As the train pulled into Chiang Mai, I glimpsed my friend, Dave waiting patiently just as he’d promised. What a great guy and good friend – picking me up at the station, and whisking me through the city, pointing out some landmarks and sites before pulling up at a favorite restaurant where we ate a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt and muesli accompanied by steaming lattes. Now that’s a pleasant arrival. I am blessed indeed!
Dave lives in the Chiang Mai area where he and his Burmese wife, Fai, have bought a condo in the city as well as a house up in the village of Arunothai that borders Burma. The village dwelling is large enough to house several of her family members who were able make the move into Thailand and try a chance at a better life. A small store in a separate building on the property sells sundries, bringing in some cash for the whole family.
But today we were in Chiang Mai, and after breakfast we drove over to their condo which borders the university and I met Fai for the first time and their beautiful and precocious 3-year-old daughter, Bonnie. The child instantly began gabbling to me in a curious mixture of Thai, Chinese and English. Dave explained that they are raising her to be trilingual. Her first language is a Yunnan Chinese that Fai and her Burmese family speak. And of course since she lives in Thailand, she is fairly proficient at Thai, and she is quickly learning English.
“People say if you don’t see the Wat Suthep temple you haven’t seen Chiang Mai,” Dave said. “I thought that would be the place to go today.” I readily agreed and the whole family packed up for an excursion up the mountain to the temple and surrounding environs.
The mountain known as Doi Suthep rises huge and majestic in the haze to the west of the city. One of the first things Dave pointed out is that no matter how lost you get you can look to the mountain, know that it is west, and then orient yourself that way. A good tip for me – the one always getting lost!
According to the guidebooks Wat Suthep is one of the North’s most sacred temples. The story goes that a prestigious monk instructed the Lanna king to take a sacred relic to the mountain and establish a temple. They mounted the precious relic on the back of a white elephant that was then set loose to wander until it “chose” the site. The elephant stopped at this site, trumpeted three times and then dropped dead. Convinced that they’d been sent a message from the heavens, the monks immediately began construction of the temple on Doi Suthep.
An elaborate staircase of 306 steps flanked by carved and painted snakes formed the steep path up to the temple. Bonnie began the uphill climb with the enthusiasm and spryness of childhood while the rest of us huffed along behind. Soon, of course she wanted to be carried. (And she wanted a Coca Cola, and she wanted some of the pretty trinkets sold along the pathway – this child is definitely part American!)
I was so glad to be accompanied by local residents. Instead of just wandering around snapping photos and gaping at the artistry of the grounds and the buildings, I joined Dave’s family and many other Thai worshippers in walking three times around a sacred walled shrine, holding our offerings of incense, candles and a lotus flower, all of which Dave had purchased when we reached the top of the stairs.
After our short and prayerful walk, we knelt at the altar, lit our candles and incense with the flames from the other candles, bowed to the Buddha and made our offerings. These simple gestures infused this temple visit with meaning for me, I felt soothed and refreshed by the power of ritual.
Then it was time to wander around, I with my camera, snapping photos of the huge jackfruit tree, the long rows of giant bells and of course the ornate buildings and shrines. Bright flowers and curious tropical plants adorned the grounds, and a balcony afforded a sweeping view of the city, which was unfortunately shrouded in a haze caused by the faraway burning of the rice fields after harvest.
Back in the truck, we wound our way up the mountain to the next attraction – an “authentic” Hmong Village. Poohed poohed by the guidebooks as a touristy hoax, perhaps because the entrance to the place is lined with stalls selling textiles and trinkets at inflated prices, this little oasis nestled in the side of the mountain was actually a delight to visit.
I agreed with Dave that there’s nothing wrong with spending a little money on these people so they can eke out a survival on tourist dollars rather than resorting (or being completely dependent on) the opium trade. I guess the mountain and surrounding area is dotted with Hmong villages, and this one somehow made it to the tourist circuit. Why not support them?
Fai allowed Bonnie to be dressed in a traditional Hmong costume and pose for “professional” photographs while we wandered the verdant grounds bursting with medicinal and ornamental plants and flowers. Feeling a little peckish, I joined Bonnie is purchasing a small plastic bag of hard-boiled quail eggs from a Hmong woman – who was also frying them up and serving little mandala of fried tiny eggs on paper plates – and savored the delicious bite-sized morsels. Small boys splashed in a pond, causing Bonnie to wail that she wanted to go swimming (would have been a bit difficult as she was still elaborately costumed.)
After a short nap while Dave and the family ran some errands, I was ready for a night out on the town. Around 9 p.m I headed out with the whole family to “Guitar Man” bar/restaurant where Dave said his Aussie friend Jon played music every Wednesday night.
Since the music wasn’t due to start until 10:00, we made a stop at the night vegetable market so Fai could pick up supplies for tomorrow’s trip back home to the village. Mom had requested some mangos and mushrooms. On the way we passed walking streets of downtown Chiang Mai, bustling with strolling tourists, expats and locals, and traveled by the wholesale flower market, a long street lined with stalls each crammed with massive bouquets of marigolds, roses and various tropical flowers. I wondered who could possibly buy all those flowers but later learned they travel as far as Bangkok with their buyers.
The vegetable market was a visual feast for any lover of fresh veggies and fruits (that would be me!) Giant cauliflowers piled high alongside masses of bok choi and other greens. Brocolli, corn, garlic, long green beans, every kind of mushroom, jostled with oranges, bananas, pineapple, mangos, papaya…I wished I had a way to prepare this bounty so I could pack up a basket and take it home.
We wandered the various alleys of this market, as Fai added more and more purchases. Then, laden with heavy bags we made our way back to the truck and drove to Guitar Man which stood across the street from another bar called “Rasta Bar.” Turns out there’s a major Reggae scene here in the Chang Mai area.
I wasn’t sure how Bonnie would handle it all – given the late hour, but that little girl is a true partier! She dug all the attention at Guitar Man, especially when Dave’s friend Mikel showed up jokingly accusing the two parents of child abuse for bringing the little girl out to a bar, but then proceeding to charm her by playing with her puzzle and telling jokes that she may not have understood but brought out toothy smiles. But Bonnie really came into her own a bit later when Jon’s band ended their set and we followed Mikel over to Rasta Bar.
Dreadlocked Thai teenagers (okay, maybe 20-somethings) skillfully strummed Bob Marley songs and other Reggae favorites to a sparse crowd. Their musicianship was right on, and it seemed like the lead singer knew his lyrics well – but Mikel told me that none of them spoke a word of English!
The highlight of the evening for me was about 10 minutes into the set when Bonnie suddenly leaped off her mother’s lap and grabbed my hands urging me to join her in a dance. I spun the little girl around as her dress whirled about and I dipped her to and fro. Then she would let go of my hands, place her own in a prayer position and bow before she launched into another wild Reggae spin. The band members watched with bemusement as we spun and shook our booties together through song after song.
When the clock neared 1 a.m., her parents told her we could go home – but no! Bonnie wanted to stay and party and dance. The band played on and she took turns dancing with the different adults – I was her favorite though. Finally Dave bundled her into his arms, saying “home,” and although she stared longingly at the guitar player, she snuggled up to her Papa and let him carry her out into the night.