What can I say? I’m looking at stepping on a bus in a couple of days heading for Chiang Rai and the far northeastern Thai border with Laos. This has been an amazing experience in so many ways. I’ve jumped into the deep end of culture, found my blogging stride, made new connections, started a friendship and prepared for something entirely different in Nepal.
I could (and will) come back here any time, slip right back into the cultural, economic and social currents without missing a beat. Hop right on a scooter, thread my way through the usual congestion, head for the familiar (and new) corners, know where to live, what and where to eat and where to find just about anything. Feels good.
And there is so much good to feel. I could list here the memorable moments: Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang, the Samoeng loop ride, Doi Inthanon, the river dinner cruise, the Socrates discussion group, monk chat and much more. Here, the Thai national anthem, shown in theaters and public places at 8am and 6pm daily.
The exquisite and hidden Wat Pha Lat, where synchronicity may alight and call you irresistibly, the 700 year athletic complex pool, the cops that stopped me at least 15 times on the way.
The flower markets, Wararot market, foot massages in the the city park, the night life (lots of it), the ease of meeting new people, like this utterly delightful Chinese couple I met and shared dinner with one night.
I have also said that in some ways this is not paradise. The things that come to mind right now are that Thais eat a lot of meat, lots of fried food and sugar. They do seem to love jazz and American music in general, classic rock, pop covers and know how to have a good time. I don’t even really know how they feel about farangs. There is also the ubiquity of 7-11, great street food, the ubiquity of coffee shops and restaurants with free wi-fi (except Starbucks!!); the appealing cafe culture and trendy design of Nimman Soi 1, the Night Bazaar and Sunday Walking Street.
The contrasting lifestyles and attitudes of the northern Lanna Thai and southern Siamese is striking (Chiang Mai is a village compared to Bangkok). Chiang Mai is relatively clean, quite youthful, but eco-consciousness doesn’t seem very high. Plastic packaging is way overdone.
Although there is a strong Buddhist undercurrent of spiritual observance, not many Thais (at least in this area) have had much actual instruction in Buddhism. So while they visit Wats, support the monks, acknowledge the dharma and the community of practice, they are also praying for winning lottery numbers. The ancient, the modern, the incongruous.
There’s a lot of agricultural burning going on here. I have a persistent congestion. The amount of grilling going on in the city alone must account for a significant number of respiratory illnesses. And there’s not much recycling. Scooter riders wear long sleeves and socks and even gloves in the 90+ heat to avoid sun exposure. There seems to be great tolerance here for gay and trans lifestyles, despite some employment discrimination.
There are also economic issues that drive women from the villages into the urban sex-trade, inadequate wages in straight jobs, inadequate access to education, a paltry social safety net for elders or single women. Thailand remains a man’s world in many ways.
The government manages to offload a certain amount of social responsibility to the Buddhist infrastructure that encourages and collects donations from the local populace to support social services…but also temple maintenance and tastes of some of the hierarchy.
Quite a few ex-pats find partners here. Many manage to live here (kinda tricky since non-Thais are not allowed to own property) without learning the language…because they can. But many others are more respectful and do learn. All appreciate the benefits of living here, but their eyes are also open. The current government struggle is nothing really new: old money and royalist interests in combat with populism and a more open democracy.
And the food, the food…
And this is not even scratching the surface.
I could say more. Let’s just leave it at this: I’ve been through a tunnel of love here. See you on the other side.