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Archive for April, 2012

Only 24 Hours to Home?

Piercing Monday’s 6 AM darkness, Super Shuttle’s headlights showed up right on time. A quick goodbye to Dad, and I was off . . . well, after two stops for other riders . . . off to Phoenix International and my mega economy-class flights . . . back to Singapore and Mike after two months in the US.

In an hour I was standing curbside with three large suitcases plus laptop, purse, and jacket . . . and I had to get inside to check-in at the United counter.

Where can I get a luggage cart?

Go down to that crosswalk, cross to the island, cross the next road, go into the parking garage. You should see carts for rent in there.

Yet in little more than ten minutes of lugging and hauling, I was all checked in and wondering why I had to be at the airport at least two hours in advance for an international flight.  The good news was that I could check three pieces of luggage for free.  More good news:  a United Gold card (and international flights) entitled me to the United lounge for my two hours waiting. Much more pleasant than the gate area, and I knew I’d have no lounge time at SFO where I had a close connection.

Luckily, Flight One (Phoenix to San Francisco in two hours) was on time, and the walk from arrival gate to the International Terminal and through security again took only twenty minutes.  By early afternoon Monday, I strapped into the center section of a 777 for 11-hours to Narita International in Japan.  At this point in Flight Two, I still felt fresh and eager.

And this is where I entered the Twilight Zone a few minutes later:  You may want to set your watches for local time in Tokyo . . . that would be 5:45 AM Tuesday.  Weather there today will be sunny and 25 degrees Celsius.  OK . . . tomorrow . . .  right now?!

An hour after take-off, attendants served a hot lunch (beef or chicken, of course) and, if you were savvy enough to ask, complimentary wine. A disembodied voice said we would have another snack lunch 90 minutes before landing at Narita.   I tuned into Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy as each seat has individual monitors with on-demand movies, TV, music, games . . .  anything to keep the sardines quiet and packed in.

By late afternoon (Phoenix Monday), the cabin lights dimmed to dark, and we were all supposed to sleep, I guess.  I took Tylenol PM and tried to doze . . .  but not really.  Most monitors flickered movies in the dark, so I wasn’t the only one with trouble sleeping.  Some hours later (3, 6, 9 . . . who could tell in the dark), attendants showed up again with a beverage cart and chips, pretzels, cookie, and a miniature Kit-Kat.  Thinking we must be 90 minutes to landing, I tried to rouse myself and eat all those carbs . . . grumbling silently about United’s cheap lunch.  Turned on Tinker, Tailor again . . . but then we sank into darkness again.  Finally after 2 or 8 more hours (who knows in the Twilight Zone?), the lights came up bright, and the voice offered a lunch of vegetarian noodles with pot stickers or a turkey sub sandwich before landing at Narita in another 90 minutes.

By the time we landed in Tokyo, I had lost all sense of day or night, right or wrong.   All I knew was Flight Three was some hours away, it was Air Japan (ANA), and I didn’t have a boarding pass.  Standing in the middle of an intersection, I tried to get my bearings and read Japanese.  Narita’s departure board flashed continually, alternately languages—Japanese, English, Mandarin, other mystery langugues—pausing only a few seconds on each. 

After staring at it for many minutes, I gave up and headed for United Connections where people were getting boarding passes right and left.

Polite Japanese Girl:  Ah yes, your flight has a UA codeshare number.  But I cannot give you a boarding pass.  Please get your seat assignment from ANA.  (Studying her screen) Your flight will leave from Gate 58 at 17:45.   But (looking at watch) they won’t be there yet.

Me:  I think I have a seat assignment; I just need a boarding pass.  Does ANA have a connection counter?

Polite Japanese Girl:  Ah, yes.  Go toward Gate 50 (pointing down one of the hallways), and you will see ANA connection counter.

We concluded with some head bowing back and forth.   In a slight haze, I passed bright lights, glitzy duty-free shops, people wearing white face masks.  Signs featured Japanese characters, and some had smaller English beneath.  No signs read To ANA→ and no arrows pointed to “ANA Connection Counter,” but I had faith.

Sure enough, soon another smiling, bowing Japanese girl took my passport and paperwork, and I was in business!

Me:  Do I have a good seat?

Smiling ANA agent:  Ah, let me look.  Row 18 G.  The airplane has 2 seats and 3 seats and 2 seats (shows me with her fingers).  That is a window seat.

Me:  Yes, thank you.  That is a good seat!

Smiling ANA agent:  Ah, yes please.  You are invited to ANA lounge. (The invitation actually appeared on my boarding pass!) Up this escalator, please. More head bowing.

Snacks in the ANA lounge were decidedly Japanese, and I had time for Miso soup, rice cake, and a glass of white wine . . . thankfully, universal.  The lounge toilet had electronic controls alongside a gently heated seat, and surprising water sprayers somewhere that gets your attention!  Boarding started at 17: 10, so I kept close check on my watch, finger counting to keep track of when to set off for the gate.

By 17:30 (ah, but what day is this?), I contorted into my narrow window seat designed for little people, next to a nice Japanese businessman who was headed to Singapore where he also lives.  We chatted, and he lent me his pen to fill out an immigration card the attendants had passed out.  We had dinner (beef and complimentary red wine), and this time I slept on and off through my on-demand movie, BIG.  (I never did find out if Tom Hanks finally returns to his preteen body!)  As I leaned against the window dozing on this 7-hour flight, I thought of something the Japanese businessman had said:

Me:  Do we have to fill out this form if we have a permanent pass like a DP? (I show my Dependent Pass.)

Man:  I don’t have one of those, but I fill out form just in case.

Me:  But you have an EP—Employment Pass—right?

Man:  Yes, I have EP, but I want one of those (pointing to my DP pass with a laugh)—someone to come home to.

Me:  You’re probably just working too much.  Do you want me to fix you up with someone?

Later, as we exited the ANA gate to a line of bowing flight crew, it dawned on me.  Sure I had my own DP in hand, but I also had a living EP holder waiting at home for me.  Lugging three heavy suitcases and laptop around didn’t matter.  Twenty-four hours cramped in the uncertain twilight zone of airports and airplanes didn’t matter.

All unpleasantness vanished after midnight when I saw Mike waving to me through a glass wall at Changi International in Singapore.  I was home . . . so eager to see him . . . and his treasures from Chiang Mai.

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There are three things that I never thought I would do in this life: jump out of an airplane and hope that my parachute would open; jump off a bridge and hope that the bungee cords won’t break; ride a motorcycle through traffic anywhere in Thailand.  I guess I’m now down to two.

I walked out of the antique store and met the motorcycle.  And twenty-year old driver.  I wasn’t sure exactly what was the proper etiquette for this.  “Hi.  Nice looking bike,” didn’t exactly capture the moment. “How fast does this thing go?” seemed to be suggestive in the wrong direction. I probably just looked stunned – is this really happening?  But, safety first, they handed me a helmet.  Ha! Safety first, I would have turned around and walked straight back into that shop.  I got on, the engine roared, and we launched into one of the non-existent spaces in the continuous stream of traffic.

How much clearance is there on a motorcycle? After my foot rubbed against a neighbor car, I couldn’t even bear to think how far out my knees were flying.  On the way to the hotel, we picked our way through traffic, dodged a couple of cars that unexpectedly pulled out in front of us, leaned our way through turns (left, right, and U) at full speed, and I had to shout and point directions.  It’s times like this when its wonderful to have training in improvisational theater.  When you don’t know what you’re doing, when you have absolutely no idea of what’s coming next, when your guts are trying to decide whether to turn to ice or explode, that’s when you paste a grin on your face, hope you don’t catch too many bugs, and enjoy the ride. Whew!

We got to the hotel without incident, and I hopped off the motorcycle, praying to any god that would listen that my knees would not turn to water and buckle.  I ran up the stairs, stuffed my passport into a pocket, snapped the pocket shut, and

… thought about it. There were two choices: take the return ride, or hire a tuk-tuk.  I’m not sure I would say that I really enjoyed the ride, but it didn’t scare me completely silly, either.  Tough decision.  I buckled my helmet on my head and hopped on.  We instantly dived into the street traffic, unfortunately going down the wrong street. Quick U-turn, quick left turn, and we were headed back.

There are times when it is good to follow the Buddhist precept of non-attachment and seeing through the curtain of maya.  In this case, it just meant not holding onto the fear and taking the ride for what it was.  Five minutes later, we were threading through the same traffic-choked, shop-lined lane, and two minutes after that, we were filling out the Buddha paperwork, passport in hand.

Motorcycle in Thailand.  It wasn’t on my bucket list before, and now I’ll add it and quickly cross it off.  Been there, done that, don’t need to try again.

For my celebration dinner (celebrating being alive!), I went to the same neighborhood restaurant to return the umbrella, and to sit with a large beer and my open notebook, in the open, across the street from a beautiful temple, watching the traffic and channeling Hemingway.  This would have been his kind of place.  Cheap, friendly, exotic, exciting even if all the tigers are long gone. I started thinking this might really be a good writer’s place.  Good food, friendly people, lots of stories to see and tell.  As I wrote, slowly drifting into a reverie of words, the wind began to blow.  The sky darkened.  That old tap-tap-tap on the awning began, and then the rain came down like thunder, lit by stroke after stroke of lightning. At the restaurant, the girls hustled to tie down the awnings and to keep the settings from blowing off the table. The lights flickered.

“Don’t worry.  We have candles.” As if a candle would stay lit in this weather. One of the girls was completely soaked, but still smiling. And then the other side of the street went completely dark. “Happens all the time. No problem.”

Well, maybe a little problem.  This was supposed to be the night when I picked up my jacket, or had a fitting for any final adjustments.  Not only was the street dark and flooded, but it was still raining like crazy.

“Could I borrow your umbrella again?”

“We gonna call you Rain Man.”

After 20 minutes searching for a way to cross the street to the tailor, I finally rolled up my cuffs and sloshed. The tailor was happy to show me the jacket by candle light, but we agreed that an inspection in the next day’s light might be a better idea.

And then, back to the Night Market. I had had my eye on a particularly lovely carved wooden reclining Buddha, but I finally decided against it in view of the risk in taking it with me.  Had it been seized at the airport, I would have been heartbroken to leave without it. My consolation was the very nice bronze reproduction I’d earned after my motorcycle adventure. There was, however, a particularly iconic Thai painted word figure of …well, it’s hard to describe.  “Thai girl riding a bird while holding a lotus” is pretty accurate, but it doesn’t convey a very good sense of the figure.  I’m still not sure how I will ultimately get these treasures home to Arizona, but I’m sure enjoying the search for them.

One more tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel, where the lights were back. I immediately fell into a deeply satisfying sleep and was surprised when the alarm rang 8 hours later.

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Getting Back to Buddha

The alarm rang, and I shut if off, intending to sleep just a little bit more.  When I awoke again, I saw that I had just 10 minutes to get up, get dressed, and get to breakfast.  For me, that is not possible.  I rushed and got downstairs 25 minutes later, only 15 minutes after closing time.  I was graciously accommodated without any question.  Breakfast here was pretty good – choice of American (bacon and eggs), continental, or Asian, including toast and coffee, and a great bargain since it was included in the price of the room.

Temple Quest continued for the second day,this time to the west and northwest part of the city.  The traffic there was at least as intense as the rest of the city, and the sidewalks were equally treacherous, shifting from obstructed to narrow to uneven to non-existent, all within a few yards (well, maybe I should say “meters”). It’s also a photographer’s nightmare, trying to find the scenics and snaps and the right angles and lighting while simultaneously watching the sidewalk and trying to stay out of the traffic.

I recognized one of the temples from the last trip.

This time, I had the luxury of exploring the temple grounds in a more leisurely, independent way, sitting, enjoying the peace, watching some tourists, and just being there.  Stumbling across the monks’ laundry.

Thinking about what the Chedi might have been like before the earthquake reduced its height by half 300 years ago.

Not quite the same as sitting in the quiet of Notre Dame, but not so different, either; there is a power in places like this that can speak to you if you listen quietly, with humility.

Peaceful or not, after so many temples, I became hungry and footsore again.  It was time to look for a place for lunch, and I soon found a sidewalk café, a small step up from a Singapore hawker stall, but the same system.  There was a picture menu on the wall – names and prices were all in Thai, so I knew lunch was going to be pretty random.  My basic choice was between rice and noodles.  Each had sauce and meat options, but since all the pictures looked pretty much the same to me, any choice was a wild guess.  Rice, since I had noodles for lunch yesterday.  And then, um, this.  Even after it was served, I wasn’t sure what I had.  A plate of rice, with a savory brown sauce and small pieces of meat with crispy skin.  Not chicken, so probably pork.  It turned out to be a hearty dish, served with small bowl of soup, and a bottle of water on the side.  Ice came in a separate cup, and I didn’t remember until it was too late that the ice would be made from municipal water which might have some unintended consequences.  Lunch was accompanied by plenty of noise and exhaust from the traffic and cost a grand total of 45 Baht, or a little less than $2.  When I questioned the amount – how could it be that cheap? – the waitress assured me that the price was correct and that I was not overcharged.  (Well, at least I think that’s how the conversation went.  Between the traffic and her accent, there was a little disconnect between my English and hers.) At that rate, it was completely appropriate for me to spoil the market by leaving another 35 Bhat tip.

I wanted to make sure that my Buddha shopping was successful, and the time at the Night Market had just left me a little confused.   I flagged a tuk-tuk and held on as we wove and dodged our way through traffic from one side of the city to the other, and back to yesteday’s shop: Lanna Antiques on Tha Phae Road.  Chiang Mai is a city of one-way streets, so the driver had to go down one main street, cross over, and come back on another busy street to get to the shop. The cross street was a narrow market lane, lined on both sides with open-air stalls and filled with people, bicycles, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, and cars.  Some were moving, some were parked. It was chaos, organized only by the principle that all motorized traffic was moving – when it was moving – in the same general direction. Clearance between any two objects in the street was just a few inches.  Even the tuk-tuk driver had to look from one side to another to make sure he would clear.  Progress was herky-jerky, but there were no collisions.

Would it really be ok to try to take a Buddha onto the airplane with me? There are special rules for taking Buddha statues out of Thailand.  It’s allowed, but difficult.  An export permit is required from the national museum to guarantee that some part of the national heritage is not leaving. All statues, whether new or old, have to be accompanied by the certificate of inspection.  There is a small glitch in the system: certificates are not issued for heads or hands or torsos or anything less than Buddha in some Buddha pose.  If you buy a Buddha head, you’re kind of on your own: certificate is required – but not issued.

The alternative – and it seems to be pretty well-known (“everybody does it, and they don’t have problems”) is to tuck the statue into your suitcase – not hand luggage – and don’t declare it. Since all suitcases, including those that are going to be checked, are run through the x-ray machine at the front door of the international terminal, that seemed like a risky plan and a bad idea.  Even if ignorance might be an acceptable defense, the art would still be seized.

Since I didn’t like any of the alternatives( forfeiting a statue, paying a fine, or spending time in a Thai jail), I asked the shop if they could ship.  Yes, and when they looked up the price to Singapore, it wasn’t too bad.

“Can I have your passport?”  They need to make a copy to go with the request for a museum certificate.

Oh.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t carrying it.  “No problem.  We can take you to your hotel and you can bring it back.”

And that was how I ended up on a motorcycle, sitting behind a 20-year-old, weaving through the fog of afternoon traffic in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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Although the light was dimming into evening, the air was still sultry.  I walked around the corner to check on the tailor’s progress.  The Thai tailor worked differently from the Hong Kong tailor.  It was not a fitting suit that was ready for me, but the body of the actual jacket, cut from a piece of beautiful, deep blue silk with an elegant shimmer in the light.  Beau Brummel indeed!  I am truly getting spoiled (but at a price that is about the same, maybe a little less, than the typical department store price for an off-the-rack, medium quality, wool jacket.) It was a short visit, and the pins were soon set and the chalk marks done.

Anxious to find some treasures to bring home, I was off for more shopping.  Back into a tuk-tuk to race through the streets, this time to the famous Chiang Mai night market, where you can find everything from cheesy souvenirs to cheap clothes to interesting local crafts to antique (well, maybe antique, maybe “antique”) art.  And you can get your portrait painted too, if you have a bit of patience. The shops I visited had some quietly beautiful Buddhas, whether true antiques or not, but they were out of my price range, and they’d probably have to be smuggled out of Thailand anyway. (Happily, the prices kept me from being tempted to work out the transportation arrangements.) Nevertheless, there were some reproductions from Chiang Mai factories that caught my eye at a price I had budgeted.  I tried to remember and compare with what I had seen earlier in the afternoon and think how those pieces had compared in beauty and value.  Wandering through more shops, I found one with figures that were more contemporary  – very appealing, including some (not Buddhas) that I was sure would appeal to Nancy as being beautiful, unique, and precisely representative of the Thailand she remembers.

As the hour got later, the traffic diminished, so the tuk-tuk back to the hotel was a little speedier and slightly less nerve-wracking.  No problem, easy-peasy.  It doesn’t take long to become blasé.

View from the back of a tuk-tuk

But it was late and I hadn’t had dinner yet.  Restaurants in Chiang Mai don’t close early, but they don’t stay open really late, either, so I needed to figure out something soon.  Across the street from the hotel is a little restaurant, open-air, about a dozen tables, called “Thais That Bind”.  The first time I saw it, I dismissed it as a place with at cute but kitschy name; now, I was hungry and convenience was king. I crossed the street and sat down at a table. There was a light evening breeze so the air wasn’t as close as it had been earlier.  There were good aromas wafting from the kitchen and I felt hungry. Dinner was a spicy papaya and shrimp salad, a bowl of red curry, a dish of steamed rice, and a big bottle of Thai beer (Singha), for just about $10 US – an amazing bargain.  In Singapore, the beer alone would cost that much or more. All that and the staff was friendly and the service good.

Papaya salad was a surprise,but a good one.  I’ve never before had a salad that left my mouth and lips tingling for 10 minutes afterward.  Different from anything Western, and very Thai. After I finished the very good red curry, I was working on the last of the beer when there was a tap-tap-tap on the awning over the tables.  I looked up, wondering. The tap-tap quickly turned into a rat-a-tat-tat and then the rain poured down fast and furious. Although the hotel was just across the street, it was a soaking rain, and it threatened to last a lot longer than five minutes.  As I sat, looking a little lost and a little bewildered and wondered what I was going to do and how wet I would get, the restaurant owner offered an umbrella.

“Bring it back whenever you want,” she said.

Contrary to Japan, where a Westerner speaking a few words of Japanese is so unexpected that it’s funny, and unlike China, where a Westerner speaking a few words of Chinese is so unexpected that it’s not even heard, in Thailand, a few words of Thai, together with a smile and a wai, are taken for granted.  Offer a few words, and you’ll get a smile and maybe a little help with your accent.

“Bring it back whenever you want.”

“Kawp khun khrap,” I gratefully accepted

“Yindee kha.”

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Friday morning, hot and humid. My first order of business was to find a tailor to make a jacket.  Beautiful Thai silk has been on my mind and wish list since we visited Thailand a few years back, and  my current professional demands can justify another jacket. Well, ok, that’s really just an excuse for getting something I’ve wanted for three years, but I’ll use any excuse that might work.

Once the tailor was found, color picked out, measurements made, and price agreed, it was time to begin the temple tour.  Armed with my walking tour map, helpfully provided by the hotel, I set off on a mission of conquest – Chiang Mai has an astonishing number of Buddhist temples (as many as Bangkok), and I had made it my goal to visit them all.  I soon learned, however, that while old Chiang Mai is compact, it’s not that small, and after the third or fourth temple, I began to weary of untying my shoes to walk into the temple and tying them on again to continue the tour.  After the fourth or fifth temple, I began to feel a sameness between one and the next.

The extraordinarily ornate decoration; the way-more-than-life-sized Buddha statue (interesting enough, but not really artistically compelling); the tourists – from Germany, from China – taking a thousand pictures.  [Full disclosure: I’m equally guilty.]  But still I soldiered on.

By one in the afternoon, shirt soaked and hair frizzy from the humidity, camera bag becoming an ever heavier weight around my neck, I realized I was footsore and hungry.  Maybe not an emotionally profound revelation, but very important in its own way! It was time to look for a small restaurant and then a quick way home for a little rest. At a roadside restaurant with open air seating and an English menu, a bowl of pretty good pad Thai noodles and a bottle of water, brought to the table in about five minutes, cost only 80 Baht, or about $3 Sing, even less US. Somewhat unusual for Thailand, the table setting included chopsticks.

One of my guidebooks said that Tha Phae Road is the main commercial road in Chiang Mai. – anything you want can be found there.  That conjured visions of Singapore’s Orchard Road, with mall after low-rise mall, tourist souvenirs shoulder to shoulder with luxury goods, silks and jewelry and antiques, all waiting to be browsed. And I discovered that the second biggest city in Thailand is definitely not like Singapore.  Shops are all small and local.  Go to Bangkok for luxury goods and high-rise malls; Chiang Mai is for crafts of all kinds, country and commercial. Tha Phae Road is lined with two- and three-story shophouses, mostly not air-conditioned (though the fans make a pleasant breeze), sometimes open to the street.  The sidewalk is narrow, uneven, obstructed, and has a steep drop-off to the street.  A few pedestrians navigate these obstacles, but the street is choked with traffic.  It’s not exactly charming in an old-world European style, but definitely  intriguing. There are treasures to be found if you have the patience to search.

Off the main road and down a narrow lane

I didn’t see the silk shops as promised on Tha Phae.  When I wandered down a narrow side street, dodging people and traffic, I found some small shops, bolts of fabric stacked all the way to the ceiling.  Some of these shops offered hand-loomed, tribal design silk that would make a beautiful, rich wall hanging, but the price was the same price or a little more than in Singapore; perhaps the difference was Lao silk vs. Thai silk – I don’t know but caveat emptor.

After a long, hot march, I finally found what I was looking for: a shop with Buddhas – Buddha heads and hands, standing Buddhas, sitting Buddhas, wood, bronze, brass, and marble Buddhas.  I was in, so to speak, Buddha heaven.  I spent an hour looking, asking, thinking, petting the store dog (who may be a Buddha in the next life), and I felt both more knowledgeable and overwhelmed.  That meant only one thing: time for more shopping!

But first, time to go back to the hotel, change clothes, and get to the tailor for a fitting.  This time, expediency overcame enthusiasm and I hailed a tuk-tuk.

Tuk-tuk waiting for a fare

Tuk-tuk is a sort of enclosed, three-wheel, more-than-motorcycle-but-not-quite-car.  A seat in the back is comfortably wide enough for two, wide enough for three with a little squeeze, but four fit only if everyone has been drinking and all caution has been thrown to the wind. A roof shields you from the sun and rain.  Tuk-tuk has no doors, and the roof is very low, so a little contortion is needed to get in.  With no doors and no seatbelts, you hold onto the grab bars tightly. The driver sits in front, steers with a motorcycle-style handlebar, and wants to get you to your destination as quickly as possible.  His English isn’t likely to be the best, so it’s good to go to an easily recognized location (“Night Market”) or to have a name card for the place you’re going.  There’s no meter, so you have to agree on a fare before you get in and start off; I’m very sure there’s a two-tier price system, one for tourists and another for Thai  people.

Ask, “How much?”  The driver quotes a price.  Definitely offer something less, and the driver will drop his price a little. Maybe accept that price, maybe insist on something lower.  The total savings is likely to be about 20 Baht, or something less than a dollar, but the point isn’t to save the dollar.  The joy of the exchange is participation in the local culture, where the first offer is neither more nor less than the first offer.

“Parasol Inn.”

Puzzled look.  I handed over the name card, and the driver squinted at the English address, then turned the card over and squinted at the Thai address, then turned the card over again and looked hard at the English address.

“Ok,” he says, and I wondered whether he really knew where we’re going.

“How much?”

“Hundred forty Baht.” Since I might not understand English, the driver held up four fingers.

“Hundred.”

“Hundred twenty.” Two fingers.

“Ok.” Location understood, and price negotiated, I climbed in and we instantly launched into an intense stream of traffic with gaps so small that I could not actually see them. As the engine pitch rose and the vehicle accelerated, the driver dove into spaces so small and tight that I could literally reach out and touch the neighbor car or bus or motorcycle. I don’t know how fast we were going in absolute terms, but we seemed to pass everything on the road, whether bicycle or motorcycle or car, sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left, and sometimes threatening to bounce up and over the sidewalk. The concept of lanes was dubious at best; around corners and turns, it disappeared completely.

There must be some orderliness to this traffic that all the drivers intuit, because it’s not all one continuous, gigantic crash, but it looked like chaos to me.

Mixed very thoroughly into this miasma are hundreds and hundreds of motorcycles.  Motorcycles with one person, with two people, with three people, sometimes with a family of four! (Dad drives with Junior on his lap; Mom sits behind with Sis between Mom and Dad.) Sometimes, for modesty, a female passenger with a skirt rides side-saddle.  Motorcycles everywhere, jockeying for position, in all the interstices of the traffic, like sand between rocks.

Finally, after only a few – but frantic – minutes, the tuk-tuk was by the side of the road, motor silently switched off, driver patiently waiting to be paid.

Back at the hotel, after a rest and in different, dry, clothes, I started to realize that my goal wasn’t really seeing Chiang Mai, or photographing all the temples in the Old City, or finding good Buddhist art at a good price, or even getting beautiful silk clothes.  Seeing the next temple or the tenth temple was interesting, but it wasn’t the point.  The important thing was the journey – the trip through the streets, the view of the people, the conversations that are five seconds long but entirely in Thai, the minor participation in the life and rituals of the city, learning to be a little bit Thai.

Tuk-tuk full of passengers

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Arriving in Chiang Mai

I was lucky to book a flight, several weeks ago, out of Singapore for the Easter holiday weekend.  Flights book solidly full months before a holiday, the cheapest flights going first.  Since I was paying, I opted for economy class of course, but on Royal Thai, as on Singapore Air, economy is several notches better than in the states. The flight to Bangkok was only two hours, but they served a delicious small dinner – choice of fish or chicken – including wine.  The next flight, to Chiang Mai, was even shorter – only an hour – but again there was food, this time a snack box with sandwich, fruit in gelatin, and a thick slice of cake (not quite as sweet as pound cake). Altogether, a pleasant dinner.

Walking through the big airport in Bangkok, I knew it was Thailand when the immigration officers at passport control smiled and offered help.  I’d like to find at least one other country where that happens.

I made this trip alone since Nancy is still enjoying the USA.  I had a couple of goals clearly in mind: Chiang Mai is a city of Buddhist temples – literally hundreds – and I wanted to go on an intense temple tour.  Next, I wanted to go shopping; I wanted to find Thai silk and Buddhist art.  Finally, I wanted to see whether I still enjoy self-guided exploration based on guidebook and serendipity, which usually involves wrong turns, blind alleys, and back tracking.

The old Chiang Mai was a small walled city, surrounded by a moat. Before leaving Singapore, I studied the hotel reviews and picked one in the center of the city at the amazing rate of $60 per night, and I was pleasantly surprised that breakfast was also included.  Better yet, the price did not include any additional tax, no tourist levy , no 20% surprise at checkout.  And the room was air-conditioned for good sleeping.  The Parasol Inn is somewhere between two stars and three – pleasant and clean if not ritzy.  Carry your suitcases up the stairs because there’s no elevator.  I’ve been in better and I’ve been in worse, but the location was fantastic, the staff was very friendly, the bathroom was basic but en suite, the hot water was adequate, and, with no outside window, no street noise.  I did sleep soundly in a big bed.

I was a little disappointed, at first, when I discovered that the old city is not the commercial district. The fancy stores (a few of them) and the high rises are all in the newer part of the city outside the old walls.  Inside, only the temples are really old (some of them 500 years old), but almost all of the buildings are only two or three stories, so a spire or a temple roof is always in sight.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai

When I arrived, in the early evening, the streets were very quiet with very little traffic. Not so the next morning.  Even though it was a Thai public holiday, a constant stream and roar of cars, buses, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, and bicycles, all jostled and rushed toward the next light or around the next corner.

Buses are really converted pick-up trucks, with a roofed bed over two rows of hard benches.  Tuk-tuks are three wheeled vehicles, driver in front, passengers in a single seat behind, weaving through the other traffic at top speed, looking for every possible position advantage, and diving into any open space, almost no matter how narrow. Motorcycles edge their way to the front of all the traffic stopped at a light; when the light changes they race away like a swarm of bees, vying with each other to be the first into the intersection. The streets of Chiang Mai are not for the faint of heart, and you take your life in your hands when you cross, even at a corner with a green light.  Stay alert, stay light on your toes, and be prepared to scamper.

Some of the walls of the city remain, but most of them were torn down in the WWII to use the bricks for road building.  Outside the walls, the old moat remains.  One road rings the city inside the walls, one-way counter-clockwise; another rings the city, clockwise, outside the moat.  No lights slow the traffic from racing continuously, ferociously.  Entering the traffic from a cross-street is an art form in which a driver spies the tiniest break in traffic, and with exquisite timing, guns his engine, turns very sharply into the lane, manages to squeeze in without breaking the flow, and miraculously avoids a collision.

The streets are one shot of adrenalin after another but no road rage – it’s Thailand. Drivers are calm and peaceful (it must be genetic!) smiling or laughing, even as they flip off someone for unexpectedly (yes, mysterious rules and expectations, somehow govern this swirling chaos) cutting them off.

Traffic around the city

Traffic around the city

What a place!

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