Stream of Lanna Wisdom

 |  March 31, 2011

Rickety Lanna style wooden houses, bamboo shacks and an open-air Buddhist hall surround a shady courtyard which comprises the Lanna Wisdom School run by Chatchawan Thongdeelert. Chatchawan spent his early years working for the government, attempting to teach rural villagers the necessity of change and incorporation of modern technology. “I would tell them to use chemical fertilisers and to stop relying on witch doctors and other stupid old beliefs. But after project after project failed year after year, I realised that I was doing something wrong. So one day I decided to stop lecturing and instead I spent time asking questions and learning. The teacher became the student and I realised that so much of what the villagers do actually made sense. Years later I returned to apologise to them all.”

It was a humbling lesson for Chatchawan and one he has taken to heart. In 1996 as Chiang Mai primped and prepared for its upcoming 700 year celebration, there was a city-wide sense of pride and urgency in glorifying and honouring the past. Art exhibitions were held, festivals organised, stadiums built, plays put on and the Lanna renaissance shifted into high gear. Chatchawan, caught up in the excitement, joined a group which planned to organise a Lanna Wisdom event where local cuisine, vegetables, traditional medicine, textiles and crafts were on show and on sale. “We expected a few hundred people to come by, but were inundated when over 2,000 people a day visited.” The event expanded year on year, adding elements such as ethnic minority exhibitions, competitions, shows as well as workshops and today it draws over ten thousand visitors a day.

“More and more people began to show interest in things such as sword dancing, textile weaving, Thai dancing and Lanna drums,” said Chatchawan, “so we began to ask the elder craftsmen or experts if they would like to volunteer their time to teach. In our third year we had 100 students sign up.”

After its successful third year, Chatchawan happened to be talking to the now deceased abbot of Wat Chedi Luang about the event, “he told me that four days a year is not enough, and that we must work on this with every breath we take. He then told me that the Lamsam family owned a vast tract of land on Rattanakosin Road and that he would like to donate it for the establishment of a Lanna Wisdom School. “With over 700 years of culture and knowledge, we have a responsibility towards preservation. We honour the past while creating a foundation of knowledge to pass onto the future. Our school has had tens of thousands of graduates over the years, some are just kids who are interested in learning new skills, or whose parents want them to try something different. Some are businessmen selling souvenirs at the Night Bazaar, but who want their objects to have cultural integrity, while others simply enjoy a hobby. In the past one artisan would have one skill, but what we have discovered to our great delight, and the teachers’ pride, is that kids today are fusing skills and reinventing old crafts. They are adapting the old into something innovative and current. This is our vision being realised.”

The dozens of teachers still donate their time, though the school collects 500 baht per course to go into a pot to be divided up by the teachers, “they earn around 4-5,000 baht every three months, it is nothing. One guy is a samlor driver by day but teaches carving by evening, they do it for their love and passion. We don’t hire a teacher to teach a subject hoping to fill a class, we wait for requests by students, then we go out and find a teacher. We are organic.” Lanna Wisdom School relies on donations as well as occasional grants from organisations such as the Ministry of Culture or the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

“The abbot said that we should not idealise the old nor get drunk on the new,” continued Chatchawan. “If you idealise the past then where is the progress? And if you get drunk on the new then you are learning nothing from history. He said that knowledge is like a stream: the old flows downstream while the new replenishes and sustains it. Much of education today, I believe, is about learning about things outside oneself. I believe that you have to understand yourself and your roots first, that is why we teach ethics and integrity and respect as well as the trimmings of culture. I am not worried about adaptation, innovation, modern influence or the commercialisation of culture, because if we don’t have these things then the stream will one day run dry. As long as adaptation is not inappropriate – like putting a Buddha statue in a lavatory – then I say go for it.”

Chatchawan has made this his life’s work and feels that in only ten years or so, much headway has been made to preserve and pass on Lanna culture. Compared to many other regions in Thailand, he believes that the people of Chiang Mai have great pride in their identity. “Here, we believe in the soul and the heart as well as the knowledge and the head…from hand to head to heart is our way of thinking.”

The next Lanna Wisdom School event will be held on their grounds on the 1st to 3rd of April. See details in our What’s Happening page.