Saturday, April 20, 2013

Thai Yai Architecture

Wat Huaipha  December 05, 2006
The Shan, Thai Yai, originated in Myanmar, which was formerly known as "Burma".  They immigrated to Northern Thailand to work in the forest industry in the last half of the 19th century.  They congregated in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son Provinces.  Mae Hong Son was settled by Shan people in 1830.

Due to the remote location and, until relatively recently, the isolation of Mae Hong Son Province the Shan were able to maintain their cultural identity - their customs, their music, their dress, their festivals and their architecture.

War Huaipha - 1 April 2009
Shan temples, Wats, are unique and distinctive.  Whenever I am in Maehongson, I make it a point to visit Wat Jong Kham, Wat Jong Klang, and Wat Huaipha are typical Shan structures - multiple stacked layers resembling a wedding cake with decorative pressed metal trimming along the edges for icing.

Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang
The Shan temples are typically wood with intricate carvings and an intricate symmetry.  They blend in very well with their surroundings.

Wat Huai Phueng, Ban Huai Phueng, Thailand

Wat Hua Wiang, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Wat Hua Wiang, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

One of my favorites is Wat Huaipha located north of Mae Hong Son on the side of  but lower in elevation of Highway 1095.  I first became aware of this Wat on my first trip to the Maehongson (Mae Hong Son) area in October 2006.  It was late afternoon and my guide was returning me to my hotel in Maehongson.  The sun was low in the afternoon sky giving the wood exterior of the Wat a warm golden glow.  I immediately recognized it as an excellent photo opportunity.  However, we had quickly passed it.  I was shooting film at the time and I was reluctant to change to a faster film to be able to capture the shot.  As too often people find themselves on a trip, I had also developed a case of tunnel focus.  My mind had been set and focused on the destination up ahead - the hotel.  As such I was reluctant to have the driver stop, turn around, and drive back up the hill to visit the Wat.  I thought that I could get "That Shot" later on.  Well I never did get that opportunity during that trip.

I returned in December of the same year and made sure that we stopped at the Wat in the late afternoon to take photographs of the Wat in the golden light.  I had learned a valuable lesson on my first trip - to take advantage of every opportunity for photographs; even if it means turning around and retracing part of your route.  Just as in life, opportunities are special gifts that should be appreciated and used.  Opportunities may not return.

Wat Huaipha - December 2006
Since the first trip in October 2006, I make it a point to stop and check out the lighting to photograph Wat Huaipha.  Each visit has presented different opportunities for photographing the unique Shan architecture.

Wat Huaipha - April 2013

After visiting the garlic and soybean workers, we found ourselves driving past Wat Huaipha in the late afternoon.  Driving past the Wat on this trip was not a problem.  From our last trip in 2009, I knew that further down Highway 1095 past the Wat was the entrance to the small village where the Wat is located.  We drove through the extremely narrow streets of the village until I found a suitable spot half on the street and half off of the street - as good as it got in the village but a common practise here in Thailand.  Duang was tired from our full day of activities so she elected to remain in the truck since I told her that I would not be long.

I walked the short distance to the Wat and walked around the grounds.  The sun was fairly low in the sky and not too high above the western mountains.  There was a slight golden color to the light but nothing that I would describe as exciting let alone spectacular.  I took some photos but nothing that excited me.  After awhile, I heard loud shouting from inside of the Sala.  The shouting was very animated and came from young voices.  The shouting was definitely not the type associated with arguing or fighting.  The shouting sounded to me to be like young children playing a game; an enthusiastic game. I climbed the wood stairs into the Sala.  As I entered into the Sala, I quickly understood what was going on.

Novice Monks Learning Scriptures By Rote - Loud Rote at That
In the Sala strongly lit by the golden directional light of the setting sun through the windows and door on the west site of the building, the Abbott and a Monk in his early twenties were instructing four young Novice Monks in Buddhist scripture.  The older Monks would ask the young Novices questions.  If the young Novices knew the answer, they would shout out the answer, with each  trying to out do the other in volume as well as enthusiasm.  When a Novice did not have the answer he woud refer to some papers to find the answer.  It appeared that one of the Novices was having a particularly difficult time with the answers.  He was referring to the study papers often and was off to the side getting individualized instruction the the twenty something Monk.

It was a great scene made even more spectacular by the strong natural lighting.  I found this to be very exciting.  As exciting as it was, it was also a scene that required respect and minimal interference on my part.  I decided to not use any speedlights to photograph the scene.  I set my camera to a high ISO (light sensitivity) to be able to take photographs at high enough speed to minimize blurring from camera shake.  My tripod was in the truck and with the setting sun, I realized that I did not have enough time or light to retrieve it.  I would have to deal with and make the best out of what was available; what was presented to me.  It was very much like life. It often is not perfect but you can make the best of it.

It was enjoyable and inspiring to witness this scene.

It was enjoyable and inspiring to witness this scene. I went back to the truck so that Duang could see and most likely appreciate and understand more than me what was transpiring inside of the Sala.  We returned together and I was so pleased to see the look on her face - I knew that I had helped to make her day memorable.


Another objective our trip had been achieved - photographs of some Shan Wats  but that was not all.  We had been fortunately given the opportunity of a scene that has been repeated countless times over the past 2,556 years - Monks teaching Novices the teaching of Buddha - another of the connections that ties today to our far distant past.  It was a continuation that binds many of people all over the world and activity that will mind the future to our present day.
Just as the Shan architecture helps to identify and define a people.  The propogation of faith identifies and defines people.  Our visit to photograph a temple ended up being much more.  Our visit ended up being an opportunity to witness and experience some of the spiritual world.


  1. Allen you are truly gifted.You dwell in the quiet and present a view that makes me feel that I am in that moment.

    1. Thank you Michael. Your words are very much appreciated and motivating. I do not write for myself. I write to share with others who may not have or had the same opportunities to experience different cultures. It is a wonderful world that we live in - a wonderful world of people.