Sunday, September 27th
The second Sunday after my arrival, having been in Chiang Mai for 10 days, I went on my second Chiang Mai Walking Tour. In this case, there was very little walking. Tony was going to take us up to the temple at the top of Doi Suthep, the mountain that features prominently in most of my westward photos, and stop at a number of other temples along the way. All of the walking tours that I’ve done (3 with Tony so far) have primarily featured temples, which I guess should not be any surprise. You don’t come to Chiang Mai for abstract art museums, nor for the world’s largest ball of twine. You come for temples, and by gods you get them!
(Not that you’d be disappointed if you came for other things, like Thai food, car exhaust, or sketchy internet service. But the temples are undeniably the main draw.)
I’ve included a map of our route — if you remember (or seek out) my prior Chiang Mai maps, this close up map is of the western area, and the big square of the Old City is just to the right of it. Amusingly, I learned yesterday that Chiang Mai means “New City”, which makes visiting that central section a bit amusing. I also learned that there are plans to turn the whole Old City area of New City into a bicycle/walking area, eliminating the cars that make the Loop of Death so, well, death-y. And they’re going to move the commercial businesses out to the east, so the central area is going to end up very scenic and modern and tourist-friendly. Whether one feels this is laudable or lamentable probably depends on your disposition, but it’s worth noting that even 50 years ago the Old City was much more sparse and tree-filled and less overbuilt, so this could end up being more of a return to its origins.
Anyway, here’s the map:
Our meeting place was Tom N Tom’s, a 24-hour cafe that I mentioned in my last blog post, across from the Maya and a short walk from my hotel. There were just 3 of us this time: since Tony was driving us in his car, he’d limited the group to 4, and one of the attendees got lost and couldn’t join us. So it was just Tony, me, Bruce (from the previous tour, see last blog entry), and a woman named Theresa. Theresa is maybe in her 30-40s(?) and has been traveling for a while, getting jobs teaching English wherever she goes. She had been in Chiang Mai for a few weeks, and was having some trouble dealing with the heat. She’s also allergic to sugar, and has a ridiculous time trying to eat anywhere. (I suggested NAET to her — it’s exactly designed for that sort of thing — but who knows whether she’ll follow up on it.) We waited at the cafe for a while, until it was clear that the missing woman was not going to make it anytime soon, and ended up leaving closer to 9:30 than our scheduled 9:00.
Tony had parked at the Eastin Hotel next door — where we stopped to use the lobby restroom on the way to the car.
We piled into Tony’s car and I rather accidentally ended up shotgun — and we kept to our same seats throughout the rest of the trip. I’d have felt a bit guilty about that, but I hadn’t claimed the preferred seat intentionally, and the guilt wouldn’t have provided much benefit.
Our first stop was the Huai Kaeo Arboretum — which clearly has the same name as the road that it’s on, though I’ve always seen the road is transliterated as Huay Kaew. The Arboretum is pretty enough, but it’s really just a park, with some statues, some gym equipment, and a few places to sit. I’d be tempted to seek it out, to hang out there and sit and read sometime, but it’s a little too close to the road’s traffic noise for my taste, and just far enough of a walk that I’m more likely to imagine doing it sometime than I am to actually do it anytime. Good enough.
The park also had a bit of wall that, once upon a time, used to surround this area, which was a separate city from Chiang Mai. There used to be 5 or 7 of these cities in the area, before some local ruler conquered them all and made Chiang Mai (the New City) out of them in an urban growth trial-by-combat. I’d show a picture of the wall, but my computer’s tired from uploading that last picture. And it’s really more of a hill — I don’t think it was ever much of a barrier to enemies, and doesn’t look like anything special. You’re not missing much.
The park did have a number of teak trees, indistinguishable from pretty much every other tree in the park. What am I, a botanist? As far as trees go, there’s oak, maple, willow, giant redwood, and then I’m out. I do recall Tony saying that teak was used for building because it is a very hard wood, has a pretty grain, and is resistant to insects. More importantly, he mentioned that the flowers are so poisonous that if they fall into swimming pools you can get sick and die from swimming in them. Don’t ask me to remember leaf shapes, but tools for subtle assassination stick surprisingly well in my memory. Go figure. I clearly missed a calling in life.
We got back into the car and drove down Huay Kaew Road a short distance, and then walked up to some-temple-who’s-name-I-don’t-remember. (Google suggests that we went back east before turning north to go to point #4 on the map, but that’s not really the route we took. Not that it matters.) There’s a good reason that I don’t know this temple’s name — it was pretty much ruined until just recently, and is now being restored. I should mention that our ultimate destination for the day, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep on the top of Doi Suthep mountain, is the chief temple of the province, has many other temples under its authority, and is rebuilding a number of the ruined older temples in the region — thanks to all the cash the tourist trade brings in. In fact, it’s rich enough that it’s a considerable source of charity in the area, and charitable projects will often submit proposals for funding to the temple as we would submit grant applications in the West. Tony helps/runs a small charity that helps the hill tribes, and has gotten money from the main temple to assist with that. It’s kind of nice to see a religious order sending money out again, instead of just building gaudier shrines and nicer monk’s quarters. (Not that the monks shouldn’t have nice quarters, but you know….)
So, this Wat No Name was being rebuilt. It had some fairly normal outbuildings and monk dormitories, and then a temple building (under construction) and a rebuilt stupa:
They also had a sort of meeting hall built, that I think they expect to use to host non-religious meetings also. It was a nice blend of modern and older architectural styles and colors:
This was my first chance to see some of the hyper-realistic monk statues, which they sometimes have at temples, here set at the entrance/exit to this place.
We walked back to the car, and drove a short distance to Wat Si Soda, an active temple in a largish complex where people often start their walking treks up to the main temple at the top of the mountain. (I should note that Doi Suthep is a mountain in almost exactly the way that the Santa Monica mountains are mountains, which is to say that they qualify as long as you don’t compare them to anyplace with the real thing. Still, it would be a legitimate trek to climb up and return, if you’re not a regular hiker.) The head of the Doi Suthep temples has his quarters here, and they have Buddhist prayers for tourists to join in, in order to gain merit. (In the usual way that visiting a religious site and participating in a session of rote prayers always results in actual spiritual gain.) (Not that I mean to sound all sarcastic about these things, but you know….) And they have some nice buildings:
From there we drove to Wat Pha Lat, which was especially lush and green and had a waterfall and also something like a billion Thai cicadas whirring, like someone was playing a particularly piercing crystal goblet the size of a city.
Theresa found it to be a rather annoying sound, but I thought it was very impressive. (I might feel differently if I lived at the temple.)
As I write this in the CAMP work space / coffee shop, we’re hearing waves of girlish screaming over what must be some boy band group somewhere in the mall. It’s an impressively loud noise — I can’t hear the group from here, but the girls are practically vibrating the windows.
From here, we drove a long way up a winding road to get to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, the big temple at the top. That was clearly a tourist center. Not that serious prayer didn’t happen up there; but everyone was going there, it was pretty crowded, and this is the low season. I can’t imagine what it must be like in the high season.
Remember my mentioning that Thai men all spend some time as monks after high school, with the default minimum service being 3 months. Our guide Tony did that, and he served here at this temple. I asked him, if this is the main temple of the region, it must be a pretty big deal to do his temple service here. How did he end up here? He grinned in acknowledgement, and admitted that his grandmother knew the head monk. I suspect that you don’t just “know” the head monk, and that Tony’s family has a certain status, but there’s only so far I’m willing to pry in such matters. Regardless:
From there, we made our way back to the car — passing up a chance to buy some fighting roosters — and then drove down the hill, having some great discussion of a nature too sensitive to repeat here on a public page. (Ask me later, in person.) And we had lunch at the Royal Project, a place across from the Arboretum that serves as a sort of clearing house for the craft and farm projects sponsored by the various members of the royal family. It was a good lunch, and I bought a package of Butterfly Pea Tea, which Tony spoke very highly of. It was Ok — but I was relieved to read the label and discover that it was not quite what I’d thought it was from hearing its name pronounced.
Afterward, Tony dropped Bruce and I at the Maya, and that was pretty much the day for me.
The Rest of the Week
The rest of that week passed pretty uneventfully. Eating, sleeping, reading, watching, hanging out at CAMP in the Maya mall using the high speed AIS Wifi to download videos and OS X and iOS updates, and occasionally grabbing a meal with Damien. My steadily disintegrating non-technical clothing necessitated buying a new shirt, shoes, and belt, and I seriously doubt that I’m going to be happy with the shoes. But after visiting two different malls and spending hours trying to find shoes that weren’t hideous and also fit me, I gave up and just bought something “good enough for now”.
My lightweight cargo pants are also fraying, and I’ve been patching them with my camping gear patches and with needle and thread. I’d buy new ones, but in 5 weeks I’ll be back in the U.S. and switch to my jeans, and probably never use summer-weight cargo pants again — or, not for a couple of years at any rate. No point in buying new ones now, I’ll just have to hope these hold together for just a little longer.
I didn’t get to see the “blood moon” eclipse — we were in the wrong part of the world for that — but it was still a pretty good supermoon:
So, overall, a good week.
I had planned to leap forward and cover the next tour, which was 5 days ago. But this ends up feeling like a good place to stop, so I will.