Lanna, at Long Last
I want to start this off by explaining just how stupid I am for not having visited the Northern part of Thailand earlier. It was absolutely my intention to do so. As early as December of 2016, my cute little travel guide's entry about Chiang Mai was dogeared, underlined, and filled with sticky notes concerning places to see and things to do. In fact, I wanted to go there instead of to the islands, but the other two peeps craved the beach, and being raised to believe in the process of democratic agreement, I went along with their plan willy nilly. Nevertheless, my notes on Chiang Mai remained ready whenever I would need them, happy to collect dust in the meantime. By the time I made it there, it was August of the next year. However, as awful as I am with time management, this trip proved to be my first completely self-funded vacation so even though I can only blame myself over how long it took me to get there, I got there completely on my own dime in the end.
The journey to Chiang Mai started off in a typical fashion: hungover confusion and a scramble against time. The traffic in Bangkok is some of the worst in the world and even though we were prepared for this, it still would have made us late for our flight if my partner in crime Fifi hadn't gotten crafty. We headed out the door and got a taxi as soon as possible, no thanks to my huffing and puffing, and made our way to the airport which should have taken twenty minutes or less in optimal road conditions. The problem was these were not optimal road conditions. Google was telling us that it would have made us over half an hour late for flight while taking over two hours to arrive. Panic started to take over my brain instead of the dull throb induced by last nights rum and the abrupt fits of movement within the lanes of traffic that we were subjected to. Well, Fifi had an app for these sorts of things and miraculously found us some motorbike taxis, for which traffic literally doesn't exist. We hopped on a couple of these and made it to the airport in fifteen minutes, half an hour before our flight was scheduled to take off.
The flight itself took just over one hour and cost about $50 for two people. Having been subjected to the unique pleasures of domestic Thai flight, I braced for the worst but all in all the experience proved to be uneventful, which is about the best thing you can say about a flight, all things considered. The most notable events worth speaking of are an air stewardess complimenting my Notorious B.I.G shirt, in addition to Fifi and the ground crew waving goodbye to each other until the plane became airborne. Needless to say, I was embarrassed. But I've since learned that embarrassment doesn't mean anything when dealing with this particular human being, as the studious reader shall discover for themselves later on.
We arrived in Chiang Mai in the early afternoon and quickly made our way to the guesthouse where we had reserved a room for two nights. Unfortunately, we were a couple hours early for checking in and decided to take light stroll around the area and grab some grub. This proved to be an interesting time to visit Chiang Mai; it's considered the low season because there aren't nearly as many tourists present as usual, which was sure to make sightseeing and navigating around the city much easier. Every gain, however, brings with it a loss: it's also unbearably hot this time of year. This had been brought to my attention before I left but having spent the last eight months in Bangkok, which is by no means an icebox, I thought that I would certainly be ready to handle it. I don't know if it was the humidity or elevation that got me in the end, but for some reason I couldn't deal with it nearly as well here. We finally found a place to have a bite and escape the heat but to my horror, the prices were outrageous! I was under the impression that things would be cheaper here than in Bangkok, and that turned out to be the case later on, but our first meal was absolutely upscale. 300 Baht for Pad Thai, which is more than three times what you would pay on the street. Fortunately, it turned out to be the best Pad Thai I've ever had in my life, complete with massive prawns and banana heart.
After we consumed a small fortune's worth of traditional Thai chow, we walked back into the sweltering day to settle into our accommodations. During our time in Chiang Mai we stayed in a cozy little guesthouse called Awanna House. Adorned in Northern Thai style art and ornamentation, populated by friendly staff, and offering incredibly reasonable prices considering its location, this place was a grand slam for both of us. Featuring a pool, a panorama deck, and free ice cream after check-in, what's not to love? I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting this city, as it's a stones throw from the borders of the old city, which is the heart of Chiang Mai proper.
Our first dinner in the city took place at Funky Grill Chiang Mai, which specialized in barbecued meat on a stick covered in Sichuan peppers. It's spicy, that's for sure, but it's nothing compared to some regular thai staples like Papaya Salad and Green Curry. However, moments after consuming it you'll notice that your mouth is starting to go numb. It feels more like going to the dentist than torturing your taste buds. The meat was alright, and the spice was an interesting gustatory journey, but there weren't any side dishes and no dipping sauce which made this meal the least impressive meal of the whole trip, even considering the alien sensation of Sizhuan peppers. After we wolfed down the last of our meal, we decided to take a scenic walk around the old walls of the city before going to a bar to polish our growing thirst.
Although home to less than 150,000 people, this city has been something of a key player in the history of Thailand throughout the years. On the most basic level, it's second only to Bangkok as a tourist destination but it is significant in a myriad of other ways and classifying it purely in terms of it's value as a tourist attraction hardly does Chiang Mai the justice that is befitting of it. To begin with, it was the capital of a kingdom that went by the name of Lanna from 1296 to 1768. Belonging to a completely different domain than the capital for most of its history, the city has a completely different culture, and shuffles along to a completely different rhythm than does the the urban mega-machine of Bangkok. A different dialect of Thai is spoken in this area, and it has been classically written with a script that looks like a mix between Thai and Burmese. Given its proximity to both of these regions, this is fairly unsurprising. In addition to the language, as far as clothing and decorations are concerned, there is much more emphasis on a diversity of colors than the Royal red and Gold that is present throughout central Thailand. This lack of variety in regards to color, however, may be influenced by the mourning period for the king which is still taking place, in which most people are expected to wear black as a sign of respect. The old city is composed of a square demarcated by crumbling walls and a moat surrounding them, which is one of the key characteristics of the city. Another key cultural difference between central Thailand and the old confines of the Lanna kingdom can be found in Northern Thai cuisine, but this topic shall be treated later, and at great length.
My second day in Chiang Mai began with waking up to a surprise. A new motorbike was waiting outside for the two of us. These were again the mischievous dealings of Fifi while I remained asleep and unable to protest. People had advised me that the best way to get around Chiang Mai was by motorbike. Taxis aren't as prevalent here as in Bangkok and sightseeing was said to be much easier if one didn't have to rely on tour buses, tuk tuks, and the unique group-taxis that can be found roaming all around the city and its environs. I, however, had seen in Bangkok how far the local driving etiquette extended and was not a fan of the idea of the two of us getting our own bike, to put it mildly. I had no intention of dying or being severely maimed in Chiang Mai, nor was I interested in killing or disfiguring my companion. There it was though, before my very eyes; it's blue paint glittering under the Chiang Mai morning sun. Going by the name of “Suma X,” this thing looked to me like the most effective deathtrap that I had heretofore had the unfortunate luck to climb atop of.
What a sight to behold upon waking up! The mastermind behind all of this tomfuckery, Fifi, began to inspect this pathetic bike that to me seemed an expressway to our very doom. At this point, call in the three stooges because this situation becomes pure slapstick comedy in the breadth of a second. As she started to examine the lower parts of our roadworthy hog, a pair of sunglasses- my sunglasses -fell from the bosom of Fifi into a circular hole on the side of the street that led directly to sewer-pipes, and began to chart their disgusting course under and around the city. She leaned over and got ready to go fishing for my shades, but I waved my hand in protest, resigned over their loss amid the muck and fecal matter of Chiang Mai, swirling and surging beneath our feet, and the regal tires of the Suma X.
Well, what was I to do? Might as well ride the damn thing, I supposed. We climbed aboard and I got ready to meet what Marty Robbins calls the “cattleboss in the sky,” as we took off for a breakfast joint. Things were going well, more than well considering my confidence in the situation, but then a fiasco had to rear it's ugly head just in time to turn my bad attitude into overdrive. It seems that, while being less directionally challenged than your dear author, Fifi is unable to tell the difference between right and left, not only in English or Thai, but conceptually. Acting as our navigator, this proved to be something of a problem. After a plethora of wrong turns, it began to rain and I pulled over to the side of the road where we had a good old fashioned fight for all of Chiang Mai to see amid a pouring sky, a pathetic excuse for a motorbike, and a lack of fashionable sunglasses.
This proved to be a fantastic start to what would become our busiest day of the entire trip. We finally found our destination and sat ourselves down to breakfast before embarking all over town on a Chiang Mai temple tour; almost a universal experience for foreigners visiting this city. The national religion of Thailand is Theravada Buddhism and aside from the temple of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is probably the most spiritual domain that I've visited, at least as far as this religious persuasion is concerned. Just like 7-11, they pockmark the city; it's impossible not to come across loads of them while making your way around town. We finished our respective bowls of Jok, which is a sort of rice porridge that tastes much better than it sounds, before heading out to Wat Phra Sing, the first destination on our temple run.
Wat Phra Singh is probably the most well known temple within the confines of the city. Given the sheer number of temples alluded to in the last paragraph, this is quite a statement and it seemed like a reasonable first stop on our temple-scouring journey across Chiang Mai. After a harrowing, confused route (thanks to my navigator) we arrived at our destination for the most part unscathed. Except for my heart of course, which was still reeling from the loss of my glasses. The clouds remained overhead which made it easy to snap some worthwhile pictures. I eventually began to miss the cloud cover dearly, as the dear reader will be able to see with thine own eyes in coming pictures.
Next stop: Wat Chedi Luang. This temple is only slightly younger than the previous one and, due to the effects of an earthquake, the original site remains in a state of disrepair that the reader can see for themselves. Probably the most interesting temple that we visited, it remains in a state not unlike that of the old walls of the city: eroded to the point of evoking a time long since passed, and grand enough to suggest a spirit well worth cherishing and preserving. Available every day of the year are monk chats, wherein curious souls can ask any question to novice Buddhist monks about the history of Thailand and Buddhism in general, the discipline to the which they are devoted to their hearts content. After this, the two of us stopped by a couple of other temples around the city before taking a prolonged breather from the heat under the teak roof of Wat Phan Tao; although the interior was only slightly more cool than the midday sun, any relief was welcome, so I was hardly one to complain.
After a sweltering day of riding around and pleading with any and every divine force in the universe not to die on the road, it was yet again time to eat something. This time, the lucky winner was Kow Soy, a stereotypical Northern curry which is runny yet pungent, and sometimes features the inclusion of a chicken drumstick, making the whole thing difficult to eat politely. To be honest, my impatient, foreign instincts were to pluck it from the aromatic soup in which it lay in order to feast on it like Fred Flinstone. My sense of tact, however, bid me not to engage in such behavior as eating in this way would be seen as barbaric indeed to the Thai people. To this day, I can't help but find it baffling that the same group of people whose national sport is sleeping make it such a chore to consume the culinary delights of Kow Soy and other regional delicacies.
I was pretty tired after all of the moving around we had done during the day. Fifa, however, was clamoring for more. She wanted me to take her to Doi Suthep, which is up a nearby mountain-not a brisk jaunt by any means. I, for my part, wanted to take a nap. We ended up doing what she wanted to do, which is a phrase that could have served as our trip's motto by the time that we boarded our return flight a few days later. As we made our way up the mountain, I felt a sensation that I hadn't felt since I left Montana in mid-November of last year. I felt cold, and not from a Siberian-seeming blast of all-too-effective air conditioning. I felt naturally cold outdoors in an area of the world where I was heaving and panting from the heat not two hours ago. At a certain point along the trek upwards, you hit a certain elevation and all of a sudden the cold air rushes in on you like a wave. This feeling was certainly welcome, and I enjoyed the sensation until we finally reached our destination, nestled in the upper areas of the mountain's topographical eminence.
The original founding of the temple atop Doi Suthep remains a legend. One tale tells of a monk that found a bone, said by many to the shoulder bone of the Buddha, which was held to have magical properties. After passing it around to the central thai royalty, who gave it back, it broke into pieces. One of these was enshrined in a temple, the other was placed on the back of a white elephant that was set loose into the jungle. Rumor has it that the old boy walked up the mountain, stopped at the site where the temple now stands, and trumpeted three times into the air with his long, serpentine snout before immediately dropping over dead, his contribution to the world of men having been duly established. It was at the site of his keeling over that the temple was originally constructed around the late 1300's. Whatever the case may be, the temple at Doi Suthep remains an incredible sight to behold, and should be on the agenda for anyone visiting Chiang Mai, or northern Thailand in general. After enjoying the wonderful sights which it offers within, and the breathtaking panorama of the city below, we made our way back down the mountain and back into the sweltering heart of the city proper. We loaded up on some of the best Indian food I've ever had in my life, more of which shall be related later, and got ready for our last hurrah of the day: A furlough at the Chiang Mai Night Safari.
Step right up folks, don't be shy! It's only the potentially inhumane and insufferable behavior towards animals displayed for paying members of the public at the Chiang Mai Night Safari! It should go without saying that this was not my idea of a good time at all. I was happy that my Thai work visa got me a reduced price, but to what? Cruelty and cheap shock value? This remains to be confirmed, like the feeling of pain that lobsters may or may not feel upon being boiled alive in order to become our food. As in the case of lobsters, what can be stated with 100% certainty is that the motions gone through at The Chiang Mai Night Safari certainly aren't in the best interests of the animals involved.
Even though the time during which Fifi and I visited is known as the low season, it's not as if Chiang Mai is completely devoid of tourists at this time. In fact, it is such a hotspot that Chinese tourists can be found here in mass the whole year round. Given their reputation for animal abuse, it's no surprise that they could be found among the confines of the Night Safari complex in what can only be called utterly disorganized droves. And folks, if you think what I've said is racist, I'd like you to consider a remark made by Fifi, who won the award for Most Racist Moment During the Entire Trip when she casually uttered: “If you want another beer, grab it quick. It's like the Chinese people here have decided to build a wall between us and the drink vendor.” In addition to the Chinese tourists, we saw many exotic creatures indeed, including a black swan, piranhas, a dazed owl, and a curious giraffe. During the safari these animals and many more were hackled by all types of people but the aforementioned Chinese tourists took the cake entirely. It was uncomfortable, to put it mildly, and I was only happy in the true sense when we left the compound and laid our heads down to rest amid the beautiful scenery apprehended by my optic nerve at Awanna House.
The next day found us boarding a bus headed for Chiang Rai, which is about three or four hours north of Chiang Mai. The journey, through which I slept for the most part, consisted of a blurred mix of mountains and jungle until we finally pulled into the bench-lined patch of dirt that constitutes the Chiang Rai bus station. After checking into our guesthouse, which was very basic but welcoming, we rented a motorbike bike and zoomed over to an authentic Northern Thai restaurant situated alongside the river. The view was good, the food was better; complete with a few sweaty glasses of iced rice beer, it was certainly what one may dub “a hell of a meal.” The curry, while runnier than comparative dishes in the central and southern regions of the country, was no less pungent nor delicious and was certainly a welcome addition to my already swollen stomach. Before heading back to our accommodations, Fifi and I took a night cruise to glimpse one of the major sights that we would more attentively engage the next day: Wat Rhong Khun. It's crystal ornamentation dazzled in the moonlight, while the lack of tourists, Chinese or otherwise, allowed the complex an aura of austerity that I would find myself painfully in lack of during the course of the following day.
The city of Chiang Rai is often overlooked as tourists tend to favor it's big brother, Chiang Mai. However, in my opinion, this sleepy city is a wonderful place to travel about at one's leisure. It's quite small, with about 70,000 people, and the pace of daily life is much slower than even Chiang Mai, but the people are incredibly friendly and there are many see-worthy sights around the region, as I will relate momentarily. The area remained under the control of modern day Myanmar until 1768, and considering it's close proximity to the current border between that country and Thailand, it's no surprise that the local culture shares similarities with that of the burmese. I felt more comfortable and safe in this city than I have in almost any other place outside of my childhood home. The only people I saw scouring the streets at nights were food vendors and the only noises I heard were the welcome sounds of Beatles and Pink Floyd covers drifting in from some nearby watering hole.
The next day we filled up our fuel tanks at what I have been told is a Nam Ngaio restaurant so famous that there are lines outside the door many times a day. Nam Ngiao is a type of noodle soup, except the noodles are made out of mashed rice. It tastes fine, but I tend to avoid it because a good portion of it always seems to end up on my shirt, left to dry under the sweltering Siamese sun. The pace of this restaurant compared to anywhere else in Chiang Rai, and even most places in Bangkok, was like crack cocaine. As soon as we sat down a rather strange question was immediately related to me by a portly waiter with pen and paper held aloft in his hands: “Want blood?” I signaled in the affirmative, and was promptly served a dish with cubes of an animal's blood inside of it. After this hearty meal, we climbed atop our trusty hog, and sped off toward Wat Rhong Khun once again.
Wat Rhong Khun is a buddhist temple/art exhibit located just outside of the city. Also known simply as “The White Temple,” it is the masterwork of Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. Opened in 1997, the complex is technically under construction, and is scheduled to be in such a state until fifty or so odd years after the projected death date of it's mastermind. Oddly enough, Fifi's dad seems to know ol Chalermchai somewhat well, as the two of them yuked it up for a long period of time during her last visit as a child. Swarming with tourists and drenched in midday humidity, our visit was less pleasant than the cool ride that the two of us underwent the night before, but the crystalline temple was a sight to behold. Uplifted arms line the way to the main building in unambiguous craving, while the artwork of the interior suggests a cosmic battle of eastern and western forces against hatred, terrorism, and the onsalught of the demon Mara, whose visage constitutes an entire wall.
While Wat Rhong Khun might represent the victory of forces on the side of life against those of death, the complex of Baan Dum, on the outskirts of the other side of the city, provide a wonderful artistic counterbalance to its positivity in the form of a morbid construction dedicated to the ecstatic remembrance of the eventual death of all things, both good and bad. This comprises the brainchild of another Thai artist, Thawan Ducharee. Like Wat Rhong Khun, Baan Dum is an art exhibition/complex; it consists of stained black buildings, sculptures that suggest the process of death and the slow crawl of time, which feature such adornments as antlers, animal pelts, and at one point, even old fish nailed to the side of pillars supporting the aforementioned black buildings. All in all, this place feels like a testament to the obsession with death shared by most people that walk about this globular shithouse, whether they are conscious of it or not. As with the white temple, this complex is the pinnacle of one man's work, except for in the case of Baan Dum, the man actually fell prey to that particular phenomenon unto which his masterpiece was erected,
In Thai language it's difficult to gauge the temporality of remarks that have been issued forth, so take this example:
- Your Lovely Author: So, do you have any siblings?
- Thai Woman: Yes, I have a brother.
- Your Lovely Author: Ah, what does he do?
- Thai Woman: He's in jail.
- Your Lovely Author: I see, so how old is he?
- Thai Woman: He's dead.
- Your Lovely Author: Oh! Goodness, I do declare....
- Thai Woman: He was murdered in prison.
- Your Lovely Author: I've heard you've got a hell of a football team here in Thailand!
It was through information presented in language like this that I had to gather that the artist himself had been dead for some time. Having had our fill of sightseeing for the day, the two of us headed back into the city. We were headed for a specific restaurant until, much to Fifi's dismay and my cackling countenance, the place closed it's sheet metal door literally in front of our faces. We made up for the sleight by pecking at random street dishes until it was time for us to return to the patch of gravel known collectively as the Chiang Rai bus station. We collected our things and turned in our bike, but as we left if began to rain buckets.
Luckily enough for us, the owner of the guesthouse in which we had resided drove by in an old Buick and offered us a ride to the station, free of charge. In fact, she recommended that we pass the time before our departure in the confines of a cat cafe located near the bus depot. Wishing to take her word for it, we said goodbye to the kind woman and dropped into the cat cafe, eager to make some new feline friends. This, as it turned out, was an utter bust; The cats were spoiled to hell and the only attention they payed us consisted of the attempts that they made to make off with Fifi's treasured piece of Japanese cheesecake. After guzzling down our coffee, we climbed into a bus and snaked our way back to Chiang Mai via the mountain pass through which we had already shambled, albeit in the opposite direction.
I only have one more day to relate and it was a doozy indeed. We began our day at Lanna Folklife Museum, which, although indispensable to my apprehension of the Lanna culture, remained utterly creepy due its implementation of animatronic plastic figurines in the guise of Lanna folk in the heyday of their cultural dominance. Still, your dear author gleaned insights into the history of their dress, architecture, art, cuisine, games, religious practices, music, and even their courting practices before walking out of the building into a sizable assault of rainwater which is by no means uncommon during the time which we chose to visit this area of the country. Still, owing to the animated human replicas, I think it would be the last place I would choose to be locked up for an evening in the dark even though it served as an excellent shelter from the harsh rains of the typhoon season. Thankfully, the weather cleared up before we made our way unto the incredible Indian restaurant in which we had dined previously during the trip, before heading out to another destination, an idea which was entirely the arrogant, hair-brained idea of Fifi, ever the effective navigator without so much as an idea of the difference between right and left.
The destination of this particular trip was the Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens. It consists of a massive collection of plants spread out over an area of inestimable size. Although dismayed by the closure of a canopy walk in which prime picture opportunities were assured, we made the best of our trip among the floral delights offered by this enormous tourist attraction. The place is so gigantic that there's no way anyone could walk around it's entirety without dying of exhaustion. We rode our newly rented Yamaha Grand Fiano as far as our gas tank would let us, while we were visually beholden to the sights of a myriad of different flowering plants, some contained in tents featuring the air conditions particular to those in which they naturally grow (i.e. where the fuck else would you expect to see a cactus in Thailand?).
After slithering our way back into town, it was time to eat and Fifi had a hell of an idea for our last meal. In order to get one last taste of Northern Thai culture before blasting back to the behemoth of Bangkok's urban sprawl, she navigated us to a place called Kantoke palace. Featuring authentic Thai food and seating, Kantoke Palace offers one of the most interesting buffet experiences that I've heretofore been subjected to. Serenading you while you stuff your face is a group of musicians playing classical Lanna music on instruments I'm completely unfamiliar with. The most I can say with accuracy is that some of them looked like xylophones. After the meal is over, customers are treated to a series of Lanna dance performances. Though majestic and elegant, the dancers were no less kind-hearted and approachable than any of the other people I've met in this country. In fact, they invited everyone onstage to participate in their last performance and much to his embarrassment, one lone old white guy decided to join the throng, and couldn't help but to look like a mess compared to the graceful poise of the Lanna dancers; the result of years and years of practicing their craft.
Clapping along with the rest of the crowd, mostly Chinese tourists, my mind turned darkly towards the bittersweet situation of the dancers, musicians, and other employees of Kantoke palace. These people seemed ecstatic about their jobs, as well they should be. One of our waiters took a few minutes of his time to emphatically explain to us in detail exactly what we were eating and how it was cooked. Watching them engage with their own cultural history as well as contribute to its preservation in our contemporary age filled me with a solemn sense of respect. On the other hand, I couldn't help but to be disgusted by a world like ours, in which a celebration of authentic Lanna culture, besides from special events for the public, must take place in a buffet style restaurant for the voyeuristic gaze of tourist eyes, including those of the fat, white guy in the back sipping on a Heineken, a world away from the environs where his own traditions are celebrated, and who happens to be the author of this piece that you are reading.
Other than another uneventful airplane ride back to Bangkok. I can't think of anything else about my vacation noteworthy enough to relate. I've got plans to spend a few days in Vietnam in a couple of months, so that will most likely be the next subject discussed.
Until then, Waste well amigos.