fivetospare

Cheng Chin Yuen

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Chiang Mai (Part 2)

Kneading the Flesh

We received our certificates for the completion of our 5-day Thai massage course in front of Dr Shivago himself. Seated among fresh flowers, The bearded Shivago looked on stonily as our teachers Amnat and Pam handed us our graduation papers in the tiny chapel tucked in one corner of Wat Pra Sing, the royal temple of Chiang Mai. What a nice way to end the course or rather begin the journey into this realm of relaxation. There are supposedly 72,000 sen or energy lines in our body and armed with the knowledge of 10 of them, I should have the ability to make a difference…after all it was a 10 second earthquake that released the 10 metre tsunami.

30 hours of muscle mangling vaporised all too quickly. In exchange, I have now acquired 116 ways to give you…sensations of sorts. It is not in my head yet but we have a yellow ‘mi ji’ to refer to lest we forget. Thanks to technology, I’ve got the complicated bits down on video too. If my Pro 1 hadn’t died, I would have the whole 90 minute routine which we are suppose to be able to deliver down in digital. My search for guinea humans is now officially on! For all who are willing, daring or stupid enough, feel free to drop me an email. First five victims no charge, after that it will be a reasonable S$50 for a 90 minute session (insurance not included but indeminity form is).

The course was much more than what we bargained for and giving massages to Karen, Meghan and Igor was one sensational trip. For one, Karen is so petite, I had to take care not to break her back. Igor is German, weighs 90 kilos and stands at 1.87 metres. Meghan’s physique squares with mine so we had a good range of bodies to work on. It is indeed a pleasure to be a giver of as Pam puts it ‘good pain’. If you ever have a week to spend in Chiang Mai, spend it with the Khunchamnans (09-9526407 is the magic number to call). This Thai-American husband and wife duo really know their stuff and have the heart, ability and experience to teach it properly.

I have purchased 2 foldable massage futons for 2180 Bhat and will ship them home on Monday.

School Visit 1

We visited a Yuparaj High School after massage class one day just in time to see them make their final preparations for their Sports Day. It was quite a mega-lesson for me. Yuparaj is 100 years old and is the premier high school in Chiang Mai. It's name was given by and takes after one of Thailand's Kings. For a population of 4000 12-18 year olds there were 122 teachers. This combination ends up in an average class size of 60! School starts at 8am and ends at 4.30pm. Their canteen is 3 times the size of your average school hall. The track for the running events is painted on the grass of the large school field. It has only 5 lanes for the 5 houses. Students are allowed to bring handphones to school and rules on grooming seem to be rather laxed. Girls wore all sorts of earrings and boys had rings on their fingers. The students or at least the hundreds who were in school from 4.30 to 5.30 then were the liveliest I have seen. Everyone was involved in some way or another. Massive 2 storey 'House' (as in Red House, Blue House) decor were being erected at the respective modular grandstands around the field, cheerleaders were busy synchronising their dancing, runners were doing their last minute barefooted sprints, bamboo scaffoldings were being constructed, banner painting on the canteen floor, someone was operating an electric saw, metal supports were being transported in on the back of a pickup...all in all the school felt ALIVE and the best thing was it was student-driven. Hardly any teachers were around to supervise. No one seemed to worry about the integrity of the scaffold, the 50 cm parang lying in the corner or the very rusty saw two boys were using. Students were being true students here! We happened to approach the most popular parent around who happily introduced us to the Loy Kratong Float Construction Team, a few teachers, the Headmaster himself. The Kratong float had probably a few hundred thousand pinned sequins on it styrofoam frame. One bald teacher had two fine lines of smudgy tattoos across the top of his scalp. Parent Number 1 even phoned her well-mannered daughter to come and answer our questions. Her name was Candy and she spoke excellent English and told us that the students had to raise money for their Sports Day contraptions. They had to draft letters which would be signed by the Headmaster if they made the grade and then sent out to the potential sponsors. In return they helped advertised their products during the event. Sounds good eh?

Well it is not all that paradisical. We returned the next evening just as the Headmaster was making his closing speech. Half the kids were either talking loudly or running around. They only quietened down when the school song and National Anthem was played over the speakers. The second disturbing fact were the many effeminate teenage boys around. The ones with makeup in the dancing squad of each House deserved special mention. This seemed to be well tolerated in school. The third problem lay in the many boys that lingered outside the gates at dismissal time on their Honda Dreams waiting for prospective and probably female pillion riders. I would like to think that they were older brothers fetching their sisters home but the years in the discipline department has thought Number 1 says it’s a good thing.

I remarked to Candy that the students in her school seemed very alive and I liked the bustle and atmosphere of the occasion.

‘Well…it’s not always like that’, she replies.


School Visit 2

Today I visited another school. This one had only boys who according to the teacher I spoke to were classified into ‘Students, Novice monks and Monkeys’. It wasn’t exactly the RI of Chiang Mai so the facilities were a little lacking. It was the kind of school with only 15 instruments in their band room. Still, I was impressed with the boys who were actually doing the cleaning up after class. They were sweeping and picking up the class litter even though no one was supervising except for Buddha and the King who were watching from the front wall. A teacher here earns about 10,000 Bhat or S$416 a month. The trainee teacher I spoke to teaches English, was very inquisitive and took it upon himself to give me a tour of the entire school. En route, I spoke to other teachers and learnt that that boys are rather naughty. This was a relief as boys who weren’t naughty to a certain degree weren’t normal. My tour guide asked me to come and join in some school-based Buddhist celebrations tomorrow which is Sunday. The other teachers he introduced me to were very friendly and stopped whatever they were doing to chat. I think teachers everywhere speak a common language. I told them about ‘interactive IT lessons’ and their jaws dropped. There were only 7 computers in the computer lab and 1 in the teacher’s room. He asked me how I taught English which made me think about how I would teach English here without the IT infrastructure I was so dependent on. The novices were separated and had to study Buddhism which was the last lesson of the day. It was strange to know that when the Students were running and playing basketball, the Novice Monks where in class doing mental PE: Meditation. But I’m sure the Monkeys would find their way to the courts.


Eh…Ah Beng…Gam Siah

15 Bhat an hour internet places weren’t cheap enough for us. We were lucky and found a place for 5 Bhat less just opposite our Whisky Guesthouse. This stuffy joint is manned by a soft-spoken Ah-Beng with a hairstyle that looked like a rebounded mop. We left our camera at one computer terminal one day, took a tuk tuk to another part of town, realised that it was missing only 30 minutes later, PANICKED, took another tuk tuk back, ran into the shop and there he was. The saint that saved us 12000 Bhat (including 256 SD card and rechargeable batteries). He chuckled, ‘Ya, you forgot your karmarraaa!’ unlocked a cabinet and returned it to us. Later, we were politely told that our sigh of relief smelt of pork with basil leaves. Cheers and a BIG THANKS to the honest Ah-Beng who could have easily pocketed it for himself.


Laundry Kindness

After 5 days of massage course, we had a considerable amount of laundry to do. At this point in training, the therapists are still sweating trying to lift each others arms and legs. Laundry service is 30B a kilo or 30B per load if it's self-serviced. So the cheapo duo strikes again, choosing the latter which meant coming back after 1 hour to pickup the wet but washed clothing. We wanted to hang out at a coffee place with free Wifi so I asked what time they knocked off.

'Err actually...8pm'

'Oh no, it's already 7.30 (and I've just dumped the load in)'

'It's ok we (the chirpy laundry lady pointed to herself and partner) wait for you (pointed at us)'

'Ok thank you!'

I returned at 8.30 sharp but the machine was still tumbling.

'Oh not ready yet. Sorry. You sit down and watch TV. Another 10 minutes'

When Thai's say 10 minutes, it means at least 15 minutes. But it was fun sitting at her living area watching the Thai news. Thai people here are just so nice.

One Happy-Sad Ride

Ever met a kid who chews on CDRs? We took a tuk tuk ride one day and saw this boy sitting next to the driver of the pickup. There are 3000 of these in Chiang Mai and they form the city’s cheap public transport system. He must have been at least 13 years old. He was obviously retarded, turning around now and then to look at us with his dreamy eyes. When he wasn’t looking, he was biting his CD. Daddy drives on towards our massage school with one hand on the steering and the other affectionately patting his son’s head and playfully tugging his ears. He was a cheerful and smiley driver joking with his fellow drivers and us as we bargained. ’40 Baht’ ’40 Bhat?? No Mai Dai, 30 Bhat?’ ‘Ok 30 Bhat’ It wasn’t much of a bargain and we didn’t see his son then or we might just have agreed on the 40. What was the future like for this boy? Will he always occupy the passenger seat? How does Daddy keep the smiles going with such a dependent?


The Abbot Revisited

These are the good bits I left out from the Chedi post.

Words of Wisdom from the Abbot of Wat Chedi Luang

‘I like 2 things in San Francisco, Golden Gate and Alcatraz. Alcatraz very good, very quiet, good for meditation.’

‘I like casinos. They very important, they teach us how to lose.’

‘Singapore very good. No corruption. I not from Singapore but I very proud of your country.’

‘Very good’ (His favourite phrase)

Friday, November 11, 2005

Hi there!

The Luang Nam Tha post which follows is long overdue and is also the last entry for Laos. The relevant pictures are somewhere down the blog. Enjoy.

Chin Yuen

Luang Nam Tha (26 - 28 Oct)

The Nong Khiew well of goodwill wasn’t the only inroad China was making into Laos. On the last 20 or so kilometres to Luang Nam Tha, we were travelling on what was to be part of a superhighway that would link China to Thailand. Someone told us that the Thais started from one end and the Chinese from the other and they would connect somewhere in Laos. This highway is designed for commercial vehicles and will be about 15 metres wide. Alongside the heavy machinery from China were large placards with Chinese slogans which basically said ‘Safety First, We Respect the Environment’. The environmental destruction was massively obvious and these slogans only worsened the bitter irony. For that 15 metre width, twice the area upslope had to be shaved to reduce the risk of landslides. Large tracts of land had to be cleared for machinery parks and temporary cement factories. One such factory was just next to a village. I am certain that the lives of the villages are already changing. The rivers will choke during the rainy season and jungle resources will be now even further away. The situation will only get worse when the highway is completed. The last thing a subsistence farmer would need is pollution in all its various forms. Worse still, some families may abandon traditional farming for a traffic-dependent means of making a living. This would spell the nemesis of eco-tourism. Who wants to see an un-authentic village? The construction workers were all Chinese. Where were the Lao people in this venture?

US$10 got us a tuk tuk to explore one of the Lantan villages along the superhighway. Here, the women wore dark blue overcoats with a silver collar pin and white woven stockings. With Karen as a gauge, I know that they were mostly way below 1m 56cm. The staple here is corn, which they lock in raised granaries. In one of the villages we passed sometime ago, they separated the corn from the cob by spinning a bicycle rim. Like a motorised sander, the metallic edge would dislodge the corn and send them flying in all directions as long as junior back there keeps on pedalling. Beneath each house was a wooden loom which created small pouches the old women tried to sell us. There were also fishing nets and traps. Families of smelly pigs roamed and slept where and when they liked. No one spoke a word of English here and that was a pity. I would have liked to know how they felt about the highway slicing through their village and the cement factory that was beside it. We explored the village, careful not to mash the generous toppings of pig shit on the ground. Our initial plan was to visit a larger village ten more kilometres further up the highway but the on-going slope-cutting stalled all traffic.

It was Karen’s 29th birthday that night and we had an interesting dinner at the deserted Lao Lao restaurant. We finally had an occasion important enough to warrant a bottle of Beer Lao, which disappointingly tastes like Tiger Beer. Another word of advice for future Lao travellers; if you see the word ‘stew’ on the menu, it means an atomic bomb of local spices with a couple of meat pieces thrown in. Do not be surprised to find pieces of wood in this unforgettable and perhaps regrettable dish. It is only a forest spice one of the 12 or so different spices used. The other dishes were quite alright.

The second day in Luang Nam Tha was spent cycling to more villages see how the folks get by. Cycling here like in Vang Vieng actually meant mountain biking on a gearless bike. My front basket fell off its hinges due to the unevenness of the off-road terrain. Nevertheless, it was great fun biking to and through the villages of the different tribes. The Thai Dum or Black Thais seemed to be the most successful. They had vehicles, huge houses with satellite TV and their own kampong VCD supplier. Others ranged from basic to filthy. An excellent map enabled us to plan a 20km route that covered the villages of at least 3 different tribes. Except for Madame White Stockings, the other tribes looked similar. The closer you are to Nam Tha, the richer you tend to be, so it seems. It’s also a big bonus if you live along the main road leading into town. Well, according to the map, when completed, the superhighway would plough through 6 or 7 of such villages! Exploring the maze of houses in each village and stopping now and then to see how folks weave, make bricks, thresh their rice, pound the flour, draw water, farm and fish is really the highlight of Luang Nam Tha. The underlying intricacies of these daily activities are quite disarming if you can see them. The Ubin villages we once had was something like that. I offered a ride to a little girl who was on her way to school. She helped us out with some directions but was too shy or perhaps wary to take it. Lots of little kids walk a long way to school under the hot sun. The only wild life we spotted was a fairly large white bird with a black patch on its back.

That afternoon we experienced our first heavy downpour in Laos. Just after a long funeral train of pickups and 4WD vehicles went past us on our way back to Nam Tha, it began to pour. The nearest cover with a decent food supply was a homely little local restaurant by the 6 kilometre linkway that joined Nam Tha to its older center in the south. We wheeled our bikes under the zinc awning and looked forward to our 2.40 pm lunch of Kao Soy. The fermented soyabeans, rich pork broth and liver slices with kway teow was heavenly. It didn’t really matter that the glasses were so severely chipped that we could have easily left a bit of our lips in our complimentary diluted iced tea. Lady-boss also ran a dessert place outside the restaurant. Despite the rain, young girls would drop by on their bicycles and scooters to slurp up the local desserts. It could very well be an ‘All You Can Eat’ kind of system as these giggly lasses did not ever seem to finish eating. We began to suspect that auntie was doing it out of charity. Interestingly, in the 1 hour that we were there, not a single guy dropped by. More girls came and some had to be whisked off to make space on the single bench. Two who had to go left with enough dessert to fill an NTUC plastic bag! From where we were sitting, the desserts did not look too appealing but since the gang of girls were so into it, Karen sent me to get some. I approached the gang of 10 or so with extremely caution. I was male and they outnumbered me. Lady-boss alone had enough on her to break my bones. I, amidst tons of giggling, pointed to some royal-jelly-like thing one pretty girl was having, waited nervously for lady-boss to get it fixed and made a hasty retreat with the jelly. When I reached our table and was in a calmer state. I noticed that there was parsley in the cold dessert. The syrup also kind of smelt a little salty. And just lingering about 2 centimetres from the surface was the faint atrocious smell of sulphur. The egg white in disguise almost sent the Kao Soy coming back up my throat! It was the most un-dessert like dessert I have tasted to date and spice girls outside were addicted to it…

Thanks to the rain, we had a nice time observing Lady-boss and her fan club. The girls in Lao tend (or perhaps pretend) to be demure and shy in the presence of the opposite sex. It’s good they have their regular hangout to be a bit un-girly. As SEAL sings, ‘And we’re not gonna survive…unless, we are a little crazy’.

We saw more mainland Chinese in Nam Tha than in all of Laos. They seem to be doing well, setting up guesthouses, restaurants, and shops distributing products from the Motherland. We stayed in a spacious guesthouse owned by a friendly Chinese lady and it was strange to watch something which we could finally understand on her telly. From the tiniest toilet rolls to sending two men for a week’s holiday in Space…China is indeed a formidable force and they are certainly making their presence felt in Laos.

The Mother of All Boat-rides (28 - 29 Oct)

Besides the tribal villages in Nam Tha, the other main draw was the 2-day boat-trip down the Nam Tha River to the border-town of Huay Xai. The problem lay in the cost of the boat hire. It was a staggering US$136, much more than what we would usually spend in a week! Over the two days here, we stuck notices in our guesthouse, internet cafes, and at the pier where the trip started in hope of gathering more people heading the same way. We even stopped travellers on the streets and briefly (and politely) interrupted a few lunches. The folks at the Boat Landing Guesthouse (What an imaginative name!), which was beside the pier informed us that there was a couple who called in earlier asking about the same trip but they had already left the premises. It was the morning of our third day in Nam Tha and we were prepared to stay on to continue the search.

It was 8.30am and we where having our breakfast of baguette and mince pork omelette at ‘Banana Restaurant’. This was out of character as we usually preferred noodles at a more unhygienic and less farang-ised ‘roadside’ kind of haunt. A pleasant looking European couple were shovelling some grub when I unleashed my big mouth:

‘Hi, do you want to take the boat to Huay Xai? It’s…’

‘Mmmmphf…Yes’

It felt strange to receive an immediate favourable reply even before I finished the mandatory description of what the boat-trip was about and how much it would cost. After a few more unbelievable seconds, we realised that by some twist of fate, we had bumped into the couple who dropped by the Boat Landing Guesthouse earlier on! There were more than 10 restaurants on the main street in Nam Tha and here we were breakfasting less than 3 metres from each other. Happy to have found each other and more importantly to have saved some major dough, we packed up promptly, got a kind refund for the third night and soon found ourselves on the boat-ride that the Lonely Planet so highly recommended.

The river was scenic but up to this point in our travels, I have lost count of the number of boat-rides we had taken. Endau Rompin, Sungei Kinabatangan, Bandar Seri Begawan, Temburong, Mulu and Bako seemed to have grabbed all possible riverine scenery between them and the only difference the ride down the Nam Tha offered seem to be in its length. So, after an hour downstream, we half-regretted parting with the US$68.

The wonderful twist Fate delivered in the morning reached inertia and decided to obey Newton’s Third Law. The sunshine dissolved and from time to time when I peeped up to stretch my aching neck, it was into a synthetic maroon sky I saw ten centimetres away. The rest of the time, the ‘scenic’ river view was of the fine droplets that gathered on the hairs on my legs, a pair of severely goosebumped forearms (which also had droplets on their fine hairs) and the planks at the bottom of the boat 40 centimetres from my face. So, mathematically speaking, I was compressed into a vertical space of 50 centimetres. Occasionally, I would turn back to check on Karen, who had wisely made her SAF poncho easily accessible and thus escaped this torturous body position of trying to fit 63 kilos worth of mass beneath a small NTUC foldable umbrella. Ironically, the brolly was for the sun which I never really got to see. The rain came down long and hard on us and in a small boat, we were utterly cold, wet and miserable. The journey for the first day lasted 6 hours and the last 4 was totally rained out. It was still drizzling when we were climbing up the wooden steps that led up to our boatman’s house where we would stay the night.

5 Star Experience Hotel

We each had to pay an additional US$4 for accommodation, dinner and breakfast at our boatman’s place. Accommodation meant sleeping on mattresses on the floor of the hall. Dinner was instant noodles, a bowl of vegetables with 5 pieces of beef (yes, I counted) and a generous clump of sticky rice. Before you think I am picky, let me clarify that the vegetables and sticky rice was for the 4 of us to share! Breakfast was more sticky rice from the previous night’s dinner and a delicious dish of eggplant and bits of egg. We loved it. We were too tired to explain the concept of ‘value for money’ to the boatman and too grateful for the warmth and shelter of his home, just one of many stilted wooden houses in this remote fishing village. We soon realised that the ‘little’ we got was perhaps the local standard level of comfort. A baby made it 4 generations under one zinc roof and the family seemed to be eating no more than what we were offered. There was only one fluorescent light in the house and it was powered by a car battery. We couldn’t see our dinner and had to use our headlamps. It was really nice of our boatman’s mum to move the light closer to us while the family ate in the dark. She also gave us more sticky rice. Other that these little gestures of hospitality, the family showed little interest in us. It must have been the hunger but the one piece of beef that I had that night was mighty GOOD. I had a peek into the 3 tiny rooms in the house and there was no bed. After dinner, boat-mama started the dish washing by flinging the leftover soup and gravy over the little patio onto the pathway below.

‘I heard that’s how the Black Plague started…’ said Kristine ominously.

Kristine and Didize were our true friends in need of shelter just a while ago. They turned out to be Latvians. Latvians come from Latvia. That was all I knew about Latvians and Latvia so I was keen to finally be able to converse with them with the rain out of the way. They were the first Latvians I have met in my life. Kristine is 28 and she is the director of some big department in the Ministry of Justice back home. She looks like a distant friend of mine call Shien Whey. Didize is 26 and he is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Science and Education i.e. the next in line if the 30 year old Minister decides to retire at 31. What a country Latvia must be! I think they probably do their NS when they are 5 years old! Well, they did look a lot more mature than the two of us. We did spend a fair bit of time talking about our respective countries and travelling. They detested China and were heading towards Luang Prabang and Cambodia. Didize caused a minor storm of excitement in the house when he decided to whip out his laptop to show us a video of how terrible the ‘Thai-Chinese Superhighway’ was near the Huay Xai end. Their bus got bogged down in the mud and all the men including Didize had to get off and do some tugging. Anyway, Karen and I have this knack of meeting very accomplished and educated people. It was great humbling fun.

The four of us were the only tourists in the village which was inaccessible by road. So it was still a very authentic experience. The rain eased off just before dinner and a short walk down to the river and amongst the haphazard clutter of houses gave us a good idea of what these people’s lives were like. The river, like in Nong Khiew was of utmost importance. Beside the central well, there was a huge stereo setup beneath of the houses. A large group of half-drunk and half naked men relaxed to the hardly relaxing blasting of Thai techno. They invited us over for a whisky or two but we politely refused and went along quickly. Interestingly, all the family granaries were built at one end of the village and were kept under lock and key. Perhaps their concentration made guarding it easier. The Wat here was the only one we had been to in Laos where the monks openly asked for money. We saw farmers carrying buckets of chicken feed to the pens. They looked like watery vomit. The footpaths were muddy and some villagers and children moved about barefooted. From the boatman’s patio, we could look across into the houses of his neighbours. Two young girls were doing some washing on the open bamboo deck that adjoins the kitchen. This deck is quite multifunctional. Rainwater flowing off the awnings is collected in a corner tub and washing and the preparation of meals is done here. Excess water and food scraps are discarded between gaps of the bamboo flooring and drop to feed the pigs and chickens in the pen below. A couple of large rocks are placed beneath the deck to prevent the ground from becoming mushy. The view through the other window was of Granny from across smoking a hand-rolled cigar inside her little grocery shop. ‘Beer Lao for you?’, She rasped through clouds of rancid smoke. There was one man who repeatedly came over to sell us woven products, sticky rice baskets and all sorts of village handcrafts which somehow didn’t have a Latvian or Singaporean appeal. Fortunately he wasn’t very pushy but his persistence did surprise me. Kristine even commented that the woven kilts looked liked the ones back home.

The boatmen had a tough job. 6 hours of yanking, paddling and steering through rapids and rain and they had to fix our dinner, maintain the boat and carry a fat sack of rice to the granary. 136 dollars may not have been too much.

It rained through the night and into the next morning. So we were mentally prepared to be soaked through the second 8 hour leg of the journey. As we clambered down to the river in the rain, we saw that a tarp had been tied over a bamboo frame to create a shelter for us. It looked really flimsy but we were thankful for the boatman’s thoughtfulness. We must have looked really miserable the day before. The boatmen had no such luxury. All they had was a thin plastic poncho which they wore only when the light rains became heavy. Weather-proof the river people are. We also saw a fisherman casting his net in the middle of the river in the rain. He only had his underwear on. The second day was also rainy but with the simple but highly effective tarp, we couldn’t complain. We were too impressed with the tenacity of the river folk. Boatman-mama was helping to carry a heavy boat engine up the sand banks when we left the village.

The Nam Tha River finally joined the great Mekong and it was this portion which was the least scenic but most challenging for the boatmen. The Mekong was as shallow in many places as it was wide. It was the accurate reading of this ever-changing maze of sand-traps that stirred my interest. The boatmen knew exactly how to avoid these underwater obstacles and when to pull the throttle to slice the boat through the sandbars when there was no deeper channel. It seemed to take forever with all this intricate weaving and river-reading.

The boat stopped at a small landing beach on the Thai side before ending its run at Huay Xai. Here, our backpacks were temporarily removed from the boat and bundles of branches appeared from their hiding place below the planking. Their Thai counterparts quickly inspected the branches (by cutting little bits off and sniffing them), weighed each bundle, made a payment and off we went. They rejected one curved branch which the boatman cut into two and concealed beneath our backpacks. We guessed that they were involved in some illegal smuggling of Lao forest medicinal resources. Still I was again impressed with how these boatmen knew how to squeeze the most out of a long boat trip.

The one street little town of Huay Xai is as boring and exceptionally expensive as it could get. Internet was really crawling and the food was unexciting. We stayed here two nights though to recover from the long haul. If we had entered Laos from Huay Xai three weeks ago, the development gap between the two countries would be staggering. We decided to take a break from Laos to enjoy the comforts of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai but I think we would be back.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


One of the regular ads in the Bangkok Post.


No better name.


Land of a thousand smiles!


The boy who sold his little things.


Adam Clayton? Is that really U too?


Cute huh?


Walk with me now


Not all lie beneath


You get that head and I get that one.


Big Fish begin as Small Fry


The biggest tombok in the world!


Wonderful Tonight


Our regular dinner place. 20 bhat for good meal.


Comparative Religious Studies


Jap busker. Don't know what he sings but he's very cute to watch.


No caption pic


Busker Babe


You never give me your money...


My body after Thai Massage OD.


It's not in his kiss...It's in his eyes.


What would the 'ladies' be like? Thai creativity strikes again! Think simple!


All together now.


Gotta learn how to do that someday...


The Bad guy


We didn't start the fire.


Is that you Ben? What were you doing on my birthday?


Firemaster


Prince & Pauper


Hero Hailing


Sapu Lili?


The Culture we lack.


Temple Toppings


The far line that divides...


Don't mind me. I'm just playing with paper.


Naga bejewelled!


Exhausted in the Exhaust


Temple Tower


View of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthet

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Chiangmai Part 1

Chiangmai is slowly revealing her wonders to us with each passing day. Yesterday, we went to a small but well-used park in the southwestern corner of the city centre to relax and read. It was pleasant to be in a predominantly local area, free from rowdy farangs(foreigners).

Picnic mats were loaned out at B$10 and ice-cream and fruit peddlers patrolled this oasis of serenity keeping our tummies busily happy. It was indeed an oasis with a long central lake of sorts and a large pond at one end. My reading of 'Another Quite Amercan*' (A book about Laos which I should have read a month ago) by the pond was disrupted by two Thai ladies who threw some fish feed into the murky waters. Suddenly black catfishes, more than a metre-long poked their ugly wiskered head out of the water and gobbled down the brown little beads in seconds. There were at least 15 of them plus heap of other smaller (half a metre) fishes. So, quite naturally, the book was forgotten for the giant fishes. I wondered if any had been eaten and went out to check if the vendors outside had any BBQ drums 1.5m in length. Glad to report that there were none.

*This book is quite critical about the Lao government in the mid 90s and I did remember the nice owner of the secondhand bookshop in Vientianne telling me that it was a hard book to find. Now I know what he means. I am halfway done and happy to say that the Laos today has progressed quite a bit.

The other nice thing about this park were the numerous pidgeons that practiced their flock acrobatics from one end of the park to the roof of the pavillion right at the other. They didn't fly as crows would, but circled, zipped through trees and seemed to enjoy changing flight paths in mid-air. Sometimes, there would be a loud bang (from I don't know what) and the swarm would take flight to the other end of the park. That was quite a sight which somehow evaded my many patient attempts to capture on video. If only pidgeons didn't poo so much...

Chiangmai's Sunday bazaar that runs in the centre of the city is quite a good one. You know a night bazaar is right if the locals go there. The one designed for tourists lie outside the eastern walls and the only thing I found worth seeing were the artists there making excellent ink portraits of photographs. The Afghan Girl was the most copied 'piece of art'. Bob Marley is a close second. I really liked the drawings of the old tribal folks. They had more texture. Having deep wrinkles helps. Most of the drawings or rather black ink colourings here looked exactly like photographs! The half-completed ones had us baffled. These guys were good. We saw only one lady artist. 60 million Thais: so much talent to go round!

We met Abe from Japan. He is retired and had been living in Chiangmai for 5 years with his Godin guitar. When he is not drinking, he plays classical guitar outside a Jap owned restaurant by the streets. What a way to retire! Abe passes the guitar to Karen who managed 30 bars of 'Blue Moon'. Abe applauds heartily. There is his cute Jap friend, a tiny man who plays the three-string 'shansen' and sings songs nobody understands. The crowd he draws come to see him. Just imagine a small skinny Gandalf (yes with white beard!)with a beanie rasping on a Chiangmai street. Typically Japanese, they have the best amplifiers, effects board and guitars. On a table, a small DVD player shows a video of the duos previous street performances! Gandalf goes home with his stuff all piled up in a pram! That's being really cool!

The most interesting of all the many many interesting things I've seen in the night bazzar(the sunday one in the heart of town) was a bust-maker. If you want to have your head next to Mozart's or Beethoven's on your piano go to the little roadside stall outside The Garden Cafe! One other heartwarming sight was a small boy, right in the middle of the pedestrainised road, trying to sell off his little collection of toys. They were not Transformers or Gameboys but small plastic cars, playing cards, little figures and the like. I wish him luck and I also wish that the toys were indeed his.

Today, we visited Wat Chedi Luang, probably the most important Wat in Chiangmai since it also functions as the Buddhist College. I opened my big shameless mouth at the right time and we soon found ourselves in a 45 minute private lecture given by the Abbot himself. He was giving a Buddhism1101 mini mini-lesson to a group of American sponsors in a small auditorium which was built with their funding. We sat in as 'Singaporean friends'. Here are some things that is worth sharing:

1) Monk's eat only 2 meals a day, breakfast and lunch.
2) They don't buy their meals, they fan out in the wee mornings to collect (for the people) and come together later to eat.
3) Monks are not allowed to play soccer or basketball. Karen suspected that it was because their robes may drop off. I agree as monks are always readjusting their saffrons.
4) All monks in Thailand shave their head together when there's a full moon.
5) 4 most important rules: No killing, No sex, No stealing and my favourite...No boasting.
6) They have 227 rules in total. I wonder what the 175th one is...
7) Nuns? tougher luck, the last rule is the number 332nd one!
8) The difference between reincarnation and rebirth: The former, you come back as man. The latter, you may have 2 legs, 4 or 100. Best not to come back, mission mostly impossible is to go this final destination called Nirvana.
9) Monks do CIP at schools, orphanages, homes and prisons. They also help educate the public (especially the rural folks) that Aids is not an airborne disease.
10) Monks still have to pay for tuk tuk rides. Senior ones (the ones who look really really venerable, usually with specs) are often given free rides.
11) Only 10% of monks remain monks
12) There are forests monks and school monks. The former usually have a harder time finding enlightenment in the jungle and are free to come to the city to watch a movie or two. The reverse is also possible. Buddha was a forest monk happy under his tree.
13) Faith and Wisdom 'must go together, blind faith is no good' Mr Abbot says
14) The Mind is the most important in Buddhism. 'If you think good, you do good and you feel good' says Mr A again.
15) Everything is Impermanant. I like this one.
16) Becoming a monk is affordable education for the poor in Thailand. I like this too.
17) There is a Buddha statue for every day of the week. Even times of the day. I can't remember what the tuesday afternoon one looks like though.
18) Karma=do more good go up, do evil go down. There's this thing called Metta too which basically means Compassion.
19) Monk's possessions - 3 robes, 1 alms pot, 1 sandals (no nike, no reebok), needle and thread to mend robes, 1 shaver for head. I think he uses it for the other usual spots as well.
20) There are about 300,000 monks in Thailand. It is in slight decline since monks do not evangelise.

Final golden nugget from Mr Abbot,
21) 'The age you got is the life you lost' A little cynical and pessimistic but nicely put.

The Abbot is well travelled and a fan of Albert Einstein who says something along the lines of 'Faith is governed my Morality and Morality is governed by Science'. Buddhism is Science apparently. He also has 170 monks and novices under his charge in his temple.

I think he did a good job in securing more funding from these wealthy Americans. One of them was wielding a D2X. We did learn heaps from this 45 minute lecture. Much of it I don't understand the undelying deeper principles but well, nothing much to lose after the "Impermanace" Theory.

It was a good day.

Tomorrow massage course begins!

After that I'd better up some karma...

Chin Yuen