Well, the mad rush of school did end at last – my goodbyes were said and we attempted to keep our eyes dry which certainly proved harder than anticipated. On Friday 13 March the last of the thank you gifts and cards were delivered and formalities finalised at the school. I will be sad to leave but all in all, the experience was fantastic, I met so many wonderful people and I feel stronger and more developed and I am grateful for all those who touched my heart so deeply during my work there. Let the holidays and festivities as the end of the Thai year begin!!!!
Now my really exciting plans kick in…
Before I came to Thailand, I was offered two jobs, the one in Phuket: that I accepted and one in Chiang Mai. So, of course I was eager to check Chiang Mai out and see what my alternative time in Thailand may have looked like. This area is set in lush forests; is more ‘rural’ than touristy Phuket and is well-known for its cheap prices and more ‘genuine’ crafts. Chiang Mai is situated in the North of Thailand and North of Bangkok. English spelling doesn’t matter much in Thailand so long as it ‘sounds right’ in Thai, seeing as Thais have a phonetically-based language – so it is spelt either Chang Mai, Chiang Mai or Chiangmai. They all sound the same and that is all that matters. It is a city rich in culture from ‘old Asia’ and well known for its less spoilt environment, rolling hills, hand-crafted umbrellas, crafts and large numbers of temples. A brief history surmised from Wikipedia may help you understand the city’s layout and thus its quirkiness….
King Mengrai founded the city of Chiang Mai (meaning “new city”) in 1296, and it succeeded Chang Rai as capital of the Lanna kingdom. To protect it against raids from Burma, the city was surrounded by a moat and a defensive wall. With the decline in power of the Lannathai kingdom, the city lost importance and often was occupied by either the Burmese or Thais from Ayutthaya. Chiang Mai formally became part of Siam in 1774, when the Thai King Taksin captured it from the Burmese. Chiang Mai rose in both cultural, trading and economic terms to adopt its current status as the unofficial capital of the north of Thailand, second only in national importance to Bangkok.
In order to understand what I am talking about with regards to Chang Mai, have a look at this map. There is the ‘old city’ which was originally enclosed by the large brick walls mentioned in the history. Some parts of these walls still exist today, which is why they are shown on the map. The moat still exists and functions as a source of water, and of course, the Ping river. The ‘old town’ is quirky and gorgeous with dozens of little ‘soi’s’ (lanes) branching off the main roads. The actual city outside Chang Mai is much the same as any modern city anywhere else in the world…sortof!
I stayed in a guesthouse called Green Tulip House, which I highly recommend, toward the Southwest corner of the
old city. The guesthouse was brightly coloured and cheerful, full of backpackers and run by an exuberant beautiful Singaporean woman by the name of Stella. I arrived early in the morning as I had flown to Bangkok on Sunday evening, attempted to sleep in the airport (So Classy!) and flew to Chang Mai Airport around 6am. After a delicious breakfast, I paged through a number of files advertising the various tours on offer and I decided what I (and my wallet) wanted to do. For the remainder of the day, I did my usual trick of exploring the surrounding area on foot to ‘locate’ myself. The old city is riddled with temples, so I was able to see about 10 temples within a short walking distance from my guesthouse. I couldn’t understand this ‘wall’ concept around the city and doubted they were actually there before I came here but sure enough, the enormous walls stand proud to this day.
I felt like I was in Lego Land or in Old King Louis’s Ancient Ruins in The Jungle Book. I stumbled across an ‘artist’s …. I don’t know… garden or gallery I suppose…? I peered through the carved wooden oversized doors curiously to see terracotta statues well established in a mossy garden setting I couldn’t help but be lured into the enchanted space. I kept waiting for someone to appear and offer to help me or ask me to leave but now one was there so no one did. There was only a young Thai boy watching me from the top of one of the 7 meter high garden walls – what a bizarre situation! The garden was infested with these terracotta statues. The walls were also made up of beautifully and articulately detailed murals – I had such a ball in there. It was eerie, yet completely captivating. The soi’s surrounding this area had long since lost their structure (and therefore my position on my map) gently bending and weaving in no particular order. I stopped to ask for directions and upon heading in the newly pointed-out direction, stumbled across Rose, an American from California who lived just down the street and offered to show me my way home. Rose recently opened up her own yoga studio called Wild Rose and is happily settling into her 5th year here in Chang Mai. That night I visited the highly recommended Night Bizarre – which is like the night market in Phuket – but instead of the food section being made up of lots of little restaurants, it was made up of lots of food stalls and you could take your food to a central beer garden with tables, chairs and live music. Little lights lit up the surrounding areas and the setting was quiet charming.
On Tuesday my tours began. I visited Doi Inthanon National park which included two waterfalls, the Karon hilltribe – who we watched weave each strand of fabric that was to become a bedspread by a woman who had the weaving contraption that looked like an apparatus used for abseiling fastened round her waist – twin pagoda’s built in honour of the King and Queen with an exquisite surrounding garden and finally we visited the highest point in Thailand – a disappointing little stone set in the middle of a jungle with no view whatsoever! This is not a very high point as it sits only about 2 565 meters above sea level. Although the tour was disappointing, I met two wonderful people – Stephan from Switzerland and Katleen from Belguim. We had fun together, so that made the trip bearable. Stephan was leaving Chang Mai the next day so we all had dinner together that evening at a German restaurant and exchanged stories from our respective countries and backgrounds.
I was delighted to discover that Katleen was to be on my trip on Wednesday as well – we visited another hill tribe of Burmese origin (any excuse to get tourists to walk through their shops and empty their wallets) who used to farm opium and marijuana but today they only use it for medicinal purposes (or so they say) We were shown some of the poppies in amidst a garden comparable to the royal pagodas we’d seen the previous day and I couldn’t work out the reason for it or understand Oi’s (our tourguide’s) explanation of it.
Next we visited a temple called Doi Suthep (Mountain of the Holy Relic). Legend has it that in the year 1382 a monk saw a vision of a flame. Following it, he found a relic of the Lord Buddha. The details of this relic have become obscured by the mists of time; the most common tale is that it was a glowing shoulder blade from the Buddha himself. The monk took this relic to his king, but the king’s lack of piety meant that the relic’s magic failed to work for him. Losing interest, the king sent the monk away. At this time King Keu Naone of the Lanna (northern) Kingdom had heard about the relic and invited the monk to his city. The relic’s power worked for the faithful King Keu Naone and he offered to enshrine it. The Chedi (pagoda) at Wat Suan Dok was built to house the relic and all the preparations were made; but when the time came to place the relic in the Chedi it broke in two. King Keu Naone then made a decision. He placed half of the relic in the Chedi and placed the other half on the back of a sacred white elephant. The elephant was then taken to the northern gate of the city, now called Chang Puak, or White Elephant Gate, and allowed to go where it would. The holy elephant headed due west into the wilderness and began to climb Doi Suthep. Halfway up, the creature suddenly stopped, trumpeted three times, turned in a circle three times and then kneeled down and died. The temple was built on the very spot where the elephant died and there it stands to this day. There is a large coffin, supposedly housing this elephant’s body and the statue of a white elephant over this.
290 steps lead you to the entrance of Doi Suthep which is gilded beyond anyone’s imagination. Thai people believe that, in a spiritual sense, if you ascend all 290 steps, by the time you reach the top one you will go to heaven and have a good life. Once we arrived at the top, we walked around the temple where there are a series of sets of bells ranging in size from 30 cm – 80 cm radius. It is believed that if you ring the bells 9 times it will bring you good luck, so the whole time you’re at the temple you’ve got deep, gentle ‘dongs’ of bells in the background and good luck floating around. There is usually a spectacular view of the city and rice fields from the top of the temple but the rice fields are being burnt at the moment which has filled the city’s sky (in a valley) with smog, so we saw pretty clouds. Once we’d entered into the temple we had to ensure that our shoes were off, shoulders were covered and our heads were lower than the Buddha statues and monks at all times. At the centre of the temple is an oversized stupa which Buddhists travel around three times holding a flower they have purchased between their hands that are in a praying position and eventually offer this flower as a gift while bowing to the statues in the incense-scented air.
After this, I headed to the local market and it really was local: making clothes in only the teeniest tiniest sizes; displaying crabs, freshly gutted fish and snakes for sale, among other unidentifiable lunch offers! That evening I visited the Thai Cultural centre where I met a girl from Singapore whose name I can’t pronounce, let alone write but we made friends and sat together for the dinner. It was a Thai buffet of tastes, textures and colours that arrived on a round tray tempting us with its delicacies – vegetables in a semi-sweet sauce, beef stew (I think), a mild yellow chicken curry, a spicy green curry, fried apple – or something that tasted like that – in a sweet crispy coating, fried chicken drumsticks a tomato-based salsa dish, and fried noodles in a sweet and sour sauce that tasted much like rice crispy biscuits. Our plates had rice dished up on them and sticky rice in little grass baskets. The show was fantastic – it was made up of traditional Thai dance and costumes including the ‘fingernail’ dance (usually done by tribes with what looked like painfully long fingernails), a chicken dance, a martial arts dance, a pre-war dance and fire dancing – I was absolutely captivated!
On Thursday I went on what Noi (my mother at this guesthouse) kept referring to as ‘Sa-fa-reeeeee’ (Safari). We (Katleen had luckily booked this one too!) visited an elephant farm where we watched the elephants take a bath in the river before doing a show for us – clearly aimed at Westerners, as they stood on their hind legs, painted and played with soccer balls. I wasn’t altogether comfortable with the performance but it was a privilege to see the wiry haired creatures up close. We then went on an ox-cart ride – I felt like a colonial woman touring the rice patties in the 1900s in my little wooden wagon with wooden wheels and the large red wooden umbrella above me. As usual we had to walk through a swarm of shops selling bright and colourful items – “Helooooo meeeesssss – loooookiiiiiing looooookiiiiiing. Shoooppiiiinng shooppiiiiing – no buuuy – nooo probleeem – looookiiiing elepheeent – vely niiicce – elepheeent.” (One shop down, 15 to go!) Next we climbed aboard our elephant and bumped along our ride – it was great fun but again – I continued to worry about little ellie below us. We had photos taken and crossed the river – all our poor ellie wanted to do was have another swim, not that I blame him! We then got off and headed for a buffet lunch similar to the previous evening before we moved onto bamboo rafting. Calling it rafting was somewhat ambitious. It was made up of 6 passengers and 2 ‘drivers’ that sit on a roughly 2.5 x 5 meter raft that held the weight remarkably well. The drivers steer using a bamboo pole and push against rocks or sandbanks, much like punting. We even got little Thai straw hats to wear for this – I was in my element and wished I could keep it! After this we visited an orchid and butterfly farm and saw the making of paper products from elephant dung. We were finished by the time evening came round but were thrilled that the activities had improved since Tuesday’s tour. Katleen and I then headed to a yoga studio Rose (American yoga instructor – day 1) had told me about that did open meditation classes. (Much like the one Izzy and I tried to do in Bangkok a few weeks ago) So I really enjoyed that and it was a nice group of mostly foreigners who were living in Chiang Mai and a great, symbolic way to spend my last evening of my trip.
Friday was my last day there and I took it easy, reading and relaxing. Seeing as she had free time, Katleen decided to do a bit of exploring like I had on Monday. One of the nearby temples had something called ‘Monk chat’, which was like a café where the monks sat periodically and you could go and talk to them – I thought this was such a wonderful idea but couldn’t think of what brilliant, spiritual question I would ask them, so I didn’t go (Yes, shocker, I know). Katleen went in however, and spoke to a fairly young monk. Her first question was, “Do you like being a monk?” He replied that he didn’t. He didn’t like the work and having to rely on the temples for everything. He said that all he wanted to do was go to Europe and marry a beautiful blue-eyed girl like Katleen!!! Can you believe that??!! I nearly killed myself laughing that she got hit on by a monk!!!!! Seriously, I think this was the highlight of my trip!! That night Katleen and I are went to visit Roses’s yoga studio for some yoga and I flew out late that evening to Bangkok, where I will met up with Izzy and two of her friends who had flown out from the states to visit her. The four of us flew to Phuket together on Saturday evening. Hold tight Asia, the wild girl’s trip is about to begin…