Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Chiang Mai (2)

((More journal entries from Thailand 1986.))

June 9

Yesterday I walked to a wat open to visitors on Sunday only, to view its 4th Century crystal Buddha and 6th Century B.C. golden Buddha from India (closer in its appearance to Hindu statuary than to Thai Buddhism). I also said goodbye to acquaintance Patrick, heading home to Seattle and kindly transporting my package of gifts and goods accumulated over the months.

Meanwhile, today's bus to the ancient ruined city of Sukhothai took too many dusty, sweaty hours over partially paved roads. New Sukhothai, several kilometers farther on, is like Nothingsville: a dozen grubby streets, a few hotels and restaurants. I'm hoveled in with the usual array of paperless toilet, cold shower, and swarming insects of some unknown sort. Just overnight, however--tomorrow I explore the ruins of old Sukhothai, which are magnificent and haunting, giant monuments in stone. Then a night bus back to Bangkok.

Speaking of BKK (as it's known in airport-acronym lingo) reminds me of some observations regarding Thai place names. The Thai alphabet has no connection with Latin/Western lettering, and looks something like this: SZSZSFSXSZ ((originally I hand-drew a row of varied squiggles mimicking the Thai letters; imagine individual strands of spaghetti dropped in twists and curls)), which is "Sukhothai." Unless a white farang learns to read Thai, or is lucky enough the find the approximate one-in-every-seven, street- or restaurant-sign that transcribes its information to Latin script too, s/he will wander around in a daze. But even then the Western version may be confusing; for example, the word for "welcome" or "hello" is variously spelled Sawasdee, Sawatdi, Sawadee, and so on, and I have seen "district" on signs as amphoe, amphur, and umper!

Also, seeing the Western form won't necessarily prepare one for the Thai sounds. Kamphaeng Phaet and Chao Phra are pronounced something like "Camping Pet" and "Ciao, Bra." Picture the Thai spelling for some sounds I swear I've heard spoken: "Bankrupt," "Podunk," "Punch 'n' Judy," even "What's up, Doc"! And the words Bangkok and Phuket have nothing to do with what an oversexed tourist might fantasize; the latter is a beach resort pronounced "Poo-ket" and the former merely a one-word summary of the city's 40-word, royal-language official name--something on the order of "Eternal Heavenly Abode of Bliss Where the Royal Personage Dwells in Halls of...," etc. (Actually, come to think of it, Bangkok is a place where soldiers and travelers in search of earthly bliss and cheap thrills do still congregate, in the infamous rowdy sex-trade area called "Soy Cowboy.")

I have also neglected the hilltribes of Northern Thailand--Meo, Liso, Karen, Akha, Yao, and others who live in the rugged, mountainous strip stretching from Burma into Laos, the dangerous "Golden Triangle" of drug-trafficking renown. Sanguine, some would say foolish, travelers to the north often head out on three- and four-day treks, riding elephants, fording rivers, smoking opium with village headmen, battling vermin. These isolated, not-always-friendly areas offer other thrills too; just last week, two Aussies were set upon by bandits shooting guns, with one tourist wounded slightly. (I chose to save the $150-$300 cost, and my own skin.) The government attempts to control the bandits, stop the flow of drugs, relocate certain tribes, boost tourism in the region, and encourage the sale of tribal crafts and clothing.

So Chiang Mai is full of these fascinating people and their colorful goods, as well as large string-puppets, opium weights ((see photo above)), and bright lacquerware smuggled in from Burma. I browsed the night market a few evenings, finally bought an old Meo shirt and a new bag from another tribe (I forget to ask which). The village folk come wearing their hand-embroidered, multi-layered, many-trinketed costumes, and last night I saw the most striking yet: a very tall young Karen woman, quite attractive in looks and tribal garb, but also wearing a floral headband/tiara thing, silk stockings, and high heels! She caused heads to turn everywhere she went.

Prices, by the way, can be ridiculously cheap. Some tourists go to Chiang Mai just to ship home hundreds of dollars worth of quilts, coats, leggings, hats, silver jewelry, and so on. And then turn a handsome profit back home...

June 10

The bugs and I had a restless night. Up before dawn as usual, I set out on the community bus at 7:30 for the bumpy, 20-minute ride back to old Sukhothai; and there I rented a bicycle to tour its three-kilometer-square grid, filled with broken wats and ruined royal or religious buildings, many of them not yet excavated--a sort of low-lying Machu Picchu. Some random impressions, then, jotted down under a raging sun:

From this capital city, early kings ruled until the 15th Century when Northern Thailand was partially sacked by Burmese invaders. Since then, earthquakes and weather and age have destroyed much of the rest. Yet here today a Buddhist monk, orange robe lowered to his waist, wrestles a power mower around in foot-high grass...

One large complex, Wat Phra Phai Luang, is almost totally razed: shattered Buddhas, tumbled stupas and chedis, broken columns, crumbling walls of brick and sandstone. And in the midst of this destruction, ponds and moats full of floating lotus plants, white or purple blossoms stretching up from their green pads toward the sun; and one perfectly preserved dark Buddha, tranquil and unflappable--like the lizard poised atop a nearby chedi...

In contrast, the beautiful, well-restored Wat Mahathat, with nearly 200 chedis of varied shapes and sizes, two magnificent Standing Buddhas several meters tall, a half-dozen others seated in the lotus position, and all of them lovingly sculpted. Peace in the midst of strife, in a splendid moat setting with the everpresent lotus blossoms...

Smells of stagnant water, fresh-mown grass, new-dropped cowdung. And nearby, the "Palace of the Gods in the Field," completely obliterated, covered by grass and bushes, inhabited only by the cows...

Finally, Sukhothai's heart, Wat Sri Chum--four high walls, open above, enclosing a single giant, lotus-position Buddha, 11.5 meters across the lap, maybe 18 meters high. Once carved from some light-colored stone, portions of it have now gone green from moss, or gold from the thin sheets of gilt leaf attached by worshippers. Oddly, this particular blessed image, a favorite of photographers, has his eyes open and a quite mischievous grin on his face...

After a visit to Sukhothai, it's impossible not to think of Ozymandias: "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

((And now here's the poem that tried to capture my stay in Chiang Mai and the North.))

Freeing the Birds

After the dizzying bus-ride
15 kilometers up and up
both sides of the corkscrew road
to the top of Mt. Doi Suthep,
we emerge through swirling clouds
as giddy as spring birds:

the view falls away for miles,
down tipsy forests and rows
of fields, to Chiang Mai’s walls
and the fleet cloud shadows
scudding toward us. Even the trees
give back glory! So we seize

the day, this day of praise
for the faithful here gathered
in scores, climbing the stairs—
all of us—herded skyward
by tile-encrusted dragons
300 steps to the heavens…

or at least another station
on the Middle Way, this one
most holy, attended with passion,
because it houses a tiny bone,
sacred relic of Gautama.
Ascending takes more stamina

than I have; heart thudding,
I’m out of breath and belief,
grabbing at straws: a sweating
fence-straddler quick to quaff
one Coke in earthly recompense.
The loudspeaker amplifies chants.

Busy monks pour concrete.
Worshippers place lit candles
at the myriad Buddhas’ feet.
Women with flower bundles
kneel by men burning incense;
bowing, both groups advance

to an elderly monk, face scarred,
who sprinkles them with water,
then re-lights his stub cigar.
This benevolent holy father
puffs contentedly, eyeing us,
his jostling ranks of the pious.

Temple bells marked “Don’t Shake”
persuade some Thai believers
to strike with fist and stick
till the wat echoes their labors,
a great clangor of rejoicing.
I slip my shoes off, placing

them in amongst the multitudes
already converted, to step inside
where a hundred glittering Buddhas
smile... so many they hide
the alter, draped with gold-leaf,
rippling in a scented breeze.

One sheet fallen to the ground
I try to place back whole;
it crumbles, sticking to my hand,
gilt clinging to me piecemeal...
A father and son at cliff’s edge
hold a cage full of finches,

sold below on the mountainside.
Coaxed, the boy shakes them free
with his arms spread out wide,
a tiny Francis of Assisi
crowing with delight as each bird
leaps into the diamond void,

the clouded ladder to heaven,
vanishing into that blue eye,
all pecking and filching forgiven.
I pay five baht to buy
a new tile for the temple roof,
touch the hand-worn bas-relief

of Erawan, the three-headed
sacred elephant, for luck,
then reclaim my shoes for good.
I pocket a soapstone relic
for no clear reason, and depart,
unenlightened but lighter of heart.

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