Sunday, November 3, 2013

Chiang Mai: In the Slow Lane

The hottest food I ever ate in my life was in a Thai restaurant in Kansas City. It was called Laab Salad. A pile of red (not tinted red, not raw, but chile red) meat piled on top of cabbage was a dish my friend Lester had been told to try. 
Dragon in a Chiang Mai park.

One bite and the top of my head blew off. I could not possibly drink enough water to put out the fire. Lester was beet colored and panting. I thought he might have a heart attack. Water streamed down his face and off the bottom of his ear like a little dripping faucet, wetting the front of his shirt in a long slash.

So when Rheta and I went down the street to a little open-air cafe, I had no idea what to expect. The woman running the place spoke no English but an older man at one of the plastic tables did. He pointed at some bowls and said HotHot. That was enough for me. I pointed to something else. The food was lined up in pots without signs, even in Thai. Only the cook knew what they contained. 

The not HotHot dish turned out to be cold but quite spicy. It had chicken, some vegetables, and came with a pile of rice in the shape of the cup that dumped it out. In addition, we each got a bottle of water and a plate with other cold crisp leaves of unknown origin. 

Against my normal admonitions, I ate most of the leaves. Apparently the Travelers Revenge so prevalent elsewhere is not so prevalent in Thailand where it rains often, washing the plants as they grow. The curry was excellent, and the rice toned down the spicy heat. Our bill arrived; it was almost $3.00 for both of us. 

I was in love with Chiang Mai right off the bat.

Our host told us about the red trucks and how the transportation system works. Within the old city, a mile square chunk of land surrounded by a moat, there are red pickups with camper shells over the back and outfitted with bench seats. We negotiated with the drivers, whose English was usually rudimentary, with a lot of pointing to places on our map. If he agreed to take us there, we’d hop in the back with others on their way to someplace. Eventually we’d hop off, pay him 20 Baht, and be on our way.

A street band playing at
the Saturday Night Market

At the Chiang Mai Gate to the old city, there appeared to be a permanent traffic jam. Most drivers would simply shake their heads if we asked to go there.

On Saturday and Sunday nights there are night markets; streets that are blocked of traffic and fitted out with thousands of tent vendors. We visited the Saturday night market and were astounded at the amount of merchandise available. It ranged from handmade teak frogs with ridged backs that you could “croak” with a little mallet, to the ugliest plastic jewelry from China that would probably break the minute you put it on.

We stopped on a side street where the University of Chiang Mai’s agricultural department was serving ginseng, mango, and other flavors of wine they’d manufactured. For 30 Baht we sampled several kinds and were suitably impressed.

Students from the School for the Blind stood together in little clusters, sang, and played lovely old Thai songs. They also have a massage school and though we never got a massage there, we heard they were exceptional. 

After the reopening of the prison, these monks walked
 home, one of them mindfully texting on his cell phone.
On Sunday, we wanted to get a massage at the Chiang Mai Women’s prison. The prison has a program where they teach the women, who only have a short time left on their sentences, a variety of skills so that hopefully they won’t return. The now-closed prison is in the center of Chiang Mai, and just across the street is a lovely restaurant and massage business run by the women. We signed up for massages at 2:00, and then wandered over to see inside the old prison. Some festivities were going on at the time, loudspeakers had been set up and monks were sitting, lined up in chairs, listening to a speech by an older monk. People brought baskets, decorated like Easter, with sticks coming out, laden with 50 and 100 Baht bills. In the bottom of each basket were various canned and boxed foods that monks might like to eat.

Across the street was a solid jade Buddha we’d seen a couple days earlier at a temple. It was no longer in the bed of a truck, but sitting on a pedestal in the courtyard of a small temple. I assumed the new Buddha was the reason for the celebration, but eventually we discovered it was the reopening of the prison as a public space that prompted all the speeches.

Wandering through the grounds of the prison, we were struck with how decrepit, stiff, and uncomfortable it must have been. It looked like it had been closed up and abandoned for years. Weeds grew out of every crack in the sidewalks, the razor wire was half down along the walls, paint was peeling everywhere, and the doors looked rusted open.

Steven, our host, said it had only closed three months prior. A new prison was built about an hour's drive from the city, and the prisoners are carted back and forth daily. The massages we got there were the best we'd had so far in Thailand. I asked the woman working on me if she enjoyed giving massages, and she said it was much better than in the prison where every day is long and boring. 

The reopening meant the city would now take it over and perhaps create an open space park, or performance center. It covered quite a lot of square meters, and had a sturdy wall to protect whatever they decided to build inside. In a few years, it might be worth a visit just to see what they make out of it.

One morning I woke up early and went for a long walk. There was a nice little temple just down the street so I wandered in to have a peek. It wasn’t closed, but didn’t look particularly open either. By the back door of the temple a little dog sat peacefully waiting. As I took his picture he leaped up and began to wiggle all over. I turned around to see three saffron robed men walking up behind me with trays of food.

I stepped aside and all four of them went into the temple. In a moment, the little dog came shooting out followed by a monk with food for him too.

I took my shoes off and entered the same door. The monks had put one tray on a little stand and were loading it up with small bowls of various curries and vegetables. I looked around, took a few photos of the amazingly bright paintings that covered the walls. They all depicted incidents, real and mythical, of the life of the Buddha. One showed his mother watching as he took his first steps, a lotus blossom appeared under each foot.

I sat in a chair backed up to a wall and just watched the goings on in the room. An older woman came through the front door with a plastic sack containing some food boxes. She knelt in front of the oldest monk who chanted and blessed the food, her, the room, and probably the whole world. It was lovely chanting, quiet and intimate. She unknelt in that graceful Asian way, rising up as if lifted by the air, backed up bowing, then turned to leave. He took the sack, unopened and placed it next to the other trays. Then he and the two monks sat on the floor in front of the large tray and began to eat.

Monks who asked me to breakfast with them.
I finally asked if I could take their picture. The older one spoke some English and asked if I would like to join them for breakfast. It looked like they had more than enough food, but I didn’t know how many other monks were around who might want to eat a bit later on, so I declined.  

It was a sweet morning, people connected with each other on such a fundamental and generous level. The woman who prepared and brought the food, the monks who accepted it and blessed in return, feeding the little dog,
the offer of breakfast to me….With no language barrier, it was simply human interactions happening naturally in a culture that values people more than

The blessing