Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Thailand 2016 Day 2. Around Chiang Mai

I picked up one of those tourist booklets that are chocked with ads for fancy hotels and restaurants, among which you now and then find a piece of good advice. In my case that came as four suggested routes out of Chiang Mai that would take you to see some of the good stuff. I decided to do the route up to Doi-Pui, the mountain that rises to the northwest of the city, where the Suthep-Pui National Park is located. It was a short ride of perhaps 20 km that I ended at the royal palace of Buhbing, where the royal couple has created a beautiful garden that would be the envy of any horticulturist (the palace buildings themselves are not open to the public). Of particular note is the rose collection, which includes several hundreds of varieties.

Note to future travelers: Here, as in all the temples, no shorts are allowed, and women are not permitted to show cleavage. Pack pants that extend below the knee (or a sarong for women) and a regular t-shirt and you should be fine.

From there I dropped to one of the paths of the national park, which after a short walk brought me to the temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, whose long name was only surpassed by the 300 steep steps that bring you up to the main terrace. By know I am a bit fed up with visiting temples, particularly when they are atop a very long and steep staircase, but I have promised I am going to be a good tourist, so I trudged up the stairs together with a hundred other tourists. When I finally got up there, caught my breath, and entered through the narrow door I was … flabbergasted! The main courtyard is occupied by a very large chedi or conical pyramid of pure, glimmering gold! Around it are giant bells, parasols, and many statues of Buddha, all of shining gold. Maybe it is only gold leaf, or perhaps the best gold color paint I have ever seen, but the overall effect is that you have come into immediate contact with the sun, which I am sure would be music to the ears of the monks who designed it.

On the way down I made a couple of stops. The first one was to the zoo, which I would grade as above average. It is a very large piece of Thai jungle, where most animals have large paddocks, and where humans have many opportunities to play. I took the hop-on hop-off tram (and was very glad about it), but decided I did not need to pay extra for seeing the pandas or the aquarium. Instead I concentrated on the Asian animals (tiger, rhinoceros, elephants, orangutan, gibbons, and an amazing variety of tortoises, turtles, crocodiles, and smaller reptiles). I am positive Ronaldito will enjoy the zoo very much when Faby and DJ come to vacation in Chiang Mai.

My second big detour was at the University of Chiang Mai, which has a huge campus on the northwest corner of the city. It is a very open campus with big, modern buildings, gardens, native vegetation, and dorms. I did find the Department of Geological Sciences, which is easy to spot because of the models of dinosaurs that decorate its gardens. I stopped and looked around, but nobody was there and they didn’t have colorful posters on exhibit (I was hoping for a geologic map of Thailand but it was not to be). I did find that they have a masters program in petroleum geophysics, from which I have to infer that Thailand has petroleum resources (its neighbor to the south, Malaysia, is a petroleum producer, so in as much as they share the back-arc basin of the Indonesian arc, Thailand must have good offshore resources in the Gulf of Thailand).

My third and final stop was at the History Museum of Chiang Mai, which unfortunately was undergoing renovation in the ground floor, so only the first floor exhibition was accessible. It was OK, but a bit disorganized, so you jumped from the kings of Chiang Mai, to the former Lau inhabitants, to the introduction of Buddhism from India first and then from Ceylon, and into the first evidences of Homo erectus in northern Thailand. To make things even more confusing (at least to me), all dates were given as Buddha’s Era. In this calendar, 1841 AD is the same as 2384 BE, and 2016 AD is 2559 BE. On another historical note I left pending, I looked into what happened to Thailand during World War II, and learned that at that time a military coup took place, and the military dictator collaborated with the Japanese by allowing them to use Thai ports and airports for the war of the Pacific. The story goes that this dictator was ready to declare war to the United States, but the Thai ambassador to the US was a patriot and refused to deliver the declaration of war, so at the end Thailand was not considered one of the defeated nations and suffered no major repercussions for its role in the great war.

Once back in town I parked my scooter and headed for the Sunday market, which is a giant handcrafts and food market that extends along the middle of the old town. The place was crowded just enough to make it interesting, but not crazy packed in typical Asian style (once again a feather on the cap of this charming city, which offers the tourist the best of the Asian culture without its less desirable collateral damage). The choices for food were mind boggling; I held back as long as I could, and at the end had a green papaya salad that was to die for.

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