I was not driven to the airport by my favorite taxi driver, he doesn’t get up at 5, but by someone he assigned. When we got to the airport I only had a thousand, no change. The fare is 400B. He gave me a 500B note back. I sat there and after a few seconds said, “Another hundred please.” He came up with the other 100B. Not good.
I took an uneventful plane ride up to Chiangmai to see my friend M who has Parkinson’s. I could tell when he greeted me in the airport without his saying anything, although he did say it, that he was enormously glad to see me. I think he has a lonely life here.
Oddly, years ago I taught a Japanese American, in a Creative Writing class at City College, R.O., who has ended up living here. When I taught him he was slightly odd, suffering from an overdose of ego. But many young, male writers think they are astral talents. With the years he has become odder and less amiable. When we got to my B&B, the Zzziesta, he was in their coffee shop—they have the best coffee in Chiangmai—and when he saw M and me, he hurriedly left so as not to have to talk to either of us.
M was full of news. Our mutual friend Scott is in a town a bit north and will come down to join us. More about Scott later.
Through Scott, M has met a young woman, Myanmar-Chinese from the Kachin area on the Myanmar-Chinese border. She has been working for a German NGO organizing an exhibition of children’s art from her Kachin area, which the Myanmar Generals are shelling. There is no news of this in the Western press that I know of. The Generals are also lobbing explosives at the area of the Shan tribes. The young woman used to be a teacher but now devotes herself to this exhibition of children’s art taking it to various locations in Europe, including Madrid. I might get to meet her. I would like to see this work exhibited in Barcelona.
We had coffee looking out onto the dusty, leafy lane outside the hotel’s coffee shop. A squirrel was tight rope walking a telephone wire going in and out of the leaves. For dinner we went to a vegetarian restaurant near the B&B where we were served by a little Thai girl in her teens, slender as a young bamboo and adorable in braces. Probably she thinks she is ugly and has no idea she is adorable. Walking back to the B&B the air was perfumed with the intoxicating smell of flowers of unknown varieties and occasionally with incense offerings before the spirit houses.
I had a superb Lanna breakfast of four kinds of pork—large sausage slices, small sausages with a rich stuffing, maybe liver, sticks of satay, and pork rinds with a little dish of green chili, plus two varieties of sticky rice, black and white with sesame seeds, lettuce, cucumber, three luridly colored Thai deserts and excellent coffee. I sat beside the long rectangular pool and watched the big, multicolored koi swim back and forth. Once in a while they would breach. I am not sure whether this is because of an insect or high spirits.
Two sparrows came, fought, looked for rice grains and left. A young grey and white cat came tearing through obviously internally screaming, “I’m not here. I’m not here. You didn’t see me. You didn’t see me.”
When M came we took a red truck to the Insect Museum that we didn’t make it to last year. It is two floors, quite amazing, with specimens of mosquitoes of a size that would cause me to vacate my room if one showed up. There were various beetles with one to three horns, or with beautiful, rich, green iridescent wings, now much used in women’s jewelry. Will they become extinct? Lots of butterflies with iridescent wings, cases of minerals and seashells, all collected and organized by a devoted couple who were scientists.
We took another truck to the Warorot Market which starts off with a clutch of Chinese gold shops—Chinese lacquer red background for gold chains, rings, bracelets, makes for a loud display. It then develops into a free-for-all of clothes, fake tribal clothing and bags, and anything you can think of. I had brought a piece of applique I bought last year, which I knew I couldn’t match but I was hoping to find something similar. No luck. We ate in the market an okay but ordinary Thai lunch of chicken and noodles for me. We gave up and decided to go to the museums in the center of town and see what we could find out. What we were looking at was obviously fake and what I had was obviously genuine.
When we got to the Craft Museum I pulled out my applique again. The young people at the ticket counter immediately suggested we go to the Queen’s Hill Tribe Craft Show Room. They wrote out the address and walked us to the Grab taxi to tell the driver where to go.
It was a long trip out of town, beyond my B&B and M’s rooming house. On the way we passed a field full of cows happily munching in a meadow. We went by the big, splashy mall, the Maya that will probably kill the night market in town. We turned into a park like area with buildings that house the Queen’s various projects. Upstairs in one of these buildings we found the show room with baskets full of applique work and embroidery. I found some approximations and also bought some northern silk in a strong green with delicate embroidery.
We took a red truck back from the Queen’s shop. M talked to the two other passengers, two more than middle aged men. I presumed he was speaking Thai. They were Chinese and he was talking to them in Chinese.
The same lovely breakfast but without the Thai sweets, fruit instead. The koi were the same, also the sparrows but no cat this morning.
We went first to the Chiangmai Folk Life Museum that has been largely changed since last year. This was a little startling because museums are a staid crowd and don’t usually up and completely alter their exhibits. There are some rooms on customs around the local religion, folk beliefs, lanterns made from mulberry paper, musical instruments. The flutes surprisingly are held in the mouth.
Upstairs things had been changed less. There were exhibits of 19th and early 20th century fabrics for women’s skirts, or rather, women’s skirts, since the length of the fabric is the skirt. There were lots of cottons but also silk with wide borders toward, but not at, the bottom with gold thread or silver. These, the property of the aristocracy, were exquisite in wondrous shades of purple and blue. A loom was on display, not an ordinary loom, but one carved with flowers and arabesques. There were exceptional pieces, carved and painted, from temples and lots of small Buddhas in all sorts of materials, gold, rose quartz, jade, silver, alabaster, rock crystal and others I’ve forgotten. We finished just as it was time for us to go off to lunch with Scott.
Six five, with shoulders to match, good looking and gifted with an exceptional sense of adventure, Scott has for the last thirty years or so been immersed in SE Asia. He has lived in Taiwan, written a book about the indigenous inhabitants and their situation with the Chinese, A FAR CORNER published by the University of Nebraska Press. He also writes songs. The lyrics of this one seem to me particularly important https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XioSV6lO1iE
He has walked and ridden the borders of Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Vietnam with each other and their neighbor China. He is writing a book about this. At the bottom of this bog is a link to a piece Scott wrote about crossing the Laos-Thai border. He is someone who knows where tigers are kept in cages to be killed and eaten by gamblers. He has spent time in the areas of unreported violence that continue to exist unreported particularly in Burma.
Lunch was pretty good at a nice place on a corner. Scott recently almost achieved an assignment with WWF to do a documentary on a herd of wild elephants in an unprotected area of, I think, Cambodia. But they keep postponing it.
Scott had appointments so Mike and I went on to the Chiangmai City Art and Cultural Centre. This too had been totally rearranged since last year—more videos, fewer objects. I suspect that is a sign of the times. Must keep everyone entertained. They did, however, take you through the history of the area starting in the 13th century with King Mengrai.
There was a room devoted to local crafts—lacquer ware, pottery of various sorts, the big brass and silver hairpin the women use, wood carving, and the weaving of children’s toys from bamboo strips.
In two different rooms there were paintings on glass of the animals of the Chinese zodiac. They were not as skilled as the best Chinese paintings on glass but I hadn’t known they existed.
There were also architectural elements that were magnificently carved and then you hear the sound of a train and stumble upon the story of the building of the railroad, with the construction of the first tunnel in Thailand that cost many lives and put an end to the river traffic of the scorpion tailed boats which used to do the transport of commercial goods.
When I went upstairs to the toilet I found the gift shop as well and amongst the usual offerings the ultimate useless object. It should get an award. It is a basket made from some sort of vine with pods along the stem. Its form is between a bowl and a ball with handles. It is completely open, therefore unusable to carry anything and besides that it is so delicate it could support no weight. But it is an enchanting object.
I went down to join Mike in the coffee shop to finish our museum day. He had coffee. I had butterfly pea tea, which is the most enchanting shade of blue and has no particular flavor.
Another Lanna breakfast with koi and sparrows, after which I talked Mike into a taxi to go up to Wat Phratat Doi Suthep, at the top of a 1,000-meter hill, rather than transferring from red truck to red truck all the way.
Our driver started taking us into town. He claimed there was a wat in town with a similar name and when he made the price he thought we wanted to go to that wat. The new price was interestingly set.
“I ask over 1,000B but you say how much over 1,000.”
Mike who is no bargainer said, “300.”
The driver said, “400.”
We settled for that, which is about 43 US for the day. I suspect we were gulled but that’s all right. He has a two-year-old son and another on the way. He took us everywhere we wanted to go all day. It was pretty complicated. It was also the right thing to do because it kept Mike and me from being exhausted by the heat and possibly having to bargain again and again over rides.
We went out past the new Maya shopping mall, passed Chiangmai University and then abruptly started climbing in swinging hairpin turns, taking us quickly from a scatter of houses into jungle on both sides. We passed the oddly isolated zoo and some, at that point, unidentified wat.
We knew we were approaching Doi Suthep when stalls and small shops began to beak out like a rash along the road. He dropped us at the beginning of the stair, telling us to take the lift up and walk down. We did the opposite, walking up the well-spaced stairs with their rippling Naga railings. As we approached the top there was a branch off to the right that we took.
It was at this point that I began to have vague feelings of familiarity. We came out to an open area decorated with an abundance of plastic flowers—Thais will do this—some alien to Thailand, most faded by exposure to sun and rain. This led us to a platform with views over Chiangmai. I turned to Mike and said, ”We’ve been here before.”
“You’re right,” he responded.
Not only that but I remember my mood the last time. I was tired and cranky. There is a higher viewing platform above this one that I think we decided against going up to because I was so blown.
This time we went up, worth it, and then on to the main temple at the top. Oddly I have no memory of the temple. There is a gold chedi and gold parasols at the corners of the chedi. The surrounding wall has paintings of scenes from the Buddha’s life as well as from the Ramayana. They could stand a little attention but are charming.
Outside this main area, where people were praying and making offerings, there were other buildings surrounded by trees, one of which had orchids trailing from a branch. A group of nuns came through, some in orange, some in grey. We took the lift down and were pick up by our driver to go to the Galae restaurant. Mike had researched this.
It was located on a small lake or reservoir with umbrellaed tables along the shore. Dinners were feeding the two-foot catfish that leapt out of the water, whiskers twitching. We were the only Caucasians, always a good sign. Finding a table at the water’s edge we ordered cashews to hold starvation at bay while we waited for Scott to join us. They arrived simultaneous with him.
Scott had Northern Chicken Sausage with ginger, peanuts and parsley. Mike, a vegetarian, had a platter of Chinese morning glory vine and another of shitake mushrooms. I had green chicken curry, my favorite, and pomelo salad with crispy catfish, hot but heavenly both in flavor and texture.
We returned to our taxi, Scott following on his motorbike to go halfway up to mountain to Wat Polaad. This turned out to be the wat we had passed early in the morning. Its buildings are scattered up and down the mountainside along a stream that slips shallowly over enormous grey boulders. It is being renovated by Burmese immigrant laborers. The old statues, they are of the Thai fantasy creatures variety, are furry with mosses and hairy with ferns. At the entrance a peacock accompanied by his two hens strolled, dragging their tails, like 18th century ladies with trains, through the leaves. The second wife was, in her demeanor, definitely the second wife.
There are little cabins being built whose roofs are made with the dark brown, incredible rumple of teak leaves. Beyond these we crossed the stream by a bamboo bridge and walked down to a platform from which there is a spreading view of Chiangmai and all the time, among the ruined temples, on the bridge, the platform the cicadas drilled our brains with their shrill cries.
It was a precious day. Wat Polaad, quietly emerging from its decay gave each of us a memory of it and of each other that will come back for years to sooth and calm.
Returning to the road we parted from Scott and headed back to Chiangmai where over my yogurt dinner Mike and I discussed Spanish literature of the Golden Age.
The link to Scott’s article is academia.edu as
but you will have to register to see the article.