The Shan Michelangelo

Jim Pollard
The Nation
Wiang Haeng, Chiang Mai October 24, 2013 1:00 am

Temples along the Myanmar border are getting a new lease on life thanks to a Tai Yai artist with flair

Wiang Haeng, in the far north, has some of Thailand's most fascinating temples. But the reason for the attractive border area's growing fame has more to do with its unusually rich history, right up to the curious repercussions of conflict in recent years.

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Khampang's bas relief at Wat Fa Wiangin. Photo by Harry Bohm

Wiang Haeng is an isolated district of rugged scenic beauty with a diverse hilltribe community. It's a three- to four-hour drive northwest from Chiang Mai, past the elephant parks in the Mae Taeng Valley and over a winding mountain road to a valley that points directly into neighbouring Shan State.

The situation on the border hints at the turmoil that has wracked eastern Myanmar over the past five decades. Fighting continues in other parts of Shan even as life is transformed in Yangon and the centre of the country. In the outlying ethnic areas, the Tatmadaw - the Burman military - has pressed on with its mission of domestication by brute force.

On the far northern perimeter, a temple called Wat Fa Wiang-in has been cut in two, with the stupa and main structures on the Thai side, looking at a Myanmar military outpost in the former monks' quarters across a small gully. This gully - overgrown with trees but allegedly dotted with mines - was where Thai and Myanmar military chiefs drew the borderline after a month-long flare-up between them in 2002.

On the hill directly above Wat Fa Wiang-in is a small Thai military unit gazing down on the young Burmese troops in their now-quiet outpost. It's like a Southeast Asian version of Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie.

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Khampang's mural at Wat Fa Wiangin. Photo by Harry Bohm

This curious feature has made Wat Fa Wiang-in a popular site for tourists, but it also boasts a memorial to one of Thailand's most revered monarchs, King Naresuan. He travelled through this area on his return to Burma a little over 400 years ago, en route to historic victory over the rivals who had abducted him years before.

There is a small photo museum too, full of pictures of famous sites in Shan State allegedly taken by a Shan man returning home last year. He wanted to get images - both historic and present-day - of temples, palaces and other sites of significance to the Shan. Some exiles fear their culture is at grave risk of being marginalised and diminished by Burman domination.

The other outstanding feature of the temple is the work of a Tai Yai artist, Khampang Salaween. He's currently doing a series of bas-relief panels inside chambers at the base of the main stupa, depicting scenes from the Buddha's life. His talent is evident in works at other nearby temples, some of which also have memorials or shrines honouring King Naresuan.

Our guide, Laurie Maund - an Australian Buddhist who's lived in Thailand most of his life - is known for his years of service with Sangha Metta. This non-government group in Chiang Mai worked on HIV/Aids issues throughout Asia, training monks so they could play a key role in educating and caring for people.

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A familiar face among monks and novices in the area, Maund is a fan of Khampang's art and introduces us to the man he calls "the Shan Michelangelo". The artist, a gentle man aged 42, tells us about his life.

Khampang's early years were spent on the backs of buffalo. He liked to draw pictures with his finger in the dust of the roads around his village, but, living in a region wracked with poverty and civil strife, he had little chance to go to school.

Ordained as a novice at age eight, he studied dharma, which became the dominant feature of his art. His talent was noted and he was sent to Yangon to learn about art. A well-known Burmese, Saya U Tuka, taught him how to hold a paintbrush and draw the human form - as well as the patience required for such tasks. When Khampang's mother remarried he returned to live in Shan, but later moved across the border to Wiang Haeng, where he worked in a printing factory for several years.

He also worked as a cartoonist for the Shan newspaper Gwang Kor (Independence) after getting an ID card as a highlander, which enabled him to live in Chiang Mai for three years. On returning to the border he was hired by the abbot at Wat Nong Kok Kum to paint murals.

"When I had such a big space, that was when I found what I love," he says. On the walls around the temple's huge interior are more than 20 panels, two metres long and a metre deep, with scenes from the Buddha's life.

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In 2007 he began sculpting and was invited to paint murals on the walls of a Tai Leu temple in Sipsongpanna. Back in Wiang Haeng he has helped restore chedis, created the Naresuan memorial at the border temple and moulded bas-relief panels.

Khampang says Burmans tend to look down on the Shan and Tai Yai for lacking a distinctive history of decorative art or handicrafts. He points out that his efforts are "a way to show that we too have this skill".

Being able to paint and create art is deeply satisfying, he says. However, as the father of a 13-year-old boy, he also faces the usual domestic pressures. His wife wishes his job were better paid.

"I never had a chance to go to school. We were constantly in the fields, and if the Burmese soldiers came, we'd have to run away. But now I must give my son an education."
Happy to continue the work he does, his dream is as simple as the shy smile on his face - to build a big Buddha image "with all the proportions perfectly done". And while Khampang beautifies the temples in this region, his work provides solace for others longing but not yet willing to return home. Just down from the stupa at Wat Fa Wiang-in is the Koung Jor community, where about 500 Shan refugees, who fled a Tatmadaw takeover of their villages near the border 11 years ago, continue to live on temple land.

Two officials from Myanmar visited the camp a few months ago and pressed the refugees to return, only to be told it was too early - not yet safe - for them to go back. "We want to wait till after the 2015 election," the headman said.


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