by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
My husband and I were visiting a 700-year-old Lanna-style pagoda in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Behind the graceful stone structure with protruding sculpted elephant torsos, a lone man played a saloe, a string instrument made from a coconut shell. We stopped to listen, and since my back was aching, I put my right foot up to rest on a small stone bench in front of the musician. Immediately, our Thai guide slapped my leg so that I would take it down. Although Thailand seems modern and contemporary, there is a yawning cultural chasm which makes a visit there exotic, exciting, and full of the unexpected. In Thailand, our guide explained, the feet are the lowliest part of the body. Pointing your foot at a person or a Buddha statue is considered a grave insult.
Everywhere in Thailand, a curious visitor can drop between the cracks of modernity and enter a fascinating universe of spirit houses (brightly-colored wooden mini-houses where the spirits of every plot of developed land are fed and housed), pieces of gold leaf (which are purchased at temples and stuck onto golden Buddha statues as offerings), edible fried insects (bamboo worms taste better than they look) and fortune tellers.
Even in Bangkok, which has undeservedly been branded a hellish city (the traffic and pollution don’t seem to be much worse than Los Angeles on a bad day), visitors can find daily free ritual dancing at Lak Muang city shrine, which is the spiritual heart of the city. When a person comes to Lak Muang to pray and his prayers are answered, he gratefully pays for a performance of the colorful and humorous folk dramas. In a temple across from the stage, off the radar screen of most foreign visitors, locals wait in line to lift a small statue of Buddha. If they manage to raise him up, their prayers will be answered. If not, the prospects are highly unlikely.
Not far from the Grand Palace and Wat Po, stunning temple complexes which are major tourist attractions, there is a little-known antique amulet market at Wat Mahathat (“wat” means temple). Most Thai people wear Buddha charms around their necks, and at the Mahathat street market collectors arrive with magnifying lenses to inspect the age and authenticity of the amulets. Prices are determined by the popularity of the images and the reputation of the monk artists who carved the amulets, but “farangs” or foreigners can make selections by the visual appeal of the chiseled Buddhas or the vibes they give off.
In Bangkok’s sprawling Chinatown, where few tourists go, shops in the area of Thanon Plaplachai sell unique paper funerary art–items that are burned so that the deceased can take them along into the next incarnation. The paper likenesses include colorful and stylish shirts, shoes, handbags, air-conditioners, calculators, televisions, cell phones, computers and houses. In our consumer-crazed world, relatives want to be sure that their dear departed ones have all the latest gadgets.
Several hours from Bangkok are the ruins of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (1350-1767). The old capital was constructed of brick covered by cement, in the ornate Khmer or Cambodian style. The vast royal palace complex was dazzling in its day and still wonderfully evocative more than two centuries after its destruction by Burma. Headless Buddha statues bear silent witness to the glory that was Ayutthaya. Dark, spire-shaped monuments house the ashes of royalty, and the nearby Panuncherg Wat contains Thailand’s largest ancient Buddha shrine; the huge, breathtaking gold Buddha image dates to 1344. If you travel during the Thai summer holiday and school vacation (April), you may even encounter young novice monks, robed in orange, chanting at the feet of the monumental Buddha. For a few bath (at the current time, 43 baht equal one dollar), an older monk will spray and bless you with holy water. As in many Buddhist temples, you can pick up a large, cylindrical case which is filled with chopstick-like pieces of wood. As you shake the case, eventually one of the sticks will fall out. It has a number on it. Close by, you’ll find fortunes written on sheets of paper. If you pluck one with the corresponding number, you’ll find out what the fates have in store for you.
Although Ayutthaya is accessible from Bangkok by ground transportation, a leisurely round-trip sail on a rice barge is far more unusual and memorable. The Manohra Song is the only boat offering a two-day trip, and it is appointed with private teakwood cabins, panoramic views of the Chao Praya river, a romantic candlelight dinner, lunch, and private tour guides to visit the Ayutthata ruins and the royal summer palace. You may choose to sleep in, but the barge also stops at a riverside wat at 7 a.m., and you can “make merit” for your next lifetime by offering food and supplies to the resident monks (the gifts are provided by the boat’s crew).
Before leaving Bangkok, try to attend a performance at the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre (most Thais have nicknames, and “Joe Louis” is one of them). The puppeteers are trained in classical Thai dance, and as they glide across the stage, dressed in black, carrying and manipulating their almost-human puppets, their grace and fluidity can actually move spectators to tears. There are also demonstrations of mask-making and traditional masks are for sale at very reasonable prices.
The Thailand most farangs dream about is a short flight from Bangkok (90 minutes; about $50 on Thai Air)in the north of the country. In Chiang Mai, there are accommodations to suit every fantasy and budget. You can pamper yourself at the dreamy Regent Hotel (owned by the Four Seasons and one of the country’s most expensive and luxurious resorts), which boasts its own rice paddies (you can don farm clothes and work in them for an hour or two if you wish) and a family of resident water buffalos, including one albino. The gentle beasts are muzzled, and you can pet them as the staff takes them out for a stroll. For those who seek a more affordable experience, a two-person private cottage is about $40 a night at the Mae Sa resort. The property also has private rice paddies and water buffalo and an entire craft village where you can make local pottery, paper umbrellas, sa paper (mulberry), or take a Thai cooking class. The restaurant is inexpensive, next door is an orchid farm you can visit, and at night do not miss the experience of lying outside in a bamboo hammock and listening to the amazing symphony of frogs and insects.
Both of these resorts are a distance from the center of Chiang Mai, but offer shuttles (the Regent) or local buses. It’s a slight inconvenience in terms of travel time, but these resorts afford farangs an experience of the lush, beautiful countryside. Coming from the desert environment of Santa Fe, the expanse of green and tropical flora is almost overwhelming.
In Chiang Mai, it is de rigeur to go to an elephant show and trek, and there are many companies to choose from. Chiang Dao has a mediocre performance of elephants hoisting logs and forming living stepladders for mahouts (riders), but the trek is safe, unthreatening and wonderful. Groups are small, the elephants wade through water and plod through the forest, and in the quiet countryside, perched atop a mighty beast, you can hear the gentle prodding of the mahout and the thwock of the elephant ears flapping against its big, brown body.
After the trek, a local will take you on a private bamboo raft which he pole-guides down the river. The entire elephant-raft experience costs about $20 and can be booked at many hotels and agencies in Chiang Mai.
At night, take a tuk-tuk (a motorbike and minicab rolled into one) to the night bazaar (agree on the price beforehand). Under the bright lights there are endless numbers of stands where you can bargain your baht away on crafts (Chiang Mai is famous for its handicrafts), jewelry, clothes, weavings, knockoffs, food and tribal costumes and accessories. Virtually every major city in Thailand boasts a night bazaar, and it’s a great chance to meet locals who try their best to speak to you in English. Although there are plenty of honest shopkeepers, hucksters will also pass off polyester as Thai silk, and try to convince you that fake gems are real. Even if you get squeezed for a few extra bath, there’s a compensation prize; the night market has free outdoor shows where you can see everything from traditional Thai dance to kick boxing and skimpily-clap showgirls (some of whom are transvestites, although it’s really hard to identify them among the female lovelies).
If you have another night in Chiang Mai, the little-known Chiangmai Puppet Playhouse is a delightful, humorous way to spend an hour or two. Traditional folk stories that are given a modern spin are in Thai and English, so you can laugh along with the Thai crowd.
If you are in Chiang Mai (or another northern city named Mae Hong Son) in early April and are interested in local culture, one of the highlights of your trip will undoubtedly be the 3-day Sang Long ceremony of the Shan tribe. These gentle Burmese transplants honor their young boys whose heads are shaved as they become temporary novices in the Buddhist monkhood. The boys are treated like princes, reminiscent of Siddhartha before he became Buddha, and they are carried on the shoulders of adults so their little feet don’t touch the floor. They are fed ritual foods, taken to visit the elders, and adorned in lavishly- colored clothes and bright makeup to beautify them before parading them around to the accompaniment of drums, music, much fanfare and few farangs. Then they go into the wat and get orders from the monks.
The Shan are one of the many tribal groups interested visitors can encounter in the north of Thailand. Others–Akha, Karen, Lisu and Lahu–often sell embroidery, textiles, souvenirs and jewelry at local markets. Some are extremely insistent and others have a gentle sense of humor as they urge you to spend your baht on their colorful and beautiful crafts. You can also visit their tribal villages, and private guides can take you to small hillside communities to observe an unspoiled and vanishing way of life with bamboo houses built on stilts, women who chew betel nut (actually a mixture of white powder, bark, betel nut, tobacco and leaves) that colors their teeth black, and textiles that are woven on hand-and-foot held looms.
The customs of each tribe are fascinating. According to our Thai guide (who lived with a tribe for l8 months), among some of the Akha sex is considered a positive force of life and luck. There is no stigma attached to pregnancy out of wedlock and, on the contrary, an expectant girl fetches twice the customary bride price. Twins, however, are considered a bad omen, and are thought to bring misfortune. The Palaung Karen sacrifice animals to atone for sins. The women are very powerful, well-treated by the men, and they often rule the roost.
In the small tribal villagers, the inhabitants are warm and welcoming to interested farangs. Unfortunately, most large tour groups are limited to very touristy visits, replete with photo ops (for a few coins) and rows of vendors hawking souvenirs.
Assimilating refugee tribes from neighboring countries has been a big challenge for Thailand, especially since some of them depended almost exclusively on opium farming for income. Thirty-three years ago, the current monarch of Thailand, King Rama IX, instituted the Royal Projects, where assistance and encouragement were given to farmers to replace poppies with vegetables, fruits and exotic flowers. Although the program was slow to take hold, the produce is now sold throughout Thailand and many of the farmers have given up opium production.
Further to the north, in Chiang Rai, visitors can head for the Thai/Burmese border town of Mae Sai; think Tijuana. Souvenirs from around the world end up in the street stalls and can be purchased for a pittance. More other-worldly is the military outpost at the Burmese border. Tourists can see the sandbag bunkers and armored tanks; friendly soldiers will even lend you their binoculars to look over at the nearby Burmese mirror-image military outpost.
Twelve kilometers away are the “fish caves” which are a favorite with local Thais. Despite the name, the fish that swim in pools are not the main draw. Nor is the golden Buddha that reclines in a mountain cave, even though it is beautiful. What people come for are the mountain monkeys who leap from the trees, scamper across buildings, nuzzle up against your leg and jump up to eat food from your hand. You may not want to mess with some of the big adults, but the babies are adorable and you can buy peanuts and bananas which they gobble up with remarkable rapidity.
A visit to the Chinese village of Mae Salong, high up in the nearby hills, makes an unusual side-trip. The town was settled by Chiang Kai Chek’s fighters who were defeated by Mao’s forces fifty years ago. Their children and grandchildren still raise the Chinese Nationalist flag and are loyal to the deceased leader and his cause. Traditional Chinese ways are observed in the village, and adventurous foodies can taste black chicken (the skin and meat are very dark) in local restaurants. At roadside stands, exotic dried and preserved fruits are for sale, and vendors demonstrate and serve Chinese tea–the Taiwanese way. First, the brewed tea is poured into a porcelain cylinder and then transferred into a small cup. Before sipping from the cup, connoisseurs sniff the empty cylinder to catch the aroma. Fine Chinese tea can be purchased for much less than its cost stateside, and a visit to the “shing shing” or “101” tea farm and tea tasting is highly recommended. The production of tea is so time-consuming and labor-intensive that you’ll never take a cuppa for granted again.
For an in-depth and personal experience of the north, with its unique foods, crafts, culture and tribes, it is preferable to travel by car. You can rent one and drive yourself or, for $50-75 a day, you can hire a car with a driver and an English-speaking guide. They know the country and can take you to out-of-the-way villages and sites. Because food is so inexpensive (it’s hard to spend more than $5-10 for a meal at a local restaurant), you may want to consider this minor splurge with the money you save on dining.
After running around the country, many visitors like to end their stay in Thailand by unwinding at an island resort. Beautiful Phuket, in the south, is over-run with tourists but the just-opened Marriott Resort and Spa is on an isolated part of the island that is still pristine and romantic. Because it’s new, special package rates are available and it’s a chance to savor tropical life with a private beach, multiple lagoon-like pools that are lit by torches at night, local and international restaurants, free classes in everything from Thai boxing to crafts, and a great spa with a smorgasbord of massage options. The buffets meals are reasonably priced and a great way to sample dozens of Thai dishes and desserts.
No matter where you stay in Thailand, whether your accommodations resemble a cubbyhole or a castle, you MUST have at least one massage. They are available in hotels, resorts, (legitimate) massage parlors, on beaches and even in the streets. In Bangkok, you can get a professional workover for $5 at Wat Po, home of the country’s leading massage and Thai medicine institute. In Chiang Mai, for an amazing $2.50 you can have the best massage of your life by a blind masseur at the Massage Conservation Club (where blind masseurs are trained). For real pampering, at the Marriott resorts in Bangkok or Phuket or the Regent Chiang Mai, you can be massaged privately or in couples’ rooms and opt for aromatic steam rooms, foot massages, beauty treatments or traditional Thai massages where dainty Thai women pummel you into a putty of relaxation. They ask if you want it “soft, medium or hard, ” and the latter will result in a no-holds-barred tenderizing with feet, hands, elbows, legs and the more usual hands.
While on Phuket Island, stop to visit the village of the sea gypsies (no one knows for sure where these mysterious people come from). They are great fisherman, sell everything from snapper to parrot fish, practice animistic Buddhism, worship their ancestors and, unfortunately, live in depressing shantytowns. According to one of the laid-back locals, when the men are out at sea, women do not change the bedsheets; they believe it will bring bad luck to their husbands, sons and brothers.
Opportunities for all water sports, snorkeling and diving abound on Phuket, but for those who prefer to look at the water rather than be covered by it, a short speedboat trip takes you to Rang Yai island, where pearls are harvested and sold. Even if you’re an oyster ignoramus, you’ll come away knowing how pearls are grown and how to tell a real strand from a fake one.
Another learning experience is a visit a rubber farm. Just stop at a roadside stand, and if you are lucky you’ll see locals harvesting white latex in small black cups that hang from rubber trees. Then they run the latex through rollers, turning it into mats to be sold to factories. For really unusual gifts, you can buy delicate, colorful handcrafts made from the veins and stems of rubber leaves.
When planning a trip to Thailand, pay special attention to the time of year. High season is October to February, when the weather is mild, the rice fields are golden, and tourists abound. April is much hotter and the air in the north is permeated with smoke from slash and burn farming, but visitors have a greater sense of discovery and novelty.
IF YOU GO:
Award-winning EVA airlines has some of the best deals around for round-trip flights to Bangkok. They also have 4 classes and for $150-$250 over economy fare, you almost have business class comfort. 1-800-695-1188 or www.evaair.com
Recommended private guides:
Chiangmai Puppet Playhouse: firstname.lastname@example.org or 0-5389-2450 or 0-1812-7126
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