The misty mountains are behind every streetscape, like the hills of home, only green. A gold flash from the famous temple of Doi Suthep beckons us from its high peak. But our first few days in Chiang are spent on the flat. The mountain adventures come later.
We get around in a red communal taxi, called a song theuw. 20 baht (80cents) gets us to the ancient brick gate of the old city .
The city is a perfect square aligned to the eight compass points, with a moat right around. It is like so many European walled cities, except the spires are of Buddhist temples, not Christian churches.
These days the Chiang Mai city walls are incomplete but you can still appreciate the skill in the town planning. The 13thcentury town was built along the river Ping to take advantage of fertile river plains, excellent weather and strategic geographic location. The excellent Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre has videos, displays and art which tell the story of Chiang Mai in rich detail. An excellent place to start your time in Chiang Mai.
You take off your shoes, make a wai (place hands in prayer position and bow) and sit in the cool, absorbing the colour and chanting and peace. Monks young and old, all clad in fresh orange robes for the festival, come and go. I love the dogs which wander with equal freedom, even huddling up to a monk, or stretching out before the Buddha.
Our aim is nine temples, as they tell us we will gain merit and prosperity, by paying our respects and praying in nine sacred places. In the heat, we are glad to enter several more temples, and watching the multi generational groups coming to kneel, bow and leave gifts, and sipping the cold water provided in most places. However, like Cathedrals and Art Galleries, temples can be too much of a good thing. And the walking was tiring in the heat. So we took a taxi.
Lesson #1 Beware of friendly drivers
We accepted the offer of Mr Noi to show us three important temples in Chiang Mai , and some local makers of silk,enamel , jade and wood. All for 100 baht ($4.00) He waited for us at the temples, then whizzed us out of the city, into the suburbs, to the famous Bo Sang village.
We were forced to undergo the compulsory short tour of factories and compulsory long tour of display counters , packed with beautiful but overpriced objects which we did not desire at all. In each place I told the exquisitely dressed ‘guide’ we did not want to buy, and we made our escape as soon as we could.
Nr Noi explained that he receives a voucher from each establishment- for Coke or a meal, hence his eagerness to take tourists there. We were all very friendly about it all, but glad to wave him a fond good bye.
Lesson #2 Beware of bird sellers.
At the huge Wat Chedi Luang, two old women were selling tiny birds squashed into bamboo baskets. ‘If you set them free, your prayers will be answered’ is my translation of their Thai sales pitch. We paid 100 baht (4.00) to see the little creatures head for the highest tree. Only later did we see the notice asking us not to buy temple birds, as it encourages their trapping and cruel confinement.
Most of the Wats have monasteries attached, and you discreetly observe a little of the monks’ daily life. Little monks being little boys, older ones cleaning a motor bike, others watering the plants, or just praying in the temple. The Wat Chedi Luang offers ‘monkchat’ each day, so people can ask about Buddhism. I liked this spelling of ‘conversation’.
Lesson #3 Watch your feet and cover your head.
It is very easy to get around by the red communal taxis and also by tuktuk- we usually pay the price set by the driver but sometimes I argue the price down if it seems high.
The footpaths are broken and generally filled with motor scooters and market stalls, so we walk on the road edge, waving away tuk tuk drivers, who shrug at the crazy farangs out in the heat. We have started using an umbrella for shade, as a hat is too hot, and you have to keep taking it off in the temples.
Lesson #4 There is always tomorrow.
We finished out merit list of temples on the second day. That very afternoon I found a one baht piece on the footpath, and had my broken camera covered by my travel insurance. The merit is working! Thanks Southern Cross Travel Insurance! We have allowed a couple of weeks in this gorgeous place, with its multi ethnic and hospitable people. Tomorrow and tomorrow – it will all be good in Chiang Mai.
P.S. We visited a beautiful exhibition of photos by renowned Thai photographer, Chamni. This poem was written about his work. It will accompany us as we head for the hills, to see more of the ancient kingdom of Lanna, the old Thailand.
Flying, flowing back in time
Camera box in hand
Collecting pieces of the past
One travelling spirit immersed
in the reverie of light and shade
Conjures up images telling tales of this city
Deeply rooted, the history of Napisee,
Nourished by unwavering faith
The spiritual community still
grows and glows and prospers
Everywhere and everyway
through the lives of its residents
When the lens meets the eye
He makes memoirs of the passing time
Floating, flowing, with his drifting mind
In search of the heart of Lanna.