In all this excitement with boat and human surgeries, I didn’t get the chance to fill you in on one of the most interesting areas of travel we’ve been to, yet: our land tour of Thailand. So, we will leave Andrew to his boat work and in the meantime I will fill you in.
Let’s go back in time just a few months. The Oddgodfreys had successfully ridden out the offseason tropical storm in the storm anchorage and we parted ways with Grin’s friend and nemesis, Steel Steven a.k.a. Tango. From there, we sailed to a marina nestled up river in mainland Thailand - Port Takola, Krabi where we find a perfect spot for some delicious roasted chicken with green papaya salad, live music, and a boat spa experience for Sonrisa.
Sonrisa needs needs her teak and cherry hardwood floor sanded down to wood and revarnished before it wears so badly that we have to make a full replacement. This process will take a couple weeks, and all the while, Sonrisa will be a sandy mess. The varnish will be applied one layer at a time, for ten layers, and each layer requires at least a day to cure and dry. We can’t live on Sonrisa while this is being accomplished, so she shoos us off to explore by land.
We study our charts, consult “Trip Advisor,” and layout a three week tour that checks off several bucket list items: (1) Meet an elephant in person; (2) Watch a live round of Muay Thai Kickboxing; (3) eat a new Thai food every day; (4) Take an overnight sleeper train through Thailand (5) see Bangkok. As luck would have it, around this same time we get a text from one of my childhood best friends: “We are thinking we’d like to meet you sometime while you are in Thailand. Can we make this happen?” Oh, can we! After reviewing the schedule, it appears they happen to fly into Bangkok the day before Chinese New Year! (Year of the PIG!) We chart a course that swoops a giant one month circle around Thailand. It might be one of those “once in a lifetime” extravaganzas!
To make sure Sonrisa doesn’t start niggling at her keel bolts out of loneliness, we add a second boat-offering to the floor varnish, and call out a professional seamstress to make a selection of new cockpit skirts, sun shades, and hatch covers. “You’ll look so spiffy in your new ‘Captain’s Blues!’” we tell her. She seems to be in a good enough mood, and waves us off for our explorations. “Enjoy your rest at the boat spa!” We call out as we wave goodbye from the taxi.
As we land in Chiang Mai, the tropical heat and humidity of the coastline abates as we step out into the “winter” season of dry and hilly northern Thailand. An airport taxi chauffeurs us in to the square of the “old town”, an area protected by wall and moat, the former capital city of the Lan Na Kingdom, a tributary to the greater Kingdom of Siam. I am mesmerized by rows of hand laid bricks that roll like waves over uneven parts of ground as the soil has shifted and settled by the weight of 700 years worth of history. We find our hotel and settle in for a hot shower and a bed big enough to sleep like a starfish.
The next morning, we wake refreshed and head down to street level where we meet the hotel’s resident, authentic Siamese cat. He is an old guy who is a little slow to rise on rickety hind legs, and Andrew befriends him immediately. There is nothing more satisfying than authenticity, and what could be more authentic than visiting with an old Siamese cat in old Siam?
With the first week scheduled at the same hotel, our brains quickly shift gears and assume neighborhood as our “own.” We now live on a paved road just wide enough to squeeze a few pedestrians and a scooter or two. At one end, we find a traditional market with fruits and veggies, some clothing, and hand-woven bamboo baskets for steaming sticky rice. The rich, sweet, and salty smell of pork wafts from a stall across from the market. There, you can buy the traditional Thai breakfast of grilled or jerkied pork with a ball of sticky rice you can peel apart and eat with your hands. The buildings are tucked close to each other, like friends huddling to build a secret strategy. Strands of white flags are draped across the street, connecting one building to the next with zigs and zags. Street art, color, and lanterns are everywhere. A row of Thai massage spas beckon Andrew, who is committed to working up from “Tourist Thai” Massage to “Full Thai Elbows and Heels” Massage status. Much like the capability to eat 23 chillies in one papaya salad, enjoying a Thai Massage is an acquired skill.
We find an outdoor garden cafe, and sit down enjoy a yogurt and granola dish filled with tropical fruit. At my feet rests a plate with a mango and a cup of water, an offering for a nearby Buddha. I’m already tingling with that “Exotic New Place” Elixir of adrenaline and curiosity.
I sip a dark roasted Thai grown coffee and scroll through Chiang Mai’s Annual Festival Schedule to see if our tour coincides with anything awesome in the area. “So, what’s on our plan for today?” Andrew asks. Per the usual, we have arrived with no specific plans and intend to see what the space brings.
“Look at this!” I lean over the table and show Andrew an entry on the festival schedule, I’ve found the Bosung Umbrella Festival. Bosung is a small village nearby known for hand crafting those bamboo and cotton umbrellas you think of when you think “South East Asia”. Even better, they are celebrating their craft with a local festival in just a few days! This, we must see. So, we add it to our schedule.
In the meantime, we head off to see what other intersections with Travel Magic we may cross. At the end of the street, we turn right and find a “Wat” the word used for a Buddhist building/temple, but it’s gates are closed shut. “Darn,” I say, looking forward to sampling Thailand’s majority religion. My disappointment didn’t have to last long, as just two doors down and across the street sat another wat “same same” but a little different. We take a spin through the grounds and enjoy the ambiance of incense smoke, offerings, and prayers before a kaleidoscope of Buddha faces and flowers. We learn Thailand boasts no less than 40,000 Buddhist Temples in all, and more are being built by the day! Which ones to choose from?
It’s here we meet one of Thailand’s infamous Taxi Mafia Members. We know better, we really do! But, we’ve had such great luck with taxi drivers.. So, when this particular taxi driver approached us with an offer to chauffeur us wherever we wanted to go, we made friends.
“What do you want to do?” He asks. We provide our bucket list items. “Okay,” He says, “But, what about shopping?”
I wrinkle my nose, and Andrew shakes his head adamantly. “No, we aren’t really here to shop.” Sonrisa is already laden with far too many pounds of …everything. We don’t need to add to her heft.
To this, our taxi driver does not say anything. Instead, he starts his car and says “Well, today we can go see the famous Buddhist Temple on top of the hill, the royal graveyard, and then go sign you up for the Elephant Sanctuary and the Cooking School. We zip away in a cloud of fumes, dodging the famous Thailand Tuk-Tuks that buzz in every direction. We park at the top of a hill and get shuffled into a jade carving “museum” so we can get parking validation for the taxi driver.
After convincing the sales women that, “No, we don’t need a $10,000 jade and gold ring as a momento from Thailand,” we escape with our lives and climb up a set of stairs held between the parenthesis of two tiled dragon tails. We arrive at What Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the most scared sites in Chiang Mai due to some of the relics said to be stored there. Like most Buddhist architecture, the building is intended to invoke feelings and ideas central to the religion - in this case, the notion that we must ascend tiers of heaven to ultimately reach “Nirvana”. With its open courtyard with several spires that ascend toward the sky, the Temple is meant to bring feelings of peace, lightness, and floating.
But, we cross through the doors to find…chaos. Tourists mill about everywhere, selfies in this corner, Insta-poses in that corner. Amidst this veritable smorgasphord of “I’ve been there and seen this” bustle, monks pause to meditate and religious pilgrims pay homage by circling the four corners of the temple, clockwise, pausing to face North, South, East, and West. Despite a sign that indicates only a monk should ring the bells for religious purposes, a twenty-something man in untied runners drags his hand along a line of bells. Their deep, melodious gong rings out, and it would be beautiful except for the disrespectful mode by which their tone rings. We are squarely in high tourist season, and it is only by the long-lingering magic of hundreds year old spirit that this space retains its lofty aspirations.
Hungry for lunch, we stop at a market that has sprung up near the roadway selling Northern Thailand specialties. Sausage casings stuffed with rice and roasted garlic instead of meat are roasted over a coconut husk charcoal. Blenders grind a rainbow of tropical fruit smoothies, and…
“BUGS?!” I stop dead in my tracks. “Andrew! Look at this!”
Now, I know many people over the world eat bugs. In fact, bugs are generally very high in protein, high in Omega 3s, and high in fiber (those wings have to account for something!) So, they are very healthy, and sustainable, and…
“Gross.” Andrew says, “Are you going to try it?”
“Sure, why not?” I say as I click a few photographs. “Didn’t you say we should try anything that isn’t inherently fatal…” By the time I’ve looked up from my camera lens, Andrew has already scurried halfway down the street. I guess not today.
I follow him down the way, and we turn into an alternative spot boasting to offer the “Best” Khao Soi - a Chiang Mai Curry Noodle Soup. Day #1, new food #1, and it is delicious. A mix of Thailand’s famous red curry paste and traditional yellow curry powder, they add coconut milk to make a rich, creamy soup. Add egg noodles, chicken, tangy fermented cabbage, purple onion, and a generous squeeze of lime, and you will not regret it! Add the extra chilies they offer on the side, though, and you might. It’s already a bit spicy.
On our way back through the city, we stop at another Wat, home to a cemetery for Old Siam Royalty. We step out of the dark window tinted taxi, and attempt to look upon a fully white courtyard under the high afternoon sun. My eyes ache with the whiteness, and I press my fists against my eyelids pressuring them to adjust. A white string is tied from spire to spire in a spiderwebbing fashion. Monks strike a bright orange contrast as they make their way from one end of the courtyard to another.
“Why is there a string attached from here to there?” I ask. But our taxi driver has taken leave to sit under a shade hut while we explore. Without a proper guide, the details are getting lost in a haze of mystery. I’m being left to wonder and speculate, a condition that feels much like having mango between my teeth. I want answers, I want to start making connections between the culture and the symbolism we see decorating their spiritual places. “I’m going to need a book on the subject,” I think.
Inside this Wat, red ceilings reach skyward, and ornate mosaics swirl upward on several columns. Just like the first two temples, we find a large Buddha figure amongst many (MANY!) other Buddhas. Lines of Buddhas hold out bowls to collect offerings for the upkeep of various facets of the temple. I start to do math on my fingers: “If Thailand has 40,000 Wats and each Wat holds this many Buddhas….how many Buddhas must live in Thailand?” WHOA, Buddha!
We are beat, and we’re ready to go back to ground zero to find ourselves a cold Chang. We stop to sign up for our Elephant Experience and the Cooking School. Before our taxi driver leaves, he confirms “I will pick you up Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. for the Umbrella Factory.”
“Umbrella Factory? No, we want to go to the Umbrella Festival.” Andrew clarifies.
“Yes, yes. Same thing, that is what I mean. I’ll pick you up on Sunday at 10:00 a.m.”
We don’t listen twice. Instead, our laser-like focus is trained on the shady spot of our hotel patio. We can already feel the frosty mugs in our hands, the tickle of bubbles in our throats. So, we pay him, confirm our Sunday pickup, and take up residence on the softest couch cushion.
Finally, with beer in my hand, I wonder: “Isn’t the Umbrella Festival at night?” I’m sure it started at night.