Can’t believe that it has already been a week that I have been cruising up here. I started out in Hualongphong Railway Station in Bangkok last Wednesday night. I was passing the time reading Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason, when I was approached by a Thai gentleman of about 60 years of age who works at the station. He stood next to me and with a broad smile asked me in English if I were a Democrat or a Republican. I told him that not too many Republicans read Al Gore! He then asked me what I thought of George Bush. When I shared my total distaste for the man, he perked up and said that he thinks Bush is a dangerous man and a little crazy. Some people say he is like Nixon he said. Crazy like Nixon, yes. Dangerous like Nixon, yes. But you couldn’t really say that Nixon was incompetent!
Well, the call for my train came.. but not before my new friend asked my why the American people voted for him two times. I really didn’t have the time to answer that one!
And off to the North I went…. My friend, Ach, called me bright and early as the train was about 20 minutes outside of Chieng Mai. I had all I could do to get checked into the hotel before we were off to Sarapee district to pick up Chalermsri, with whom I taught in Bang Boh years ago. She lives in a wonderful country house outside the city. She insisted that I stay there next year, and I will take her up on that! Fruit trees, roosters crowing, a great garden and an old Thai-style guest house. Ach, his wife Noi and Chalermsri became my near constant companions the whole time I was up there. They are a fun-loving and lively group! We visited a few more friends that morning and then went for lunch at a terrific restaurant near the university. Great view and food! We couldn’t get into the Royal Gardens as they are not reopening until August. So we went to a temple on the mountain overlooking the gardens and saw them that way!
Of course the day would not be complete without another stop for dinner. Had some great fusion Thai food (northern and southern). Over dinner a friend of mine from the southern island of Koh Samui called for the second time that day. Ach joked that that was the second time he called when we are eating….. I had to admit that MAYBE it was because all we seemed to do was eat all day! Thais love to socialize and there is no better way to do it than in a restaurant with some good food!
The next day I was on the bus bound for Mae Sai on the Thai-Burmese border to visit another former student, Reungsak. He was at the Bangkok airport, but got a promotion to this border post. Sitting on the “VIP” bus I had to endure one of the worst movies I have EVER seen. (That includes EVERYTHING Kevin Costner’s ever been in!) It was about the end of the world and by the time this cheesy production was over, you were rooting for global warming to take us all out of our misery the sooner the better. Other than the beautiful scenery of verdant rice fields with wonderful brown and green mountains as a backdrop, you could also watch the bearings, that once supported a curtain, roll back and forth and back again as the bus negotiated the frequent turns in the mountainous road.
After four hours on the road, the bus entered Mae Sai, a one-road town with shops crammed with Thai, Chinese and Burmese products. There was Reungsak at the bus station. I checked into the very respectable Piyaporn Place Hotel, and we headed for lunch. Next Reungsak took me to a temple overlooking both border towns– Mae Sai on the Thai side and Tachileik on the Myanmar (Burmese) side. I needed no arm twisting when Reungsak asked if I’d like to go over to Myanmar for the afternoon.
If was an incredible experience over there. So different from the Thai side even though so many of the stores are Thai owned and the Thai baht seems to be the currency to use. What I did love seeing was the European colonial and Chinese architecture from, I’d guess, the 1920’s and 30’s. You could still imagine the lovely tree-lined lanes free of the clutter that now greets the visitor. The market is stuffed with cheap products from China. Very little of the Burmese brass and etched lacquerware was in evidence sad to say. I took a keen interest in photographing the beggars in the market. Reungsak later asked me over dinner in a bemused tone what I found so interesting about photographing beggars. I tried to explain to him that I found them interesting looking and that their faces seemed to tell such stories. I’m not sure he understood, but that is OK. We also went to the Golden Pagoda which dominates the skyline of the town. When we got back to the Thai side, we had dinner at the restaurant of one of Reungsak’s friends. The guy also sings in Thai and English and plays the piano. All the while dressed in a US Western-style garb. This used to be an area best compared to the wild West, so it didn’t seem TOO out of place!
The next day I had to get an early bus back to Chieng Mai. I had some time to walk through the morning market. I will definitely have to get back up there. I couldve spent hours just watching and photographing the people of every ethnic background from Muslim, Thai, hill tribe peoples and Burmese selling and buying everything from charcoal to insects to fruit and vegetables and even bread.
Felt sad saying goodbyes to Reungsak. He is a very amusing and easy person to be with. He is lonely up there without his wife and daughter, but they speak daily and do get up to visit from Bangkok. What we will do for career and family.
Back to Chieng Mai. Had a great free afternoon getting little things done like laundry at the shop on Khampangan Rd around the corner from the hotel. You can have 2 kilos (about 5 pounds) of clothes washed for 80 baht (about $2.50). Then went to the Rim Ping Flower Market to get some flowers for Pramouan’s family as a little gift. Beautiful arrangements for $4.00! After a superb dinner of Chinese food, we went to the night market to stroll around on the Walking Street. Seemed like there were more people there to simply get some exercise and check out the crowd than actually buy something.
Chalermsri, Noi, Ach and I spent a good part of the next day at the Taweechon Botanical Gardens. I was especially interested in the topiary of a menagerie of animals in all shapes and sizes. We then went to the night market in the center city. It was huge and full of much more interesting things and people than the one from the night before.
On Monday it was off to Lampang to see Sam and Gitsana. Ach and Noi picked me up at the hotel bright and early. We then decided to go out and get Chalermsri. We couldn’t reach her by phone, so we just dropped by. It didn’t take her long to say yes and get dressed! Well, what should have been a one-hour drive to Lampang became a four-hour lunch and shopping expedition in an emporium that features goods produced in Lampang. When we got to Lampang we all went out to lunch because Sam wanted to take us all out. (I will have to buy another seat on the plane if this kind of eating continues!) We had a nice riverside lunch with three kinds of fish, a tasty mushroom dish and my favorite “haw mok,” a sort of fish casserole. Finally it was that sad time to say goodbyes to Chalermsri, Ach and Noi and slip into a more normal routine with Sam and Gitsana. They live in a terrific Thai-style house that belonged to Gitsana’s parents. Took a traditional Thai bath– dipping cool water from the jar and pouring it over yourself. NOTHING is more refreshing once you get over the initial shock! I then stretched out on their Thai-style daybed, Sam put on some Thai classical instrumental music and I totally passed out for three hours! Got up and had a light dinner then we watched the Asia Cup on TV—- a heartbreaker as Thailand lost to Australia 4-0.
Yesterday morning I got up and we had sticky rice and chicken, dried fish, and vegetables for breakfast. We went to one of my favorite temples in Lampang, Wat Chedi Sao. There were women there weaving cotton in a traditional way. They were so inviting that of course I ended up buying some. As we stopped for some food to cover me on the bus trip (like I needed more food- but they insisted I take something for the trip), I talked to a guy with a roadside stand who specializes in putting Buddha images in plastic casings. He was nice enough to explain the whole process to me.
Then it was on the bus again this time bound for Nan, where two of the five refugee camps I worked in were once located. the bus does not promise even the comforts of the one to Mae Sai, but I would rather endure a cramped seating arrangement for fours hours than being slowly tortured with that movie again!