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Ben In Japan...And Thailand (Part 3 of 3)

Sunday, January 22, 2006
It's been crazy here, some good and some bad, but that's for the next post. For now, Chiang Mai.

Leaving Koh Chang, Liz and I hit the low point of the trip when arriving at the layover hotel in Bangkok, I found that I did not have my camera. It wasn't at the front desk, it wasn't anywhere in the room, and I couldn't remember seeing it during the entire five hour bus ride from the ferry to Bangkok. The bus had made many stops along the trip, little rest stops along the road, the doors had been left open, everybody had gotten off, and I was sure my camera was gone, snatched by someone. A few phone calls later, to various bus terminals and hotel offices, I was in a full panic. The situation was bad. It wasn't that the camera was gone - well, it was, but mainly it was that I had taken so many photos, every hour of every day of the last ten days, and they might simply be gone, as if I had never taken them. There was the week to come in Chiang Mai - what if I had no camera? Could I even enjoy it? I've had a camera in my pocket or in my bag every day for three years now. The days I notice are not the ones where I bring my camera, they are the ones where I don't. When I leave the house without my camera on my shoulder, I feel like I've forgotten something, even if I left it on purpose.

The last hope was the office of the bus company, located in some alleyway a few blocks from the hotel. We walked over and for those five minutes I hated the noise and the smell of everything. I hated the crowds and the exhaust, and the food looked bad. I took a deep breath and went into the bus office to find a dim office, a grinning bus driver, and my camera.

I can't describe how I felt, but when I went back out onto the street, it was like color had come back into everything. The children playing with puppies on the street were cute again, not dirty and in my way. The food looked delicious and smelled better, and I realized it was coming up on 9 o'clock and I hadn't eaten anything. The tuk-tuks drivers passing by, leaning out of their seats to see if I needed a ride were charming and made me smile. Everything started to make me smile. Color came back into the world. It was a good feeling.

That was the whole adventure, the night was uneventful, the hotel was next to a smelly canal and the next day we took our flight to Chiang Mai.

We got to Chiang Mai on the night of the 31st, New Year's eve. Our flight got in at nine, but we didn't get a cab until 11. The driver wound through the darkest, scariest, emptiest alleyways I've ever seen, past businesses with no signs, and businesses with signs like "Climax Men's Massage." Seriously. Luckily we were clear of massage parlors, dark narrow alleyways, and terror when he finally dropped us off in a dim (but not dark) wide alleyway near our hotel. By the time we put our stuff down, it was quarter to midnight, and we steeled ourselves and decided it was imperative that we find a drink and some life for midnight. Life was nearby, and suffice it to say that somehow we happened into a bar entirely filled with Thai hipsters and their, and we made friends and everyone practiced saying "happy new year" in English.

Post countdown, Royal Bar, Chiang Mai.

The next day we procured a map and set off to see the sites of Chiang Mai's old city. the center of the city is designed in a big square, with walls and moats and gates all around, which makes finding your way around really easy. There are something like 150 temples within the square, I think we saw five. They were good ones, though, and that was enough. We saw more elsewhere, but I'll get to that.

These temples have names, but do I remember them? No. Maybe I'll get the book and look it all up and fix this later, but for now, this is the oldest all-teak structure in Chiang Mai (and possibly Thailand. Again, the book would help here).

Surly teenagers will be surly teenagers, even if you wrap them in orange monk's robes.

Maybe he was annoyed because he had to do the laundry.

Or the sweeping.

We looked for the next temple on our list and walked into a temple complex by accident. Chiang Mai was kind of like Kyoto in that sense. When you make a mistake and turn down the wrong street, you happen on stuff like this.

The main temple in Chiang Mai's old city is a huge complex, not particularly spectacular, but visited by masses of people every day, with a very active school of Buddhism. Out in front there was some sort of incense and offering burning area, two long racks of smoldering metal, with a line of people cringing at the smoke and heat as they move to put their piece into the fire.

I was fascinated.

We saw other temples, this one was the oldest unreconstructed structure in Chiang Mai.

The insides (and outsides) of most of the temples were austere and quiet. These aren't little nothings either, they are spots named by Lonely Planet as the gems of Chiang Mai. It was a nice contrast to the mobs of Kyoto. Also, the weather was nicer.

We went to a market whose name I actually remember, the Talan Warorot. It was one step shy of a mall, a fully enclosed three story market with stalls and little shops, but the feel of it was one hundred percent market, with piles of spices and dried fruit spilling out into tiny aisles crammed with shoppers.

Also, it had balconies where I could watch the world go by.

This lady was my favorite.

On the top level were restaurants, and nap time. It was early, so we didn't eat here.

Outside of the market there was a sign in English explaining that in the history of Bangkok, this market had been a place where Chinese traders would come and sell their goods, and the traders had grouped together and built a Chinese temple in the middle of the city. It was a quiet, empty place, a little smoky from incense and smooth from years of wear. We didn't spend long here, but I remember it clearly.

The Chiang Mai Sunday night market. Souvenirs, tourists, ferocious haggling, and the place where I got a hundred tiny elephants made out of wood, brass, and jade for each and every one of my Junior High students. The bargaining was intense, with calculators passed back and forth, a full range of emotions, and repeated walking away from the table and then coming back. In the end I paid about 40 cents an elephant, buying them from three different vendors.

Always: food. In Mori's words, when I showed him this picture - "looks yummy."

After a couple days in Chiang Mai, we moved out of the sketchy hotel and met up with Liz's friends Liz (another one) and Bree. Liz teaches English to college students in Chiang Mai, Bree was visiting at the time from home (Iowa), and they all went to the same school (Coe College). The four of us stayed in Liz's apartment, and did jolly things in a jolly group. I don't have a great picture of the two of them, so you'll just have to imagine two friendly looking ladies who like to go to independent coffee shops, watch bad movies on Thai TV, and hang off the back bumper of Chiang Mai's red pickup truck taxis. It was nice to meet some new people and have a guide around Chiang Mai.

One of the first things new Liz directed us to is Doi Suthep, a temple built on the mountains surrounding the city. To get a truck taxi, hire him to wait while you see the temple, and then drive you back home, probably three hours total time, with a good hour of driving, was $10.

We climbed the incredibly long staircase as the sun started to go down, heading up into more gold spires, mosaics, and national treasures.

There's almost the same picture in Lonely Planet Thailand.

The temple sits on a flat... patio, I suppose. The temple is in the middle, and you can walk all the way around. Around the back was an old door with a peeling gold design that I particularly liked.

The "patio" had a great view of the city. You can see where we were staying in this picture (in the relative foreground) but I have no idea exactly where. I only know we could see Doi Suthep from the window.

Not only that, but from the temple, you had a view of the airport! How much more perfect could it have been? (Answer: Not much.)

That night we went and saw some Muay Thai - kickboxing. The boxers were almost all young, the betting was occasionally ferocious, and some of these kids got knocked the hell out. In Muay Thai, punches and kicks are considered "softening" blows, the real damage coming from knees and elbows to the head and stomach. It's pretty brutal, but fun to watch.

Also, because it is practically required of anyone who goes to Thailand, we went and saw some Elephants. I learned some new things, namely that Elephants can play soccer and paint pictures. Also, I petted some elephants, and got grabbed by many a trunk, which was a new experience. An elephant's head feels like it could knock down a house, but petting an elephant's head is the sort of thing that I can add to my list of things I've done.

That elephant painted that picture. Without any help. I swear. The guys dipped the paintbrushes in the different colors, but besides that, the elephant painted the picture, from the little stems first, then the flowers, and then the leaves and the ground. Each elephant painted a different picture, and then of course they were on sale afterwards. I did not buy any elephant art, but I perused the gallery.

Revelation: Eight elephants all in a row, reaching for bananas and sugar cane look a lot like a horrible sea monster. Also: those trunks are strong! You can get the elephant to "hug" you for a picture, as in it wraps it's trunk around you. Sometimes a few elephants join in, and while I think they are gentle, I saw a few people settle in for the picture only to be wrapped in trunks up to the neck. At that point, the photo smile cracks and is replaced with mortal terror.

Footnote. At Thai Malls, some of the mannequins are terrifying.

On our last day, Liz and I went to a waterfall. It was a relaxed day, which was good because after almost 20 days of traveling, we were pretty beat. I climbed on some rocks and read a book, and enjoyed the spot.

Liz gives you a sense of scale. For reference, Liz is one foot three inches tall.

And though my last post was full of sunsets, this time I offer you a soft-focus waterfall. Watch out, next it's babies and kittens in flowerpots.

Because there was nary a picture of Liz and I on vacation in Thailand, we decided to take one. I precariously balanced my camera on a rock, and by some miracle, everything worked out. Everyone who sees this picture says "you guys look tired." Well, we were.

And that was it. That night we flew back to Bangkok and caught a connecting red-eye flight to Fukuoka Airport.

I had to get at least one sunset in here.

And then, arriving at the below freezing airport, we got the train back home. As though to welcome me back to zany Japan, I just looked at a sign and found that it was advertising a new Japanese production of Fiddler on the Roof. I don't know, that just seems funny to me. Especially the three guys on the bottom right. No matter how hard you try, guys, you're not going to look, like European Jews.

I'm off to Hiroshima for a two day business trip now, I have some Japanese stories when I get back. And the aforementioned bad news.