Early morning silhouettes of teak, palm, rock, and the as yet definable race past my window of the train heading north. They dance like shadow puppets across a wakening sky of pale gray promising rain to start the day. The palm leaves blend in a ribbon-like wave, almost cheery despite their color. Twinkling light, reflected in the shallow pools and meandering streams in the rice fields, zigs and zags to greet and play with the brightening dawn. Here and there is the golden glow of a hearth winking from a passing hut. Slowly, reluctantly, the still-sleepy night sheds its dark robe as daring greens and browns and misty steel blue from distant hills confidently reveal themselves. Other colors soon take their lead and timidly creep and poke their way back into the world. It is time to rise as well to the sharp sounds of the train whistle disrupting this tranquility as it rocks us ever nearer to our destination.
There is never any doubt as to why Chieng Mai is my favorite place in Thailand. It has everything you could ever want– except an ocean view that is. It is an old city with much that is new. It has some of the best Thai food in the country, wonderful restaurants serving everything from rice to steaks. I am aghast to see both a Burger King AND a McDonald’s facing off against each other in the Night Bazaar! And Sizzler in the food court of the mall near the airport. I recall when you visited Chieng Mai years ago, the only Western food you could get were brownies and fresh milk at the Thai-Danish farms!
I have been to Chieng Mai every year for the past five, and it was only this year that I was able to really explore the inner city. It was hard to find many reference points from the “old days.” But for those of you who remember PK Guest House, I was walking along the eastern wall and happened to see the now-faded sign on the dull, white side of the main building. I went in and was greeted by a man who told me that it was now a private residence. I remember how clean that place was. Those bathroom mosaic tiles never saw mildew! It is really shabby looking now, sad to say. Once I got my bearings there, it was easy to find the morning market. It is a lot smaller than it used to be, but it is still dominated by the Hmong selling their “ban-dow” (embroidery) and other trinkets to the tourists.
Spent a few days with Ellie’s old student, Weerasak and his family. It is always a pleasure, but you really have to pace yourself through the various restaurants and shopping expeditions that we do! They must know every restaurant in the city– and believe me that is quite an accomplishment!
On Thursday, I climbed aboard the very “farang”-friendly (Westerner) Green Bus (wide seats and plenty of leg room). My destination was Mae Sai to do a day-trip over the border into Myanmar (Burma) to get a new visa. Mae Sai is a boom town that dominates both sides of the border. It is filled with all kinds of ethnic people about– a photographer’s dream! The Burmese side is immediately and dramatically different from the Thai side in terms of architecture, native dress (the men wear a long version of the “pakoma”), and the level of annoyance from beggars and street hawkers in the market. My goal was to get some Burmese brass bells. There are very few shops there that sell them and they are reluctant to bargain— you really have to pull out all the tricks to get the price down! Also found a shop that sells that spectacular lacquerware from Mandalay, but I decided to wait on that for another year or so! Spent the night at a very nice hotel—- $20 including breakfast. I visited the temple of Phra Tat Doy Wow on the Thai side. I know where the “wow” comes from as I climbed the umpteen stairs and then the tower that gives a commanding view of both sides of the border. As busy as that town is in the daytime, the shops and restaurants are closed by 7:00. The streets give way for the “portable” restaurants—- a gas grill on wheels, some tables and chairs, food and voila! I enjoyed a dinner of “Khao Men Gaiy,” boiled chicken on rice with hot sauce. Spent the next morning roaming the morning market, dodging beggars and the rain before I returned to Chieng Mai.
My last full day, my friends took me to Baan Tawai in Lampoon. This whole area is the shopping capital of a shopping paradise– if you like to shop that is. I can take it or leave it, but here you actually get to see the craftsmen in action which is at least interesting. In the afternoon, I met my friend, Chang, for lunch at a wonderful old teak house changed to a restaurant. As you sit there, you feel as if you are eating in your own home. It is that comfortable as you are surrounded by antiques and that incredible open dark-hued atmosphere of the traditional Thai teak house. As we tooled around the city after lunch in Chang’s car, we came across a Red Shirt gathering. As some of you know, there are two major political movements in the country now that have been confronting each other with astounding results, like closing down the airport last year. Chieng Mai is a hot bed of the Reds, who believe that there should be true representative government. They are financed and led by billionaire and exiled former prime minister, Taksin, who was as corrupt as the day is sometimes long. They are opposed by the Yellow Shirts, who think that the poor do not know much about governance and that all power should flow down from the king. Both sides have their big minuses as far as I am concerned, but it is interesting to watch. The Red Shirts are going to march on Bangkok with a petition for the king to pardon Taksin and allow him back in the country. They will be opposed, of course, by the Yellow Shirts. All of this is to happen on the 17th, so it should make for some interesting “theatre” to be sure. It is barely controllable now, I can only imagine what it will be like when the present king (with no small role in all of this himself) passes from the scene. Chang, as it turns out, is a Yellow Shirt. I had to laugh to myself as I heard many of the right wing arguments that I hear coming from conservatives in the US.
My last day in Chieng Mai I spent walking the entire perimeter of the old walled city center. It wasn’t long before my shirt was soaked from the humidity. I found myself just wandering here and there as time and feet could take me. I look forward to seeing it again soon.
In the afternoon it is a sad farewell to Ach and Noi and I took the bus to Lampang to visit a former student, Sam and his wife, Gitsana. As hectic and crazy as life here can be when you are visiting, they always remind me that it is a time for “taam sabaay” (relax). Their house is perfect for that with its great big day bed to just fade out on for an hour or so listening to melodious traditional Thai music. It is that other side of Thailand that I crave. Eating longan fresh from the tree and enjoying sticky rice and fried chicken with spicy dipping sauce for dinner. Taking long Thai showers— dippers-full of cool water poured over yourself, a welcomed relief from the heat. It reminds me of how little we spend in the present when we are worrying about the past or the future. All these things are so awakening that you can’t help but savor the time and enjoy them in the here and now. This is the life! We spent the day touring some of Lampang’s finest temples— northern and Burmese-style elegance.
Then came the evening and it was time to get on the overnight sleeper train for Bangkok. There is a raudy French group in our car. Happily they finally settled down. So the train that brought me to this wonderful part of Thailand a short week before, gently rocked me again to sleep for the 12-hour return to be greeted not by sloping, verdant hills and towering teak trees, but honking horns, pollution and those man-made towers crammed with people on their way to work.