Sunday, July 8, 2012

Monks With Iphones and Precarious Modes of Transportation in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Ridiculous beauty

Because of my newfound ability to sleep through whole 11 hour flights like a hibernating bear, the 7.5 hours to Bangkok seemed to go by in a blink. Before I knew it we were landing, the doors were opening, and my hair was recoiling into a state of frizz previously unseen.
As a welcome gift to Thailand I received a permanent, all encompassing, coating of sweat that remained with me during the entire duration of my stay. Bathing twice a day here is not out of the question. If the airport wasn't full of abundant orchid displays and golden statues, I would have been a lot more grumpy. We shuffled past the "Waiting Room for Monks" and breezed through another friendly customs check before crashing for the night in a nearby hotel.

Already, Elephants everywhere

"Pee Place"

Detail on the Airport Doors

We wake up the next morning, after a night slept on sheets doused in sweat, and head back to the airport. Already, Thailand is a completely different world from Japan, but equally contrasting from my own. Monumental arches span the freeways and line the roads with images of the King in his prime- "Long Live The King" embossed in golden script. The taxis pay their own tribute with kitschy king portraits in tiny wooden frames hanging from their rearview mirrors and clipped to their visors. The King is omnipresent. Watching over the asphalt of the grey highway are periodic golden statues surrounded by planters overflowing with greenery and flowers. It is SO HOT that I am fanning myself in the air conditioned shuttle.

Birds must be causing some problems here

Obligatory Snack Assessment 

After a brief one hour flight - spent in the company of a large Texan Ex-pat who taught us the phrase "Mai Peht" ("Not Spicy" - more of a laughable suggestion than an actual request as we eventually found out) and helped correct our pronunciations of "Hello" and "Thank You" to a mildly less embarrassing butchering of the Thai language - we are in Chiang Mai.

If in Japan there are vending machines everywhere, in Thailand there are food carts everywhere. In the remote alleys of residential neighborhoods, behind mechanics, in a ditch, you will find a steaming metal cart, attached to a motorbike, serving up complicated soups and roasting whole ducks. They are everywhere, and they are on the go, winding through aggressive traffic before popping up for an hour or two here and there. While I guess it shouldn't be so shocking to me, considering I live in Southern California where the Taco Truck reigns supreme, there is something defiantly miraculous about a single man on a motorbike stirring up coconut milk and mixing in freshly roasted meats over a blazing stove, a never ending  abundance of herbs and vegetables seeming to flow freely out of an impossibly small compartment below the stove. Mary Poppins would be impressed.

Equally abundant are the massage parlors and the temples, juxtaposed next to one another, across from one another, and all around one another - big shining golden dragons crammed up next to establishments that do "massages" into the midnight hour. It doesn't take much effort to separate the legitimate massage parlors from the seedy ones. The good ones usually don't look like a nightclub from the outside. 

Chiang Mai is still an old city in the very traditional sense of the word. The old part of town is surrounded by a moat and a very ancient crumbling wall with tall, heavy gates that you pass through to get in. The modern and the traditional carry on side by side here: monks texting on iphones, four story buildings erected with bamboo scaffolding, Ronald McDonald stands with his hands clasped together in a permanent bow in front of every McDonalds, grandmas and ten year olds weave motorcycles through traffic with chickens and pigs in tow. Miniature buddhist shrines can be found in almost every backyard, protected by walls of concrete with shards of beer bottle glass sticking up at all angles towards the sky. Geckos climb the walls in bars where they blast hip hop. They do seem to love American hip hop. I haven't heard so much Snoop Dogg since the 90's. Chiang Mai is wild, busy, cozy, calm, and holy all at once.

Bamboo, the wonder grass

Clothes hanging from... you guessed it... a bamboo rod

Bananas on barbed wire

That is not how you hold pizza

Backyard shrine and pigeon mansion

Even though temples are as common as Starbucks in the states, there is one temple that outshines them. With little wiggle room in our schedule, I was determined to squeeze in a visit to Doi Sutthep on our first day in Thailand. So, as the sun was threatening to go down, we hired a songthaew to take us up the mountain, into the clouds, and to the steps of Wat Doi Sutthep.

Let me take a moment to express the already shifty form of transportation that is a songthaew. A songthaew is essentially a covered pickup  with bench seats in the bed of it, without a back to hold you in. There are no seatbelts (and if there were, the driver would give you a rather offended look with a quick "nonono" if you tried to use them, as I found out in a bangkok taxi), so the only thing between you and the pavement is a rough stop. Couple this with traffic so intimate that I had a conversation with a motorist about his high quality tattoos while dangling out of a songthaew at full speed, and you have a good idea of how fragile the situation is. Motorcycles and cars alike will speed up right behind one another before making mad dashes to the side where they squeeze within centimeters of neighboring cars and bikes, motorcycles piled high with families of four, large appliances, and live animals to boot. 

Now add on top of that a blossoming thunderstorm and you have a fairly good idea of road, but it is only a suggestion. Our driver drove on the right side of the road until the very last moment before a head on collision was about to occur. This sweet, kind, elder man in a straw hat gave us a wild ride with the biggest smile on his face the entire time. Songthaews do a poor job of keeping you dry in sideways rain.

We find absurd situations hilarious

Sorry for the shoddy camerawork, I was holding on with my other hand for dear life, this is actually a very non crowded street. No Danger here.

When we got to Doi Sutthep, every tourist was leaving, food carts were packing up, streetside vendors were huddling under tents, and even the stray dogs and pigeons were giving us warning looks from under cover. As we got out of the songthaew, we bought a couple of ponchos from a brood of old women who couldn't control themselves from laughing heartily at the silly tourists who wanted to climb up 304 slippery steps in the rain to see a temple.

Yes, the handrail is a dragon head expelling four more dragon heads

At the top of those 304 steps is the temple. A monk asks us to take off our shoes before entering the grounds and warns us to be careful because of the puddles. The place IS one giant puddle. No other tourists seem to be around as we shuffle around in the water, listening to the monks humming their evening chant (we have a habit of walking by right at that time of day don't we?). Their bright saffron robes - which stand out on the streets of Chiang Mai - fade into the background of the rich golds and reds here. Words don't do justice to the architecture and artistry of the place, so I won't even try. To say "pictures don't do it justice" is a cliche I am willing to use in this case. The picture can't give you the sense of what it feels like to be surrounded on all sides by the colors and detail. Sensory overload. Chimes, humming, rain, distant thunder.

Ryan writes on the fabric to be wrapped around something special in the temple (translations not clear, but it seemed like a good idea to join in)

Back down the steps as the only other tourists we saw come up

So Green

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