I spent ten days in Chiang Mai. The old city is the heart of Chiang Mai and is about two miles square looped by a road. It’s surrounded by an incomplete moat and there remains some of the old wall between the moat and the left lane of traffic (they drive on the left side). The city proper only has a population of 150,000, but city and urban sprawl now make a surrounding population of over a million.
My first night, I found a decent room with a bathroom for a bit more than $5; $4 cheaper than my first 5 inquiries. I think the French couple hired to manage wanted to rent out the last room so they could put up the “no vacancy” sign and go to sleep. Maybe my room was a bit cheaper because it was on the first floor, but it was a perk with the summer heat. I wasn’t couchsurfing until my third night/second day because I was working around the schedule of my hosts.
After a long sleep, I spent the first day wandering through the temples. Maybe the last time I would make a serious effort to see temples. I’ve seen plenty more since, but the opportunities are always presented to see another so I feel no need to make much effort. Like Buddha art, temples rarely seem to offer much in the way of originality. The structures seem to hew to the same mold with the biggest differences a matter of money rather than artistic inspiration. Gold colors feature prominently and as Davide remarked “it would be nice to see a little silver” or any other sort of variety. I wandered to the ancient palace ruins and did a circuit of the attractions. On my way to the next attraction a monk sitting among his peers asked me to sit down. I thanked him and moved on. I have a habit of assuming that offers made by strangers have a monetary purpose. Not the worst assumption when traveling in Southeast Asia, but sometimes a limiting decision. I catch sight of one of his fellow monks chatting with a tourist and after walking a little farther decide to turn around and sit with them. I end up chatting with the monk already speaking. Friendly, quick to laugh, and quite “loquacious” (self-identified). To my untrained ears that he spoke German quite well. In Thailand a monkhood is often the best education available to all but the richest. Being a monk is also viewed as something bestowing honor. Young men of rich upbringing will often spend a couple of weeks or even a few days as a monk for the honor it brings them and their parents. After a few minutes of chatting I noticed a fellow watching us from the other side of a railing and asked him over to join. He had just read the sign I had walked past the backside of; it asked tourists to sit and chat about “monk’s life, thai culture, and any things. Don’t just stand from afar and walk away.” Good advice to travelers and anyone who wants to feel more connected to life. Davide happily joins our conversation which becomes animated. The monk was one of the more adept conversationalists I have met, asking gently probing questions to learn about our views, and then noting the differences and sometimes catching small logical flaws in one of our stated views. Davide questioned the celibacy of monks (including masturbation). Our interlocuter seemed pretty honest in his assertion of celibacy and did a fairly good job of dancing around making the assertion that all monks are celibate while implying that they are. With his honest open expressions, I could believe that he might be celibate monk. Perhaps that ascetism explains the dourness of many of the older monks I saw in Thailand.
After chatting for a bit I ask if Davide would like to join me. Quick to smile and easygoing, I had the impression he’d be good company and was right. We wander around the old quarter together enjoying the sites and good conversation. After wandering for a bit we grab a drink and then part ways to clean up and meet for dinner with his mother. Davide has been traveling for a few months and has had his mother join him for most of his last few weeks. He is in his late 30’s and his mother is in her early 70’s. I hope I’ll be as footloose as them 10 and 40 years from now. Davide’s constitution has him sleeping 5-6 hours a night which would probably be a bit much for me and was definitely taxing his mother.
My second morning I grab brunch, check out, and rent a scooter for $5/day. My couchsufing host, Martina, lives a few miles from the city center and motorbike is by far the easiest way to get around in the city. I memorize the map and head a few miles out of the city center to the nearest 7-ll to her place. I find it on the first try. Three minutes late, but a minute before she arrives — perfect timing. We exchange greetings and converse a touch awkwardly. Meeting a host/surfer is a bit like a first date. I want to make a good impression while hoping the other person is friendly and agreeable even if we don’t connect or converse well. Martina has a friendly smile that puts me at ease. She says she’s not far away so I make to push the scooter there. She points out that it’s a bit far for that, takes my bag, and hops on the back. Just a few hundred meters away, but it would have been quite hard to find with the maps at my disposal (google maps). Especially as street signs are rare and the naming system was at that point a mystery to me. There are major thoroughfares with unique names; a side street is called a ’soi’ and they are numbered sequentially from the beginning of a main road – odd sois on one side, even on the other. I unpack my back in a small pile next to the living room couch. Martina and I chat easily, quickly progressing from background and travel to sincere and familiar while we play and work on our respective computers. That afternoon we meet a few of Martina’s friends at the pool. I’m thrilled to be swimming outdoors, especially in such hot and humid weather.
That evening we grab dinner and then go out with her friends. Chiang Mai has a lively night life and a very large expat population (40,000). The young expat population primarily teaches English as well as doing research, studying, and a fair number of older expats running businesses. Martina is German but her friends are all English speaking expats – few Americans, but most westerners who travel can speak English. Most of her friends teach, some are career teachers in private schools and the rest are itinerant English teachers. I spend the next few days enjoying the city: lazy morning brunches, afternoons wandering around on foot and motorbike, great meals, socializing with Martina’s friends and random travelers, and a lively night life. Most nights there are a couple of bars with live music provided by talented local and expat musicians. Thai’s are experts at mimicking lyrics, while often not singing the the words – it makes for very interesting live covers and karaoke. In Thailand the culture among locals and expats is to hop on their scooters to go between late night activities and to get home. I’ve had, at most, half a drink (an hour) before getting on my motorcycle in the states, but that was out the window in Chiang Mai. The danger is mitigated a bit by the fact that scooters don’t go that fast, but it’s undoubtedly stupid. The road is filled with drunk drivers at night and there are serious repercussions if one is caught drunk driving. I met an expat of 8 years who spent 10 days in jail for drunk driving his scooter. I didn’t get the full story, but I got the impression he got off lightly because he could speak Thai fluently. One evening after dinner Martina, a few of her friends and I went see a Muay Thai fight. The stadium was quiet so we ended up having a drink with a few Thais who had just closed up their stall. After stilted chatting in Thai (Martina) and English, one of our Thai drinking buddies headed to work. . . as an ambulance driver.
The next few days I spent my daylight hours doing tourist activities in and around Chiang Mai. Riding and feeding elephants was interesting, but felt like an intrusion on the lives of the elephants. A trip to some hot springs two hours outside of Chiang Mai sounded like a good idea until we realized there was only hot water; nothing to cool off in on a 36C (97F) day. This was more of a local activity than a tourist activity which involved a picnic centered around chicken and quail eggs boiled in the hot springs as well as dipping a tiny portion of one’s toe or heel in the water for the alleged health value. I spent another afternoon driving up to Doi Suthep temple on the mountain. The temple was nice, but not particularly unique or compelling. The drive and the cooler temperature were both appreciated. I planned on taking a scooter trip to Pai midweek, a meandering drive to a relaxed mountain town full of expat and Thai hippies. That was not to be as I spent two days stuck indoors with a nasty case of food poisoning. I consoled myself with the facts that the river was rather low and the view was probably hazy due to the slash and burn smog of the dry season. My favorite package activity was definitely a Thai cooking class with Siam Rice Thai Cookery (post food poisoning recovery). The school took nine of us to visit a market where we could see all the fresh ingredients while the owner did the purchasing. We were separated into a group of six who just made a curry dish and then myself and a honeymoon couple who were doing the six-course meal. The instructions were very easy to follow; the novice cook next to me was having as much luck as I, a frequent and able cook. Luckily we didn’t eat or cook it all at once, but I’d still recommend skipping breakfast – and eating a light dinner. The food was fantastic, freshly made and even better without the proscribed 1-2 tablespoons of sugar in each savory dish.
I finally got my first massage in Chiang Mai. Martina and I went for $5 massages (going rate) at a place her friend recommended. Two middle aged ladies chatted away while they gave us vigorous Thai massages. A mostly enjoyable massage that left me feeling relaxed and limber. After the massages we grabbed a few beers and sneaked onto the roof of a hotel that towered over most of the city. Relaxed conversation and a wonderful view eased my mind and body back into the world of regular sensory experiences.
An hour from midnight, a friend of Martina called to let us know there was a punk show going on downtown. Martina was unrestrained excitement as we made our way to the address. Martina had remarked that Thais make very good hippies: friendly, easygoing, and loving. What was a Thai punk going to be like. Sartorially the punks were quite convincing, but they acted like hippies in disguise. Martina moshed with the Thais who jumped in concerted directions rather than into each other. When the punks bumped into Martina who was easily taller and heavier, they would bow with hands together and apologize profusely in English. We made friends with a young Thai who could speak a little broken English to match Martina’s beginner Thai. He knocks over a table of bottles and cans. He rights the table, picks up my half finished soda and gives me an apologetic hug in his studded punk coat. I tell him no worries and then demonstrate western punk behavior by knocking my nasty soda down the street and flipping the table. This demonstration is rewarded with another hug. Moderately anti-establishment and loving is much nicer than disaffected and violent.
After seven days of surfing at Martina’s I moved across town to Lauren’s place. I had meant to stay with Martina for 4 or 5 days and maybe the same with Lauren if I liked Chiang Mai. Martina was effusive in her invitation to stay as long as I wanted but, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome with her or her flatmate. In retrospect I was being a bit oversensitive about the issue, but I ended up having a great time at Lauren’s while going out with Martina and friends in the evenings. Lauren may as well be running a hostel. She was regularly hosting 1-7 people on various couches, beds, and floors. When I arrived, there was a German lady, a Canadian/Swedish couple, and two Americans. The weekend was spent lazing around by a local pool, doing mundane tasks like shopping, and cooking at home as well as partying in the city. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard and often with such a large group of strangers/new friends.
On Monday I took a nightbus to the Laos border.