Saturday, January 1, 2011

Sabadi Bpi Mai, Thailand!

Location: Sri Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai, Thailand
It's the new year, 2011, year of the Rabbit if you subscribe to that. I haven't decided on horoscopy of any nation. I like the Chinese zodiac just because it's supposed to remind you of what you already know, like a Tarot reading. I think the Latin zodiac distracts from the point.

What did we do on our first day of the new year? Well, we celebrated it abroad, for one thing. We celebrated with the city and I kissed my wife at midnight, and the next day--this day--we walked around Chiang Mai, basking in the afterglow of celebration. The partying wasn't done, to be sure, and an all-embracing bonhomie yet persisted among the citizens and tourists alike. It was a rare moment and we took advantage of it.

We visited the temple across the street from where we were staying, Wat Phan Ohn. We've passed by it several times and it's so huge that it can't be ignored, but we hadn't often stepped inside to see what was going on. Turns out, they're totally waiting for people to do just such a thing. Many temples offered a service called Monk Chat, where tourists can meet with novice Buddhist monks. The meeting is of reciprocal benefit: the tourist gains a shot at some illumination, if not total enlightenment, and the monk gets to practice his English. We did take up some monks on this offer, but at another temple outside of the square.

At this temple, we walked around and rang the rows of bells in the commons. This is a form of meditation: with every peal, the ringer makes a wish or prayer. One can consider it to disperse throughout the universe or see it as annealing itself within the wisher's heart. It was disconcerting to make so much noise when the grounds are normally tranquil, but few tourists did not avail themselves of this opportunity. I have no idea what was in their heads but my wish is always the same: world peace. Not the best-worded desire--I can easily conjure several insidious scenarios in which it has been technically achieved, according to certain definitions--but I trust that the Universe propagates Life and my good intentions won't screw us over.

You know, we never did see any muay thai fighting. There have been advertisements and posters everywhere. There have even been fighters standing on street corners, handing out fliers for their own matches, which seem to occur every single night. It's possible to see small matches, as we stumbled upon one at the end of a seedy alley of bars. The fight was interesting, but running the gauntlet of sad, pathetic, elderly Western men trying to pick up Thai girls was not worth the spectacle.

I do know of a friend who was stranded by her traveling companion in Thailand and, rather than despair and feel sorry for herself, she chose to learn muay thai to some basic degree. I admired her resourcefulness and abilities as an apt traveler of the world. I hope to be so good-spirited and imaginative in my journeys.

In the photo to the left you can see a large chart of animals and Thai writing, none of which I could decipher. Usually when I see an array like this, it's some kind of elaborate prayer (for business, money, prosperity, etc.), and this very well could be the same thing. Maybe the animals portrayed bear spiritual significance and are being solicited for their totemic influence. Or maybe it's just a large how-to for basic cooking. I didn't ask and I never learned by accident, more's the pity.

As far as food goes, though, here's one interesting quirk I've seen all throughout Chiang Mai: the most delicious roti is always cooked by young Muslim women. They have their portable carts all over Old Town, either standing solo or sitting with a non-Muslim girlfriend. Their carts always feature the large steel hot plate upon which they craft their art, and they always wear the head scarves. I think I've seen only one such operation run by someone other than a Muslim girl--I don't understand the trend, but I cannot contest the results. I had a couple make me a nice, common chocolate and banana roti and it was, each time, a delicious, heartwarming treat. I was never let down with this order, though once I had to sit down to truly savor it and let the warmth and experience sink into the fibers of my being.

Chiang Mai is as traditional or as modern as any other town/city in Thailand. It loves its contemporary infrastructure and it preserves its past, valuable as gold. I've enjoyed my stay here and look forward to as much time here as we can grab. I love walking through the alleys and discovering something new and wonderful, and if it's not so wonderful (such as an enclave of dirty hippies, bragging about all the nations in which they've gotten drunk/stoned) it's no problem at all to walk a little further and end up somewhere entirely different. There's so much celebration here, so many wonderful restaurants, so many live bands (though the traditional/national music seems to manifest only on CD), it's abundantly clear to me why this is a cultural hub for world travelers.

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