07 November 2009

Asia Journey Part II: Thailand

Bangkok. More throngs. More traffic. Different faces. The Thai are said to be kind, to wish to please. Saving face is of huge importance, I’m told, which, just in the knowing, seems to diminish any possibility of anger or confrontation in favor of conciliation. This is evidenced on arrival at the Royal Hotel, a gloomy shadow of what must have been a glorious past, where I’m expected to share a room although I’ve booked my own. There is a genuinely pained expression on the face of the front desk clerk, even as she remains steadfast that I am committed. Mediation by the tour leader is required, although frankly I was more interested in the process than the outcome, as I knew it would be resolved at some point. The Thai never say no, they only divert. Natural public relations professionals.
We dine at a dive off an alley, a place I would never have ventured had it not been for the calm authority of our Swiss tour leader, and the food, fresh and hearty, is excellent and incredibly cheap. We are a group of just ten and start to get to know each other.
BBC news on the TV at night, the only English speaking show I find, is too sobering, and I resolve not to watch [a resolve I keep most of the time.]
Food stalls crowd sidewalks with everything from voluptuous fresh fruits to deep fried foods on sticks. In between stalls, between scents of ginger and peppers, is the unsettling odor of rotted vegetable skins and trash. People plop tiny plastic tables, the size used for kids, everywhere and anywhere on the sidewalks to eat, creating an obstacle course for walkers.
We stay mostly in the old city, where temples and the national palace share space with parks, 7/11 shops and ATM’s. We walk to a pier where we board a couple of canoe shaped motor boats for a canal tour. On the way, I discover an encampment of homeless families, laying under a bridge on makeshift mattresses. When I inquire, I’m told it is rare, as families take care of their own. The guide tells me that sometimes, family ties are broken, and people come to Bangkok looking for work. Sounds familiar.
On the canal, filled with intersecting pathways, wooden houses sit above rotting caissons, next door to temples and elegant homes. Pots filled to overflowing with beautiful flowers are everywhere, even in front of the dingiest shack – frangipani, hibiscus, bougainvillea, others unknown. Lush, colorful, abundant, they dress up somewhat squalid conditions. Dogs resting on rocks or decks watch us go by. A man slides plastic bags of light white bread [like challah] to tourists in boats to rip into chunks to feed the catfish who are huge and rush to the food like sharks to their pray. These, known as bottom feeders in other places, are protected, forbidden to fish, only to feed.
At the temple of the reclining Buddha, large sumptuous buildings are decorated in mother of pearl and gold leaf. Incense burns everywhere. Shoes are piled high outside the many temples and when sitting inside, before the Buddha, one must sit lotus style or in a child’s pose, toes must never point in the Buddha’s direction, an insult. Good to know.
Monks dressed in orange robes [which will be true in all three countries, the same robes] are always given a wide berth, as to be touched, even the slightest brush by a woman, is a sin, punished by 3 days of isolation and prayer. I always step aside, and often a monk smiles at me in thanks, a sage semi-smile, and while part of me in indignant to be considered in this way, I respect tradition and I respect Buddhists.
There are also nuns, but they serve the monks. Surprise.
Throughout Bangkok, large boulevards are capped by statues and fountains, while side streets are filled with narrow alleys leading to restaurants, shops, massage parlors. I’m told of the seedy side of downtown, which I’ve read about, and avoid.
We take an overnight train to Chiang Mai. I’ve traveled in this way only once, as a small girl with my mother to visit my aunts in Pittsburgh. The story goes that my mother saved every penny to buy us a sleeping berth, but I sat up all night too excited to sleep. On this trip in Thailand, I sleep well, the steady motion of the train a tonic. Sheets are stiff from starch and the pillow small, but I fit comfortably and I negotiate with one of my comrades for the lower berth so I have the window, where I watch the sun rise over farms and fields and then steadily observe the increase in houses, temples, buildings as we enter Chiang Mai, like watching urban development unfold on fast forward. I realized on the train that I had embarked on a very different kind of journey and was totally high – close to the ground, no frills, an opportunity to experience the culture.
Chiang Mai. Byron calls it a cross between Tijuana and Laguna, but I find it more interesting. A smaller city, largely devoted to tourism, a mix of old and new. The old city entry points are marked by large elegantly carved gates, one each at the 4 points on the compass, and bounded by the river. Our guest house is old-world with simple modern amenities – a teak platform bed, lattice dividers between spaces, and on the TV is CSI Miami!
On a morning walk in the old town, I stumble into a seminary where one of the monks speaks to me in halted but literate English. There I find a sign engraved in wood that says “We are never too old to mend.” I know this well. In the evening, we attend a grand hillside temple, 250 steps to the top, and there I am blessed with holy water by a monk with a big smile who wants to know my name. His assistant ties a rope to my wrist for good luck, and I am told to let it fall off on its own. It remains there still. On the large wrap-around terrace, 12 huge brass bells, all slightly different shapes and sizes, are lined up and if you make a wish and bang on the bell, we’re told that the sound will take your wish to heaven. I wish for just one place, somewhere on earth, to be truly at peace.
People do not smile much, nor do they go out of their way to engage foreigners, unless they want to sell you something, and then quite aggressive. But while they are not interested in engagement, neither are they threatening or arrogant in any way.
I stop for a foot massage at one of the many massage place, like nail shops here, plentiful, and the women there are so pleasant, although again, very little English.
The night market is huge and also bounded by roughly 10 square blocks of stalls. So much merchandise, much higher quality than expected. I remain amazed by the sheer volume of stuff always for sale and the throngs of people always browsing, locals as much as tourists.
Animals are revered – images of dogs, elephants, dragons of course. I watch 2 dogs follow a monk, on alert, awaiting his commands, and when he signals to them without looking at them, just a nod of his head and a movement of his hand, they follow. The dog whisperer monk.
At the elephant conservation center, these animals look you in the eye as if they know you. Gentle but commanding, a tribute to their Zen environs. A hospital here treats sick elephants at no charge. A Mahout training course prepares guides/protectors, each assigned to one elephant for their stay. The rides are fun, but the best part is bathing hour, where elephants and their mahouts, and volunteers who have paid for the privilege, splash around playfully. Two elephants paint on canvas, carefully taking the brush in their trunk and dipping into the paint – one paints an image of elephant, one a vase of flowers, and it is inexplicable, even though I’ve seen it on 60 Minutes.
Just before we leave Chiang Mai, I lunch at a little restaurant, The Cottage, at the end of an alley near the guest house, that serves organic farm grown foods. I order a veggie burger, which arrives with a selection of fabulous chutneys, followed by a complimentary plate of mango chunks and fruit tea. Women cook and serve with an obvious desire to please. As I leave, I press my hands to my heart to thank them and they seem gratified that they have served me well. I leave a big tip. Total price: $3.
Chiang Khon. We ride a van 4 hours to this little river village, important only as the embarkation for Laos. Along the way we stop to photograph a gorgeous temple, in the middle of nowhere, carved out of glass and stone by an artist in the 15th century. We also stop at a market with 25 types of cashew nuts.
Here in the northern hills, early in the morning, the sun peeks through a deep mist, reflecting a swatch of light across the water. On the opposite bank: Laos.
Technology is a frequent subject of conversation among my fellow travelers, who are all under 35 except one 42 year-old from Texas who is a gourmet cook who wants to try every food and spice possible, he’s fun to watch when he scours the menu. We are from England, Wales, Ireland, Australia, India, Canada, Switzerland. All English speaking thankfully, all better traveled than I despite their youth, and two have just begun their year around the world. They travel simply but they are of the modern age. They have phones with sim cards for each country. They compare apps, discuss phonebook options from itunes to Google, the cost of text messages, the price of new iphones. Cameras are an endless source of interest. They call family far away without hesitation. We are never alone. They stop at internet cafes often. I am enjoying the disconnect and will only check in every few days to email the girls. Not that my friends aren’t on my mind – I want to share every experience – but my journal is close at hand.
My last morning in Thailand, I have learned to take cold showers without shuddering, and aim the hose at myself so as not to totally blanket the bathroom with water, as there is no shower stall, only the hose on the wall and a drain in the floor. Gekkos climbing the walls of the bathroom don’t bother me, in fact it is a prize to have one in your room as they eat other bugs. The sounds of this very foreign language are becoming more familiar. I keep toilet paper with me at all times and have learned to squat low and not mind leaving used paper in covered bins rather than clog their narrow pipes. In the end, it is of little consequence against the backdrop of this world. One has to respect their ways, and letting go of western creature comforts is wonderfully liberating. Like a weight off your shoulders.
So while we move around a lot, and I rise with the light every morning ready for the day, I feel great, and I send an email to Dana thanking her for urging me to get out of my comfort zone.
All photo's at http://picasaweb.google.com/maple57/Asia2009#
Please note: These are all my pictures, plus Byron's shots of Hanoi, which are easily identified as the better photo's!
Stay tuned for Laos and Vietnam. xx

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