Dragon head, Wat Chiang Man

Wednesday, November 19
Three Wats and a Massage

During breakfast we talked about our plans for the week. We'd considered flying up to the town of Mae Hong Son for a few days - at $18 roundtrip, it was probably the cheapest flight in the world. But Susanne and I agreed that we had done enough hotel hopping on this trip. We'd stay right here until we needed to get back to Bangkok. Today would be a semi-restful day for us. Susanne wanted to get a message somewhere while I wanted to see some of Chiang Mai's famous wats. The day was young so we wanted to squeeze in a little of both.

We spent the morning at three of Chiang Mai's oldest and best known wats: Chiang Man, Phra Singh and Chedi Luang. Normally I would expound on the virtues of each individual wat, their personalities, etc., but today I felt distinctly underwhelmed by them. I think this lack of enthusiasm had less to do with the wats themselves than my recent experience with wats in Laos. Luang Prabang's wats all gave off a living presence; they were serene, yet full of activity by monks and young novices. The city of Luang Prabang itself also served as a natural complement to these monasteries. Its wats were living, breathing neighborhoods that flowed naturally with the slow pace and friendliness of the community.

Wat Chiang Man

In Chiang Mai, wats are always encircled by vulture-like tuk-tuks whose drivers hounded you in aggravating succession. A 7-Eleven store or a go-go bar might share the block across the street from the monks' living quarters. The wats of Chiang Mai were past tense, anachronistic monuments instead of present-day members of the Chiang Mai family. They were out of place, awkward. Perhaps if I had visited Chiang Mai soon after our arrival in Bangkok I would have appreciated their beauty and magnificence, which architecturally speaking they all possess. But having experienced the grace and vitality of Luang Prabang and its wats, Chiang Mai seems all but a smoggy, traffic-clogged open-air museum.

Mind you, I don't want to come down too hard on this city - I mean, it's a great place to unwind for a few days. But Chiang Mai seems so service-oriented, so tourist-centric, its long history and culture has been superseded by the desire to cater to the throngs of Americans, Australians, Japanese and British tourists who come here. I don't want to sound naive, but Chiang Mai is a bit of a disappointment. Or perhaps we had reached our saturation point for Buddhist monasteries - that must play a certain role in how I'm feeling at this moment. We've been out-watted. Time for a good old fashioned Thai massage.

Susanne had included Thai massage on her short list of must-do's in Southeast Asia, so we made an appointment with the Rinkaew Povech spa to pick us up at the hotel and take us to their resort on the outskirts of the city. This plan gave Susanne a couple of hours to shower and nap, while it gave me the time to run two important errands: buying train tickets to Bangkok and arranging a hill tribe trek. I caught a tuk-tuk to the train station, about two kilometers from the hotel. The jerk of a driver spent the entire ride pestering me about going to see ceramic shops first. Despite my insistent refusals, he wouldn't stop asking me, so I ordered him to stop the tuk-tuk. "Train station now, or I walk and pay you zero baht." "No problem, no problem," he said. Just outside of the train station he stopped the tuk-tuk and said I should get out here. "You walk, I wait for you and then we go to shops," he said, displaying mystifying chutzpah. The cheapskate wouldn't even drive into the station itself - he wanted to avoid going through a police checkpoint. I paid him 10 baht less than we agreed upon initially and walked away. He began to yell at me, so I turned around and pointed to the police kiosk. The driver grumbled something to himself and climbed back into his tuk-tuk to take a nap. I quickly booked passage on the overnight express train for Bangkok leaving Chiang Mai Saturday afternoon at 4:40pm, arriving 6am. This gave us more than enough time to relax in Chiang Mai for a few days.

Next stop: Panda Trekking and Tours. Susanne and I had stopped at Panda along with several other trekking agencies to find a one day walk through some of the northern hilltribe villages. Practically every outfit offered the exact same packages, but for whatever reason I sensed that this particular company had its act together. They were also certified by Thailand's state tourism regulating authority, which certainly didn't hurt. We decided to take a five-tribe package which would bring us through small villages around Phrae, two hours outside of Chiang Mai. We had initially discussed flying to Mae Hong Son to visit the famous "long neck" Padong Karen tribes, but this tour gave us more variety for our baht. Seven hundred baht per person, around $15 dollars, would get us transportation, lunch, a guide who happened to be a member of the Lisu tribe, and the chance to visit Lisu, Akha, Lahu, Karen and Palong villages. And since we wouldn't have to spent the night at a village, that would give us even more time to unwind in Chiang Mai, which was our main reason for being here in the first place.

I got back to the hotel with just enough time to shower before our 3pm ride to the resort picked us up. I should probably note that traditional Thai massage, our massage of choice, has nothing to do with the infamous Thai massage parlors of Bangkok's Patpong district. Traditional massage is a primary element of traditional Thai medicine, which bears some similarity to Chinese medicine and India's Ayurvedic medicine. Basically, massage is used to either relax a patient or solve a particular medical ailment through accupressure techniques. For our purposes, though, we'd stick to the relaxation side of the therapy.

Massages cost 200 baht an hour, about five dollars, so we purchased tickets for 90-minute sessions. We were led to a dimly lit cubicle with two mattresses on the floor. Susanne and I both put on a pair of baggy pajamas that were loose enough for a good massage job yet eliminated the need for your masseuse to touch your skin directly. I found it quite hard to relax initially, for the pantaloon pajamas made me look like some 19th century maharaja or some Gilbert and Sullivan pirate character. Susanne and I laughed hysterically for some time until my masseuse walked in, a squat Thai woman who bore a strange resemblance to Rosanne Barr. She was quite serious about getting started, gesturing me to lie down on the bed. I tried to explain to her that we both wanted massages for our back and feet, but she stared blankly at me. I repeated my request, pointing at my back and feet. She shook her head and made the same motion for me to lie down face up on the mattress. I got the message. Don't tell me how to do my job. This was to be her show and I was in no place to dictate the terms of the program.

Another woman entered the room and ordered Susanne to get on her back as well. They sat below our feet and began to twist, crush, rub, press, knead and squeeze their ways across our bodies. I had expected the message to be a lot of complex hand movements but my masseuse used her fingers, knuckles, elbows, knees and heels to exert incredible pressure all over me. For example, while massaging my calf, Rosanne ground her knuckles in a rolling motion - I thought I was going to get a cramp. But for the shin muscles, which are much harder and denser tissue, she held my leg in place with one of her legs while thrusting her elbow in a wave-like fashion. I didn't know whether to scream or sigh in relaxation. The entire massage was really just full-body accupressure therapy. Some times she would press her whole body weight into my back and then hold it for 10 seconds. As she worked her way up my feet, hands, legs, arms, back, neck and head, Rosanne would talk in Thai with Susanne's masseuse. From their tone and their snickering it sounded like they were both ripping on their husbands or something. Yet they managed to shoot the breeze while twisting and shoving every muscle group on our bodies in the allotted 90 minutes.

Early on in the massage I tried to pay attention to her technique, just in case I ever wanted to attempt it myself. But sometimes when the pain was so exquisite I was unable to think of anyone on whom I would want to inflict this ancient Thai torture. At the 90 minute mark, Rosanne gave my head a triplet of light karate chops, a movement she used to end each muscle group massage. I was quite relaxed, as I had hoped, but yet I was exhausted, sore and limp. Was this the intended result, or was my farang body just not used to such refined traditional attention? It's hard to say.

Walking back to the van my body was a dead weight, my mind blank. Susanne and I tried to discuss what we thought of the whole bit, but I didn't have much to say. Hell, I didn't have much to say about anything. Tabula rasa. There's something very Buddhist about being clear of mind and body, so in that sense my traditional Thai massage treatment was an unqualified success. But the accompanying sores and bruises had me wondering out loud as to how we'd feel the next day during our three hours of hill walking. Until then, I guess, I'd enjoy the agony of utter blankness.

We ate dinner at Pizza Hut, a sign that we were already pining for the flavours and relative hygiene of American cuisine. The streets outside were crowded with shoppers, for we were eating in the heart of the night bazaar. Stall after stall tempted us with t-shirts, faux leather luggage, fake Rolexes, Hello Kitty backpacks, African masks, Tibetan thangka paintings and hundreds of other items I could have easily gotten elsewhere. I was actually surprised at the limited amount of distinctly Thai items available at the bazaar. Sure, you could get elephant paperweights and Singha Beer t-shirts, but most of the available products were generic items you could get at a US fleamarket. Perhaps most disappointing was the lack of selection for hilltribe-related souvenirs. I didn't have any specific purchases in mind, but if I did buy hilltribe goods, I'd at least like to buy them from actual hilltribe vendors. Perhaps it was just a matter of finding them - this was a big market.

At one point we stumbled upon a row of seedy bars, all on one side of a thin, dark underground hallway. There was practically no light apart from the neon and black lights that were prerequisite, and each joint seemed to have their resident prostitute sitting at the bar trying to entice prospective customers. Business did not seem very good, apart from a couple of backpackers playing Nintendo with one of the hookers. A bar at the far end of the strip was playing Hendrix. Foxy Lady. Susanne and I looked at each other and said, "Saigon. Shit.", as if the words themselves were flowing out of Martin Sheen's mouth in Apocalypse Now. Further along, the music switched to the Police and that damn "I'm a Barbie Girl" song. On this particular evening, the Chiang Mai go-go scene just didn't seem as hip as the night market. We returned to the streets to browse the bazaar, soak in the atmosphere and head back to the hotel for a good night's rest before a long day trekking in hilltribe country.