Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Just sneaked away from an overlong but interesting ceremony at one of the massive Wats (Buddhist Temple/Monastery) that litter this chilled out town. From what I got it was a shindig to give an award to some monk who has been promoted in whatever hierarchy they have. The representatives of the King also popped by to commemorate the occasion. These consisted of several chaps in military uniform on the back of elaborately decorated pick-up trucks guarding ornaments that I guess represent his Majesty's authority. Also present were shedloads of monks, shaven-skulled women in white robes that I reckon were nuns of some type, various reps of plod and army, 50 or so women in Thai traditional dress doing a welcome dance yet still looking creepy because of their spiky 6 inch bronze nail extensions, a band, blokes in identitical T-shirts parading Thai flags, ditto with provincial flag, loads of school kids in uniform waving banners and, in the middle of the parade, what looked like random blokes that decided to walk along with the rest.

Very colourful but, this being Thailand, complete chaos. The parade was due at 1 so of course it arrived at 3 and they didn't really think through the more detailed timing of the thing either. All the protagonists were to arrive on a small plaza in front of the temple through the main gate, circle round then disappear into thin air. At least that is the only way it would have worked. They bottlenecked, stalled and milled about until one of the heavily medalled coppers decided enough was enough and decide to play traffic cop. To help things along there were the various mutts of the monastery casually lying down in front of the marchers (they live in the temple so probably don't get kicked that much hence have no fear), buses and sangthaews ( pickup trucks with benches that serve as town buses) dropping off groups of local dignitaries right in the middle of things, a few snack vendors on their moped cum foodcarts making sharp u-turns once they figured some sort of event was on and an elderly swedish man who decided to ignore all around him and muscle through monks so that he could get the best picture of the temple that he could. Terrific fun though not exactly conforming to my idea of a peacefull and zenlike affair.

Once every one was inside or corraled in hastily set-up holding areas the ceremony started. I surprised myself in that I actually got bored very quickly. Though exotic and different, it was in essence a mix between church and a civic award ceremony. I have thought about it and I think it was a bit prejudiced of me to assume that religious functions in other countries would be any less dull than what the Church of England can contrive to test the faith of the flock. So I did as I would at church and discreetly slipped away. It took less than two drags off a well desired ciggy for me to be joined by most of the other Westerners who had stumbled across this, mostly feeling a bit embarassed that we were lucky to catch an interesting bit of Thai life but still had to stifle yawns.

Chang Mai is in the North of Thailand and the place to be for snobbish gits like me who think the Khao San Road (will explain this in a later post) afficionados should be shipped of to Faliraki where they belong or the Sahel where they deserve. It's full of Wats, stupas and bookshops. Unlike Bangkok you can stroll around all day without feeling grimy and I have being doing much of that. My only beef with the place is that I am having problems getting some jungle time. I have managed a couple of walks in the hills mainly by hopping on the buses that connect villages to this place and getting the driver to drop me off at what looked like paths (often with a attempt at asking me if I was really sure and a bemused look on their faces). Most of these were small forest tracks to farms of some sort so not really Indiana Jones territory but pleasant enough.

The real snag is that every guesthouse, restaurant, travel agent, cafe and at least one chemist offers the same types of treks, all with the promise that they would be off the tourist trail. This wouldn't bother me if not for the fact that they all offer to go and see the hill tribes. When such an industry centers around these tribes I think this might be detrimental to them especially as a lot of the Thais are unashamedly contemptous of them. It feels somewhat wrong to visit human beings like you would an archeological site or a beauty spot particularly if you suspect that the organisers of these visits are likely to fuck them over. Also I'm not sure I approve of the Karen practice of chucking loads of rings on their womenfolk's necks untill they are stretched out like giraffes. It might make great National Geographic pictures but it still looks like mutilation to me.

This place has got loads to offer though and I am relaxing as well as getting pointers on China and Cambodia from fellow travellers. It has a moat and parts of the old fortifications that give the place a sense of history. Amazingly, some old style bungalows have managed to escape the Thai craze for fuck ugly 3 story buidings. The rain here feels less out of place than it does on the cocaine white beaches of the South and cools this place down quite effectively. This means that backpackers here look less foolish as they are without the usual gloss of sweat that usally distinguishes us. Also, dress codes in temples have the great side effect that shirts and trousers are unpacked and worn while the silly half shorts and "Say Fuck it in Phuket" T-shirts and the like are sent to be laundered or hopefully burnt. However, there still is the plague of Bob Marley songs in very bar of the place. I now have this theory that the hippies that came here in the 70's and 80's convinced the locals that all farangs liked what they liked and the rest of us are now cursed with reggae and bloody Nescafe even though they have good coffee and bearable music in abundance here. Should I one day run across an old bearded chap who tells me of his glory days as pionneer of the backpacker trail I think I will listen in awe but will end up punching the fucker in the end out of general principle.

Will be heading slowly southwards now via Sukhotai which is a collection of ruins that the Thai tourist industry bills as their own version of Angkor Wat.

Take care,



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