Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Thailand 2016 Day 1. Around Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the ultimate tourist paradise. It is a city of a good size, but doesn’t have the crazy traffic of a typical Asian city. Furthermore, every other business is devoted to tourism: Guest houses, restaurants, Thai language schools, Thai cooking schools, Thai massage parlors, and travel agencies that offer tours to play with elephants, trekking, dirt road biking, temple sightseeing, boat rides, and of course scooter rentals. No need to plan ahead, because as soon as you arrive you are surrounded by an atmosphere of welcome and care. And all seems dirt cheap once you translate it to US dollars! You can have a great breakfast for US$ 3, and a two course dinner with a giant beer for less than US$ 10 (and of course Thai food is fantastic!). I have adopted myself to a family restaurant where Mom prepares the veggies and meet, son cooks with international flare, and Dad and daughter serve and invite passer-bys to come and taste excellent dishes. I had breakfast there, and when I came back for dinner I was received as a member of the family J

I decided to devote the day to becoming familiar with my surroundings, sightseeing on foot, and finding a good outfit to rent a scooter from. My hotel is just outside of the square of the old city, which in the past had been surrounded by a brick wall, had four distinctive city gates, bastions on each corner of the square, and a moat around the whole thing. The moat lake, city gates, and corner bastions are still there, but the city walls are long gone.

North Thailand was, historically, a melting pot where the cultures of Burma (now Myanmar), and Laos to the north melded with the Siam people of the south, and where the land was claimed by either of the main players. The Lua people, a minority group from Laos, are credited with first settling the alluvial fan of the Ping River, where Chain Mai is now located, sometime before 1200 AD. The area then became the bone of discord between Laos and Siam, and kings from one or the other ruled until 1550 AD, when the Burmese occupied the area (which by this time was known as Lanna. The period between 1200 and 1550 AD is considered a Golden Age, when Buddhism arrived from Laos, and language and literature flourished. Lanna was under Burmese control for two centuries, from 1550 to 1775 AD, after which Siam conquered the area and established it as a subordinate state. The new Lanna prospered under Siam rule, serving as the hub of trade between the Gulf of Thailand to the south, and the Andaman Sea (Indian Ocean) to the west. Eventually, after 1932, the administrative reform of the government in Bangkok established Chiang Mai as a province of the Kingdom of Siam. (I have no idea of what happened to Siam during World War II, but I don’t think the Japanese ever invaded the kingdom.)

All these enticing tidbits of history I cobbled up from my visit to two excellent museums: The Chiang Mai Historical Center, and the Lanna Folklife Museum. The latter is really more of an ethnography museum, with many samples of the costumes, beautiful weavings, and ways of the rural people of Chiang Mai province. Later in the day I discovered there is also a History Museum, which I will have to visit tomorrow.

I also visited over a dozen Buddhist temples (the city is reputed to have a few hundreds), which are absolutely breathtaking. Thais take their Buddhism very seriously, and lavish their temples with beautiful carvings, very complex stucco reliefs, and abundant gold leaf. Also, being a Saturday, the temples had many of the faithful visit them, and refreshment and treats provided by the local ladies group. Monks were all over the place, mostly with their nose stuck into their cell phones checking their Facebook. Proper decorum is important to this folk, so western women are “invited” not to wear shorts or tank tops (long sarongs are available for rent at some of the main temples), and all are expected to take off their shoes at the door (rats, today was the day I was wearing socks with holes in them!).  

Eventually I became tired of being a pedestrian, and went and rented a scooter. It cost me 3,200 bath (about US$100) for 8 days, which is about what I paid in Vietnam, so I am happy. Using my new wheels I went hunting for a good map of the country, which I eventually found in a bookstore hidden in a side street, and will tomorrow go for my first rural outing. I also got a Lonely Planet guide, and will do my best to see everything there is to see in the next week. Moving through the city is a piece of cake since everybody speaks some English and there are guest houses everywhere. We will see if that holds true for the countryside.

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