Tuesday, November 18
Chiang Mai Bound
It's Tuesday morning, less than a week before leaving Thailand for Hong Kong. The last two weeks have been somewhat frantic, moving around every couple of days. So we've decided to head to Chiang Mai, the unofficial capital of northern Thailand, and use it as our base for the rest of the week. Maybe we'd take a trek for a day or two, maybe not. As long as we weren't on the move with our backpacks every 48 hours, I'd be happy.
A little after 9am we checked out of the Golden Triangle Inn and walked to the bus station down the road. I purchased two first class tickets to Chiang Mai, a four-hour trip for about $2.50 each. The only trouble was that the bus didn't leave until 11am so we returned to the hotel and worked on our journals in the cafe. Eventually we returned to the station and boarded the bus. Air conditioning was a major bonus on this particular trip, since half of the road was under construction and unpaved, causing a billowing cloud of dust and debris wherever the bus went. But air con couldn't save us from the bumps and bounces. I'd never felt so carsick before that day, but each bump brought me one step closer to puking on the poor monk sitting in front of me. I'd hate to ruin those saffron robes of his. I managed to focus my attention on the people in the bus, allowing my nausea to recede. Susanne, however, looked quite uncomfortable and kept her head tucked down between her knees. I'd have to go shopping for Dramamine in Chiang Mai, I guess.
2:30pm, we pulled into Chiang Mai Arcade Station on the northwest outskirts of town. The moment we disembarked the bus we were propositioned by a horde of touts for a taxi ride. I asked one woman how much to the Galare Guesthouse, a midrange hotel near the Ping River. She said 50 baht, about $1.25. We got into her songthaew, a Nissan pickup, and we were on our way.
Chiang Mai has the reputation of being a big Thai city without all the troubles of Bangkok. Traffic was steady, but not an obstacle to our progress - a significant plus over Bangkok in my book. We drove by several large hotels, a bright yellow superstore of some kind, several Shell and Exxon stations, even a big white church. This was Thailand? I had my doubts. Susanne turned to me at some point and said, "We're in Fort Lauderdale." Quite possibly, it seemed. Perhaps Chiang Mai was a darling of westerners because it was the West, plain and simple. We'd soon find out.
The Galare Guesthouse is actually a pleasant hotel with a riverside view, a nice garden, teak bungalows and two resident canines: an English terrier and a large, crazy-eyed boxer that seemed to enjoy nothing more than sleeping in places where guests might accidentally trip over him. Susanne wanted to chill out at the hotel, so I spent an hour walking around, trying to get a feel for the place. First impression: there are no Thais in Chiang Mai. Seventy-five percent of the people I see are westerners. Deadheads in tie-dyes. Snowbirds with Gucci bags and excessive makeup. Partygoers in muscle shirts and bikini tops. My God, Susanne was right - this was Fort Lauderdale! All of the businesses here are either tourist oriented or automotive. Trekking tours. Mechanic's garage. Money Exchange. Auto Body Repair. Pizza Hut. Muffler Shop. I concluded only two types of people were allowed to enter Chiang Mai: tourists, and people who drive tourists around.
A few blocks from the hotel vendors were setting up stalls for the daily night market, perhaps the largest night market in Thailand. Stall after stall, row after row, I could see fake leather goods, fake watches, fake antiques, fake Nikes. Alarm clocks, socks, statues of naked African women. It must get better than this, I thought. Back at the hotel, I got Susanne and we wandered the neighborhood until sunset. The night market continued to gain strength but it was still early - perhaps getting dinner would kill enough time for things to rev up. Susanne wanted to splurge on a good meal that night, so we ate at Piccolo Roma, an Italian restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. To my greatest surprise, it was a wonderfully authentic Italian restaurant experience, from the Pavarotti on the stereo to the chef coming out of the kitchen to take our order personally. We both ordered onion soup; I then had gnocci al pesto while Susanne got a stuffed pasta platter. Fresh, hot, thoroughly delicious.
We sat next to a Norwegian couple: the wife was in Asia on business while her husband, a professor of insect biology, was on sabbatical and traveling along just to enjoy himself. We chatted about our Thailand experiences as well as the ecology of the country and Thailand's inability to protect it. They were going to Burma the next day, and when we told them of all of the tiger and clouded leopard skins we had seen, the husband went off on the lack of realistic protective measures to stop the extinction of these cats. Sensing he would sympathize, I briefly brought up Norway's whaling policy, which they both agreed was barbaric and totally unnecessary for such a wealthy western nation. The husband's specialty was beetles, and he had spent a great deal of time in Costa Rica. We asked if he had seen any good bugs here in Thailand, and he pulled out a live beetle out of his pocket, kept safely in a polished wooden box. Yep, he was a beetle biologist alright.
After dinner, we decided to have a stroll through the night market. There were surprisingly few people out and about, which made sense a few minutes later as rain showers began to pelt down on us. The rains felt good hitting my face - it was easily 90 degrees outside, even after dark, so the cool waters were a pleasant relief. Market vendors scurried around in a humorous panic, pulling their goods under tarps, further into the tents. Most of the market was covered with these large tents, so it was interesting to walk along the inside as rain dripped from roof drains, the sound of the storm pounding away outside.
As the rains came down, Chiang Mai finally transformed from Fort Lauderdale to Thailand for a few hours. I don't know if that makes much sense, but the sound of the rain, the dampness of the air and the smell of the ozone all served as powerful reminders that were indeed in Southeast Asia. As hard as Chiang Mai tries to seem western to Westerners, the rain exposes it for what it is, a Thai town getting healthy a dousing during the late monsoon. Though the rain lasted only an hour or two, it was my favorite moment in Chiang Mai. The rains slowed activities to a crawl. No more crowds, no more hard bargaining. Just another Asian city in a warm evening shower.