Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Northward Bound

The Big Mango has been good to me, but I need to get out of the city, so last night, at 12:30 AM, I booked my ticket to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is Thailand's second city, much smaller than Bankok, but charming in its own right.

My last few days in Bangkok were good. On Monday, I headed out with a Canadian friend I met at the hostel. As curious at it seems, we went to China Town, as Thailand has a very significant minority of Chinese immigrants. The C-town district is even more crowded than the rest of Bangkok, and is a charmingly chaotic mix of markets, temples, and larger businesses. We made our way through claustrophobic market paths for most of the morning, sharing 14 inch footpaths crammed between stalls with thousands of other pedestrians and the occasional motorcycle. Later, we found ourselves in a residential district of C-town, no more spacious (it looked like a rabbit warren), but populated by an interesting array of characters (old timers at their favorite green tea watering holes, kids playing about, delivery scooters passing through, and the ever-present, morbidly obese Bangkok dogs).

Later, we made our way to two Buddhist temples, and saw the world's largest solid gold Buddha (very bling-bling, Snoop Dogg would've approved). Thailand's religion is puzzling in that respect. Buddhism, at its purest, is an atheistic religion, more a paradigm, a cosmology, than a mode of worship. As such, idols, gods, and worldly riches (as might be typified by a giant gold buddha), are really not encouraged. But daily worship in Thailand really follows lines seen anywhere else in the world. People pray to giant idols representing the Buddha, make donations to the monks (fascinating to watch; early morning in Bangkok finds monks making their way through the city to recieve alms from shop owners), and generally worship in a manner befitting of the best monotheists. I even saw a special stall selling ready-made donations, which morning street path commuters purchased and presented to the attending monks. I suppose this sort of co-option of religion, and re-direction from its founder's directives, takes place everywhere, so much so that neuroscientists are looking for and studying "religious centers" in the brain (just the way language centers might be studied).

In the afternoon, my Canuck and I headed to a famous expat house, built by an American architect who first visited Thailand as a soldier during WWII, later returned, single handedly revived the Thai silk Industry, and then mysteriously disappeared in 1957 while wandering Cambodia. I took the initiative by suggesting we take the Skytrain, promptly got us lost, and we ended up walking several miles in the searing, 90+ plus, Bangkok heat. When we got there, it was apparent, his life story was far more interesting than the house, but still worth a visit.

In the evening, I headed on what turned out to be a date with a CSer I had met the night before, a charming Philliphina woman who has been based in Thailand for the last few years. She took me to a lovely restaurant on the river (it was called "In Love," which made me start to think it was a date). Later we headed to Kh. San road, and ended the night in the early hours in front of the Grand Palace, sharing the night with stray cats, and the sleeping homeless.

Tuesday saw me pretty much sleep the day away (14 hours!), which I felt guilty about, but I suppose I needed it....

Yesterday, I saw the Grand Palace, Reclining Buddha, and old Thai capital, all absolutely stunning. The Grand Palace has some of the most exquisite imperial architecture and inlay detail that I've ever seen! And the reclining Buddha was massive (46m long). The old Thai capital was also remarkable, but VERY phallic. Kind of makes you wonder if the guy who built was compensating....

And today, I head to Chiang Mai, and northern Thailand. Most people opt for hill-tribe trekking in those parts, but after reading more about the contexts, and touristy nature of the industry, I've opted for taking a motorcycle journey through the isolated highlands (don't tell my parents till I get back if you read this ;). Pictures will come soon. And for all my friends and family who are good enough to indulge me by reading this blog, many of you are in my thoughts ;)

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