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When you fly into Chiang Mai, you can see it, up on the mountain to the west of the city, sparkling in whatever light shines through the smog. A huge temple, gold and white, draws the eye. I nudged Donn, in the next seat. “What do you think that is? Let’s try and go there.”

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Cursory research gave us a name and lots of information about how to get there. Our hotel had flyers. Everyone said to go in a tour, pay about $35/person to troop obediently into an air-conditioned new van with wide seats, be driven there and back, be provided with a small bottle of water, see a hill tribes village as a bonus. We declined. You can get a red bus for $7/person each way! These are pick up trucks with covered backs which have benches along the sides. We had met up with a Brazilian friend*, Tell, by walking to the plaza of the 3 Kings and getting a Grab, which is Thailand’s version of Uber, to the edge of town.  While there, we were chatting with our Grab driver, and he offered to take us and bring us back for a total of about $35 for the 3 of us! I felt that sitting in air-conditioned comfort was worth it, and we quickly agreed.

We drove past the zoo and began our journey up the steep side of the mountain. Northern Thailand is mountainous and forested, although the trees are of course different species than I’m used to in the Pacific Northwest. The road wound through hairpin bends and past tiny outcroppings teeming with people selling things, which reminded me of Morocco.

The temple entrance proved to be just another wide spot on a steep road, albeit one lined with permanent shops. We arranged a pick up time with the driver, and then began the steep ascent to the temple itself. The name of the temple is properly Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, but everyone calls it just Doi Suthrep, after the mountain on which it is located. You can learn a lot about it by just reading the wikipedia page, but for this blog, I’m just going to relate our visit.

Start with 309 steps! They are cleverly lined with the long, sinuous body of a dragon. Thailand is so colorful!

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That’s Tell, and I can tell you in private that we were both dying! 309 steps! I am not sure if that even counts the first 50 or so from the street up to the start of this. Although it wasn’t the “hot” season, it was still really hot and bright and, of course, humid. It was always humid.  We trudged our way up to the top, where we paid our entrance fee (I’ve forgotten how much it was), passed the guardian at the gates, and entered the temple complex.

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The hands on the hips stance was very no nonsense. Do not mess with this guy!

As with all temples, proper modest dress for women was required, and there were parts that were off-limits to women altogether. I amused myself by guessing which women were actually wearing wraps provided by the temple around their hips or shoulders, hiding tiny white shorts or plunging tank tops. We were okay. We added our sandals to the growing pile and entered the main section.

There were innumerable representations of Buddha in all sizes, shapes and forms. The temple grounds are extensive, and every corner and niche is full of statues. Some are green, some are gold, some are white, some are wood. Some have peaceful expressions, some look more like they’re in pain.

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A blog post we’d read mentioned the large number of collection sites, and I can attest to the truth of that. If you want to give money at this temple, you don’t have to go more than about 5 steps to find a box or slot just waiting for you to do so.

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There were masses of people there. This is considered a very holy site, and so there were masses of serious Thai people, paying money and pacing round the center in prayer, or kneeling before statues and being blessed by monks. There were also masses of tourists, their bare feet perfectly pedicured, snapping selfies in the bright sunlight. (I was one of these. Seriously, pedicures are $6! I got three in two weeks!)

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We walked over to see the view down the mountain to where the city of Chiang Mai is spread out under a blanket of smog on the plain, and joined with a woman who was scolding her partner to get off the parapet. We were highly amused to round a corner and discover this tribute to motherhood.

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hashtag sorry kids. hashtag some days are like this. hashtag I feel seen. 

Of course Donn took a pic and immediately sent it to our 3, all of whom seemed to relate far more than I would have thought.

There were tons more statues and buildings to see and admire. But you reach a point where you can’t take any more in. We headed down that long stairway and met up with our taxi driver, who whisked us down the mountain the 15 kilometers back to our hotels.

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*While on this trip, we also met up with friends who live in Morocco and a friend from Portland. Chiang Mai is a place to see old friends!

 

Thailand is a deeply religious country. There are signs all over the airport and a huge billboard just outside, warning you that it is disrespectful to get a tattoo of a Buddha. Every shop has a shrine, either inside or just outside, with flowers, fruit and incense changed daily. And every block, it seems, has at least one or two temple compounds, large spaces where usually visitors are invited to wander, at least in certain areas.

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I felt very shy just walking onto the grounds, as if someone would appear and scold me because I’m not Buddhist and had inadvertently transgressed some norm, but that never happened. There were, however, certain areas where women were not allowed to go. They were clearly delineated with signs. And there were also signs saying women needed to dress modestly, not in short skirts or tank tops. If you wanted to enter a sanctuary, you could, you just needed to remove your shoes.

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Some of the larger temples offered wraps to cover up inappropriately dressed young women.

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Feet of a statue. Looks rather like when I attempt my own pedicure.  

Everything was extremely colorful. Thailand is really a sensory delight, multi-coloured, fast-paced, with everyone on scooters weaving in and out of traffic. The streets are lined with food carts and the smells of smoking oil from the cooking blend with flowers and fruits laid out in the small shrines which are outside many of the businesses. The sidewalks are crowded with people selling scarves made of Thai silk, or small fabric elephants in shades of pink and purple and gold, or wooden carvings, or t-shirts. And this is between markets! Some days, there were markets set up in the grounds of the temples. Every evening around 4, vendors would begin to set up for the Night Market, which is huge. But you could find the many of the same things for sale everywhere on the city’s sidewalks.

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I took millions of pictures. The dragons, painted and bejeweled, beguiled me. I loved the eaves of the temple, with their version of gargoyles to guard treasures within.

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I was rather bemused by all the statues. Not just the statues of the Buddhas, of which there were thousands upon ten thousands, it seemed, or the statues of the demons, or whatever they were. But the kid statues.

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Maybe they’re just monks, not kids, but their height and chubbiness made me think of children. I did like the glasses on these next ones though.

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I was about as touristy as one can get. I didn’t research my host culture or religion at all, although I had meant to. So I can’t explain these things to you. I just wandered round, photographed, and then went for a Thai iced coffee.

 

I think this will be the last part! (unless I decide that Korea gets its own post…) Then I will return to my regularly-scheduled life, which is actually far from boring. This week, for example, I sat with a newly-arrived refugee (she’s been here a month) and admired the way she has made a home from other people’s furniture–faded red couches, light teal chairs, a new-but-dinged dining room table. She has decorated with embroidered cloths brought from Iraq that tie the colors in the room together. She insisted I eat with them so I did, even though I’d already had lunch a few hours earlier. She proudly showed me how she’d arranged her tiny bedrooms, and I saw her teenage son taking a nap on the single bed in the room he shares with his 22-year-old brother.

But enough about my current life…let’s finish Thailand!

12278652_10205275234387376_4702043969865991117_nThai dragon guarding Thai temple

This is the first thing you should know about Thailand:  everything is SUPER cheap. You can get an hour-long massage for $6. You can get a mani-pedi for $10. You can buy a plate of fresh, hot Pad Thai for 65 cents. You can buy a journal made of paper that is made from elephant poop for $1. You can buy Thai silk scarves, in gorgeous colours and patterns, two for $3.50. Get your hair highlighted for $15. “I could get used to this,” you will think.

IMG_6067Spa treatments are very cheap!

And you’re not the first. We were in Chiang Mai, and it is hands-down the place with the most tourists I’ve ever been, with the possible exception of Paris. Of course I’m used to Nouakchott, which rarely makes the list of Top 10 Places on the Planet to See This Year, but still. I’ve been to London. I’ve been to Marrakesh. Never before have I been in a foreign land where I stood out so little. They were used to people like me only, in general, younger, thinner, showing a lot more skin, and actually looking good in the baggy elephant pants.

I didn’t look good in the baggy cotton elastic-waisted pants, but I did get food poisoning or something so I didn’t care, because I didn’t feel well and they were so comfortable! And cheap, of course. $2/pair. I didn’t buy any for myself, knowing they wouldn’t be flattering, but we had bought several pairs for Ilsa and then I took the purple ones. She still got 5 pairs to share with her college roommates. (I know this from snapchat) Donn, on the other hand, looked good, and loves comfortable cotton clothing that we might call ethnic, and he now owns more Thai clothing than many actual Thai people. He could probably clothe an entire small village.

IMG_6262Donn photographing a shrine. Apparently I have no real photos of him; I included him in this one to give an idea of the size. But you can see his comfortable, loose cotton clothing. It was very hot and humid even in November, and jeans were right out. Also notice the shrine. They were literally everywhere–most businesses had one inside and one out, and there was at least one public shrine or temple per block.

Since we were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary, we splurged for luxury, and stayed in the nicest hotels. One was $40/night and the other was $50, but we were living it up! I spent two entire days sitting by the pool and reading books and going for dips, because that is my definition of complete relaxation. Donn gets bored so he’d go out exploring, get a massage or two, join me for a bit late afternoon, then we’d go in, shower, and go out for dinner.

IMG_6357Pool. Picture taken in morning. It curved round the side of the hotel and was very refreshing, since it wasn’t heated. It was surrounded by deck chairs to lounge on, and there were umbrellas to shade under (I really didn’t want to burn). It was, in a word, absolutely delightful (oh I was never good at math).

We did touristy things. We rode elephants. We arranged this by stopping by a random barber shop with a table outside covered in brochures. The very sweet woman who manned it in between hair customers was named Ma and she spoke enough English to get by with people like us, who spoke no Thai beyond “hello” and “thank you.” She pulled out several brochures, made some phone calls, and arranged for us to be picked up at our hotel.

Next day, we were picked up in a nice, new, air-conditioned 15 passenger van and driven into the nearby mountains to an elephant farm. We fed them bananas, which they slurped up so eagerly that I couldn’t decide if they were being starved or if they just love bananas and always slurp them down eagerly, leaving little bits of elephant slobber on the proffering hands.

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Then we crossed a bridge over a river and went to a sort of platform halfway up a hill. The elephants walked through the river and then up to the platform. We left our shoes on and stepped on their heads, which I found stressful but they didn’t seem to mind. They each had a little bench tied onto their backs, and we settled ourselves there (2 people per elephant. That was specified in the brochure. You don’t get your own elephant.) A driver settled himself in front, on the elephant’s neck, and we were off for a ride that was mildly terrifying, to be frank.

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We were up amongst the forested hills, and the elephants (3 of them) headed up a steep hill. The elephant swayed back and forth, up and down, as we went up an uneven tiny track that wove in and out of the trees. That was all right, but when we were going straight down the other side, I started to slide forward and nearly fell off the elephant. My bag kept going but I managed to catch it with my foot. I had to wrap my arms through the little railing across the back to stay on. So it was a little stressful.

The elephants walked for about 45 minutes, through the forest, through the river, past the most enormous spider I’ve ever seen–big as my hand!–and back to the platform. Afterwards we walked down to the river where we bathed the elephant while the handler tried to get it to splash us. It was more fun than I expected. Then we went back across the river and played with a month-old baby elephant for a bit.

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They let us get in the pen and play with it. It was kind of shy, and mostly liked the handler best. They played chase. It was pretty cute.

AND you know what? I’m over 1000 words and blog posts are supposed to be short. I still have at least one more about Thailand, plus we did have that day in Seoul. So stay tuned…

 

 

 

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