the earthquake was a result of moving the Buddha away from the temple.
     “Are the two of you Lanna?”
      They’re Chiang Mai locals. He recommended that I go to the museum just behind the monument to learn more about Lanna culture and the unification of Thailand. I said thank you and goodbye, then set off for some green curry down the street.
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