Chiang Mai

Jennifer and I awoke early and walked to the medical center to have blood drawn for tests. We’d get the results back a week later after visiting Chiang Mai with Matt and Rita. We met them at the SkyTrain station, and then took it to the airport. We were happy for a chance to see some place different -and less busy than Bangkok. Chiang Mai is 700 kilometers north, tucked in between Laos and Myanmar, near the notorious Golden Triangle of opium fields. The town is flat, and there’s a small, verdant mountain range to one side. It was bigger and busier than I remembered, but 1986 was a long time ago. The heart of Chiang Mai lies within a squared area known as the Old City. It has a tall, thick, orange brick wall around it, and a moat dividing the 4 busy roads that surround it. Our first, pre-arranged room was outside of old town, across the calm, murky Ping river in a quiet, shaded neighborhood. After a couple of nights there, we moved into the Old Town, since that’s where we spent most our time.

On our first day, we arranged for 2 tuk-tuk drivers to take us to 3 important temples inside the old town. This was fun, and the temples were amazing as usual. The drivers waited and chatted with the other tuk-tuk drivers, while we sauntered around the grounds, leaving our sandals at the doorway -usually with a hundred others. Often, we’d enter the main, fantastic temple, and marvel at its beauty and details for a while, to then discover that there were other, similarly worthy temples or sightings behind it, or around it, on the same grounds. I was growing increasingly struck by the tremendous displays of worship I’ve been seeing in Asia; the sheer volume of temples, and their impressive artistry, engineering, and details of dedication. This impression would only keep growing as I saw more and more.

The biggest objective for Jennifer and me while in Chiang Mai was to spend time with Matt and Rita, who’s departure back to SF loomed. They love food, especially the healthy vegetarian variety -of which Chiang Mai has plenty. So we followed behind them leisurely, criss-crossing all over town on our bikes, testing the recommendations from TripAdvisor. Matt and Rita prefer to tandem, so they improvised. Rita sat on the small second seat on Matt’s bike, and they ventured out as one, leading us onward.

Though Chiang Mai is much much smaller than Bangkok, it too treats bikers and pedestrians like second class citizens.  Leaving the Old Town, and crossing the large busy streets was always a challenge, made more difficult on bikes. But we managed, and relied on the kindness of drivers to stop and let us pass. Out beyond the fringe, we found some lovely stretches of nature and small villages to pass through. One night, after we’d moved to a hotel inside the Old Town, we came back from a long bike ride and found ourselves trapped in an endless street market that was completely packed with people. It started innocently enough, but quickly enveloped us. It was the last place you want to be with a bike.

One evening, we stumbled upon another night market, with blocks of brightly covered canopies butted up alongside each other, displaying clothes, backpacks, handbags, watches, t-shirts, and the like. It was all interesting to a degree, but also quite commercial, and we’d see this repeated throughout Chiang Mai. However, there was one place that left an impression. Down some steps, in the large, bottom floor of a 2 story collection of many shops, were a dozen or so artists at work. Their easels and walls displayed their extraordinary talent for representational drawing, through a technique using charcoal and brushes. Taped to their canvases, were small photographs -usually of  faces -which they were methodically enlarging with painstaking patience and stunning black and white realism. It reminded me of seeing something similar in the Philippines in 1986, and I had the same reaction then. Nature isn’t fair and equitable. These artists are much more skilled than I, yet their avenues for artistic opportunity and prosperity are quite limited. Again, I felt a deep level of gratitude and appreciation for the forces that bestowed upon me a prosperous artistic career.

And then one morning it was time to watch our friends leave. The night before we’d toasted our collective thanks to my Aunt Carole, who’d set both Matts up with dates for decades. Matchmaker deluxe, she introduced the 4 of us a few years ago, and we are all grateful. Hugs all around, and then driver Yut scooted them away in his bedazzled tuk-tuk. In their place came the next phase of this adventure. Jennifer and I would spend a few days more in Chaing Mai, and then return to Bangkok to wrap up visa and health issues, and then fly to Myanmar. We moved to a couple of cheap guest houses in the days that followed, the second one back across the Ping river to be closer to the train and bus stations. One day on bikes, we stumbled upon a fantastic covered market. It was huge. Exotic fruits and veggies, flowers, spices, and everything edible that is found on a farm or in a lake or river. We loved just walking about it aimlessly, watching the scene. And in the back, dozens of used clothes stalls. I scored a much needed denim shirt.

There were many agents standing around behind the glass at the near empty train station. The 2 women who we spoke with were not warm or friendly, or helpful. I was reminded about a significant change I’d noticed in Thailand from 27 years ago. Then it was clearly important for the Thai people to be warm, friendly and helpful to foreigners. Not anymore. Apparently, track construction shut down the train to Bangkok. We’d need to take a long bus ride to Uttradin, and a train to Bangkok from there, arriving late. So be it.

The long bus ride featured cheesy MTV-like videos about broken hearts. We had 3-4 hours to wait at Uttradin -the town of scary mannequins- before the comfortable train came. While waiting, we found a temple with a gorgeous painted interior. And a playground along the river that had a dozen or so clever, kinetic, exercise machines. We had fun trying each one.

-matt

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