Monday, January 23, 2012

Chiang Mai…2011 bye bye

I had a hell of a time going on from Bangkok, booking at the last minute during Christmas-New Year’s week. All the flights and first class train were booked to Phuket, and all the trains and hotels were booked for Chiang Mai also. My friendly travel agent on Soi 11 finally gave up, and refunded the train she booked because she could not find a hotel. I ended up in my hotel room working magic online, and booked a last minute flight and hotel myself.

If I had gone to Phuket then, I would have missed going to Luang Prabang in Laos, which would have been tragic; so it all worked out. When I got to Chaing Mai, honestly I was surprised. I expected a sleepy little village, and what I got was Bangkok’s younger, wilder, not so made-up sister. I ended up in a hotel right on the corner of the Night Market district. The hotel was definitely not worth the money I paid, but I got a kick out of it because it really reminded me of the hotel in the Maltese Falcon or Casablanca. Those same yellow-beige walls with long corridors, and some truly beautiful wood walls and ceilings. My room was immense, the way hotel rooms used to be in the 30’s and 40’s. I had a sitting room, and a large bedroom, so never mind that the carpet was dingy and the tub didn’t work. It was actually the perfect place to spend the end of 2011, nostalgic as I felt moving into 2012. 

I spent the first couple of days canvasing the area, found some friends in town, had a great dinner at a place where the owner had lived in Hawaii for ten years. The highlights of my time in Chaing Mai were the Elephant Ride, which was a great experience although the group I ended up with was not very friendly. You never know when you book tours what combination of people you will end up with. This group was made up of several young couples from San Diego and Montreal. The San Diego couple were,  like a lot of young California couples, kind of snotty and over-impressed with themselves. The couple from Montreal were very nice, especially the man who was originally from someplace in the states. There was also an older guy from New Zealand who was very interesting, and we did a fun ride together on the raft. For whatever reason though, the group just did not jell, and everyone pretty much went their own ways. It was a long tour outside of Chaing Mai where we went to an Elephant Farm. The ride on the raft down the river was my favorite part of the tour. It was so beautiful, and there were only two of us on a wooden raft with the steersman. As we were rolling along down the river I felt memories of reading Tom Sawyer, the Mississippi River as it was in the 1700’s(?). Just this great feeling of being out in the wilderness riding down a river on a wooden raft with the sun on the water and birds chirping in the trees, with the occasionally monkey in a tree sighting; I could have stayed on that raft all day.

Then we rode the elephant. They had you ride in two’s, but I got to go by myself. It was a great ride through the river with the elephant wading through the water, and up the steep muddy bank onto a track through the jungle. My driver was really good, and took me off the track away from all the other riders for a bit. My only regret was seeing some people riding bareback without the saddles, and I wished I had done that.
After that we ended up in a dusty stop, and took an ox cart ride back to the main camp. If you have never ridden in an ox cart, it’s okay. Not an experience you need to rush after. It was dusty and hot, but there was a picture perfect moment riding in the cart past the fields of rice with farmers in wide brimmed hats bent over sodden lanes framed by the mountains of Northern Thailand and the blue sky.

The next highlight was the 5th Annual Flower Festival in honor of the King, which I booked with a guide. That was a mistake. I could have gone on my own just fine. It was set up like an amusement park with exhibits representing all the countries in the world. The emphasis was on conservation of Thailand’s natural resources, and concerns for the world’s ecology. It was a school holiday so the place was packed with kids of all ages, which was actually a great experience. I especially loved the exhibits of orchids, which were so beautifully arranged they were like a fantasy. My guide was a young student, and we ended up having a great time together; although I think she was more interested in shopping than being a guide. We spent most of the day walking and riding carts through the park. I skipped some exhibits, because there were so many, and I was not feeling all that great. After, we went up to the temple whose name I have somewhere. It is a very old temple, and they have some weird ceremonies there every year where they exhibit “magic”. I bought some pieces of gold flakes and put them on the long row of mounds which would eventually be used to remodel the temple. I said prayers for all my friends and family with each piece. It was a very special ceremony. I also threw my fortune, where I went into a small room, knelt and shook the wooden box with sticks. Each stick had a number, and the stick that fell first from the pile was your fortune. Of course my guide had to translate my fortune, and of course it was all very positive. I’ve saved both of the ones I did in Thailand, and will have someone at home translate them for me too. That temple was one of my favorites because it seemed very heathen. There were statues of women goddesses from Northern Thai mythology, and a water pond with a water nymph. It was very different from the temples in Bangkok, which were very proper and masculine.

The last highlight of my trip to Chaing Mai was New Year’s Eve, which was in some ways, a very difficult time for me. I could have met up with some people in Chaing Mai, but it didn’t work out and actually wouldn’t have fit me or my mood. I ended up having a great night on my own walking around having little mini adventures. One of the best ones was the paper lantern lighting ceremony on the river. I noticed these lights flying above me while I was walking, and they looked like the pyres that were lit on Maui at the temples during the Obon Festivals. Every year the Buddhists have a ceremony where they take the ashes of ones who have died that year and build a pyre which they set on fire and put into the ocean. This lit pyres float out into the water at dusk. It is one of the most beautiful ceremonies I’ve ever seen. So when I saw these fires in the sky over Chaing Mai, that’s what I thought of, and I tracked them down to the river front. They were selling these huge paper kites, which had rings of paraffin. You lit the paraffin and held the paper kite up until it filled with hot air. Then you released it into the air to float away. The man said that this tradition was done at the New Year, and you put all your bad thoughts, unfulfilled wishes, cares and worries from the past year into the lantern so they could float away; and you could begin the New Year clear of heart and mind. I lit three of them. There was a young girl also doing this ceremony who was so nice to me…she took my picture and helped me with my lantern lighting. Overall, it has been rare that young people have reached out to me on my travels, but this girl was so very kind and generous, and made an extra effort to be friendly. Maybe I reminded her of someone. I’ll never know because she went off with her friends, and I went on to my next adventure. 

I had found this little club across the river a few nights before, and I could just tell by the kids running it and the décor that it was a very cool place. They had a bandstand, and an area up these old stairs with a pool table and a bunch of sofas and seating areas. It looked like an old French jazz club with artwork on the walls, old chandeliers over the bar, balconies over the outside road, and tables out on the sidewalk. I asked if they had music, and they did have a band. So New Year’s Eve I went back there and heard one of the rockin’ best bands I’ve heard in a long time live. They played jazz, blues, rock, and the lead guitarist was unreal. The whole band was young Thai’s with maybe one Chinese guy, and they had a young white girl who sang in Thai and English. She did a great version of Alicia Key’s, “if I ain’t got you”, which of course made me cry. It was okay. The crowd were all fixed on the band, and I was in the corner by the bar, so I just let the tears flow in honor of… It was a really young crowd and I was the only “visitor” there, but no one made me feel out of place at all. The staff were really friendly and welcomed me back, and hell I did have on my cool black jeans and t-shirt even if I was four decades on.  I went upstairs and played some pool with a crowd of kids. One of the girls told me how well I played. I told her my eyes were shot, and I’d played a lot better when I was younger. I had a few sodas, listened to some great music, played some fun pool, and took off while the feelings were good. 

I ended up back at the Meridian Hotel across from my hotel, and they were having a big outdoor party which you had to pay 200 baht to get in. It was amusing because all the “rich” people were standing around trying to look like they were having a grand time, while all the street people were staring in at them and actually having a grander time on their own. I did end up paying to get in just so I could do the New Year’s Eve countdown, which was really funny and perfect. I toasted my soda with a bunch of drunk strangers, and after hanging out on the streets a bit longer, went back to my hotel feeling as if it was the perfect New Year’s for me in my single state of mind.

The other great experience that I had was I went twice to the spa at the Meridian Hotel. I certainly could have gone anywhere on the street and gotten a cheap massage or any type of treatment, but the massage places on the streets, like a lot of things in Thailand, are set up for men. They are “wham, bam, thank you mame” affairs that are not very esthetic or pleasing to my senses. Sitting in a row of chairs getting massaged with my clothes on in an open window with a bunch of tourists walking by is not my idea of a relaxation experience. The only exception was the massage on the river in Bangkok, and the place I went to on Soi 11 which were both very peaceful and beautiful experiences. The spa at the Meridian had a special on, so I got one day of full body treatment and another day having my Chakra's aligned for a very good rate. The rooms were elegant, the music was sublime, and the huge soaking tub was the perfect place to end the day. The whole experience, including the great tea they serve after, was well worth the extra baht.

Between the beginning of the year blues and being over Chaing Mai ants in my pants, I was ready to move on…but no idea where to. I didn’t really want to head down to Phuket without seeing at least one other Northern country. I was seriously thinking of Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, so I thought I’d go to Laos and decide from there. I didn’t want to go to another big city, and then someone mentioned to me that Luang Prabang was worth seeing, so that’s where I decided to go.

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