Adventures in Thailand
Part 1 - Chiang Mai
by Dan Brubaker
as featured in September 1997 issue of
Put an index finger on the bridge of your nose, and make a sweeping movement out, downwards then upwards (just like the old sign for Holland). There! You just have signed "Thailand."
In Bangkok, at eleven o'clock in the evening, Beverly, Amanda and I were eating our rice and chicken dinner from a street vendor, on folding tables and chairs on a narrow sidewalk. The bus station, across the street, is bustling with people and stray dogs, and we were patiently waiting for our overnighter bus to take us up north.
In the northern part of the land formerly known as Siam lies a "small town" Chiang Mai. Why "small town"? The feeling there is like a small, quaint village - no high rise skyscrapers, no bustling traffic jams, no crowded shopping plazas, that I had originally thought the population to be around 50,000, or maybe 70,000. But no, it's the largest city in the north with 400,000 inhabitants.
The double-decker bus ride was comfortable, but the air-conditioner was at full blast! Yikes! They even provided thick comforter-style blankets, but they weren't enough. We made a pit stop half-way through, and we sluggishly walked around, appalled by the overwhelming humidity before we braved the cold bus interior once more again.
We had originally decided to rent mopeds when we arrived, but as soon as we got there around 5:45 a.m., we were swamped by several hotel hawkers. And we went ahead with one, settling for a room with private bath for $7.00 for three of us.
The room was real spartan, but very clean. We quickly cleaned ourselves up before having breakfast downstairs where the hotel staff tried to get us to select one of various guided tours. While Beverly and I haggled (and finally selected an all-day guided van tour for $32.00 each), Amanda was strolling around, talking to very friendly strangers, and coming back to us, trying to teach us how to pronounce this or that word in Thai. And before we knew it, we were already in a Mitsubishi van and away we went.
Our first stop was a remote area where we rode elephants. Amanda got on a baby elephant, and boy, were they adorable! Atop the elephants, we swayed in our seats, left, right, left, and right, as they strolled lazily along a forested trail. The ride was a bit daunting and nauseous, there weren't any ground on our left, only a steep slope with a river visible a couple hundred feet downwards. Elephants on tightropes danced on our minds.
We had a brief ox cart ride before we had our lunch (included in the tour price) before facing a presentation by several elephants, showing how they moved tree logs with their trunks, and they still use elephants today, just like the old days. After the show, we went down the river on bamboo rafts. The vans picked us up and whisked us away to an orchid farm, as well as an adjoining butterfly farm. The first thing that came to our minds upon seeing the orchids was the movie, "Coma," based on Robin Cook's novel where human bodies were suspended in the air (with wiring from ceilings). The orchids are hung just the same - in the air, with roots dangling.
After those farms, we visited a hill tribe settlement, where they have lived for years and years. The government provides them with rice and electricity. And they subsidize mainly on selling hand-made crafts. Often, three or four, and yes, even five families live together in a single hut, with dirt floors. Various kinds of chickens and pigs roamed outside. The elders would take care of the young, while their parents are away working on fields or crafts. We were uncomfortable, at first, since we felt that we were invading their privacy by entering "private" real working homes, with residents there. But it was quite an experience, but Amanda, being a six-year old, started showing signs of crabbiness. We knew it would not be long enough before she started falling asleep, here or there.
By late afternoon, we hiked up a trail alongside the Mae Sa Falls. It was probably one of very few spots where we had a respite from the drenching humidity. After a couple of sticky rices (a snack delicacy, we could not have enough), Amanda quickly dozed off when the vans took us back to our hotel. Upon arrival, I carried Amanda upstairs and we all immediately crashed on our beds.
It was already dark when I woke up and took a hot shower, and there I spotted a lot of fireworks, outside of the shower stall (and there weren't any windows in the bathroom, only several 4" by 4" block openings). I tried waking Beverly and Amanda up, but no, they were dead tired.
Around the corner of our hotel, I was astounded to see a parade going on, and a glitzy one. Little 7 or 12 year old girls were caked in make-up that they looked twice their age, and the men were wearing only sarongs or straw skirts. In Thailand, there are two festive religious holidays every year, and we were in middle of their Loi Krathong festival. Fireworks shot from everywhere, landing anywhere. Purely mayhem and bedlam! There were hundreds of "fireballs" - they looked like miniature hot-air balloons, using only paper lanterns 5 or 6 feet in diameter, and they lighted up the sky!
Thousands of orchid and palm tree pods with candles floated the Mae Ping River, and I bought one for myself. And after lighting the candle, made myself a wish before setting it out into the river. If a pod reached a certain destination, with the candle still lit, a wish would come true. If it extinguishes short from the destination, we shall try again next year. That was one of Loi Krathong's Buddhist traditions.
From one of the street vendors (even though it's not recommended that you eat from street vendors, I took the risk many times, and it was "worth" it because most of the time, the food were quite delicious), I had one of best desserts I have ever had in my whole life. It was a thin pancake, even though it looked like a thick tortilla, rolled with freshly sliced bananas while cooking over a stir-fry pan. Then it was poured over with chocolate and thick condensed milk. Absolutely yummy for only 25 cents!
PHOTO GALLERY of Chiang Mai
The next day, Beverly and Amanda were up and all refreshed, while I groggily got up trying to catch up with their "full steam energies." We went shopping at the Anusarn "Night" Bazaar and wat-hopping. Wats are Buddhist temples that dot almost everywhere in each city, village and countryside. We visited Wat Chedi Luang, which is approximately two thousand years old, and we could see Doi Suthei, a golden mountaintop sanctuary, from the city center. All buddhas, in various sizes, are gilded with real gold. And it amazed us to see no "security" issues protecting their valuable assets. They are completely non-existent, no ands, buts, ors. And actually, the crime rate is amazingly low in Thailand since the punishments are often very severe, compared to our own country.
Approximately 95% of Thai people are Buddhists, and they do not eat beef. Therefore, do not eat hamburgers at McDonald's or Wendy's in Thailand! I learned this grave mistake during lunch that same day - beef tastes real terrible there. They usually sell chicken, fish and pork sandwiches as well as chicken legs, breasts and wings.
We rested, wrote postcards, and waited for our late night bus to take us back to Bangkok. Next to our bus station was an open-air store (with a three story building above it) where we gawked at their appliances. Everything is so compact there, the refrigerators are about the same size as college dormitory refrigerators, and the majority of the stoves had only one burner, mostly for stir-fry pans. The washers they carried were as compact as those seen on our luxury recreational vehicles. The only contrast to our ordinary white or ivory colored appliances, theirs came in bright colors - sun yellow, deep red, bold blue, mint green. Rather shocking!
The bus ride back was quicker than the way up, but still as cold. Brrrrrrr! And we got into a different bus station in Bangkok. And guess what? The roads were still jammed with cars, trucks and buses, and we had difficulty crossing a pedestrian bridge as well as the sidewalks because they were jammed with people. And yes, it was only 4:45 a.m.!
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3