Chiang Mai is changing. Sometimes change is good and at the same time bad. Immediately noticeable is the increased cost of taxis from the airport into town, the uniformed drivers and their new cars and the increased number of cars in general on the roads. I know my perception of whether the change is good or bad. Really I wanted to know what the Thai think about it. Both people I asked said that it is good for the economy and bad for the culture. Long, the woman I met at one of the Body Pump classes I attended, summed it up saying that there are so many more Westerners and Asians, in Chiang Mai that she felt came here for what it was and have made it what they want to be. She is saddened by the changes.
In an effort to avoid the touristy and changing old town, and to give me something new to write about, I decided this time to stay somewhere new. The fact that CM Blue House, the guesthouse that has been my home in Chiang Mai for the past 5 years, recently closed also aided that decision. So I opted to stay at Inspire House, just a short distance from Sunshine Massage School.
Inspire House is actually not very inspiring. From the funky stale smell in my room to the tears in the fabric of the sofas in the lobby, it just didn’t make a very good impression on me. Perhaps a fresh coat of paint and a good cleaning of the mold in the bathroom would do it wonders. (To be fair, the fight against mold is a tough one in this climate.) After a day or so, what it lacks in aesthetics was more than compensated for by the luxury of daily housekeeping, two bottles of water a day and a primo location for me. Although lacking strong English speaking skills, the staff was kind and helpful. They helped me get a motorbike the evening I arrived, even though I thought I had arrived too late in the evening to rent one.
My propensity for making Chiang Mai my home was definitely enhanced by being outside of the old town. During the day I took my massage class. In the evening I worked out, ran errands and went and had dinner. Having such a routine existence made the days fly by.
Having taken several days off of actually working out, the lengthy walks through both Svuarnabhumi and Don Muang Airports on Thursday and Sunday notwithstanding, I needed to go do some exercise. Fitness Thailand offers classes in the evening and Monday and Wednesday were Body Pump class. The instructors are pretty good at leading the class in some combination of Thai and English. Enough English that it wasn’t hard to follow along at all. Also helps that I have been doing Body Pump classes at home so knew the general pattern and moves.
Wednesday evening I arrived at Fitness Thailand running a little behind due to unexpected traffic and a slight navigational issue. When I went to pay I discovered that I didn’t have my wallet with me. No money and no ATM card. Pleading my case to the receptionist, she let me take the class on the promise that I would come back and pay. So after class, I jumped on the motorbike, zoomed back to Inspire House, had a slight moment of panic when my wallet wasn’t where I thought it might be, found my wallet hiding in my backpack, grabbed my wallet, and zoomed back to Fitness Thailand. Times like this are when I am extremely happy to have a motorbike to get around and am generally familiar with Chiang Mai roads.
My inner mermaid was starting to get cranky about not getting in the water, so Tuesday, Thursday and Friday I opted for swimming. Eco Resort, a common location for many Sunshine Massage School students, has a beautiful 25 meter pool. Generally the pool is not crowded, making it fairly easy to swim laps. Sophie, one of the students in my class, was staying there and was at the pool on Tuesday and Thursday. Both days she made the comment that I never stop after watching me jump in the water and swim around 1000 meters each night. The clean, lightly chlorinated, cool water was a welcomed way to end my days.
The most important errand of the week was getting my computer repaired. Upon Lek’s recommendation, I took my computer to the second floor of Panthip Plaza where I found Chiang Mai Notebook Repair. Presenting my computer to them and explaining the tragic incident that had befallen it, I looked at them hopefully and asked if it could be fixed. To my great relief, they said yes. The price for the repair would be 800 baht or about $27. The relief of having my computer fixed and not having to type on my phone washed over me like a wave. The prospect at having to find an alternative or paying a large amount had been weighing on me.
No trip to Chiang Mai is complete without going to the Sunday Night Walking Street (unless you are not there on a Sunday). Walking street is a market that materializes every Sunday evening covering several blocks running right through the middle of the old town. Walking is a relative term, as the number of people squeezing their way between stalls makes a turtle seem like a speed racer. Armed with a list but lacking the desire to do much shopping, I did my best to plod my way down the street and back up. Eventually I gave up and headed back to Inspire House, the realization that I would be forced to do more shopping at the Night Bazaar at some point during the week.
The Night Bazaar is probably my least favorite place to go in Chiang Mai. Pretty much I view it as a feeding grounds for vendors as they ply tourists for their money. Probably doesn’t help that I don’t like to bargain for what I want to purchase, yet know that I have to as the prices the vendors give are inflated to catch the unsuspecting and inexperienced tourist unaware. Tuesday night, after eating dinner and meeting a new friend, we decided in solidarity to head to the Night Bazaar. Generally I was successful in getting several of the remaining items on my list, most specifically the massage tools that I have only ever found here.
Learning Something New
My general motto is to never stop learning. So this year I returned to Sunshine Massage School to take Thai Massage Using the Feet. Our class was the largest I have had there, 20 massage therapists from all over the Europe with a couple people from America and Turkey. Almost everyone in the class was a practicing massage practitioner with several years of experience. Having that much experience in the class was so beneficial as each of us brought a wealth of skills and perspective to the new techniques we were learning.
The week of learning passed very quickly. When learning massage, it is important to work with as many different body types as possible. On Thursday I had the opportunity to work with Rogier. Rogier does a form of acro-yoga massage. As the name suggests, acro means in the air. The short term for acro-yoga massage is “flying”. Toward the end of our session, Rogier did some of this type of work. The experience was truly incredible. To be suspended in the air and moved through different positions requires a certain amount of trust and release of control. The most loving and tender part of the time was the ending where he returned to the ground surrounded in a hug. As he was doing this part and I looked around, almost the whole class was watching. Several people commented on how incredible it was to watch. And while I’m sure it looked incredible, it felt even more incredible to experience this type of work.
The People You Meet
One of the most beautiful aspects of traveling is the people that you meet and connect with along the way. People come into our lives at specific times and for specific reasons. And even though your paths may briefly cross, sometimes that person can have a profound effect, like a stone being thrown into a pond changes the water with the ripples it creates.
My normal haunt for dinner is the Chiang Mai Gate market. True, it’s not very adventurous to eat at the same place every night; however, it is a lot like cooking your own food every night, just without the effort. Tuesday night at the market was crowded, with all of the tables filled. At one of the tables was an individual dining solo. Not being particularly shy and knowing it is generally a custom in a lot of countries to share a table with strangers, I asked him if could join him at the table. He said I could so long as I didn’t mind sitting among the trash. As I watched him try to eat his pad thai, I finally couldn’t take it any longer and gave him a lesson on the proper way to eat the noodle dish gracefully. Mike, an American turned Canadian, and I talked for a very long time about a broad array of topics interspersed with moments of very cerebral humor. The capricious amount of witty banter was much appreciated. It was the start of a very interesting friendship that grew over the next few days.
Wednesday night we met again for dinner. When eating at the street vendors it is custom to order your food, eat and then pay before you leave. Mike is just one of those people where conversation comes easily. We were so engrossed at the end of dinner that both of us said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Fortunately I was taking the long way around the outside moat road looking for a gas station, when I realized that I left without paying for my dinner. Taking the next turnaround I zipped back to the night market and paid for my dinner amongst a profuse amount of apologies. The vendor laughed when I apologized and said she forgot too.
Massage class is a petri dish for meeting and connecting with people. The advantage is that everyone is there for a common purpose and has the fact that we are body workers in common. Having 20 people in class made it difficult to really connect with the group as a whole. Even by the last day there were a couple people whose names I didn’t even know. At the same time, it was possible to establish some very strong connections with people. Justine, a cheerful and kind woman from the UK, and I hit it off almost immediately. Sophie and Melody were also quick connections. The deepest connection I had was with Rogier, a wonderful and kind man from Holland. A testament to when the timing is right; we didn’t actually connect until we worked together Thursday afternoon, yet that connection had the most profound impact on my week.
Just as important as meeting new people is seeing old friends. Many of my friends from Elephant Nature Park have moved away from Chiang Mai. Lek and Chai are the two friends that I have seen most consistently over my travels. Even though we don’t talk as regularly as we used to, we are still friends and still make a special effort to see each other.
Friday night Lek and I were able to meet. She picked a meeting location that she knew I could find, just down from where I used to stay. I parked my motorbike, grabbed my helmet and jumped on the back of her cute orange, almost vintage looking, motorbike. First stop was dinner at a small place on Sirphon Road (the north inside moat road). I took one look at the menu which was entirely in Thai and told her to order for us. We had tom yum goon, fried fish with garlic, and vegetables. We spent dinner catching up and talking about the fact that we have known each other for 5 years already.
After dinner, Lek felt like going to Zoe in Yellow, a bar that is popular for farang (foreigners) and for dancing. A friend of hers was there and invited us to join them at the table they were at. In retrospect, ordering the bucket of mojito for Lek and I might not have been the best move. Somehow by the end of the night, we did manage to drink the whole thing. In the process we ended up actually dancing for awhile. I haven’t danced like that in a long time. Was really nice to relax and enjoy spending time with a very dear friend. At the end of the night, which was about 1 AM, Lek drove me to my motorbike. From there she followed me all the way back to Inspire House just to make sure I made it ok.
Chai travels for his work, which is driving a van for tourists. Most often he is in Chiang Rai. In the blur that was my week, I forgot to contact him and let him know that I was in Chiang Mai, just in case he was able to meet me. Friday morning Chai saw the post of Lek and I on Facebook. Turns out he was in Chiang Mai for the night. Unfortunately for me, he had to work almost all day on Saturday. The beauty of my Thai friends is the lengths they will go to in an effort to see me.
Typically I am ok with Thai time. When it comes to travel arrangements and Thai time, I struggle somewhat. Chai offered to pick me up at Inspire House and take me to the bus station so that I could see him for a few minutes. Saturday happened to be the day that the Chiang Mai Flower Festival parade was happening, making traffic a nightmare. The trip that would normally take maybe 5-10 minutes ended up taking him about 30 minutes. As the time grew nearer for me to catch my bus he finally said that it might be better for us to meet at the bus station instead. Arriving at the bus station at 6:05 for my 6:15 bus, I checked in my luggage and anxiously waited for Chai to arrive. Not having been to the bus station in a long time he didn’t realize that Nakonchai Air now has its own terminal in the bus station complex. Mere moments (6:11) before I needed to be on the bus he made it there to say hello. It was good to see him and I felt guilty that we didn’t get to spend more than those few brief moments.
Even More Ruins
At the end of a very full and very quick week, it was time for me to head south to Buriram. The bus ride from Chiang Mai to Buriram is a 12-hour overnight trip. Fortunately the buses Nakhonchai Air uses are very comfortable, especially the VIP seats at the front. For $24, the VIP seats are worth it as they almost fully recline. Part of the bus experience in Thailand is the sometimes too loud Thai music and then short movie. Fortunately with the overnight trip, about 3 hours in they turn the tv off so everyone can sleep. Until then I made a valiant attempt to drown out the noise using my iPod.
Ever since I have come to the Surin Project, I have wanted to make a trip down to the Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung ruins. Generally my travel plans have prevented this from happening, so this time I made a special effort to get there. Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is a former Khmer temple that was part of the Khmer empire that extended from Angkor Wat in Cambodia deep into Thailand in the 9th to 11th centuries. The temple is also the best example of Khmer architecture in Thailand.
The ruins are located a mere 70 kilometers or so from Buriram. The options for getting there are to take a bus to a small town and then a motorbike taxi from there, hiring a taxi from Buriram or renting a motorbike. As is my way, I opted for the motorbike. When I went to rent a motorbike from the place I was staying, you would have thought that I suddenly sprouted a third eye the way the woman looked at me. After emphatically suggesting the taxi approach and me emphatically insisting on motorbike, she helped me locate a place to rent a motorbike that included a helmet. Jintana Resort, where I am staying, has a motorbike to rent but no helmet. In Thailand, helmets are compulsory even if this law isn’t always particularly enforced for Thai. For farang (foreigners) the law is almost always enforced. Not to mention the safety factor.
Armed with a not-to-scale map and a practice of holistic navigation, I jumped on my yellow and black motorbike that I immediately nicknamed Bumble Bee Jr. (after the transformer) and headed off. For those unfamiliar with the concept of holistic navigation, it is the practice of heading off in what you assume to be the right direction and hope for signs that you made the right choice. Occasionally this method has resulted in some interesting adventures to places I didn’t expect. This time, according to the blue tourist attraction signs, it worked out pretty well.
Zooming down the road on a motorbike through the sun bleached plains, sometimes strange and interesting sights briefly catch your attention: cows grazing on the side of the road; dogs lying in the sun; motorbikes coming at you on the wrong side of the road; cars coming at you passing another car on a bridge where the road narrows, a large concrete Buddha being constructed on what I’m assuming is the site of a future wat (temple); tourist attraction signs for Thai Silk Village; large fiberglass crane statues marking the entrance to a bird sanctuary; the Thai Cowboy Hat Factory. (Who knew there was a Thai Cowboy Hat Factory?!) The most interesting phenomenon was the waves of cool air fighting with the hot midday sun. Even though the fields looked dry and brown, enough water must have been present to create a swamp cooler effect.
Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is situated at the top of a dormant volcano. “The approach to the temple is pretty dramatic [when approached from the east]”. Unfortunately I read that part in my guide book after parking at the west entrance. To get the full effect I opted to climb down to the eastern entrance and then come back up to the main prang (temple building). The guide book was definitely correct. The approach is symbolic of the journey to the heavenly palace of the gods. The 200-meter-long avenue is paved in large stones leads to several flights of stairs leading sharply up the mountain. Along the way are bridges adorned with 5-headed naga (serpent) balustrades and the feet of what were once guardian sculptures protecting the path.
While definitely not on the scale of Angkor Wat, the architecture that has been immaculately restored is impressive. The Khmer practiced Hinduism. The Buddha statues typical of Thai religious buildings are replaced with Shiva lingam, the sacred symbol of Hindu worship. The ornate carvings that adorn the inside and outside of the prang depict Hindu creation myths. The use of primarily stone in the construction has allowed these building to persist for centuries.
Next stop on my tour was Prasat Muang Tam, located about 8 km down the other side of the hill. While not as impressive as Prasat Hin Khao Rung, the ruins are still fantastically preserved. One of the features of Khmer or Hindu architecture is the symmetry of the buildings where the doorways between galleries and the inner buildings all are in alignment, creating an endless path that diminishes into the horizon.
Again reaching my fill of ruins, I began the journey back toward Buriram. Relying on my holistic navigation and the desire to see a bit of potentially different countryside, I continued in what would be a loop back to Buriram. Doubting my sense of navigation at one junction in a small town, I opted to actually ask which direction to go to get to Buriram. Again, you would have thought a third eye suddenly materialized on my head as I told the gentleman that I asked that I was going by motorbike. He kindly pointed me in the right direction (which is the direction I would have taken) and after a typical chat of “where are you from, “what is your name” and “how long are you visiting Thailand”, I was back on the road.
About 10 km outside of Buriram, I came across the Khao Kradong Volcano Forest Park. In no real rush to get back to Buriram and needing a break from the motorbike seat, I stopped for a visit. The steep 101 step staircase lead to a very large gold seated Buddha keeping watch over the plains. The view from the top was impressive and dramatic as far as how quickly the dormant volcanoes rise from the flat plains. After a short tour of the few buildings situated around the Buddha statue, I made the much easier climb back down the mountain and back on my motorbike.