Getting there is Half the Fun
Trains in Thailand are not especially known for their punctuality or reliability. One advantage of taking a train from a terminus is that the train generally leaves on time. Any station after that it can, and usually is, a bit behind schedule. Or a lot behind schedule depending on the reliability of the train. If you are up for an adventure, take the train. Otherwise, take the bus.
The Special Express train costs a little more with the advantage of not stopping at every little station along the tracks. The first impression of the inside of the train is that they have been in service since some time in the 60’s, or about the same time commercial air travel became possible. Vinyl seats and linoleum floors adorn the interior and fans on the ceiling aid the circulation of gently air conditioned air. Even the stewardess was dressed like she had been transported in time. Complete with metal drink and food carts offering a limited supply of drinks and food that smelled terrible and tasted worse.
Taking the train, despite the punctuality and reliability issues, is actually quite pleasant. The gentle sound off the train rolling through the countryside is soothing. The bright green rice fields giving way to the mountains surrounding the valley in which Chiang Mai is situated the further south we went.
7 Hours into my 6 hour trip to Pichit there was a sudden horrible sound and the train came to a screeching halt. Or as screeching of a halt that a train can come to. Many of the crossings are not controlled with barriers and rely on drivers to check for oncoming trains. Unfortunately, one car was not so lucky. We stayed stopped for awhile while things were sorted out and the train was checked for damage. The front end of the car was totaled and the train had a large piece of metal torn off the front carriage. We ended up returning to the previous station for repairs.
Celebrating Family Love
The second day of Songkran is Family Day. Family Day celebrates family love and togetherness. Value of family is one of the three major values in the Thai way of life. Songkran is the time when family members come together to show appreciation, love and respect as well as making merit and paying homage to their ancestors. This celebration was my main purpose for making the trip to Pichit.
The religious part of the celebration was a merit making ceremony in dedication to the late ancestors. This year was especially important as Nat’s grandmother had passed away last July. The ceremony was hosted at Lung (uncle) Bhum and Paa (aunt) Song’s house, where as much of the family as possible gathered.
Before the monks arrive at the house, food is prepared, a list of relatives that have passed away is written, offering envelopes are filled with money and wishes, the Buddha image is set up and the chedi (memorial statue where ashes are kept) is cleaned. White string is wrapped around the Buddha image and strung over to the chedi and back. The idea of the string is to pass on the blessings to all that are connected to it, either human or Buddha image or other inanimate object. All the accoutrements of the ceremony are set in place. Then Lung Buhm was given the microphone…
While waiting for the monks to arrive, Lung Buhm provided a jovial and entertaining monologue. Without understanding more than two words of his monologue, I surmised that he was talking about family and the happiness of having the family there. The two words that I understood were “MJ” and “Colorado”. His words were genuine and heartfelt.
The ceremony began with six monks from the temple arriving and taking their place on the platform that had been set up in the courtyard of the house. The beginning of the ceremony focused on honoring the late ancestors and the gathering of family. A series of blessings and prayers were said, candles were lit to honor all of our late ancestors, and water was blessed. During the middle of the ceremony, the monks took their meal. At the same time, meal offerings were placed in front of the Buddha image and the chedi. The remainder of the ceremony involved merit making and blessing the family members. The offering envelopes were given to the monks and a special offering was given to the head monk for performing the ceremony. The ceremony ended with a symbolic purification of pouring water while a blessing is being said and being sprinkled with water by the head monk.
After our meal, the bingo began. Ante was 5 baht per card for each round. We spent most of the afternoon playing. At one point I think it became important to them that I won at least one round. In the end I managed to win enough rounds that I think I actually finished ahead 100 baht. Which I lost at least 50 baht of in the evening games.
Playing bingo was an excellent way for me to practice my Thai numbers. Most the time I was able to quickly recognize the number and see if I had it on my card. The rest off the time Mea, Paa Salee or Nat would say “MJ” after the number if I had it on my card. Eventually I know I will clearly be able to distinguish yi-sip (20) from see-sip (40). For a couple of the rounds they patiently even let me call the numbers.
Songkran – Part Two
While in Pichit, my experience of the festival part of Songkran continued. This time I was part of the group standing by the road throwing buckets of water on passing cars and the occasional motorbike. This experience was much more fun than being the one in the back of the truck on the receiving end of buckets of cold water. The real fun was when trucks would pull over and an all out water fight ensued.
As the sun began to set behind a bank of clouds, we all piled into the back of a truck and made a lap of town. As we would slow for another group, Nat would say “MJ, MJ…this is you.” By the end of the lap, I was soaked and happy.
Pichit doesn’t see many farang (foreigners) visitors. Accordingly, I became a source of interest to any group that stopped or that we met in town. I was offered beers and was on the receiving end of many extra buckets of water. Several people told me they loved me and shook or kissed my hand. Many asked where I was from and welcomed me to Thailand.
Khab Lob Di Moung (We are the Same Family)
Belonging to a Thai family is an enduring connection, especially with the emphasis placed on family within the culture. Nat has a truly warm and welcoming family. Many of his extended family remembered me from his monk ceremony, and instantly made me feel at home. Even Nat says I am now his oldest sister.
While many families have communication issues, ours was more of a communication challenge given the language barrier. In all my trips, I think this is the most I used my Thai phrase book. At first, just as I was hesitant to speak the little Thai that I know, they were equally hesitant to speak the English that they know. Most of the time Nat or his cousin Neung translated for me or helped me learn the words so I could almost communicate on some level. By the end of the three days, most people figured out that if they talked to me slowly and used simple words, much like you would talk to a small child, we could manage some basic conversation.
One lesson I learned is: never worry your Thai mom by feeling sick in the middle of the night. Especially when your Thai dad works at the hospital and you live in the hospital housing. This only results in a trip to the hospital at 1 AM. The words to convince her that if I just could vomit (and even after I finally did) I would be fine and that no, I didn’t need to go to the hospital were lost in translation. Diagnosis: food poisoning. Treatment: anti-nausea pills and electrolytes should I continue to be sick.
Taking me to the bus station in Pitsanulok was even a family affair. I rode with Mea (mom) and Poe (dad). Along the way, dad wanted to make sure I saw the highlights of Pichit. Mainly this meant a drive-by of the temple of the white elephant, a stop at the large crocodile for a photo opportunity, and a visit to the crocodile museum. Using simple words, accompanied by mom’s basic English and my phrase book with it’s limited dictionary, we were able to carry on a short dialogue. Mostly I think dad wanted to make sure I was happy and that I enjoyed my time there. Toward the end of the trip, he said that he believes we are the same family. Kahb lob di moung.
Hills and Valleys
Situated in the Mae Ping river valley, the city of Chiang Mai is pretty much flat. Immediately west of the city, the Doi Inthanon range of mountains rise almost 1400 meters (4500 feet) out of the river valley. On a clear day the mountains provide a lovely backdrop to the buildings of Chiang Mai. The nearby mountains also make for a nice escape from the heat of the city.
Only when getting out of the city am I reminded of just how big Chiang Mai is. At each intersection, I weave my way to the front of the traffic as is the custom in Thailand. Just before the light turns green, a revving of motorbike engines grows. As the light changes, all the bikes are off in a collective roar. The sound and knowing that I am a part of it makes me smile.
The destination for this motorbike adventure was the Mae Sae – Samoeng loop. The 90 kilometer (56 mile) route heads north from Chiang Mai, west through the Mae Sae valley, south to Samoeng, and back east to Chiang Mai. After getting out of the city and past the plethora of tourist attractions such as the Monkey Centre and snake show along the first part of the highway leading to the Mae Sae valley, the traffic was almost nonexistent.
The loop was definitely a test of my motorbike skills as I went up and down the mountains and around curves. Driving in the mountains of Thailand, three types of signs designate the types of curves coming up. The s-curve sign with its gently waving lines indicates casual turns. The angle curve sign, with the arrow containing two 90 degree angles, indicates tighter turns ahead. The Sharp Curve sign isn’t kidding. Some of the curves following this sign had the road practically doubling back on itself.
The cool mountain air was in a constant battle with the heat from the sun and pavement. Occasionally, nearer the top of a mountain, a cool bit of breeze would win. Descending down into the valley, the heat generally had the upper hand. Especially the last descent back into Chiang Mai.
The distant mountains looked picturesque, softened by a gentle haze. While a postcard would have you believe it is a mist that gives the mountains their mystical quality, the reality is that it is smoke from forest fires. Most of these fires are intentionally set to clear the land for farming. Looking at the nearer hillsides and seeing the terraced farms is a testament to this practice that is slowly destroying the forests and the habitats for the animals that dwell in them. To think that once the hills had lush jungles and were home to elephants and monkeys made my heart ache a bit.
Along the way I came across four cattle grazing on the side of the road, a small girl that smiled and waved, and the obligatory random dogs that generally believe they have the right of way on roads. The highway was lined with quaint little villages, many having only a few buildings. (I am assuming the villages had more than what was along the roadside.) I knew I was close to Chiang Mai when the villages became larger and the houses were mud brick instead of bamboo.
Chiang Mai truly is my home away from home. With each trip I feel less compelled to rush around seeing and doing as much as possible. Several days this week I found myself doing the types of things that I would do at home. Granted, making ribbon flowers for a friend’s upcoming monk ceremony isn’t something I typically do at home. I will say that I’m getting better at making the coin offerings, although many of them still have a special farang quality to them that make them special.
On Saturday, swimming sounded like a great way to escape the 102 F (39 C) degree heat and to change up my exercise regime. Municipal swimming pools are rare in Chiang Mai. Many of the guest houses and hotels open their pools to the public with fees ranging from 100 to 200 baht ($3.5 to $6.5). The lesser known Chiang Mai Land Pool was one of the few that I found not attached to a hotel and only charged a 60 baht ($2) entrance fee. Not terribly crowded, I was able to swim several short laps and only heard one or two farang comments, mostly from kids splashing in the water near me.