Friday, February 29, 2008

Rose of the North (1)

((Chiang Mai area in the North of Thailand, 1986.))

June 2

I whiled away the rest of yesterday avoiding the extreme heat, reading in the shade, planning excursions, finally venturing out as cooler evening came on. Had a glass of wine in a bar run by a Thai woman just back from two years of social work in Nicaragua. She dislikes the Sandanistas now, says the revolution has gone sour. (Some of her comments remind me of Jean Genet's play The Balcony, where the whorehouse revolutionaries become beasts and dictators themselves, once in power.)

A fruit smoothie slurped in a Euro-tourist cafe later let me observe other Thai women putting the make on Western travellers. No one approached me--not that I was looking for company, but one does feel somehow slighted... Actually the women of Chiang Mai are renowned throughout Thailand (and pictured in books and airline adverts all over the world) as the most beautiful in this graceful kingdom and any husband's most-prized "possession." And they are striking in appearance: paler skinned than the southern Thai, and presenting a more knowing, even arrogant, look on their lovely features. Yet not offensive; just confident of their special privilege.

Today I walked a few miles visiting various local wats. Given that each of them must have support buildings, stupas, chedi pagodas housing holy ashes, glass/porcelain/gold decorations, Thai serpents, and sometimes Chinese lion-like watch-dogs, somehow each still manages to look distinct. Ditto the Buddha images. While there are a dozen favored poses, each face has its own breadth and taper, or glint in the eyes, or set of the mouth--even when you examine a dozen Buddhas of the same pose side by side. All are serene, but some seem to smirk, others to leer; some have eyes open, others downcast or closed. But nearly all of the statues have a rather demure, sensuous, almost hermaphroditic shape. Except for the Starving Buddha/bones image, all are soft and fleshy, exhibiting graceful, rather feminine gestures. What does this signify?

I took most pleasure, however, in talking for an hour with a cheerful young monk anxious to practice his halting English. Pranong (pronounced Ba-non) comes from the northeast, near the Laotian border--where the armed clashes and shelling of refugee camps go on regularly. When Pranong learned that I'm a "writer," he scurried off to get the journal he's been keeping, in English, of his stay at this Chiang Mai wat. (I noticed several references to the city's good-looking women, the young sly boots!)

June 3

The weather brought hot sun in and out of clouds until 5 p.m. Now it's thundering and threatening to storm again. But I did get out on a rental bicycle this morning, pedalling 'roundabout some 25 kilometers of countryside. The core of Chiang Mai is a square-walled city, though without the towers and crenellations of European or Moorish castles. There are gates through each wall and a broad, quite beautiful moat/park around it (on three sides only, I think); and the confident, friendly air of the people confirms the area's reputation as a haven of education and cultured wealth. Many successful Thais maintain "summer" homes up in this region (the city's name or nickname in Thai meaning "Rose of the North"), where they come to escape the heat and oppressive urban confusion of Bangkok.

Once out the North Gate, however, and past the surrounding commercial-residential strip, I found farms galore, a couple of golf courses, little food-and-drink stalls along the roads, even a major Thai Army installation. Asked a few soldiers, in fact, where to find what I had actually ridden out to see: two stoneware factories making what's called "Thai Celadon," a pottery style and process imported from China about 1100 years ago, and used to produce lovely cracked-glaze pots and plates ever since. Had a tour, some cold water, and bought a small plate for $2, then rumbled back toward the city, sweating like a hog in the sweltering heat. The monsoon season is clearly upon us.

More wats en route, a fiery-hot lunch at a vegetarian restaurant, then home to collapse.

June 5

I purposely set yesterday and today aside for writing postcards, letters, and recalcitrant poems. But in take-a-break strolls I managed to find a small antique "Sukhothai" bowl (the Thai Celadon style of a hundred years ago), a collection of Hemingway stories, and a superior Indian restaurant in a spacious, sculptured garden setting. Otherwise I sat under the swirling fans of the Galare's ((guest-house I was staying in)) breezeway-styled dining area, conversing with the Thai help, some Canadian women, and Patrick, a microbiologist from Seattle ((further proof of the world's shrinking)). The two of us will stroll to the city's night market this evening, where I intend to learn by observing Patrick; here for a year, he's become an old hand at shopping and bartering...

June 7

The monsoons have arrived in full force with drenching storms these last two days. I ventured out early yesterday, however, on a bustling tour to outlying areas, me the only taker and my substitute guide speaking no English! But we got on--up many kilometers of climbing mountain road, to one of the King's alternate palaces, a seasonal retreat no doubt, where I saw shady gardens, long sweeping views of the surrounding plains, and posh marble buildings visitors are not admitted into. Then higher up, to the venerable monastery of Wat Doi Suthep, where a 300-step ascent leads to the mountainside-perched platform, which houses one of the Buddha's holy bones. Many worshippers, a few Western gawkers, but only one man and his son doing the traditional freeing of caged birds for good fortune, blessings on the person, and so on. ((This visit I expanded on in a poem which will appear next time.))

Back down the mountain and around Chiang Mai's perimeter to opposite-side craft villages: Baw Sang, where I saw the making of famed regional painted parasols (shipped a pair of them home), and Sam Kamphaeng, where I admired silkworms in various stages of larvae and labors, along with raw silk, weavers and sewers at work, and numerous bolts of colorful silk--even broke down and spent $60 on enough from one bolt to have a suit made someday... ((and I did too, the suit I got married in nearly two years later.))

A fixed price, unlike night-market shopping. There, you mingle with hundreds, locals and hilltribesmen, hunger-inducing food stalls and aggressive vendors (want a phoney "LaCoste" shirt for a buck?), shops upstairs, downstairs, and sprawling along several blocks and side-streets, teeming and raucous but, in Chiang Mai anyway, impeccably clean. And, as in other markets elsewhere, except for those like Patrick who speak the local lingo, the bartering proceeds by headshakes and hand signals, raised eyebrows and expressive shrugs, pigeon English mixed with scrambled Thai. Only a foolish farang tourist pays the asked-for price; the mutually enjoyed game is to "talk" the amount down by a third or more--a lot of work, of course, for something that already costs only a few dollars, but the proper course nonetheless.

Had trouble sleeping last night, woke today with the blind spots in vision that presage one of my rare migraine headaches, and soon got a doozy that left me sick and groaning near the guest-house telephone, awaiting a callback from Sandie... Then spent the rest of the day flat on my back, listening to the rain and feeling sorry for myself, racking my pain-wracked brain-pan for some solution to the anguish my travels are causing among my various loved ones. None of them really understands why I persist in this, my stubborn solitary sojourn in the world. Hell, I don't really know why myself; only that I must go on...

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