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Chaing Mai


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My hotel
in Bangkok was at the edge of Chinatown, bustling after midnight with sidewalks crammed with tables and chairs when I arrived, and filled with vendors goods during the day. Trees provided some shade from the blazing sun, their twisted trunks not lined up straight and tall like American city streets. Sidewalks are not for walking in southeast Asia, life happens on sidewalks. The streets were a competition between motorcycles, tuk-tuks (more colorful than Guatemala's but similar), neon taxis and buses, and cars. Not a bicycle to be seen, probably too dangerous. There's a skill to crossing the street - look directly into the on-coming traffic, walk ahead confidently using hand signals to indicate which side of you the drivers should go.

Savit, an amiable tuk-tuk driver took me to two temples, one with standing, sitting and reclining Buddhas, and the Marble temple where all the staff were stretched out snoozing in the shade at midday. He showed me pictures of his family as we swerved and bounced through the city streets in-between gridlock stops. They live far from Bangkok and there are no jobs in his village; he worked for a year for a farmer, but now must spend several months in Bangkok driving, returning for 10 days at a time to visit. The Royal Palace held the Emerald Buddha, actually jade but lovely, a whimsically beautiful group of spires, mirror tiled and gold towers. I popped some fried shrimp balls from a street vendor and asked my way back to Chinatown. At night on Khao San Road, the backpackers' hangout, I had crab in coconut milk with a banana shake. I've missed that tropical food.

So many things reminded me of Guatemala - the tumbling purple and magenta bougainvilleas and flaming orange candlestick trees, the jumble of electrical wires and cables and choking auto pollution, the juxtaposition of crumbling small buildings and the gleaming skyscrapers of the modern international age, and in a few days I would see the rainforested hills. And, like the Asia I have come to know in Japan, temples were tucked away amid city structures. Tiny urban shrines and spirit houses appeared on street corners and in unlikely places, maintained with burning incense and decorated with fresh flower garlands.

A boat ride around the quiet canals of Bangkok revealed quite a different view of life. The colorful gondolas with floral garlands hanging from the nose for luck navigated narrow passages where residents lounged in hammocks on flower-potted decks or washed laundry, fed children, in mostly dilapidated wooden houses with open walls to the water. The boat stopped for ten minutes to wait for the water level to rise at one lock. The boat deposited us at Wat Pho, home of the massive reclining Buddha. A soft spoken tour guide helped me to understand these temples, her devoted belief in Buddhism shone through her descriptions. I loved the steep towers of Wat Arun, across the river, decorated with pottery shards, some Chinese patterns discernable, in every color.

Although the inner city of Chaing Mai, northeast of Bangkok, was ringed by an ancient red stone wall, the landscape inside and out was urban city, vibrant with a tourist economy. Temples were tucked away amid shops. I walked to Wat Phra Singh, where a small brass Buddha sits in a small dark room, stories of village life painted on its walls. Shutters with lovely drawings let in a cloudy light, a peaceful place to contemplate.

One of the best Thai cooking schools was run in Chaing Mai by a well known Thai TV chef. I took a memorable half-day course. First we visited the local market to identify the spices and ingredients we would use. Coached by expert female chefs who kept us on our toes, we created edible magic on outdoor stoves, well supervised so that it came out absolutely scrumptious. I don't imagine I could ever duplicate those succulent dishes: minced pork and cabbage soup, spring rolls, a fabulous roast duck red curry, and chicken in ginger sauce.

A late afternoon ride through banana trees and coconut palms up a switch-backed road dropped me at Wat Doi Suthrap, towering over the city. With no seat belts in the open backed red truck, I was afraid of sliding right out the door on each hairpin curve. I climbed the 316 steps to see the evening ceremony. Young students and other monks gathered in their saffron colored robes to await the head monk, who finally appeared and lit a tall candle to signal the start of prayer. After three bows to the ground, they entered the temple and chanted. An older monk blessed us, sprinkling water over us as he spoke. He tied a white yarn around the wrist of a male in our group, then passed him yarns to hand to the women since he was forbidden to touch a woman, to take the blessing with us.

The bus to the Laos border drove through hilly rainforest, stopping to see a fanciful and ornate white temple near Chaing Rai created by a contemporary artist, and for a sticky rice in bamboo stick snack from a roadside stand. I amused myself on the long ride by imagining animals formed by lumpy shapes of low trees and overgrown vines out my window.


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