Wats, Wats and a Backrub

Dragon statue, Chiang Mai

Amid a vast stretch of rice paddies, above the Ping River, in the very heart of Northern Thailand, is the city of Chiang Mai. Pronounced "chang my," this booming metropolis was founded by King Mengrai in 1296 under the name "Nopburi Si Nakhon Ping Chiang Mai" (you're on your own with the pronunciation on that one). According to legend, after Mengrai saw mice crawl down a crevice beneath a bodhi tree, he decided that this was the spot for the capital of Lan Na ("the kingdom of a million rice fields"), or Lanna as it is more commonly known. Today Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand and the dominant cultural and economic mecca of the North.

My first impression of the city was "Fort Lauderdale." Sure, there's no beach, but there are more tourists than locals, whole streets of American fast food joints, legions of travel agencies and rows of bars. But nestled between the Mister Donut shops and Pizza Huts are dozens of guilded wats, classic Thai souvenirs and traditional massage parlors. Chiang Mai turned out to be a great place to relax and wrap up the trip.

We stayed at The Galare Guest House - a nice, middle of the road hotel situated alongside the river. The center of the hotel opened up into a peaceful stretch of green lawn, and fixed on the grass like a lawn ornament was a big, slobbery, crazy-eyed mastiff. He sat there (or laid there depending upon how hot it was) around the clock. Despite his dark, deeply set eyes, he was friendly enough. When I rubbed his belly, I could hear him purring like a cat. A small Asian dog trotted around the grounds as well, nudging the mastiff from time to time. After resting awhile on the bamboo lawn furniture, I was ready to explore the city.

Surrounded by a moat, the section known as the old city is the heart of Chiang Mai. Strolling past the endless rows of shops, we found a woman on a street corner selling baskets of puppies. (For anyone who is wondering, the pups were for pets not for food. Despite what some Westerners may think, they don't eat dogs here.) I held one puppy up to my cheek and cradled his little rump against my chest. Throughout our stay in Chiang Mai, we kept finding excuses to go back to that street corner and play with the puppies. Down the street, Andy bought a nice pair of prescription glasses for pretty cheap. We wandered the wats, admiring their impressive features, like hand railings sculpted to look like rearing dragons. Every other temple is decorated with thousands of squares of colored tiles. In the courtyard of one wat, I found a scattering of broken glass. I picked up a sliver and discovered how those tiles reflect light so well. Each tile is a square of colored glass (red, blue, yellow), shellacked on the back with a thin coat of silver paint. They are really just color-tinted mirrors. Thousands of these squares lined the majestic pillars and temple walls in a style that could truly be called "Absolut Thailand."

Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai

That night we decided to splurge for a good meal. And splurge we did, at an Italian Restaurant called Piccolo Roma. Pavarotti's greatest hits played in the background, bottles of wine were stacked in the back, and the chef (an Italian ex-pat) took our order. The red wine and pasta were perfect. I felt like we were in some family-owned restaurant in Italy.

A Norwegian couple sat at the table next to ours. She was in Thailand on business. Her husband was along for the ride. Their teenage son was on the trip with them, but he opted to go to McDonalds that night instead of Piccolo Roma. We talked about traveling in general and Luxor, Egypt in particular. A few days before, 80 tourists were killed by terrorists at the Temple of Hatshepsut. All four of us had been to the temple in the last few years, and we felt a strange connection with the victims: they were fellow travelers after all. The subject turned to occupations, and the husband brought up the fact that he was an entomologist. I told him about the flocks of butterflies in Laos and then asked if he'd seen any interesting bugs in Thailand. He reached into his pocket and fished out a small black box. Right there at the table, he opened the box and showed off his find - a huge, round beetle. He tilted his head, looked at it from various angles and concluded that he had no idea what species it was. He smiled, closed the lid, then placed the box back in his pocket.

After dinner we navigated past the various bars and restaurants, to Chang Klan Road. From clear down the road you can see that the Chiang Mai Night Market dominates several city blocks. At least 100 stalls and open-faced shops sit in a complex cluster under a quilt of tarps and awnings. Once inside the market, you can't see more than a couple stalls at a time, so it's hard to get a feel for the enormity of it. Crowds of tourists stream through the narrow walkways between the stalls. There is a wide selection of merchandise - Polo shirts, carved wooden elephants, sequined pillows, sunglasses, Hmong cloth, Pinocchio dolls, marionettes, gongs, Thai xylophones.

Above all the haggling and selling, I suddenly heard the thick sound of raindrops hitting canvas. A merchant in a tarp-covered stall craned her head out into the open street. She quickly pulled her head back in and started to cover her stall with a thicker tarp. The surrounding merchants followed suit, and before we knew it, an unseasonable rainstorm poured down on the market. Rain drops rolled in through holes in the tarps. Waves of water gushed down a series of gutters. Puddles formed around the stalls. Rain water gathered around the carved elephants. Most of the tourists fled to the fast food joints across the street. Andy and I pushed deeper into the market maze, until we found an underground level, packed with shops. The whole market was steamy, like a mountain cave. Fascinated by the monsoon atmosphere, I wandered around the lower level, dodging puddles and leaks. After twenty minutes the rain died down, and people started filing back in again.

We chose to take a different staircase up to the main level and ended up in a very strange hallway lined with bars. The first bar had a psychedelic, "Vietnam: 1968" feel to it. Jimi Hendrix music played over the speakers. A crowd of tattooed, goateed Westerners hung over the bar. Black light paintings glowed like neon under the low lights. The whole hallway was a string of these shady joints. It might have been a cool place to sit and people-watch over a beer, but everyone kept looking at us as if to say, "Boy are you lost." We finally reached the end of the hallway and found ourselves back at the souvenir stalls with the rest of the tourists.

While in Chiang Mai, we visited the market every day. I didn't really buy much, but then we never went there to buy anything. It's just a fascinating, eclectic mix of tourists, merchants and ex-pats. We also spent a lot of time kicking back at the local pubs. Singha and Carlsberg were just great in the muggy afternoons. I hate to admit it, but we ate nothing but American fast food in Chiang Mai. After some twenty days of rice, there is nothing like a slab of pizza and a fried burger.

Two days into our stay in Chiang Mai, we decided to get a traditional Thai massage. Stress "traditional." If you don't see the word "traditional," sex could be involved. I can only imagine the confusion for people who don't know the code. Just think of poor Mrs. Johnson visiting Thailand with her church group ending up at one of those sex parlors, and Rolex Joe from Vegas looking for action and getting a matronly masseuse walking on his back. Andy and I just wanted a back rub and a foot massage. The hotel arranged the whole thing. A driver even picked us up and drove us to the massage parlor. Inside, two women led us upstairs to a dimly-lit room with pale green wallpaper. They instructed us to each change into a pair of smocks and Sinbad-style pants, then lay down on a mattress. After a few minutes, two more women drew back the curtain and sat on the floor next to us. Andy tried to tell them that we only wanted our back and feet massaged, but the woman holding his foot rambled off a string of words in Thai. We decided to shut up and let them do their jobs.

They chatted away in Thai while they dug their fingers into our calves and up our thighs. My masseuse put her palms on my hips, locked her elbows and threw all her weight on to me. She bent back my legs like a pretzel-maker kneading dough, then leaned on them with all her might. She pulled back my arms and walked her feet up my back. She flipped me over and dug her knees into my ribs. She pressed her elbow into the small of my back, pulled my fingers one by one, then worked over my temples. Finally, she put a hot towel over my face and massaged my cheek muscles. The face massage was greatly appreciated since I'd been cringing for the last hour and a half.

We had hoped the massage would help prepare us for our hilltribe trek the next day. In reality, climbing the monuments of Angkor didn't prepare me for it, why should a massage?