Seeing the sights

Last night there were big shakings going on here in Chiang Mai and probably all over Thailand. It was the King’s birthday and coincidentally Father’s Day. I think the former was a bigger deal since the royal family is highly revered in this country, in fact any evidence of lack of reverence could put one behind bars.

A gigantic sound stage was set up just down the street in a large public space. A large crowd, many wearing yellow t-shirts that said “I love the king”, were seated and standing watching a sequence of varied traditional dance performances executed by troupes of very young women all exquisitely beautiful.

On the other side of the old town was an even bigger performance. I sat down on the verandah of a corner restaurant, the Coffee Club, and ordered a beer; then, suddenly, all hell broke loose. A heavy barrage of low-angled fireworks erupted across the street and were exploding in the air close by, in fact, some of the spent ones landed on my lap.

I ordered a shrimp Pad Thai and it was ample, delicious and beautifully presented wrapped in a banana leaf. The bill for dinner, including the beer, came to about six dollars.

I wandered back to the hotel along the canals and stumbled upon a lantern lighting event. People buy the large paper lanterns with a waxy combustible fuel strung across the bottom and they write notes on the sides. One written by two young women said “We miss you Peavey, you were a little dick but you were our little dick.” Then they light them and send them aloft into the inky night sky where they quickly and enchantingly ascend, shrinking to just little orange dots before they disappear.

This morning I went nextdoor for breakfast at the Cool Guesthouse, a boutique hotel run by a Frenchman. After a terrific meal I looked at the rooms carved out of an old mansion surrounding a garden and pond courtyard.

By design, although I have a couple of reservations blocked out, most of my itinerary is yet to be determined. This style of travel provides maximum freedom and the ability to quickly take advantage of new information but it has a fairly high quotient of uncertainty because of the concomitant proximity to homelessness. I have a general plan to head north to Chiang Rai, and then hope to enter Myanmar. I’ve been told I’ll need to a visa but so far, nobody, not even in the travel agencies, seem very certain how long it will take or how much it will cost.

Today I went to several of the major tourist attractions here: Doi Suthep, the Bhuping Palace and the Hmong village. They are all high up a mountain in a national park just outside of town. The Doi Suthep is a large, famous hilltop wat, the Bhuping Palace is a winter residence of the royal family with large public gardens. Incidentally, “B” is pronounced “P” and the “H” is silent so yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s called the Pooping Palace, I shit you not. The Hmong village is an allegedly interesting showcase of mountain village life.

I crossed the busy uncontrolled street, a high adrenaline experience, and went, as directed, to where a few red songthaews were gathered under a large shade tree. A songthaew is a small truck with benches in the covered bed similar to the Mexican collectivo and is an inexpensive group taxi/bus. I ask if one was going to the temple and a driver immediately ushered me into the back where four other Thais were waiting and, collectively, we made a deal for him to take us to all three destinations for the discounted rate of 300 baht ($9) each.

Heading out of town we got into a bit of traffic. Now, recently I have been driving in both the New York and Los Angeles metropolitan areas and had run into some very heavy traffic in both places but nothing compared to the traffic I saw today. I don’t think we moved a mile in an hour. The light would change from green to red and then back to green again and we wouldn’t budge an inch. Meanwhile our lungs were being slowly smoked by a cloud of carbon monoxide.

Eventually we crawled our way past the cause of the blockage, yet another gigantic performance for the King’s birthday. With the wind at our backs, we flew up the steep, curving well-paved road that climbs high above the city through tall trees and jungle.

Incidentally, I was somehow mistaken about which side of the road they drive on here — it’s the right, as is to be expected with the steering wheels on the right. I’ll blame it on jet-lag induced dyslexia.

The Gardens are quite magnificent, particularly the Rose gardens and the Orchids which grow like weeds. The scenically located Hmong village is really just a shabby place with hundreds of shops all selling a variety of the same assortment of goods many of them fine crafts and traditional wear but also a lot of junk all very reasonably priced. I paid 10 baht and entered perhaps the worst museum I’ve ever seen, but hey, you get what you pay for. Behind it is a big hillside garden growing opium poppies among other things.

Doi Suthep was the final stop. The approach to the hilltop set of temples is by way of a steep 300 step stairway lined with a massive, undulating tile dragon serpent. Farangs (foreigners) pay a modest entrance fee while Thais enter free.

A magnificent collection of smaller temples surrounds the main inner precinct. Upon entering, barefoot, my senses were overwhelmed by very loud, live traditional Thai music, a huge crowd of people were milling around, bowing and prostrating themselves and and seeking benedictions from monks in various side temples. Commandingly at the center of it all is a spectacular Chedi, a gold-leafed stupa holding some precious artifact. A thick stream of worshippers shuffled around chanting prayers and holding a special flower in their hands.

At three the tour was over and I, wisely, invited myself to sit shotgun next to the driver back to town.

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At Large in Southeast Asia

“Before the development of tourism, travel was conceived to be like study, and its fruits were considered to be the adornment of the mind and the formation of the judgment.” Paul Fussel, Abroad.

Without a partner, lacking any major responsibilities and dreading a long boring winter in Montana, I decided this summer to scratch my travel itch a bit and go traveling in Southeast Asia, but only for four months. I chose this region because it’s warm, exotic, inexpensive and Buddhist. My intention is to learn what I can both about this part of the world and myself.

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Very little is scheduled and, by design, I’m leaving much to serendipity.

I left LA yesterday, Wednesday, December 3rd, at noon in a packed Air China plane. It followed the coast north and the sun west almost to the Arctic Circle, then, just as the sun was starting to set, it started to rise again and it was Thursday morning as we crossed the Bering Strait then North Korea and China and on into Beijing twelve hours later.

Approaching Beijing, the red, tan and treeless landscape looks grim and there was a thick cushion of afternoon orange-tinted haze covering the sprawling metropolis. I went through Chinese passport control and then through the security checkpoint where they confiscated the very expensive and essential phone/iPad battery that goes with my solar charger. I tried to argue with them but they were adamant that it was prohibited so, since I didn’t want to begin my trip in Chinese detention, I had to let it go.

I took an electric bus out onto the runway and it was bitter cold as we slowly ascended the ramp for the final leg to Chang Mai where I arrived around 11 pm local time, 10 am LA time.

After months of planning and anticipation I finally set foot on Thai soil. I went through passport control and a 30 day visa was stapled to my passport. I got 10,000 baht (about $300) from an ATM then stepped out into the warm, humid night air and took a taxi (curiously, steering wheels are on the right but they drive on the left) to my hotel, just a short ride way and located outside the north gate of the old partially walled and moated city.

I had booked a room through AirBnB at the Le Canal Boutique House about a month ago. It’s an unpretentious place facing the busy Sriphum Road, but the third floor room is very clean, comfortable and even slightly stylish. I was just happy to see a bed and, even though it was close to noon LA time, I had a good night’s sleep.

In the morning I went downstairs, got a double shot of espresso then headed out on foot down Phra Pokhalo, one of the main streets. It’s lined with a mishmash of low buildings housing the typical variety of shops, restaurants and hotels along with quite a few places to get a massage ($6-$8 an hour). Interspersed with the mundane are many sublime and magnificent Buddhist Wats (temples and monasteries) all open and free to the public.

One had a sign one that said ‘talk to the monks’ so I did. A pair of young orange-robed monks, one of whom spoke excellent English and emanated kindness and insight, was talking to group of Malaysian students about Buddhism and answered their many and astute questions.

Having skipped breakfast, the physical demanded precedence over the spiritual and I went off in search of food wandering first through a large covered market filled with a cornucopia of things familiar and alien and then found a cluster of inexpensive restaurants popular with the locals. I settled on what turned out to be a chicken place and had a nice if unexciting meal of fried chicken and rice for about four bucks.

Returned to the hotel for a siesta and to report to you, dear readers, and later I will head forth into the night to witness some kind of big annual celebration of the royal family and whatever other surprises might await.