Chiang Mai


We’ve just spent a week in this bustling, but still charming northern city. Our last visit was twenty-five years ago and the city has become completely unrecognizable. Our quiet guesthouse on the river is lovely, down a small soi or lane from the main street, two properties from where we stayed last time. The garden is a riot of plants, many in the funniest oddments of clay pots. I don’t think they have ever thrown away anything since they built 27 years ago. The owners’ house is on the same property, with the same relaxing view of the river. A tiny man sweeps up all the dead leaves and waters the hundreds of plants meticulously each day. I need one of those for my garden.

We came straight here from Sukhothai – buses are so comfortable here – to catch the famous Flower Festival held at the beginning of February. Walked across the old city, much farther than we had estimated, to see the judging of orchids, bonsai, and other exotic specimens. Decided we should take up bonsai cultivation in our old age, some amazing specimens on display, but the problem there is they take so long to develop that you have to have someone to will them to when you die. Any of the daughters up for it?

The big event was the Flower Parade, for which we breakfasted early and rushed out for the purported 8 am start at the old city gate near our hotel. Crowds had gathered even before we got there, and we all waited, and waited, and waited….Thais and then tourists amused themselves by being photographed with the tourist police waiting in their car to lead things off. Finally at 10 things actually got going, with a marching band leading the first beauty queens down the route — slowly. Who knew there were so many beautiful girls in Thailand, let alone Chiang Mai, all done out to the nines in the most amazing regalia, some with feathered wings, many variants on national dress, and others completely fantastical. I couldn’t imagine how those poor girls who were walking the route would ever make it in their 6 inch stiletto heels or sky high platforms. Lots of darling children in national dress marched too, stopping to do elaborate dance moves along the route.

Then the floats started. You will be able to see how elaborate they were from Doug’s photos, but it is hard to appreciate that every inch of them was covered with flower heads — all those animals and pictures are made of flower blossoms. Even for a country bedecked with flowers and plants everywhere, it seemed excessive. Every float had young women and men in weird and wonderful costumes atop, the boys looked embarrassed and bored (some of them did have deer horns on their heads so no wonder), but the women never stopped smiling graciously. Interspersed were enthusiastic marching bands from various schools and colleges, costumed in unusual fashion, and led by a female drum major who looked more like a bizarre go go dancer, always marching in the most unsuitable footgear (one was wearing golden thigh high boots with 6 inch heels) and wielding 5 foot batons with aplomb. Then would come legions of older men and women wearing the sort of homespun working shirts that are common here, but in all the colours of the rainbow rather than the usual indigo rather like the benevolent societies that march in the Chinese New Years parade.

Canadians are such polite parade watchers, standing neatly behind the designated barrier, never impeding the flow of the parade. Not so here — as soon as the very wide floats had passed, with a whistle blowing police officer trying vainly to make a passage through the crowd, all would surge into the path of the marchers, rushing up to have their pictures taken with the beautiful girls and the drum majors, posing against the floats. There were a lot of pauses and then all would become a complete melee — no one seemed perturbed, and many tourists even joined in, one dreadfully homely soul in the most unflattering leggings you have ever seen on a 300 pound woman must have had her picture taken with every beauty queen who passed. What on earth will she say to her friends back home when she shows them her holiday photos? The entire thing took 3 1/2 hours to pass by, just when we thought this must be the final marching band, we would see a float on the horizon. An amazing, but exhausting spectacle, can’t imagine how the marchers held up it was hard enough for the spectators.

We have been wandering about, through the markets, and visiting some of the many wats (temples) which dot the old city. These temples have become much more commercialized than I recall, not so much for tourists as for the Thais who worship the Buddha there, with dozens of ways to donate money, and have been vastly refurbished as a result. It is a shock to see monks sitting at the foot of Buddha, chatting on their cell phones and taking each others’ pictures with them. What ever happened to the basic five possessions allowed to monks? Clearly that now includes a phone.

We remembered doing a sort of wat tour with a taxi the last time we were here, and I particularly remembered the kids ringing all the bells on the terrace of one which I figured out was Doi Suphet, Chiang Mai’s most revered wat. We took a santheow (bus/truck) out there a day or so ago. At first I thought I was wrong as it was so changed — the long staircase I remembered with the brightly coloured naga (snake) winding up the balustrade was there, but hidden by an ugly building housing ticket sales (foreigners only) and a funicular cable car to take you up to the top. When we got up there, all was brightly gilded and they had the most amazing bank of small lockers, into which they exhorted the faithful to place donations, all labeled “poor student”, “sick person”, “refurbish the wat”, “monk supplies” etc, at least 100 different options. I watched a monk cleaning out the money and as far as I could see it all went in the same bag. Finally on the top terrace (with a splendid view of smog covered and sprawling Chiang Mai) there were the rows and rows of bells which I remembered. On the way back we stopped at the summer palace of the king which has lovely gardens and Doug had to put on a sort of ankle length culotte outfit as he had forgotten to bring the zip on legs of his shorts. Usually they insist on that in wats too but he eluded the temple police at Doi Suphet.

We’ve had busy days but quite a relaxing time here. Took another cooking class one evening, not as professional as our first one, but fun and met some nice people. Tonight we’ll take a boat trip on the river like we did in Ayutthaya to see river bank life, that too is different from before as the river is now contained in cement walls, before it was broad mud flats.

We leave here tomorrow in a rental truck to do a 10 day road trip, first out to the western border at Mae Hong Son, then almost back to Chiang Mai and north to the so called Golden Triangle abutting Burma and China. We will leave the truck in Chiang Rai and continue on to Nan from there. Doug has opted for a manual transmission over a much smaller vehicle with automatic. Shifting gears with the left hand is so awkward at first, but he has done it before. We hope to find some more peaceful spots but all the little towns are pretty busy here. This is a much developed place with lots of commerce — apparently they have the 3rd lowest unemployment rate in the world. Not sure how they count though.

Thanks for reading, hope all are well. Love the notes that come from home. Your happy travellers, Doug and Carol

Sent from my iPad


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