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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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A few weeks ago, Nancy and I went to Mustafa’s in Little India.

The Mustafa Centre is an institution in Singapore. Begun in 1971 by Mustaq Ahmad as a small shop selling clothes, it moved to a larger space in a 900 square foot shophouse on Serangoon road,  but moved to Serangoon Plaza when the government acquired the Serangoon shophouses for conservation. When 40,000 square feet in Serangoon Plaza Serangoon Plazastarted to get crowded, Ahmad took over the shophouses on the adjoining Syed Alwi RoadSyed Alwi Road shophouses to create a total of  150,000 square feet of shopping displays, four floors, open 24 hours a day, with over 1200 employees. Bigger than Costco, bigger than Sam’s club.

Everybody in Singapore knows about Mustafa’s.  Groceries, clothes, jewelry, house wares, garden wares, car accessories, books, and who knows what else is on offer at Mustafa’s.  Take your choices to any of the cashier’s that are scattered throughout the store – literally throughout, not just at the exits – and they’ll take your money, put your purchase in a plastic bag, and close it securely with a zip tie.  You can buy things as you find them, or you can take everything to one cashier.

That is what Nancy and I wanted to explore one Sunday.  What we didn’t know is that on Sunday afternoon, the streets around Mustafa are packed, packed, packed with Indian construction workers who are doing their shopping and meeting their friends on their day off.  Dense crowd, all young men, shoulder to shoulder, visiting with each other, enjoying someplace other than a building site.  Nancy immediately noticed that there was no fair complexion, no blonde hair to be seen.  No other women, either.  Her grip on my arm tightened.

It was something of a push, shove, fight to get to the front door of the center.  Once inside, we found a warren of narrow paths through tall shelves and plenty of people wandering along.  It was difficult to explain what we were looking for – a dehumidifier – but we eventually discovered them (and decided they were too expensive for now).  We bought a few necessities (toothpaste) and experiments (pre-packaged spice for chicken masala) and then confronted the thought of trying to get out again.  Eventually, we decided to have dinner – quite a good curry – at the rooftop restaurant and hope that the crowd would dissipate in the meantime.  It did, but only a little, and Nancy decided that she did not need to go to Mustafa’s again.  Ever.

Would it be as bad on a Saturday morning? I decided to give it a try while Nancy is on a home visit.  No crowds – the construction workers are still busily building a new Singapore on Saturdays – but the same warren of paths, the same difficulty in trying to find anything.  I left with the decision that Mustafa’s is manageable, just, but maybe not worth the effort.

Leaving at lunch time, and being in Little India, I decided to have lunch there. Syed Alwi Road is packed with little restaurants across from Mustafa, and the street is packed with cars, and the sidewalk is full of vendors’ wares.  Walking requires some agility in moving from the covered sidewalk (out of the sun and the rain), down a steep step to the roadside, and sometimes out through the stalled traffic.  A little bit of Third World in Singapore. For no particular reason, I chose a restaurant and ordered the North Indian Platter:

Lunch

It turned out to be vegetarian: a lightly curried paneer (a cottage cheese-like product, with the shape and consistency of tofu chunks) , some very nicely spiced kidney beans, some very nicely spiced potatoes, rice with herbs, a bowl of raita (yoghurt), a papadum (crisp), a nice bowl of naan, and a big slice of raw onion.  The top right compartment has one gulab jamun (deep fried fritter soaked in sugar syrup). Pretty good, but all carbs – not exactly Dr. Atkins friendly. My tray and a bottle of water set me back $9.10 (Sing) – a little more than hawker center prices, but I got some atmosphere with my lunch:

Vegetarian restaurant in Little India

And what did I bring home from this trip to Mustafa?  I found some tea and some warm-and-eat packaged Indian side dishes. And another Singapore adventure.

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Shopping

Sunday is generally our day to restock the pantry.  We alternate between the big store called Carrefour (here called a “hypermart” because, in addition to groceries, it has all kinds of other things – clothes, electronics, small appliances, cookware, etc., etc., etc. – vaguely like a Walmart) and a smaller grocery store in a nearby mall. Today, it was our turn to visit Carrefour.

Singapore has two Carrefours.  One is in Plaza Singapura, which is a big mall.  The other is in Suntec City, a giant mall spread across four or five or six – it’s easy to lose count – giant towers.  And today, we decided to visit the Suntec Carrefour for the first time.  By the time we got there, it was way past lunch time, so finding something to eat was our first order of business.  Food in Singapore is sometimes a bit of a contradiction.  Places to eat are literally everywhere.  But it can sometimes be tricky to find one – especially a specific kind – when you want it.

Happily for us, the Suntec hawker center was the first thing we encountered.

“Is this all Asian food? Does everything have rice or noodles?” Nancy asked. We hadn’t had the best luck ordering lunch at yesterday’s restaurant.  Hong Kong style curry, with a big mound of rice.  Plain rice isn’t her favorite (“I’m avoiding useless carbs”), and the curry was spicier than normal. At the hawker center food stalls, it is all Asian, ranging from Chinese through Indian and  Vietnamese to Singaporean and on to Malaysian, Indonesian, and Phillipino.  All including rice or noodles, with just a few exceptions: kaya toast.  Prata – a Singaporean / Indian crepe, sometimes served with a bowl of curry sauce for breakfast.  Chinese steamed dumplings.

We settled on a lunch of roast duck breast with soup, long thin noodles (for long life!), and a stem of lightly cooked yu choi.  Delicious and only S$10 apiece.  We took chopsticks but no forks.  I could only see metal, western spoons to use for the soup.  While I was standing in line at the drinks stall, Mr. Duck came out with Chinese spoons and took away the western spoons we had.  He wanted us to enjoy his cooking with the proper utensils!

Fortified with lunch, we continued our quest to find the giant Carrefour.

In the last few weeks, Nancy has come to the conclusion that we need a vacuum.  Mopping the floors with a swifter – even a wet swifter – just wasn’t doing the job.  So job one at Carrefour was to find the vacuums.  They’re different from those we’re used to seeing.  No stand-up, tilt handle, Dyson power, miles and miles of cord, vacuums here.  They’re almost all tiny canisters that roll behind you on two big wheels.  They’re rated in watts: 1600, 1800, 2000, 2100.  More watts, more powerful motor, better dirt sucking.  We looked for a good half hour, then got some attention from a very helpful clerk.  She demonstrated the way these vacuums work (and she was probably thinking, what’s wrong with these foreigners?  Haven’t they ever seen a vacuum cleaner?  And why don’t they have their maid with them anyway???)

We came home with our groceries, a couple bottles of wine, and a brand new French- made vacuum (don’t get the other model; it’s made in China – yes, that’s exactly what our Chinese clerk said).  When it’s turned on, it sounds like a small jet plane winding up for takeoff. But it’s a glorious red (not disgusting purple like on the box) – a lucky color for Chinese New Year and for all the year!

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