Zen in Chiang Mai

May 25, 2011 - Mae Sot, Thailand

It was a relatively inauspicious start to the weekend. I slept fitfully the night before we headed to Chiang Mai- save from the bizarre episode with wannabe Romeo, some American students came stumbling in at early o'clock and chattered outside my room for a bit. How kind.

I woke at 4.30am, and got my monster suitcase packed to move out for the weekend, and called Alex. He's a huge guy, towering over me at 6 foot 4 (his Dutch genes), who spends his days doing Muay Thai (Thai boxing) but is as gentle as a lamb, full of charming Canadian politeness, holding doors open for me and paying for coffee etc.

"You awake, matey?"

"Er, sure. Although I've lost my thing. Er. If I don't find my thing, then we're in trouble. See you soon, eh?" Hm. Mystery man, eh?

He turns up, and it transpires he's lost his debit card- he left it in the machine after a transaction and it must have been swallowed by the ATM after he hadn't removed it. He's got 200 Baht to his name, with no back-up cash. What a muppet. Eventually I persuade him to come to Chiang Mai anyway, and I would pay for us both until he could get to a Western Union where his parents could deposit cash (turned out, through some comedy of errors that even though the cash was there, the banks were all shut all weekend). We get on the bus ok, and I buy him a packet of Oreos to cheer him up. We wait for David to turn up. We wait until it's a minute before we leave, when the bus driver starts to get up onto the bus, so I call him. "David, where are you?" I ask.

"Um, still waiting for my tuk-tuk."

"Right." I advise him to catch the next bus at 8am. And then sit back with a big sigh as the bus draws out of the station. There's a lot of bad karma flying around this morning.

The bus journey takes us through beautiful countryside, and Alex and I swap life stories. We're stopped at various checkpoints by the police and Alex bursts out laughing when they simply nod at him and then gesture at me to hand over my ID. We arrive in Chiang Mai just after midday, and take a tuk-tuk to Julie's guesthouse. Chiang Mai Old town is a small square of land, surrounded by a tranquil moat, and with a glittering Wat almost on every block. We were staying in the backpacker district- as soon as we walked into our guesthouse, we were met by a scene of hippy-grunge chic, with cool tanned young people lounging on sofas smoking and chatting, and hippy tinkly muzaq trickling overhead. Feeling severely uncool and very old, I asked for our room. The receptionists were a trio of haughty Thai girls who looked at me in the same way that cats do ("Maybe I'll talk to you, maybe I won't"), and for a moment I thought they would ignore me, before one of them sniffs and gestures with her head to follow one of the others.

Our room is very basic, but the communal atmosphere, 24-hour drinks fridge and hearty breakfast makes up for what it lacks on the accommodation front. Alex and I spent an inordinate amount of the early afternoon trying to find a way to get some money out of a bank for him- turns out that the banks on this side of the world are just as unhelpful and self-serving as they are in the UK...

David finally catches up with us as Wat Singh, and we start a little walking tour of the bigger Wats- including a beautiful wooden one, entirely made from Teak. Everywhere you look you see flashes of orange as the monks trot by in small shoals. There's a monk school at the teak Wat, and I watch a group of young monks climbing onto a Suktao. One sticks his tongue out at me, asks for cigarettes and they invite me over for a chat, where they let me take a picture of them.

That evening David took us to a photo exhibition set up by a Canadian couple who started in Mae Sot with a small group of Burmese teenagers; they gave them entry-level digital cameras, taught them how to use them and sent them off to take pictures of whatever took their fancy, and this exhibition was the result. David introduced us to a string of Americans who seemed to have congregated in Chiang Mai and never left, mostly drifters, one of whom he referred to as "beautiful David", a handsome stubbly chap and guy called Matt (Whom I met in Mae Sot yesterday- we had a half-hour conversation at the end of which I said "Well, it was lovely to chat, Andy." "Er. It's Matt, actually.") who was a Brit, (who'd lived in Brunei at the same time as I was living there) both of whom had just been working in Mae Sot. Alex and I started to flag- it had been a long and slightly trying day- and fled the scene early to catch a few winks.

The next day Alex, David and I headed for Doi Suthep, a National Park, where there's a large Wat up a large hill with spectacular views over the city. On the way back we stopped off at a waterfall and had a little paddle. Alex bought a deep fried grasshopper on the way back, and, much to my horror, popped it in his mouth and crunched away happily. After a lunch of noodle soup, Alex and I went for a massage. Outrageously cheap at £3 for a whole hour, and it was sheer bliss from start to finish, much better than the one I had in Bangkok. They bathed our feet and fed us tea, before leading us upstairs to a quiet, dimly lit air-conditioned room, and we lay on soft mattresses. My masseuse was a pro and within the first 20 minutes I was lulled into the land of nod, waking up only briefly to turn over. I awoke to find that they had let us sleep on in the quiet room after our massage. Amazing.

That evening we walked through the Saturday Walking Market, a fantastic nightmarket full of food (we settled for a big packet of Pad Thai each) and little handmade touristy gifts. Down the centre of the street little bands of blind musicians crooned Thai blues, and the atmosphere was electric. On our way back Alex and I bought a little bag of deep fried dough balls to dip in a lurid green Pandan custard (I've finally met someone who's appetite can keep up with mine- I have never met anyone who has to eat almost constantly as Alex does).

We took a Suktao (like a tuk-tuk taxi) to the outskirts of town, where we had a drink with David and his friends. There's a strange phenomenon going on when you talk to the young Furong (foreigners) here; it takes about 3 separate questions to actually ascertain exactly what it is that these people (mostly from the US in Chiang Mai) are doing in Asia. Ask a simple question like "So what are you doing in Mae Sot/ Chiang Mai/ Bangkok?", and you'll get answers like "Uuuuh, well, you know, I'm not entirely sure", "Urrrh, gee that's an interesting question", "Some sort of... errr... volunteer stuff." or "Errrr, well, I like work for a like, you know, like organisation" Yes, sunshine, that much is a given, everyone here is working for some volunteer organisation or other. Am starting to go crazy talking to these "drifter" people as Prof Tom and I call them, with no particular idea of what they are doing, or where they are going. I can't work out if their shifty answers is borne out of distrust or a genuine lack of drive.

Alex and I had a lazy Sunday morning, and after breakfast at the guesthouse we headed for the National Museum, which was a bit of a damp squib. Interesting, but somehow not worth the 100 baht we paid to get in... We spent a leisurely hour or so in a snazzy coffee shop, sipping on cold drinks and getting the benefits of its cool airconditioning, had a quick bite to eat under the shadow of a small Wat, and then headed for the bus station. The journey back was relatively uneventful until the first checkpoint outside Mae Sot. The police clambered on, checking ID as they went. As they left, I saw them take a young man with them- they unloaded his bags from the hold, and escorted him inside a building. We waited a little while until we were waved off; he never came out, and the bus drove on without him.

Alex and I had dinner at Casa Mia (had a fantastic Thai green curry), and then later I headed for the Peace Cafe for film night. This week was a documentary about a Austrian lady who had married a Shan Prince in Burma- her husband was eventually arrested and taken to prison, and she hadn't seen him since. She had only 2 scribbled notes from him in prison, and 2 letters from the Burmese government denying that they ever arrested and imprisoned him.

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