Paul Theroux - Riding the Iron Rooster
It is hard to believe but we have now been in Chiang Mai for just shy of two weeks. The Rough Guide has a few warnings from the wise regarding Chiang Mai. It would appear that Chiang Mai is to the traveller what Calypso’s island was to Odysseus. An anticipated short stay turns into an unexpectedly long sojourn, and whilst you know that you should be getting on with your journey, it becomes difficult to leave. The pace of life is relaxing, the people friendly and the hospitality second to none. The other warning that the Rough Guide bundles in is regarding the food. “The main difficulty with eating in Chiang Mai is knowing when to stop.” And how true that is. Be it the street market food with barbequed chicken and pork, spiced to perfection, or the local specialities, the food is ambrosial.
It has to be admitted that during this two week stay my attempts to keep this site up to date have flagged somewhat. By and large we have been kept very busy, taking in the local town markets and Wats, the night markets, a cooking school and an elephant and snake show. My thanks to Mr Theroux for providing the quotation above whose eloquence sums up my general feeling for performing freaks of nature. Coming from a family that has bred parrots for generations my brothers are well aware that if it were up to me I would open the aviaries and set the birds free, and elephants, lets face it, should be respected and not made to paint pictures with their trunks. The snake park was more depressing and on this point I can only hope that in future when I see somebody manhandling a snake and swinging it around his shoulders by its tail, that he will shortly rue the day he chose this trade. Nothing personal but treat animals well, please. Sure, if you have a python the size of a baobab beneath your house, get a snake handler in. But do not chuck them in cages and watch them become gradually more and more diseased until their snouts are disintegrating. And is it really that ingenious to taunt a king cobra three times a day? Sure, there is a lot of skill involved and frankly of you asked me to do it you’d get a very short and pusillanimous response, but really. I would love to say that the crocodile handler at the snake park just outside Harare had learnt his lesson. A year after losing his arm to one of his captives he was still prodding our reptilian friends about with a pole though, grinning like a troglodyte who has just half discovered the powers of fire. He was clearly not a man to whom the saying “Once bitten, twice shy” was applicable.
The Elephant Farm was not so bad in spite of my diatribe. Many of the elephants are orphans and the Indian Elephants have a far more agreeable and compliant nature than their African counterparts. Some of the show was pure cheese, the aforementioned painting show (sadly the elephants failing to plunge a paintbrush through the eye of their trainers), elephants doffing their hats and walking around in circles tail to trunk. When they started to kick a large plastic football around though you began to get an understanding of their immense power, and whilst watching them stack and pile enormous logs it was hard not to be impressed by their grace, power and the precision with which they were handled. I find this kind of work orientated display easier to reconcile than cheap tricks, yet I was in the minority it would appear. The marauding masses seemed quite bored by this part of the show, but when the straw hats came out they became euphoric once more. Our tuk tuk driver, Adoon Ireland, tried to get us to go to a Monkey Show too, but by this stage I was practically ready to the monkeys dirty work for him so instead we went back into town and did the cultural stuff (in other words we went to another Wat). Adoon was a likeable fellow, gregarious and with a mischievous laugh that always made you wonder if you were at the brunt of some arcane joke. The “Ireland” part of his name seems to have come from the fact that he lived in Dublin for five odd years working as a construction worker before he found himself struggling to find gainful employment and returned to Thailand. He was no fan of the Irish winter either so I suspect that leaving Ireland was not the end of the world for him. He now drives a tuk tuk with a Bob Marley sticker emblazoned across the side and willingly chats away about most things other than politics. Try as I may he would only shake his head on this one and remain very non committal. This seems to be a common trait. Our other taxi driver was Mr Chai and he too was happy to chew the fat about anything else but. Mr Chai was a cunning one. He offered to take us around town for 100 baht (GBP 2.00) which seemed far to cheap. What we did not know was that every factory shop in Chiang Mai seemed to bankroll him. For every tourist he bought to their shop he received a fuel coupon. As such, he was very eager to show us around, indeed far too eager at times. In his defence he was completely honest about this and our 100 baht jaunt would have cost a lot more if this was not the case. After looking at silverware, gold, brass ware, ceramics, lacquer ware, leather and umbrellas I suspect that he had enough fuel to last the rest of the month. What was interesting on these trips was meeting the apparently large Nepalese community that now reside in Chiang Mai. Chiamg Mai has welcomed them as part of a co-operative scheme in the interest of diversifying the already burgeoning handicraft market that exists. They were nice guys, displaced from home but making a go of it abroad. Once we got past the aggressive sales bit they relaxed a lot and were very open and easy to speak to. Like everyone else at the moment they are finding things difficult, the global recession has caught up with them and they seem to be willing to sell most of their stuff off as cheaply as they can just to help cash flow. Whether that was just sales talk or not I guess I will never know, but at the end we were chatting pretty frankly.
We ended up at Bo Sang, the area where a large proportion of the Thai umbrellas are made. The umbrellas are made from either silk, paper or cotton with bamboo shafts. The fabric is then hand painted and varnished to make it water resistant. Like all the Thai crafts that we saw that afternoon the umbrellas were that beautiful that you feel compelled to reach into your pocket and say “Yes! Please! How much!?” Unlike all the places though the compulsion at Bo Sang beat common sense around the head and we are now the proud owner of a silk umbrella. Nice.
In the last couple of days Nipun and I have largely been at cooking school. We took different days, firstly capitalise on doing two days each and as such getting four days of knowledge between us, and secondly to have a bit of downtime where we can get around a bit by ourselves. The cooking school was a great experience and makes me wish we were returning home to our own kitchen in some ways. Travelling can be great, but it is over a month since we ate a home cooked meal and a wardrobe seems like such a very precious commodity.
We have also been up Doi Suthep, the mountain that is crowned by Wat Phra That. Upon arrival there are three hundred stairs to ascend and then you reach the Wat proper. Quite honestly it has to be said that the three hundreds steps pale in comparison to the journey up to the Monkey (Jakhu) Temple in Shimla. The Wat is very beautiful, as are all the Wats we have been to. The vibrancy and attention to detail is again awe inspiring and whilst sometimes ruins can be more beautiful than a glistening, well maintained building, I would argue that Wat Phra That is an exception to this. The fact that it is built so high up and on a seeming precipice is again very impressive, as you look over the edge there are long ridges of concrete reinforcing that support the build. 1000 metres below via a short but serpentine route is Chiang Mai. The road bends and twists so much that upon arriving at the Wat both Nipun and I felt nauseous! In the week that lies ahead we plan to go hiking in the hills outside Chiang Mai and then start looking onwards and upwards towards Laos. Whilst Chiang Mai has been great if we do not shake this gentle contentment we find ourselves here next year, wondering if the money will last that much longer and how much we can get as teachers.