Dr. Jan Meyer is shown with the "umbrella girls" at the temple in Myanmar.
Dr. Jan Meyer is shown with the "umbrella girls" at the temple in Myanmar.
When in Bangkok, we try to visit a destination that Spouse Roger has not yet experienced. This year it was Chiang Rai, the third largest city in Thailand with a population of just under 200,000. The appeal, besides being new to Spouse Roger, was that I would be able to cross another spot off my bucket list: we would venture over the border into Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. But more importantly, we would be able to attend a house blessing. And as it turned out, there were even more good reasons to go.

Actually, the venture into Myanmar was the least exciting and rewarding of all that we did there. It was not very impressive. It was crowded and obviously not a prosperous place in spite of a lot of people crossing the border just to shop.

We did take a short trip to visit an imposing Buddhist temple where we each, whether we wanted it or not, had a guide. These were little girls who carried umbrellas over our heads to shield us from the sun. They also took us to each of the specific things we needed to see while there, and told us the protocol, in one case how many times to ring a huge bell, and at another spot what to do before we could make a wish. They were beautiful and quite precocious, obviously accustomed to meeting strangers from all over the world.

We also visited the official Golden Triangle, a spot at which one can stand in Thailand, look across the Mekong River and see Laos and Myanmar. A very interesting part of that location was touring the Opium Museum, which is an informative site with a well-presented history of the opium trade in the area.

It also felt rather ironic that what was so obvious across the river in Laos and Myanmar was not consistent with the impression of poverty that one gets when in those countries: on the Myanmar banks was a huge and very opulent resort. On the Laotian side was a Las Vegas-style casino! Both were obviously intended to capture the tourist trade, since locals are not allowed there except to work.

That was very reminiscent of my first trip to China shortly after Nixon "opened it up": there were "Special Economic Development Zones" for which Chinese nationals had to have special permits to enter - only to work - but were shopping meccas for international tourists.

When we discussed what we enjoyed most about that side trip to Chiang Rai, our Thai friend and we agreed that close to the top was a visit to Doi Tung and the villa of the late Queen Mother. We were able to tour the house itself - complete with headphones and English explanations for each point of interest - and then wander around the massive gardens, where the Queen Mother herself worked with her beloved plants.

One of her quotes was typical of her philosophy: "People are the same as plants. If born with good genes, children will be healthy and smart. It is up to the parents then to guide and teach, watch over to remove the bad, while fertilizing with the good. That child will grow up to be a healthy and good person, just like these Zinnias."

Like the King - her son - she was much beloved and it was easy to understand why: her house was simple and comfortable with no apparent trappings of royalty. At the villa, the description on the admission ticket reflected that: "The décor of the Doi Tung Royal Villa is simple and artistic, emphasizing function and reflecting the modest tastes and personality of its owner. The Royal Villa is maintained as a reminder and symbol of Her Royal Highness' commitment to the people living in the midst of the Golden Triangle, and her determination to help them escape the vicious cycle of poverty, ill health and environmental degradation."

She was instrumental in changing the area from its dependency on growing opium to alternative crops. There is a local legend about a god who descended to a hilltop on a golden stairway from the clouds. When the Queen Mother arrived for the first time, she arrived in a helicopter. The local people saw the parallel, and believed she had come to save them from their poverty and the problems of opium. And essentially, that is what happened. The area now is flourishing and prosperous - and the opium industry is largely relegated to the museum.

One of the evenings that we were in Chiang Rai we walked to the center of the town where there is a well-visited site: the New Clock Tower. It has to be visited at night, and specifically at either 7, 8 or 9 p.m., because that is when the "show" starts. The tower itself is the creation of a famous artist, one of Thailand's National Artists, and really is a clock tower. But at those three appointed times each evening, it becomes a sound and light show. The music comes up, and the lights turn on. For about 10 minutes, the gold-covered monument is bathed in light, the color of which changes through a spectrum of gorgeous hues.

This particular monument is only one of that artist's creations in Chiang Rai that attracts a lot of visitors. The next day we went to the other one, which is the beginning of a story for another page in my diary.