Saturday, April 25, 2009

chiang mai

Though our excuse for visiting was the riotous Songkran festival (see below), which of all Thailand reaches its peak in this city, I would have been delighted to choose Chiang Mai as a Thai holiday destination at any time of the year. The small, leafy, walled city nestled into an accommodating mountain plateau is much more my style than the sprawl and bustle of Bangkok. Where Bangkok boasts of food and traffic and nightlife, Chiang Mai’s claims to fame are scores of temple/monastery compounds (‘wats’); pervasive 13-19th C Lanna-style architecture and artifacts, which I would inexpertly describe as ‘Thai Gothic’; the cultural presences of hill tribe traditions such as Hmung embroidery and Karen weaving; its beautiful cooling mountain setting; and various treks and sports adventures thereof, from hiking to elephant riding.

This is only a very new reputation, though. From the 1100s on, Chiang Mai was best known as a key crossroad along the China to Indian Ocean land trade route, then later as a regional producer of valuable crafts and opium to contribute to that trade. As the city coalesced, it became notable for its defensible city walls and moat, as well as for being a hotbed of Theravadan Buddhist theological discourse and devotion. All of these factors are still quite present in the city today. Though opium is theoretically not grown in Thailand any more thanks to an aggressive crop-replacement campaign led by the Thai government, monarchy, and the CIA, combined with the threat of execution for non-compliance, most people in the city seemed to hint that this laudable official story and the realities of transitional and supplementary agricultural incomes don’t entirely correspond. There certainly did seem to be more affluent farmers and more highly-mellowed revelers than could easily be explained otherwise.

The Chiang Mai region showed itself in its best light when we got out of the city, which we did for a majority of our days there. On our second day, I took off mountain biking with one of Petra’s Australian colleagues, Katie. We were driven to the top of the predominant mountain range that forms Chiang Mai’s horizon, and were led by a local guy on a hair-raising but gorgeous and exhilarating vertical romp on dirt paths down through the jungle and occasional isolated rice and coffee fields of the mountain villages. It was hands down the most difficult biking I’ve ever done, but successfully completing the route with only one deep bruise and in time for dinner made me inordinately proud.

On another day, we foraged out with some Canadians we’d met in town and with them rode elephants through a valley, hiked up through a lightly-inhabited jungle to a waterfall, at pad thai off banana leaves, and rafted down a river that was much more placid than its “white-water’ marketing had suggested. As it was still Songkran, all of the valley’s inhabitants were picnicking along the riverbanks, with hundreds of kids and teenagers bobbing around in inner tubes or just floating along with the current. This made navigating our raft much more difficult than usual: we had water in our eyes nearly constantly from the Songkran-splashing gauntlet, and had to avoid running over people, and had to fend off boarders. At one point, so many kids were hanging off our bow line that we stopped dead in the middle of the river.

On a more sedate note, we hired a funny little pickup truck (‘songtaw’) another day to drive us to some of the out-of-the-way temples and ruins that surround Chiang Mai, and later to a crafts show where local artisans hand-make enamelware, weavings, and the like. I especially liked seeing how they took bamboo strips and tree sap and a bit of gold leaf and turned it into a truly lovely bowl.

All in all, an exhausting but lovely visit to northern Thailand.

Note: more photos, from the cameras of our fellow travellers, hopefully coming soon.


Imagine a nation-wide weeklong waterfight. Everyone, everyone is involved. Roads closed, main streets flooded, business and schools suspended. Children who are usually expected to show at least mischievous respect gleefully (yet still hesitantly respectfully) squirting forces of water from well-designed water guns, or dumping buckets of water onto adults as high as they can reach, usually belly-high. Hordes of enthusiastic, grinning, often-drunk young men driving around in pickups and motorcycles with well-planned routes, outfits, and water-dousing instruments to maximize their water delivery, soakedness, and flirtation opportunities. Middle-aged shopkeepers looking innocent, yet deadly with iced water in their sprayers. Old men kindly using the water in its more traditional handful blessing, but grinning if said blessing happens to get some foreigners or young people chillingly wet down the spine in the process. All of this to so great an extent that within five minutes of leaving a building’s protection, you are as wet as if you had been fully submerged in the moat. In fact, you may have actually been fully submerged in the moat, though if you are sober you can usually avoid this fate.

At first, it was really fun. We were doused, we doused, it was a textbook lifting of ritual social restrictions, an annual blowing-off of societal steam. And then the teenaged boys started having too much fun dousing Petra, who was looking especially pretty. And, despite the humid hot hot weather, I got cold. Standing around in drenched clothes, and being continually re-drenched, occasionally with ice water, just isn’t healthy after a few hours, let alone a few days, no matter how hot out it is. And then, after the third day, …well, let me just say that the water we were being doused with was not AT ALL clean, and my skin is still healing from the fascinating rash (though rash seems like too tame a word), though my intestines have thankfully recovered.

Songkran has not always been quite so conducive to illness. Though Thailand has used the Western-style calendar since the 1940s, they also follow their own solar calendar in which this is the year 2552, and the New Year is April 14. Songkran originated as the celebration of the change between years, with a sort-of Buddhist Yom Kippur feeling that consisted of cleansing all images of the Buddha, especially statues. According to Wikipedia, “the throwing of water originated as a way to pay respect to people, by capturing the water after it had been poured over the Buddhas for cleansing and then using this "blessed" water to give good fortune to elders and family by gently pouring it on the shoulder.” One’s bad karma is lessened by being spiritually cleansed with this holy water. If this is the case, then we are all really, really pure now due to the modern enthusiastic delivery of the blessed water. :)

While it was a bit overwhelming in Chiang Mai proper, we had a great time celebrating Songkran in a random little village an hour’s drive outside the city. We had been out on a day’s expedition in the hills (details to come later), and our itinerary called for us to visit an orchid farm on the way back to town. Our guide had been imbibing in a celebratory spirit throughout the day (we had a driver who was not celebratory, don’t worry, mothers), and he turned to us with pure mischief in his eyes on the drive to the farm and asked something along the lines of “Would you mind if it turned out the orchid farm was ‘closed’ and I provided some alternative entertainment instead?”. Well, our group (us and a bunch of Canadians and a few Aussies) couldn’t turn up the mysterious offer, and told him to take us where he would, which turned out to be his family home. We were greeted with great delight in the driveway by his extensive clan and spent the next who-knows-how-many hours standing in the road being hand-fed who-knows-what tasty snacks and drinks, dousing the few people who ventured by and each other, singing and dancing with abandon to frantic Thai pop, and being teasingly subjected to an elaborate matchmaker game by the old ladies (I am supposed to marry the charming gay Mike, from Vancouver, who looks just like Jude Law: could have made out much worse). The neighbours all came over with great curiosity and undisguised jealousy to see how the family got white people to come to their party: apparently we provided enormous social cache. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever attended, and thoroughly redeemed the holiday to me. Sawatdee bee mai! (Happy New Year!)

Note on the photos: I didn’t take many, since my digital camera is not waterproof, and I did not want to risk its ruin. The photos at the beginning of this slideshow were taken with a disposable waterproof film camera, and the soft-focus ones at the end are taken with my camera wrapped up in a plastic bag.