Saturday, May 3, 2008

Dhamma is for lovers

Chiang Mai is an airy city of 250,000 people, Thailand's second city in terms of tourism. It's somewhat scenic being flanked by mountains on one side, but heavily touristed, with a massive number of western restaurants serving banana pancakes and pizza. The vast majority of tourists head to Chiang Mai for hill-tribe trekking. Northern Thailand has a substantial population (a few hundred thousands) of fourth world peoples, so called because they are not naturalized Thai citizens, but supposedly live a relatively pre-modern life as subsistence agriculturalists in the highlands, isolated from outside influence. Western trekkers typically take 2-4 day treks to see these tribes in their "natural habitat." However, I don't plan to do so. My impression is that while it might have been authentic thirty years ago, it's an industry now, and there must be, literally, around a few hundred thousand trekkers who pass through each year. As such, I've repeatedly heard from locals that many of the hill-tribes are now paid to stay put, continuing their traditional way of life. I can just imagine it, a bunch of hill tribe people, lounging around in denims, watching TV, get a call that a tour group is coming, and throw on their traditional clothes, and hide the TV.

Regardless of whether the "ethno-tourism" based out of Chiang Mai is authentic or not, the highland villages of farmers in the North, are no less "ethnic" or Thai. As such, I've rented a little 125cc motorcycle, and tomorrow, I head out to do the Mae Hong Son loop, a 600k journey through some of the North's most stunning mountains and valleys. I went on a sample ride outside of Chiang Mai yesterday, to the San Kamphaeng hot springs area. Snaking past glowing green rice paddies, and small mountains, I got my first taste of rural Thai life, replete with little flocks of chickens darting across narrow roads, and warm smiles of farmer's looking up from their fields at the clueless farang rolling by. I ended the day, strictly platonically, in a steam bath with three Japanese men. Water piped from the hot springs outside proved a wonderful respite from a beautiful, but cold and rainy day spent pelted by the Thai monsoon on my bike.

Speaking of warm smiles, I got a lot more from the Thais at my guesthouse, who helped me learn how to ride a semi-automatic Honda dream motorbike. When they weren't scrabbling out of my way as I rolled the throttle too far, jumping around the courtyard, they were rolling with laughter at the circus show taking place. Even though I much more confident riding now, they still smirk and keep their distance when I ride into the guesthouse.

Meeting locals like the Thais at my guesthouse has been one of the highlights in Chiang Mai. After spending so much time with other travelers in Bangkok (mainly CSers and a French-Canadian buddy I made at the hostel), I decided to avoid other travelers here. They're perfectly charming, but I felt like I was missing out on experiencing more Thai culture. I lucked out the other day, at a Buddhist Wat (wat = temple). A monk spotted me from his lunch table, and invited me to eat. I was a little stunned, since I figured he must be bored mindless by tourists, but over the course of the meal, I learned that he had lived in Madras, studying Buddhist philosophy there. He was enjoying the chance to reminisce about India, and I was happy to oblige. When I was leaving, I spotted a giant photo of him on the wall of the wat, and I mentioned that he seemed popular. He replied most casually, "No, I'm just the senior monk of the wat." You've got to love the kindness of strangers.

The other highlight was meeting a British expat during a sleepless night. Unable to sleep, I wandered out to the main strip of bars at 2:30 AM, and sat down for a red label whisky next to what I initially took to be a sex tourist, since he was with a Thai woman. However, over the course of two hours, I got to know Phil and his Thai wife, Nui (or Pi Nui to me, i.e. "Big sister Nui). Phil had met Nui 5 years previously when her motorcycle broke down, and now, they're married. It was fascinating get a window into the expat world in Chiang Mai, as there are a significant number of farangs who live here year round.

That's it for now. Today, I relax before heading on a five day motorcycle tour through Mae Hong Son.

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