Second City

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second-largest city, formerly the capital of a separate northern kingdom named Lanna, or Lan Na  actually, its original full name was Lan Na Thai, which translates as "A Million Thai Ricefields." It was founded in the late 13th century and once extended north into what's now Laos, but the ruling family and most of the population were ethnically Thai. After being conquered and ruled by Burma for 200 years, Lanna was recaptured in 1775 by the kingdom of Siam and made into a subsidiary kingdom that remained nominally independent until early in the 20th century. When the country changed its official name from Siam to Thailand, shortly before World War II, it was in part a gesture to the northerners, who had always been Thai but never considered themselves Siamese.

We spent about four days seeing the sights in and around Chiang Mai. We didn't stay in the city, but were instead the guests of another unseen benefactor, Khun D, a woman who owns a house in the Mae Sa ('May Sah') valley a few miles to the north. Its name is Baan Paw: "House of Enough" or "House of Satisfaction," and it's more than a mere house: the compound includes not only Khun D's residence but a retreat center that includes a meditation (and teaching) hall, quarters for retreatants, and a home for the local couple who live there full time and take care of the place.

Ampawn and her husband Samaan took good care of us, too. When we arrived early in the evening, still somewhat worn out from our globe-vaulting flight, Ampawn got on their motorbike and fetched some fried rice and winter melon soup from one of the roadside food stands that are everywhere in Thailand, so that we didn't have to call a taxi and go out ourselves.

A Full Day in Chiang Mai (Sunday, Nov. 6)

Khun D had left some Anglo-Saxon breakfast items for us  milk, tea, cereal, bread for toasting, and jam  and on our first morning we ate some of these, assuming that we wouldn't be expected to share the meal being offered to Jayanto. However, Ampawn and Samaan made it clear that they did expect us to eat with them, so we followed them back to the kitchen and ate a second breakfast: glass noodles with tofu and tiny mushrooms, scrambled eggs with onion, winter melon in sauce, stir-fried veggies, rice, and some items collected on pindabat (sticky rice with sweet custard, tiny bananas, apples, and another tree fruit, this one unfamiliar). The same pattern continued throughout our visit except that we never again ate an unnecessary first breakfast. We sampled a great number of dishes and fruits, most of them delicious  but because we didn't share a language with our hosts we weren't always sure what they were.

Later that first day Jayanto introduced us to his friend Brock, a young American who belonged to his community for a year or two, but is no longer a monk. He works for Chiang Mai University, helping to arrange educational programs for visiting Westerners.

The four of us went to Wat U Mong, a monastery where Jayanto had spent the annual rains retreat, and he introduced us to a Burmese monk, Tan A, whom he had befriended while staying there.

Wat U Mong comprises acres of forested land, where each monk lives alone in his individual "kuti"  a small hut or cottage. Jayanto tried to show us the kuti he had lived in, but the landscape had been disrupted by extremely heavy rains during the summer. The path was obliterated, and the current resident had built a fence around the kuti, so from where we were we couldn't get close enough for a good view of it.

Later Brock dropped the three of us off near a street market, where Dorothea and I wandered around while Jayanto visited nearby Wat Chedi Luang (street markets not being appropriate wandering places for monks). The plan was that Dorothea and I would eat at a nearby restaurant, where Jayanto would meet us as we were finishing our meal. Alas, we forgot to take the map with us and got thoroughly lost. We made our way back to Wat Chedi Luang, but couldn't find Jayanto there. Eventually we did find a monk who understood a little English, and although he hadn't seen our son, he was able to direct us to the restaurant, which was much closer than we had realized, and in a direction 90 off from the one in which my confident but faulty recollection of the map had taken us. Although Jayanto had a cell phone, we didn't, and our efforts to reach him from a phone booth in the market had failed miserably, but at the restaurant Dorothea borrowed the waiter's cell phone and arranged our rendezvous.

So the day ended well, although during our peregrinations in search first of the restaurant and then of Jayanto I had somewhat abused my feet. I had on a pair of sandals that I wear around the house in the summer, but had never walked any distance in. The straps left cuts in my instep, and I wasn't able to wear them again on the trip. Dorothea, who hadn't yet managed to get a good night's sleep, was feeling somewhat stressed by the experience of getting lost and wondering if we'd ever be able to find Jayanto in the crowded city. But a good meal helped us both.

A Garden and a Resort (Monday, Nov. 7)

With Ampawn and Samaan's help we had made arrangements to hire a van and driver for the remainder of our stay in the North  three days in Chiang Mai and three days north of there in Chiang Rai Province. Et, the driver, had an easy time of it on Monday, since we didn't need his services until afternoon. Dorothea was still feeling under the weather, so she stayed at Baan Paw to rest while Et drove Jayanto and me farther up the Mae Sa valley to the nearby Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden. On the way we passed an "elephant camp" (a popular kind of tourist attraction in this area) and saw some men washing two small elephants in a stream beside the road. The elephants, rolling and splashing, appeared to be having the time of their lives.

The botanical garden, a personal project of the queen of Thailand, is located on the steep side of a small mountain. We asked Et to drive us to the top and wait for us at the bottom, so we only had to walk downhill  though the heat and mugginess took a toll on me even so. The orchid houses held relatively few blooming plants, but the ones we saw were all exquisite, and in another house (and here and there outside as well) beautiful lotuses were flowering in big tubs of water. A somewhat unexpected sight was a large greenhouse full of cacti, which we encountered immediately after leaving a larger greenhouse that contained a miniature rain forest. The doors of the cactus house weren't shut against the humidity, and I wondered how the plants could thrive, but they all seemed to be doing well. I took a lot of flower pictures, and Jayanto and I had a pleasant time talking and walking down the long hill.

Dorothea was feeling better when we got back, and all three of us got into the van and traveled up the valley once again, this time to the Pong Yang resort, which belongs to Khun SJ (another woman supporter), a member of the family that brews Singha Beer. Dorothea and I had been invited to have dinner there. Before we ate, we walked around the landscaped grounds with Jayanto and up to a waterfall (which we could later see from our table as we ate dinner). Jayanto showed us the building where Ajahn Sumedho, the head of his community, gives an annual retreat for a number of Thais who are among the the community's supporters. (Another senior member, Ajahn Jayasaro, gives an annual retreat at Baan Paw, where we were staying. Ajahn Jayasaro, who is English, has lived in Thailand for many years and speaks Thai so well that some Thais have suggested that their children ought to take lessons from him in order to combat what they fear is the deterioration of their language.)

It was nearly sunset when we arrived at Pong Yang, so our walk was a short one, and we ate at a table looking out over the steep little valley and its waterfall. Jayanto drank tea at the adjoining table and, since there was no crowd either to make noise or to be scandalized by the presence of a monk in a restaurant, we were able to talk easily. I honored the source of our (absent) hostess's wealth by drinking Singha with my meal. Her generosity, by the way, extended well beyond the meal. She had paid for all of Jayanto's and Punnyo's airline tickets  three round trips apiece  on the flights we took to various parts of Thailand.

Seeing the Wats (Tuesday, Nov. 8)

The next morning, after sharing another lavish meal with Ampawn and Samaan, we got into Et's van for a day of wat-hopping. Because Chiang Mai had been the capital of a kingdom (and not only were the kings devout Buddhists; they were, like monarchs of many faiths, given to memorializing themselves in religious architecture), the city is noted for its concentration of impressive wats.

We began at Wat Doi Suthep, named after the mountain (which is the meaning of "Doi") from which it overlooks the city. Visible from almost anywhere in Chiang Mai, it's a spectacular place, visited by just about every tourist who comes to Chiang Mai from inside or outside Thailand. The wat was established in the 14th century, but was extensively rebuilt in the 1930s under the leadership of a charismatic monk named Khru Ba Srivichai, who was responsible for rebuilding several old monasteries in Chiang Mai and elsewhere in northern Thailand. One of his accomplishments was replacing the ancient cart track up Doi Suthep with a modern paved road, built in six months by 35,000 volunteers. Legend says that the monastery's site on top of this mountain was chosen, or at least pointed out, by a sacred white elephant. A holy relic of the Buddha that had been brought to Chiang Mai by a Sri Lankan monk miraculously reproduced itself. The king enshrined one of the relics in a local wat, as planned, and had the other placed on the back of the white elephant, who trumpeted three times and departed through the city gates, followed by a swarm of concerned monks and officials. When he reached the place where the monastery is now, the elephant again trumpeted three times, then turned around three times, lay down, and died. It was immediately understood that a wat must be built on the spot to shelter the relic he carried. Among the many images on the grounds is a statue that memorializes the white elephant.

We drove up the winding, switchbacked road as far as it went, and from that point took an inclined elevator the rest of the way to the top. Hardier visitors (or visitors accompanied by hardier parents) can walk up 300 steps instead of taking the elevator.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep ("Mt. Suthep Monastery of the honored reliquary"), to give it its official name, is an amazing sight, very beautiful in a completely nonwestern way. In the middle of everything is a huge gold chedi, a low dome culminating in a central spire. It is surrounded by a blaze of gold images and ornaments. The buildings around are mostly white (some built of white-and-gray marble, the others whitewashed), but their gables, doors, and windows gleam with gold and brilliant shades of red, green, yellow, and blue, and the roofs are tiled in equally bright red and orange.

In front of every building are statues representing the traditional temple guardians of Asia  dragons (usually multiheaded serpents called nagas), ogres, lions (stylized in various ways because southeast Asia had no real lions to copy)  and the guardians are decorated as lavishly as the buildings in the same jewel-like colors.

The phrase "barbaric splendor" kept coming to my mind, but inappropriately so, for there's nothing barbaric about Buddhist shrines or about the Thai esthetic. I think that adjective pops up in many Western minds as a sort of defense against art that is unfamiliar but nevertheless esthetically compelling. Later in the trip, when we visited the big wats in Bangkok, Dorothea pointed out how the builders had put together all sorts of colors and elements that we could not imagine coexisting in any sort of harmony, and yet these colors and elements clearly succeeded in doing that. I noticed also that, while their decorative work inside the buildings was extremely meticulous, the outdoor decorations often appeared rough by comparison when you got very close. But when you backed away a few feet, it was a very different story. The roughness of details disappeared into a rich harmony of the whole, and the same was true on a larger scale as buildings and sculptures of very different patterns made a visual whole. Few Westerners might expect such things to be beautiful, but none whose eyes are open can deny that they are.

One of the details we noticed at Wat Doi Suthep (and later at many other wats where building and decoration has been done in relatively modern times) was the use of small pieces of colored mirror glass tiled on a surface to produce colors that look brilliant from any distance. You see them not only on the gables and ornate beam-ends of buildings, but on the necks and backs of sculpted nagas and lions. One's first reaction is "ewwww, tacky!" but such esthetic prissiness is misguided. Taken as a part of the whole  at least in places like Doi Suthep where master artists have done the work  the mirror glass works together with everything else.

After exploring the wat and admiring the view of the city below, we drove back into Chiang Mai, where we visited Wats Suan Dok, Pra Singh, and Chiang Man, all built (or at least begun) during the period when Lanna was at its height, in the 14th century. Wat Chiang Man is the oldest, and at least according to legend King Mengrai, the founder of the Lanna kingdom, resided there while his new capital city was being built during the 1290s. October and November are the season when it's traditional for each monastery to hold a one-day festival at which laypeople (individually or as a community) make offerings for the monastery's support. This season coincides with the end of harvest, and the festival, called a Kathina ("ka-TEE-na") is generally a joyous occasion. We saw offerings (traditionally including cloth to be made into monks' robes) on display in the porches of some temple buildings, and, in the ceremonial spaces inside some of them, a grid of string was stretched over the area where people who attended a blessing ceremony would be sitting on the floor. Although he hadn't seen this before, Jayanto speculated that the grid might be there to make it easier for all the members of a large group to be connected to one another. It's customary during Buddhist blessing ceremonies for all the people attending to hold onto a single long piece of string. At the end of the ceremony the string is cut into short pieces and one is tied around each person's wrist. In a small group, a ball of string can easily be passed around until everyone is joined, but this would be difficult for several hundred people, so instead each small group could connect symbolically with the rest by linking to the grid overhead.

In Thailand it is the destiny of revered monks and members of royal families to have their ashes, after the traditional Buddhist cremation, preserved in dome-shaped memorial structures. In Buddhist countries the generic word for one of these is "stupa," but Thais call it a "chedi." The style most often seen in Thailand, inspired by Burmese models, terminates in a spire instead of being an unadorned dome like the earliest stupas, which were built in India and Sri Lanka. Chedis can also house relics of the Buddha, but most of the ones we saw at the wats in Chiang Mai were built to house the ashes of Lanna's rulers  and also, it appears, their uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and aunts, for there were many.

At Wat Pra Singh we walked through the "bot," the building that the monastic community uses for its own gatherings, and met a group of novice monks, the oldest of whom looked to be in their early teens, waiting for their lesson to begin. Later, we heard them chanting as we passed the window. Although some of them may remain in the monastic life, most were probably living it only for a few weeks or months, as most Thai males do at one time or another during their early years. This is regarded as a good religious and educational experience, and there is an old tradition that a son can offer the merit acquired during the short time he spends as a monk in behalf of his parents, so it's an act of filial piety as well.

Although it's not common, some Thai monasteries manifest a sort of male prissiness in declaring certain buildings off-limits to women. One small (and typically exquisite) temple at Wat Chiang Man had this sign posted outside. The monks have probably had their share of shocking cross-cultural encounters. A little later at the same monastery we observed a young woman raising her long skirt for her boyfriend to spray mosquito repellent on her thighs. There weren't many people around, but it's the kind of thing that scandalizes Thais when done on the grounds of a monastery, no matter how few observers there might be.

Thailand may be known for its relaxed attitude regarding sexual matters, but this definitely does not apply in any way to monks, who are expected to keep their distance from women in all circumstances. A woman is not even supposed to place a food offering directly in a monk's hands  he spreads a "receiving cloth" in front of him and touches a corner of it while the offering is laid on the cloth.

Thais do not consider these rules bendable even between family members. In public, Dorothea had to remain at least an arm's length away from Jayanto to avoid scandalizing Thai observers, many of whom would react with anger to an apparent violation of monastic prohibitions. They would not consider the fact that she was his mother any excuse for standing closer.

Tan Punnyo was arriving at the airport that evening, and while Brock and Jayanto went to meet him, Dorothea and I dined, at a restaurant called the Antique House, on spicy Northern sausage and other goodies  although we passed on the fried silkworm entree. Et then drove us to the famous Night Market, where we found a bewildering variety of stores and stalls, though we bought only a cloth bag for Dorothea and a large, brilliantly colored silk scarf to brighten the wall above the stairs in our house. Et waited patiently for us, then drove us to Brock's apartment, where we met Tan Punnyo and after a short visit returned to Baan Paw with the monks.

More Chiang Mai Sights, Including Another Wat (Wednesday, Nov. 9)

The next day was the last we spent in Chiang Mai. We had planned a trip to Doi Inthanon National Park, but it was raining in the morning, so we decided to stay in the city. We began the day by visiting the Chiang Mai Tribal Museum, whose rather old-fashioned exhibits provide information about the many hill tribes who live in Thailand, some of whom we hoped to see on the northern journey we were planning.

The next stop was the Shinawatra silk factory, the well-established business of a family whose head was at the time the Prime Minster of Thailand. (He has since been forced into exile.) The "factory" part of the experience wasn't much more than a demo, however. After being seated on the front porch and offered a fruit drink, we were led into a lobby where one woman sat with a pot of boiling cocoons in front of her, unwinding the silk thread from one of them. No doubt this procedure is part of what goes on in Shinawatra's actual production facility, wherever that is, but in this context it was just an exhibit. An adjacent room held two looms, at each of which a woman was weaving silk. It was obvious that this activity had no more to do with the real substance of the business than the cocoons in the lobby.

After dutifully observing and photographing these exhibits, Dorothea and I were led into the retail establishment that is the culmination and the true heart and soul of the experience, at least for those who, unlike monks, carry money and may be expected to leave some of it behind. While the monks were offered more refreshment in appropriately noncommercial surroundings, the laity wandered around looking bemusedly at an assortment of silk souvenirs distinguished by great beauty and style if not by great usefulness. Eventually, however, we came to a lavish display of very beautiful scarves, and our hearts and purses opened joyfully. We looked at quite a few silk scarves during the month of November, not only in Thailand but in Laos and Cambodia. This was not nearly enough experience to make us expert shopping consultants, but for what it may be worth, Shinawatra's wares, although not the least expensive, were by far the most distinguished we came across.

Et, our driver, was somewhat disappointed that we did not also want to visit a silverware factory (Chiang Mai being famous for its metalworkers as well as as its silk weavers and other artisans), but instead we chose to visit the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre, an attractive and interesting place to learn about the history of the city and the Lanna kingdom.

Late in the afternoon, we went to Wat Papao, a monastery built in the 19th century by members of the local Shan community. The Shan are a people who formerly controlled a good deal of territory in northern Burma, and are still numerous there, but they are ethnically Thai, and (at least in Thailand) they prefer to call themselves Tai Yai rather than Shan. The style of the buildings, which the guidebooks describe as the Shan style, differs somewhat from the northern Thai or Lanna style. How much it may also differ from the Burmese style, I couldn't say. One of the monks introduced himself to Jayanto and Punnyo, and spent some time with them and Dorothea talking about the community center that the wat operates to help recent Tai Yai immigrants. Many of them have fled to Thailand from the warfare in northern Burma, where the government has been trying to put an end to the independence of the northern peoples. While this conversation went on indoors, I wandered around outside taking pictures.

When we returned to Baan Paw, we sat talking with the monks and getting to know Tan Punnyo. Time passed very pleasantly, and when Dorothea and I got hungry we prevailed on Ampawn to go out again on our behalf and get us some takeout Pad Thai.

This section last updated 3-5-2007