SE Asia — II: Chiang Mai

I fell asleep on the bus and woke up miscellaneously through the night, but mainly in Chiang Mai at the beginning of the next day, feeling unexpectedly well rested. I jumped into a tuk-tuk—for the first time—and told the driver to take me to the city center, wherever that might be. He dropped me off right next to the Thapae gate. I had to discover that name by looking it up in the map, because I wasn’t aware that Chiang Mai had such a thing as gates. Here was one, though, allowing passage through an orange brick wall twenty feet high and nearly as thick, topped with battlements and guard posts that must have been manned in another era. Only pedestrians and motorbikers could use it, since it was set on the edge of a moderately sized pedestrian town-square sort of thing. Later on I would find people playing guitar and drums under the trees on this square.

Before anything else, I looked after my two most pressing matters: food and finding a cheap home for the next few days. Right next to me was a hip-looking little restaurant with wooden furniture, and though I had heard that tuk-tuk drivers usually drop you off at expensive places that give them a commission, after some not-terribly-energetic looking around I didn’t find anything else, so I stepped in and had some kind of curry, which continued my streak of loving every food made in Thailand. I took the opportunity to collect my wits and try to absorb information from my guidebook. Once I finished I had arrived at the conclusion that my best strategy would be to wander around nearby and find something cheap. It worked: I found a place with very basic rooms that suited my hobo sensibilities just fine, and a garden shaded by a massive tamarind tree with seats that were perfect for hanging out but unused at this morning hour, and paid 150 baht ($5) for a night. I left all my stuff there except a little money and the clothes I was wearing. That done, I stumbled into Chiang Mai unencumbered and with no idea what to do with myself.

I walked through the gate into the old city, enclosed by the wall, which is a square about one mile to a side. I rented a bike from somewhere and just started going around the city. There was a sanctioned list of interesting temples to see in my guidebook, and that seemed like a good way to go about things, so I went to each one in turn. As I biked around, I noticed that, for a Thai city, Chiang Mai is oddly short on Thai people. All the signs were in English. And they were for things like cafes and restaurants (with a selection of Thai and Western food) and clothes stores. For the moment, though, I didn’t worry about the fact that Westerners had taken the city over completely; I was too charmed by how nice a place I had found myself in. The food was delicious and cheap and everywhere; the transportation was all low-powered, mainly bikes and motorbikes (southeast Asians do love their motorbikes); it was quiet; and the buildings were inviting and often interesting, for example the wall. There was just an atmosphere that I could inhale for years. If I came upon an American city like this, I would start looking for real estate.

The temples were smaller than similar ones I’d seen in Bangkok, but nice enough, even if they all kind of started blending together after a while. Here’s one:

After two or three, I kept on going to the next ones more out of a sense of duty than out of a desire to see the next interesting temple. Each one had several hundred years of history and an interesting backstory that made it different from the others, but I never really knew the history or the stories; all I saw was the present. (Except for the one time when a guy who teaches the monks school lessons was sitting out front of a temple and told me a story that I managed to forget within a day or so.) And I wasn’t even Buddhist, so I couldn’t go in and bow three times to the Buddha image at the front of the room like everyone else, or at least not without feeling ridiculous. Still, I took lots of pictures, mainly of all the patterns, which are everywhere. Micah told me before I left to keep an eye out for cool patterns. I’ve got dozens of pictures of patterns to share with him now. And the advice: if you want inspiration for patterns, move to a Buddhist country. They pave the streets with them.

Templed out, I pedaled out to the river east of the old city to see life there. It was much more Thai away from the walls, and much more crowded as well. Small markets were budding and blooming in several places, and there were motorbike repair shops and furniture stores and other practical things that a real city needs besides restaurants and cafes. This made me feel a bit more like I was on Earth. Then I just zigzagged around and enjoyed being in warmth during the throes of January in an incredibly laid-back place, until I went back to the hostel to find some phone numbers. Ahead of time, I had gotten in touch with a few people from college who I’d never really known but who went there at the same time as me and were now in Chiang Mai teaching various things. I asked the proprietor if I could use the phone, but apparently she doesn’t have one. Then a girl sitting at one of the tables under the tamarind tree said, “You can use mine.”

I arranged when to meet, and since it wasn’t for about half an hour, I ended up talking with her. For a vague assortment of small reasons, I think I’m just going to call her H. She’s from Berkeley, and she had just been working at a program where she taught teenagers about elephants. There’s a wealth of places around Chiang Mai that you can go to to buy pictures painted by elephants, or learn how to ride them, or train to be a mahout (elephantmaster) for about a day. H was working at a place built to counteract all of these other places, which apparently get the elephant to be obedient by repeatedly poking it with a sharp stick until its soul breaks, an idiom that’s the same in Thai. She also told me that along the Thai–Burmese border, they use elephants to search for landmines, and consequently some of the elephants she was caring for with the help of teenagers were minus a foot. H loved the program immensely, but was still reeling at the moment because she’d just been kicked out of it during a scandal to do with strictly enforced lights-out hours, and I became a person she could safely spill everything to, since all her other friends were asleep in American time zones. She told me about herself and it turned out she was a really great person, and we got along instantly and kept getting along. But then I had to leave.

I met Aki, Alison, and Vicky at an ice cream place well to the east of the wall and the river in a part of the city where there were lots of actual Thai people, and we had Thai food together (one of them finally caved in to her urge to try entrail soup), and we talked about college and what we’ve been doing since and what we might do in the future, if we decide to have a future. They also told me about stuff to do around town, and I made a mental note of all of it. Then, since I didn’t really know them, we kind of ran out of things to talk about, and we parted cordially and I was on my own again.

So I went to the night market, because H had told me there was a beer garden and I’d never actually been to a place calling itself a beer garden. The only thing I had to go off of was Daniel Pinkwater’s description of Ben Beanbender’s Beer Garden, located in Tintown, a suburb of Baconburg, and arrived at by taking an underground street named Lower North Aufzoo Street. It’s probably my favorite location in all of fiction. His description of it is a bit long for me to slip in here as a casual aside, but briefly, it’s made of a circle of old trucks and train cars, and the tables are spools and whatever else was handy, and it’s lit by candles, and you can get a rich frothy beer plus a baked potato filled with butter for fifty cents while you watch singing chickens or people dancing with beers balancing on their heads or get talked to by the Grand Shapoo of the Church of the Holy Home Run. And if you’re still curious you can read a little more here, or better yet read the entirety of The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death.

This meant I had high expectations, but fortunately I didn’t expect any place in the real world to actually live up to them, so I wasn’t too disappointed. After I made my way down a line of stalls selling really cheap pure silk scarves and nifty trinkets that almost made me wish I were more materialist so I could buy them and derive satisfaction from the act, I turned down an alleyway and found myself in an open-air space, without any particular shape that I could tell, lined with good stuff. Down one wall was a line of counters where you could buy food (which I did even though I’d eaten) and fresh fruit juice shakes and beers. Nearby was a stage where women were dancing Thai dances, though they had the tired look of people who do this every night. Over to the side were numerous places to buy cool hats or new wallets or pizza. And back behind me was an abundance of massage chairs where I could get a masterful massage for $5 an hour. I sat down at a plastic table near the dance stage with a fruit juice shake and ended up talking for a long time with a German anthropologist, which was more interesting than it might sound because we talked about the native hill tribes in this area. These are peoples who’ve been living out in the middle of nowhere all over this country and the others around the region for hundreds or thousands of years, with traditions spanning that whole time, but have lately become a curiosity for tourists, causing them to change all their patterns and start performing their showiest yearly rituals daily so people in T-shirts can take lots of pictures. We agreed that this was a travesty.

He departed and I got a Thai massage, which was supremely satisfying but would’ve been even more so if my masseur hadn’t been a very small, light man. My knotty muscles craved something more brusque. But I still walked home rather refreshed.


I woke up ready to cook. I had booked a spot in a cooking course and I headed straight over to it, arriving early for the 9:00 start. I took a seat on the floor around a low table in a room open to the outside with some people from various parts of the British Empire, and then our tecaher came in and told us a bit about the basics of Thai cooking. But before we could eat we had to get good and hungry by going to the market. It was an amazing place. So many weird new things!—rambutans, blood cubes, morning glory stems, freshly shredded coconut, dragonfruit, pig offal—and that was just the beginning of it; I could have asked “What’s this?” for hours. The teachers of the three groups of the course bought stuff and we went back and got to cooking.

I was content as could be learning how to make all this extremely delicious stuff. We got to choose from three different things during each of six different slots. I picked pad Thai, which is easy and I’m going to be making it all the time; spring rolls; coconut milk chicken soup, which sounds weird and which I’d never tried, but it’s awesome; red curry paste; deep-fried bananas; and khao soy, a local dish made with curry and deep-fried noodles. Between each food we all got time to sit around the table and talk and digest. Thus I passed much of the day. I have to say, it was pretty darn relaxing, a lot of fun, and one of the tastiest days I’ve ever spent.

At 4:00 I was turned out onto the street with a new cookbook and a full stomach, and tried to figure out what else I could do today. If I’d had more time, I might’ve been content to sit under the tamarinds and relax with a book or draw something, but I’d given up books as a time-wasting luxury during these action-packed three weeks, and instead resolved to see the sun set from Doi Suthep, a shining silver temple built atop the highest hill northwest of town. So I got on my rented bike and rode.

It was too far, not by just a tantalizing small distance but by ten kilometers. I thought it was just outside town. But what was just outside town was Huay Kaew Waterfall, where I was free to climb until I reached a place where I couldn’t go any further without gecko feet. Once I got there I turned around and discovered that I had a view of everything. The sun was setting over all of it, and it was golden. I found a trail that led to a higher vantage point so I could see more of everything. There I let the day finish and the light drain away.

Biking back to town, I ran across H telling stories of her life, which is governed by unbelievable coincidences, to a woman who would have died in the 2004 tsunami in Phuket if her then-boyfriend hadn’t botched their scuba-diving reservation. I didn’t have any really good coincidences to share, besides when I was working at Manito-wish and I discovered I had a mutual friend in Cincinnati with another person working there, and then discovered I had a mutual friend in Cincinnati with a totally different person working there, and they were the same friend, but I sat down with them anyhow. I listened to stories that a fiction writer wouldn’t be able to get away with, like the time H met a guy in Panamá and thought in passing, “He’d be a great boyfriend for my friend,” and then three years later met that friend of hers in a different country, maybe a different hemisphere, and discovered that she was in a relationship with that exact man. Then after a while we strolled to the night market together and walked around looking at knickknacks and eating at the beer garden. We continued to have a great time together, and decided that tomorrow we should go on a bike ride together up to Huay Kaew waterfall, Doi Suthep, and a Hmong (hill tribe) village near there. All this getting along might lead you to an easy conclusion, but terribly dishearteningly, she’s not into men.


Even so, we still did that bike ride, after hanging around all day together and wandering around half-randomly. We stopped in at the waterfall first and hung out on it.

Then we took the trail well farther than I had, leading us to an enormous rock that had presumably once rested on the ground, but had now had all the soil below it undercut by erosion, so it was now suspended anywhere from zero to seven feet above the rocks below it, supported only by the other rocks next to it that it was connected to and that were connected solidly to the ground. A caveman could live a pretty good life under there, getting water from the stream, swimming below the waterfall. We wanted to swim, but when we looked at the tire swing, it was being used by a gathering of fun-seeking orange-robed monks, who aren’t allowed to be near women or immodest dress, which kind of put that proposal out. These monks are all around town, by the way, in the temples, on the streets. They make everything feel much more Thai. They’re a wonderful presence at any place besides a swimming hole. Instead of swimming we looked out over the town and had an unexpectedly deep conversation.

We had gotten this far, but Doi Suthep was an awful long way away on a somewhat expensive pickup truck ride, and H had heard stories that it was a tourist anthill. We looked at the signs near the waterfall for the Hmong village and concluded that it looked like they had to put on a constant farce of their old ways to impress tourists, and decided that didn’t look so great either. So we scrapped the plan and coasted back downhill to town.

We rounded off the night at a place blatantly called the THC bar, though pot is actually not accepted there—you just go there to connect with a person who’ll sell it to you. Instead what they have is a rooftop with carpets and low tables where you just lounge, rather as if you were high and lazy, and you drink beers. This is what H and I did, and we talked with a bunch of British and Australian girls, but I can’t make friends with people who are drunk, so I didn’t make any new friends there. I just talked a lot with all of them, and the conversations were of course totally deep, like drunk conversations are sometimes. We went to other bars, but by far what I enjoyed most was when, on our way home, we passed by a Thai guy playing his guitar and sat down at his table and talked with him. His brother showed up too. They’re building a guesthouse together. We talked about Thailand and tourism and it was interesting to get an insider’s viewpoint of all this stuff happening in Chiang Mai. And also we drank and played guitar, because it was far too late to be serious all the time.


That was about it for Chiang Mai. I got up, went with H to have khao soy that the Thai guy with the guitar had recommended to us as the best in the city, and then got on a bus and left. But that’s for next time.

File under: adventure, food · Places: Thailand


Anonymous

History

What a great adventure. Since you have a new cook book, I hereby appoint you chef at the Troxel household, for a day, when you return. By the way I love Curry. I love these stories and look forward to them. G.Pa.

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Anonymous

History

Even more interesting than the first installment, if that is possible. My admiration for you continues to grow. Keep it up. I can enjoy the stories knowing you are back safe now. Grandma

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Chuck

History

I meant to note that almost everything besides the pad Thai requires weird ingredients that would be hard to find back home. Not even sure if I could find some of the things that go into the curry paste, anywhere—like kaffir lime peel, sweet basil, galangal, shrimp paste. But I'd love to cook a bunch of stuff when I get back. Thai lunch, Korean dinner, perhaps.

I was wondering—do you guys think these are too long and detailed, or not long and detailed enough?

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Anonymous

History

I love the fact that you found dragonfruit! That was a real treat I discovered in Vietnam, and have tried to find elsewhere ever since. (And no, they don't have it at Jungle Jim's! It doesn't keep that well. I don't know if it's ever imported to the U.S.) But I'm curious if you or they did anything with it besides cut it open and eat it. It is yummy just that way!

Aunt E.

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Chuck

History

They had dragonfruit at Jungle Jim's last time I went there. If you're in town again, check them out again… I guess they've improved their delivery system. Becuase I'd had it before at Jungle Jim's, I didn't actually have any while I was there (I think… but actually, maybe I had a little, I don't know). I think just eating them straight is all they do with them. And they are pretty delicious.

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Anonymous

History

Your writing is perfect. We need to compile all these into a booklet so we can keep it. Maybe you'll do that, too, someday. Don't cut out one single word. Grandma

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