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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Thailand, December 2017 (Part 4)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

DAY 25: Bangkok to Chiang Mai

Next morning, we checked out of the hotel, walked up the street, and deposited our luggage in a public locker. We also stopped in a tiny coffee shop and had a surprisingly rich, flavorful Americano. Robin sat on a small sofa below a framed inspirational portrait of Rama IX, in which he clutched a sheaf of blueprints, gazing implacably into the bright future.

Later, while Robin completed some necessary last-minute shoe shopping, I consulted my Chatuchak map and somehow found my way back to the same t-shirt vendor where I had initially bought my (now hopelessly befouled) Gundam t-shirt. Predictably, they were all sold out. Plenty of t-shirts featuring the Joker, or marijuana leaves, but no Gundam. I flagged down the young woman who ran the stall, showed her my ruined shirt, made a sad face and traced the possible track of a single tear down my cheek with a finger to underscore my predicament, and she dug through a pile of t-shirts that were yet to be priced. They had a single Gundam shirt left at the correct size, which validated the entire trip. “There is a God,” I said, holding my robot cartoon t-shirt up to the sky, weeping openly.

Mission accomplished, we retrieved our luggage and hailed a taxi to the airport (Don Mueang this time) for the final leg of our Maximum Thailand Extreme Adventure Experience.

Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand, about 450 miles from Bangkok, and it’s centered around the square Old City, which is surrounded by a (slowly crumbling) wall and moat. Confusingly, Chiang Mai means “New City” and that’s because in 1296 it was the new capital of the Lan Na (or Lanna) Kingdom. Our hotel was just inside the North Gate (“We’ve traveled from Northgate to North Gate!” I exclaimed, but nobody laughed, which is not a new experience for me), also called Chang Puak Gate. Chang Puak means “White Elephant” and this is what it said on the commemorative plaque:

“This gate is designated as the gate of victory that the kings would ride the white elephants and entered the city triumphantly through this north gate.”

Peasants entered through the South Gate and merchants through the East Gate, in case that was your next question. The North Gate was wider, both because that made it seem more regal and majestic and also to accommodate the elephants.

After checking in to the Mountain View Guest House and dropping our luggage, we walked outside to explore. Chiang Mai is a fascinating study in extremes. You are surrounded by this ancient wall, there are eye-popping temples everywhere you look (more than any other place we visited), and yet it’s pretty easy to find espresso, and there is a definite spring break bar scene in the center of town. We lucked out by arriving on Sunday, just in time for the Sunday Night Walking Market. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar – outside the Old City to the East – is more famous and more tourist-oriented, but the Sunday Night Walking Market seemed to be geared toward locals, with plenty of Lanna (Northern) and Isan (Northeastern) Thai cuisine and beautiful indigenous handicrafts. Like all outdoor markets around the world, there was also a lot of junk – but the quality-to-junk ratio was much higher here than at Chatuchak.

This market was also fascinating because it wound around and through the temples in the center of Chiang Mai. You could be browsing embroidered change purses, eating fried pork balls, and then take another step and be inside Wat Phan Tao, complete with golden Buddha and monks engaged in worship.

There were all kinds of other interesting things going on: A local school had organized an astronomy exhibit, complete with telescopes for public use, and educators to explain what you were seeing; a group of blind musicians played tasty, swaggering blues; and then there was a drag parade. I never got the whole story, but out of nowhere there was music and then 20 or 30 gorgeous drag performers in traditional Thai costumes appeared, dancing down the street, directly through the market, in perfect synchronization.

At the risk of conflating drag performance with trans identity, this reminds me to mention that we saw or met several trans women and gender-ambiguous folks while in Thailand, both walking around and in public-facing positions (wait staff, masseuses, pharmacists). I mention this only to note that it seemed very normalized and unremarkable, which was encouraging.

Khao Soi is a Lanna dish containing “deep-fried crispy egg noodles and boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime, ground chillies fried in oil, and meat in a curry-like sauce containing coconut milk” (thank you, Wikipedia). So, basically, everything good in a single bowl. I bought some from a cart and sat on a child’s stool to slurp at my meal while Robin continued her never-ending quest for another cute pair of shoes. The table had a bunch of different condiments, and I tried them all. By the end, my eyes were watering, my nose was running, and my Thai tablemates were chuckling.

Not to be outdone, Robin bought a few leaf-wrapped mystery tidbits. The seller assured Robin that they did not contain meat, but warned her that one of them was very strong or spicy, and she predicted that Robin wouldn’t like it. Robin was determined to try it anyway, to prove her gastrointestinal hardiness. The second she unwrapped the leaf from the whatever-it-was, I gagged. No exaggeration, it was the most intensely unpleasant, searingly acrid, unapologetically toxic supposedly-edible thing I had ever smelled. Robin couldn’t even get it near her face without tearing up. Lesson learned.

After wandering the market for four hours, we walked back to our hotel. “My feet and my shoulders are really hurting,” said Robin. “Want to get a massage?” It was 9:30 PM on a Sunday night, so I had my doubts about massage availability, but within ten minutes I was zoning out in a reclining chair while a woman with strong hands gave me an excellent, hour-long foot massage, for something like eight dollars.

We walked back to our hotel in the dark, past an open-air bar where a shoegazey post-rock band were playing to a rapt audience of mixed nationality, past the brightly-lit Happy New Year display by the Chang Puak Gate, past the still-open pharmacy and food stalls.

DAY 26: Chiang Mai

Robin and I had been in Thailand for 26 days, and we were starting to wear on each other. Nothing serious, but, okay, one example: Robin woke up angry and snippy and it took several hours before she would admit that she was in a bad mood because IN A DREAM I had cheated on her. For my part, my entitled American was showing itself, and I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of hot water, the dearth of good coffee (with cream? Is that too much to ask?), the hours we spent searching for a restaurant with vegetarian options for Robin when there was a perfectly good non-vegetarian restaurant RIGHT THERE, and also my lack of clean underwear. We were both tired and sunburnt, I was covered in mosquito bites, and neither one of us were 100%, gastrointestinally-speaking. Somewhere along the line, I had stepped in a puddle of raw sewage, and every night I tried in vain to wash the wretched stink out of my only pair of shoes (I was never able to get them clean, and threw them away as soon as we got home). My shoes were the worst offender, but honestly, none of our clothes were clean, not by my definition of “clean” anyway. I had broken the zipper on my backpack. We missed our dog Norman.

We had several more days in country, and we were dead set on seeing as much as possible before leaving. But we were also both cranky as hell.

NOTE: Chedi (or Stupa) is a mound- or bell-shaped structure containing holy relics.

NOTE: Viharn (or wiharn) is an assembly or prayer hall

NOTE: Bonshō are large bronze Buddhist temple bells, though that word is Japanese, and I’m not sure what they are called in Thailand.

NOTE: Nāga is a deity that takes the form of a snake, often a king cobra, often with multiple heads, sometimes depicted like a kind of snake-umbrella sheltering Buddha. No disrespect intended, but it’s pretty badass-looking, like something you might see airbrushed on the side of a custom van. Nāga are often found atop the balustrades of the steps leading into holy buildings.

On our first full day in Chiang Mai, we walked out the West (Suandok) Gate of the Old City, in search of Wat Suan Dok. Wat Suan Dok means “Flower Garden Temple” because it was built (in the second half of the 14th century) on the site of a royal flower garden. Approaching from the street, the first thing we noticed was a 157-foot-high bell-shaped gilded chedi, which – according to legend – contains a shoulder bone of the Buddha. The steps to the chedi were guarded by multi-headed nāga. There was also a gorgeously-detailed central wooden viharn containing two golden buddhas – one standing, one sitting. The viharn was guarded by a sleeping dog.

Wat Suan Dok’s most unique feature, however, was its royal graveyard, with hundreds of whitewashed mausoleums containing the cremated ashes of members of the Chiang Mai royal family. Some of the mausoleums have pictures of the people interred within. At the entrance to the graveyard was a sign encouraging Ugly Americans to be on their best behavior:



Out in the middle of that bright white graveyard, with no shade, the sun was blinding. I was tired, I had a headache, and I had let myself get dehydrated (again). My feet hurt. The graveyard was unexpectedly making me think about the death of my Dad, which was counter-intuitive, given the fact that my Dad would almost certainly never tour a Buddhist cemetery, but grief isn’t always rational, is it? Next to the mausoleums, there was a row of bronze ceremonial bells, called bonshō (in Japan, anyway). While I wandered among the mausoleums, someone rang one of the bells, and it was a deep, sonorous, resonant sound that made me shiver. I found out later that the purpose of these bells is fairly prosaic – like summoning a monk, for example – but at the moment, because I was thinking about my Dad, and about death, and about his funeral (which I did not attend), I imagined that those bells were being rung to commemorate a passing. I thought about how much I would have liked to ring a big bell to mark the end of my Dad’s life, and I burst into tears.

It seemed like something from a Lifetime movie; I imagined the camera rising and rising while I fell to my knees, until I was just a dot, my grief absorbed by the white landscape. I felt helpless and ridiculous.

On the way back into town, we stopped at a bookstore, which turned out to be a Chinese bookstore, with a prominent display featuring hundreds of copies of Xi Jingping’s “The Governance of China,” translated into English, French and German (but not Thai). Apparently, TGoC is a favorite of Mark Zuckerberg, who hands out copies to colleagues.

At Wat Phra Singh, Robin admired a golden statue of a beautiful woman washing her long hair, like some kind of Buddhist shampoo commercial. We saw this same woman at other temples, so Robin looked her up. She is known by various names, but Thai people typically call her Phra Mae Thoranee (sometimes spelled Thorani). In the U.S., we might say Mother Earth. I’ve read several retellings of her central story, but the bottom line seems to be that she wrung the water of ceremonial libations out of her hair, which flooded the earth, washed away the devil, and allowed the Buddha to attain enlightenment. Because she is associated with the Earth and water, she is a popular mascot for environmentally-minded organizations.

NOTE: Yaksha are fanged, sword-wielding (but mostly benevolent) guardian giants, often posted at the entrances of Buddhist temples to deter evil spirits.

Wat Chedi Luang, in the very center of the Old City, is one of the most important temples in Chiang Mai. It contains a massive stone chedi which took more than a century to construct, and – with its exposed, reddish stone – looked more like a Mesoamerican ziggurat to me. This chedi was originally 270 feet high, but an earthquake in 1545 knocked off about 100 feet. In the 1990s, the chedi was rebuilt with money from UNESCO and Japan (!), but the designers chose to rebuild it in a Central Thai style instead of the local Lanna Style, so it’s controversial. I didn’t know any of this when I visited, so I was able to experience uncomplicated awe. Standing at the base of the chedi, with Buddha in a niche at the top, the ring of stone elephants, the terrifying naga guarding the steps, is an overpowering experience: someone built this!

Also at Chedi Luang was a smaller building containing the Sao Inthakin, or City Pillar, which was the most incredible single room I’ve ever seen in my life, without exaggeration. The centerpiece of the room was, of course, the City Pillar, with a standing golden androgynous Buddha on top. But surrounding that were four red poles supporting intricately carved golden wheels, the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with elaborate paintings, the roof was deep rep with gold inlay and golden chandeliers, the entrances were painted deep blue like the night sky… it was almost too much, visual overload. I couldn’t decide where to look or aim my camera. It was stunning, humbling, and strictly reserved for men, so I couldn’t share it with Robin. Rightfully miffed, she went across the street to a cafe and enjoyed some kind of mango-and-coconut-ice-cream deliciousness, which she refused to share with agents of the patriarchy (me).

In the main viharn of Chedi Luang, I saw something new: A statue near the entrance almost – but not completely – covered with thousands of small squares of gold leaf. As I was knelt to take a photo, a Thai woman purchased some squares of gold leaf from a nearby stand, then dutifully burnished them onto an exposed part on the statue’s arm.

Robin said she was reaching her temple saturation point, plus she was still kinda pissed about being excluded from the City Pillar, but she agreed that we could visit one more, so I suggested we venture outside the Old City one more time, to see the “Silver Temple” Wat Sri Suphan.

NOTE: Ubosot (or Ubosotha, or Bot) means ordination hall

NOTE: Sai Sin means Sacred Thread. Or Holy String. Or Consecrated Filament. Or…

NOTE: In Buddhism, “merit” has a special meaning – “a beneficial and protective force which accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts, or thoughts.” (Wikipedia to the rescue)

Sri Suphan is just south of the Old City, on Wualai Road (known locally as “Silver Road”). Sri Suphan was originally built in approximately 1500 as the temple for a silversmithing village.

Before I get to the main attraction, I want to talk about one interesting feature we saw at Sri Suphan. I had seen a similar thing at other temples – a grid of white string suspended over the seating area, with attached tendrils hanging down over each seat, and also stretching to the statue of Buddha in the front. This is Sai Sin, which means something like “Sacred Thread.” When sitting in the temple, a monk may loop the thread around your fingers or head. The monk also holds one end of the thread. In this way, everyone in the temple is joined to each other and to the Buddha, allowing all to benefit from the chanting and associated merits.

As you might have guessed by now, the central attraction of Sri Suphan is its ubosot, which is entirely covered in ornately carved silver (and, according to some sources, aluminum, nickel, and zinc). The exterior walls are covered with relief carvings depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology, the interior walls are covered with hundreds of individual cabinets, each cabinet containing a single book, the floor is stamped with a kind of world map, and the entrance stairs are made of cement formed and painted to look like rushing water. The whole thing boggles the mind, and…

“…Entering inside the place may deteriorated the place or otherwise the lady herself. According to this Lanna Belief, ladies are not allowed to enter the Ubosotha.”

I felt guilty, but I also couldn’t bring myself to show solidarity by personally refusing to enter. I mean, we’re on the other side of the world, and I want to see this amazing thing, and what am I going to do? Complain to the abbott? Start a petition?

We walked back into town in silence, Robin fuming, me defensive. We were both hungry and dangerously dehydrated. We kept passing restaurants that looked perfectly acceptable to me, but Robin declared each one “too touristy” or “not vegetarian enough” so we kept walking. She thought she had seen a sign advertising a vegetarian restaurant somewhere down this street… or maybe it was this other street…

Increasingly, I wanted alcohol. “Look,” I reasoned, “can’t we just stop here, have a cocktail, maybe a snack, and rest our feet for a minute? Then we can keep looking for your vegan wonderland, if it even exists.”

“Typical man!” she responded sharply. “You don’t care if I’m not allowed in the temple, and you don’t care if I’m healthy! You are never supportive of what *I* need!”

My memory is hazy, but I may have said something about her being a pain in the ass, and she may have said something about how next time she would go to Thailand without me.

We continued in that vein for a bit, then we walked past a sign that read “VEGATARIAN” and Robin announced, “We’re eating here.”

Interjection for context: One of the things we had been looking forward to in Thailand was the food. We eat Thai food in the states all the time, and the opportunity to go to the source and eat “authentic” Thai food was enticing. It pains me to report that we were frequently disappointed. First off, although “Thai Street Food” sounded exciting, we found that the vast majority of “Thai Street Food” is fried fish balls, fried pork balls, and fried hot dogs that have been decoratively scored with a knife. It was rare to find any vegetarian options from street vendors. That was difficult for Robin, and – indirectly – for me. Sometimes I ate wherever I wanted, and let Robin fend for herself, but that didn’t feel very chivalrous. Very few restaurants had tofu, and when they did, we had to first verify that it was not fish tofu, something which should not exist.

I hesitated to even write this, because it sounds so like a quintessential arrogant and spoiled U.S. tourist, but here’s the thing – we ate out at restaurants three times a day, every day, for a month, all over Thailand. Probably five or six times we had a meal that I would call “excellent.” Most of the time, the food was passable but nothing special, and on a very small number of occasions, we struggled through a meal that was nearly inedible. This restaurant that Robin chose in Chiang Mai was one of the latter.

I ordered some kind of green curry that was so aggressively salty it tipped over into sour. The fact that I was sunburnt and exhausted and dehydrated and processing some delayed grief probably made it seem worse than it was, but it was actually painful to eat, and I could not finish it. I ordered a strawberry smoothie which the menu claimed was made with yogurt but was clearly nothing more than strawberry-flavored syrup blended with ice, like a slushie. At least it would cool and rehydrate me. Robin and I weren’t really on speaking terms, and I still felt this inexplicable grief about my Dad hovering at the edge of my consciousness. I gulped down the “smoothie” too fast, and then suffered the inevitable brain freeze, but this brain freeze just wouldn’t end. I massaged my temples, clamped my eyes shut, nothing helped. I considered the possibility that I was having a stroke, and started planning my post-stroke rehabilitation. I didn’t want to cry but was unable to stop myself, so I stumbled to the bathroom. I wondered if there was any legitimate way I could catch a flight home that evening.

Later, Robin apologized for being crabby when I was having a hard day, I apologized for not validating her feelings about the oppressive patriarchy, and we kinda made up and resolved to stop picking at each other, at least for the rest of the afternoon.

Walking past a tour agency office offering guided visits to attractions in the area, we saw another sign advertising Muay Thai boxing. For reasons that are still opaque to me, Robin – who despises boxing and football and all other violent male-dominated sports – was weirdly fascinated with Muay Thai boxing. She had been saying for a couple of weeks that if we had the opportunity, she was curious enough to attend a match. We both agreed that we wanted to see a “real” match, not an exhibition. As it turned out, there was a big match happening that night at the Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium, which happened to be within a mile of our hotel. We bought two tickets, and pre-paid for a taxi.

At exactly the appointed time, a Thai taxi truck appeared in front of our hotel. We asked the driver if he was from the tour agency, and he nodded. Then he asked us where we were going, which we thought was strange, because wouldn’t the tour agency have told him? We showed the driver our receipt, which included the name and address of the stadium and the contact info for the tour agency. We also awkwardly mimed boxing and showed him the flyer advertising the bout. He seemed to understand, and we took off… in the opposite direction from where we thought the stadium was located.

“Excuse me,” I said, when it was clear we were definitely not headed to the stadium. “We should be going THAT way. Boxing Stadium?”

The driver waved off my concerns. “Yes yes. I get you there.”

A minute later, he pulled up in front of the tour agency office and motioned for us to get out. I refused, and instead called the tour agent, using the phone number on the business card she had given us. I explained the situation, then handed my phone to the driver. After an animated conversation, he handed my phone back and drove us to the Stadium.

We got out and began walking to the box office, relieved that the misunderstanding had been resolved… at which point the taxi driver started yelling at us: “You pay now!” I tried to explain that we had already paid, showed him the receipt, but he was not mollified. He was really making a scene now, calling over the security guards. Finally we got the tour agent back on the phone and she came to some agreement with the driver, and we wondered, again, why we had such bad luck with taxis on this trip. I mean, apart from the obvious: We didn’t bother to learn Thai.

But none of that mattered when the Muay Thai Boxing match began. Robin and I were both fascinated by everything about it – the ritual, the elegance of the more seasoned boxers, the music, the gambling.

Prior to attending that event, I knew nothing about Muay Thai Boxing. Now, I could write thousands of words about it, even though I still know next to nothing. Here are a few things that we found especially fascinating.

Before each match began, the boxers performed ritual steps around the ring. From what I’ve read, this has to do with honoring the teachers and heritage of Muay Thai and sealing the ring against evil spirits, but it can *also* include some custom dance moves unique to that boxer or his ethnic heritage. During this ritual part of the match, each boxer wears a thick headband called a Mongkon (or Mongkol – I’ve seen it written both ways), and it is always accompanied by a very specific form of traditional music. There was something hypnotic and majestic and even beautiful about this.

The first couple of rounds are traditionally the “feeling-out” rounds, and the opponents do a lot of light-footed dancing around each other with occasional sharp kicks and jabs. Some critics say this gives the gamblers an opportunity to gauge each boxer’s style before placing bets. The real fighting generally starts in the third round (at least for the older boxers; more on that later).

Speaking of gamblers, holy hell. It was like that scene in The Deer Hunter, Thai bookies stalking the floor in front of the first rows, grabbing wads of cash from outstretched hands, jotting info in a small notebook, pointing and yelling at regular gamblers in the audience to provoke higher bets. Every time something exciting happened in the fight, shouts would go up from the gambling area, and more money would change hands. Exciting to watch.

The event we attended had six separate matches, but only half of those were adult boxers. The World Muay Thai Council guidelines state that contestants must be at least 15, but I’m sure some of the kids we saw were younger. And the differences between the adult boxers and the kids were glaring. The adults were infinitely more elegant and smooth, and primarily struck with their bare feet. They also spent the first part of each match dancing around and sizing each other up, calculating. They had strategy. The kids barrelled out like they were in a schoolyard brawl, using their fists much more than their feet. They were brutal. All of the adult boxers were pretty evenly matched, and every one of the adult matches was ultimately won on points. Two of the three kids’ matches ended in knockouts. As much as we enjoyed the overall experience, it was upsetting and confusing to see a skinny pre-teen kid knocked out cold, his coach trying to revive him.

Yes, they played “Eye of the Tiger” over the sound system, several times. Also “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which worked better than you might think.

It was midnight by the time the event was over, but I couldn’t stand the thought of negotiating another taxi ride, so we walked. We had seen a little watch and clock repair shop earlier in the day, and it was still open, an older Thai man inside, hunched over his workbench with one of those monocle magnifier things over one eye, making minute adjustments to a vintage Timex. Across the street, there was a food stall open, with four locals eating fried pork balls while sitting on folding chairs in the protective halo of the stall’s light. Closer to our hotel, I put my foot down too close to a plastic garbage bag and awakened a sleeping family of rats, who expressed their irritation loudly.

DAY 27: Chiang Mai

We visited Wat Lok Molee which didn’t give me much to write about except the massages we got on the temple grounds. I got a “Reflexology Foot Massage” which was mostly a guy pressing the pointy end of a stick into the sole of my foot for several minutes at a time, which was precisely as relaxing as it sounds. Robin had her own bizarre massage experience, but that’s probably best related in person.

Wat Lok Molee was just outside the Old City wall at the northwest corner. Directly across the moat, inside the Old City wall was Wat Monthian. The central temple was closed for the day, but we did see something worth mentioning: dragons with golden buttholes.

Posted on both sides of the entrance, guarding the temple door, was a sort-of lion creature with a dragon’s head… and a swollen, gilded, decorative anus. I have spent hours researching this, and have yet to find any mention of this peculiarity, much less a convincing explanation. Googling “Golden Asshole” was not helpful. I emailed our Thai friend Yui to ask her about this, and her reply began thus:

“Why are you not asking questions about the history of the figure? But Instead, you are interested to know about its bottom!!”

Yui located a video shot at Wat Monthian, in which the (subtitled) narrator refers to the creature with the ornate pooper as a Morm (also spelled Mom or Mum).

LATE-BREAKING NEWS: A knowledgeable user in the r/Thailand sub-Reddit informs me that this is *not* a Mom:

“Mom have short necks. I think this would be a Kraisorn Naga (a half lion-half naga), but I’m not positive about this. As for the anus, that is common in Lanna-style art and had you been looking you would have seen it on singha and other temple guardian creatures too.”

Thank you, u/tabmit!

On the other hand, u/chintokkong believes it might be a variation on a Chinese Pi Xiu, a dragon/lion hybrid that gathers gold in its mouth. It brings this gold back to its master, and Pi Xiu are sometimes depicted with sealed bungholes or none at all, to indicate that the gold they swallowed isn’t going anywhere.

If you have a more definitive answer, please contact me STAT.

Our plan was to visit Doi Inthanon National Park the next day, and we had been told that it was surprisingly chilly up there, so I needed to find some long pants, and quick. This jived with Robin’s plan to check out the Students’ Night Market in the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood. We asked for directions at the front desk, and the concierge offered to call us a taxi, but we said “Nah, we can walk,” as is our custom.

After two miles of walking on the shoulder of a four-lane highway, I insisted that we hail a taxi. We were unable to communicate our destination to the driver, and he dropped us at a large, modern shopping mall (complete with a giant silver Christmas tree out front), not at all what we were looking for. So we continued walking. We eventually did find the market, and it was almost entirely clothing – no trinkets or electronics or antiques – so that seemed like the perfect place to find a pair of cheap sweatpants for me. But this market was geared toward locals, not tourists, and everything was too small for my American thighs. Finally I found some ridiculous 3XXXL sweats that were equivalent to a Large in the United States. They were garishly striped red and black, with a large logo down the side, and looked like they were donated by a Serbian drug dealer from 1995. I felt like I should be wearing gradient tint sunglasses and a perm, threatening a lackey over my flip phone.

Mission accomplished, we caught a group taxi back to the city wall, then walked to our hotel. In hindsight, that is the only way that taxis worked for us – going to some large, well-known, public landmark, then walking the rest of the way to our actual destination.

DAY 28: Chiang Mai

Early the following morning, we caught the tour bus for Doi Inthanon National Park. There were several other tourists on the bus with us, including an Indian couple and their frisky son Minas, a Belgian slacker dude (who seemingly couldn’t go more than 15 minutes without a cigarette and who also talked loudly through every presentation so we hated him), and assorted other German and Swiss folks.

Doi Inthanon, which is in the Himalayan Range, is the highest mountain in Thailand. The national park surrounding it covers 482 square kilometers.

When visiting Northern Thailand, you will hear the phrase “Hill Tribes” frequently, but the meaning of this phrase, and who it includes, is a bit difficult to parse. Essentially, it refers to ethnic minorities living in Northern Thailand, particularly those who live in relatively primitive villages outside of the main population centers. There are eight main groups that are usually called “Hill Tribes,” and the largest of those groups is the Karen people. There is a Karen sub-group named the Paduang, and they are the ones that use hoops to elongate their necks. When you see an offer for a tour of an “Authentic Hill Tribe Village,” it is likely referring to the Paduang. The tours are popular, and they are an ethical conundrum – on one hand, by purchasing handicrafts and paying an entrance fee, you are helping to support a marginalized group of people. On the other hand, who gets the money? Not to mention, a bunch of Americans gawking at indigenous people like animals in a zoo is deeply problematic.

We signed up for a tour of Doi Inthanon National Park, which included a visit to a Karen village within the park boundaries. Robin and I both felt a little uncomfortable about the idea in advance, but in the end, we were both glad we went.

The first stop in the park was a coffee plantation. The Karen grew poppies for opium until the late 1970s, when Rama IX launched federal programs to help them transition to growing coffee. This is an important story in recent Thai mythology, and one of the reasons many Thai citizens regard Rama IX as a wise and benevolent leader (although his legacy is complicated, as I described in an earlier section). In the open-air building where we sampled the coffee, there was a wall of photographs dedicated to telling the story of Rama IX’s intervention.

We watched as the beans were roasted over a fire, then ground and made into coffee, which was delicious (though I wished I had some half ‘n’ half).

Next, we walked through a small Karen village and met some women weaving exquisite cloth. The women were laughing and joking with each other as they worked, and seemed happy to answer our simple questions. There was a lot of pointing and smiling and nodding. The walls of the room were covered with cloth samples, scarves, blankets, tablecloths – and it was all gorgeous, with rich, deeply saturated colors and peerless craftsmanship.

Our tour guide – a young Thai woman – was admiring two scarves. “Which one should I buy?” she asked the group, holding up one and then the other.

The Belgian slacker laughed derisively: “Buy both, they are cheap!”

“I would have to work three days to pay for *one* of these,” our tour guide retorted, and an awkward silence descended.

We fell in love with the fabric and the women who wove it, and we bought quite a few things, for ourselves and for friends. “Merry Christmas!” a Karen woman shouted cheerily as we left.

Meanwhile, Minas, the little Indian boy, was enamored of me. He followed me around at every stop, insisted on playing hide-and-seek, made goofy faces and then giggled when I made faces back at him. I was a little worried that his parents would find his friendship with a 50-year-old American a bit worrisome, but after talking to them, I understood that they were grateful for the break. Minas had a lot of energy.

One of the selling points of the tour was a short hike on the Kaew Mae Pan Nature Trail, which would take us to a glorious panoramic viewpoint. Sadly, it rained all day, and our view was obscured by dense clouds, but the walk was lovely, regardless. By agreement with the park authorities, all hikes are led by Hmong guides. The woman who led our group had to be in her sixties, but she put us to shame with her speedy and sure-footed ascent, while we tripped over tree roots and slipped in the mud, cursing our clumsiness.

Speaking of trees, I was surprised at how familiar the forest felt to me. The moss, the fog and drizzle, the old-growth trees – we could have been in the Olympic Rain Forest or any number of forests in Washington.

Our final stop was (were?) The Royal Twin Pagodas, two adjacent chedis, one called Naphamethinidon (‘by the strength of the land and air’), and the other, Naphaphonphumisiri (‘being the strength of the air and the grace of the land’). They were built to commemorate the 60th birthday of King Rama IX (1987), and the 60th birthday of Queen Sirikit (1992). The chedis are surrounded by a beautiful garden and they are impressive, though not as eye-popping as some of the other temples we had seen. Plus, it was cold and raining steadily, so we didn’t spend a lot of time there.

On the mini-van ride back to the Old City, we got stuck in another traffic jam. I resolved to shut my eyes and catch a short nap, but that turned out to be impossible. The Belgian slacker and his new German friend were carrying on a lengthy but agonizingly halting conversation in the only language they could both (sort of) speak: English.

Belgian: …but the, uh, how do you say… fast food in Switzerland is much… or, how do you say… healthy? For the health?

German: The best of the fast food is the Burger King, and they have a… what do you call? Sandwich of ribs? It is very delicious.

Belgian: Ah, but the, how do you say… Boorger King? This does not have a special thing which is at Ronald McDonald’s. It is a dish made with potatoes… in oil? It is called… pumice? Fried Pumice?

German: Are you speaking of the French Fries? They also have the French Fries at Burger King.

Belgian: No, no, no, this is not a French dish. It is made with how do you say pumice? In hot oil. And very much salt. I had it while in Switzerland.

German: You are describing French Fries.

Belgian: No, I know what is French Fries. These are Pumice. Poomis? Pommis?

German: (pulls out phone, performs a quick Google Images search, then shows phone to Belgian) Are you talking about these?

Belgian: Ah! Yes! Pommes!

German: Those are French Fries.

Belgian: (weirdly suspicious) …but this is not a French dish. I had in Switzerland.

Believe me when I tell you that the extract above has been edited for length and clarity.

DAY 29: Chiang Mai to Bangkok

Before catching our flight to Bangkok, we had breakfast at Into the Woods coffee shop, just around the corner from our hotel. The interior was made up like a forest, and all of the signage and menus were styled after the musical of the same name. One wall was dedicated to a large lending library of books, with two shelves for romance manga.

The manager, working behind the counter, seemed like she was in a bad mood. Over our coffee and pastries, Robin and I made up a backstory for her.

“She probably just had a fight with her mother.”

“Her mom helps her run the shop, but she’s *super* critical…”

“Mom wanted her to be an architect…”

Robin, whispering, assumed the mother’s role: “Your father and I spent our life savings putting you through college to be an architect, and instead you’re serving hot chocolate to FARANG?”

Just then, an older woman, who could indeed have been the manager’s mother, stomped out of the kitchen and exited the shop without speaking. The woman behind the counter sighed loudly.

And then we were off: Taxi to the airport, flight to Bangkok (DMK this time), taxi to the Dinsomon Hotel near the Democracy Monument. While we were in the taxi, I dug out the business card for Royal Boss Tailors, and Robin called them to make arrangements for picking up my suit. Robin handled this because she is a loving partner and confident business person, and also because looking at the phone in a moving car makes me sick.

Robin was determined to visit the Ratchada Night Train Market on our final night in Bangkok, so Royal Boss said they would leave my suit with the concierge in the hotel lobby. Could it really be this easy?

After checking in, we used the Grab app to call a taxi. Grab is like Uber for taxis in Thailand, and because you enter the destination address in the app… there is less frustration trying to communicate that info to the driver. We should have used Grab on the whole trip.

Taxi arrived, driver spoke English, easy peasy. But no app can defeat Bangkok traffic. After sitting motionless for ten minutes, our driver rolled down his window and beckoned over a kid working at a sidewalk food stall. “I hope you don’t mind me eating while I drive,” he said apologetically, shoveling fried meat into his mouth. “I’ve been in this car for twelve hours and I’m starving…”

The Ratchada Night Train Market is located on the busy Ratchadaphisek Road, right across the street from an MRT (subway) station, and directly behind a seven-story modern shopping mall / movie theater / ice skating complex called the Esplanade (“…with an innovative ‘artetainment’ concept”).

Ratchada is big, but nothing like Chatuchak. Much more manageable, and more upscale. For once, there were some more interesting food stall choices – plenty of the usual grilled meats and fish and insects, but also khao soi, papaya salad, sushi, pizza, satay, charcoal ice cream, and more. Also: Alcohol. In fact, a whole section of Ratchada was given over to open-air bars with strobe lights and thumping dance music. It was our last night, so we imbibed and shopped until we were exhausted. My one note from our evening there is presumably something I said to Robin: “You’re drunk. You don’t need any more flip-flops.”

We got back to our hotel late, and my suit was behind the reception desk as promised. Back in our room, a little light-headed, I tried it on while Robin voiced her approval. It was beautifully made, it fit me perfectly, and I loved it. They even included a complimentary silk tie. “Who needs Hugo Boss? I’ll take ROYAL BOSS, amirite??” I exclaimed drunkenly, striking a series of Men’s Wearhouse poses.

DAY 30: Bangkok to Seattle

The following morning, I had breakfast at the hotel while Robin ventured out to the nearby Flower Market. While I ate, I read a book that I had picked up used in Chiang Mai – “Cocaine Nights” by J.G. Ballard. When the waiter came to fill my coffee cup, he looked at the cover of my book.

“Co… Co… I am sorry, what is this book?”

“Um, it’s called Cocaine Nights…”

“Ah. We do not have this in Thailand.”

Robin returned with a surprise purchase: A small bronze statue of Phra Mae Thoranee – Mother Earth – wringing out her hair and washing away the devil.

We were leaving Thailand with quite a bit more stuff than when we arrived, so we bought a duffel and strategically filled it with the statues, t-shirts, books, wooden elephants, tablecloths, scarves, aprons, and bags of chili-roasted peanuts. I folded my new suit carefully and placed it on top, zipped the duffel shut, and we were on our way home.

Back to Part 3

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One Comment

  1. I as well took pictures of the decorative buttholes of the lion-like creatures in front of the temples in Chiang Mai, but have not found any history or explanation for them. I’d love to know more if you find out anything!

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