Our first day in a new town so we spent it exploring the neighborhood.
Once in the past a farang [non-Thai] novice actually thanked a woman for a handful of rice. She was so offended she came to the monastery and told the senior monk she and her family would never give alms to the wat again. Devotees give to the robe, not to the wearer. They believe it is a ritual for the making of merit, for a better rebirth. If a monk thanks the giver, then by treating it as a personal favour, merit is not gained. Tim Ward, What the Buddha Never Taught
This morning we dressed conservatively (we wore long pants, not shorts) so we could go inside Wat Phra Singh, Wat Phan Tao, and Wat Chedi Luang. There are lots of wats in Chiang Mai.
So what is a wat? A wat is a Buddhist temple. It contains several buildings, at minimum a chedi, a viharn and a bot, and is enclosed by a wall. The bot is the main prayer room and the viharn is an assembly hall. The chedi contains relics. They might be relics of the Buddha or remains of a king or a very important monk. Depending on their financial means and the number of monks, a temple may also contain other structures like a sala, a scripture hall, living quarters for the monks, and a school. Wat Phra Singh, just down the block from our hotel, fills a city block and includes a school.
Or Mexico or France or Bali or Greece, to name the last few places we've visited. Yes indeed, Thailand is different from the other countries on this list so, on this criteria alone, I can declare our trip a success.
But let me back up a bit. Paul and I choose a travel destination to satisfy a curiosity, like what's Greece like, or to do something we enjoy, like hike in the Alps. At the same time we know going in to manage, if not minimize, expectations, especially if it's the former, a new place, and that has served us well. So this is a long intro to saying that I've mixed feelings about Thailand. In this post I'll share some positives.
Our hotel, the Phra Singh Village, is one of the nicest I've stayed at. Beautiful buildings, gardens and pool, large comfortable rooms, conveniently located, and lots of amenities, like a gym and a couple of spas. Their delicious and ever-changing breakfast would rate as the best if only they could figure out desserts, but then I don't think this is a dessert country. France and Italy needn't worry when it comes to desserts.
Speaking of food, eating in Thailand is wonderful. Flavorful, fresh, vegetable-rich. Plus you can eat well for very little change (as long as you don't want wine). Nice.
The people are friendly. But I wouldn't place them at the top of my list of friendly people, up there with Mexico and Greece. There's something artificial in their friendliness, or maybe it's the way they express it, a smiling subservience that makes me feel uncomfortable.
The temples are curious and certainly photo-worthy. I'm also enjoying observing Buddhists in action, especially having just read Tim Ward's book What the Buddha Never Taught, on becoming a monk.
What else is positive? It feels safe here. There's not much cigarette smoke and not much dog poo. If you like a massage or strolling an open-air market there are more of these than you can shake a stick at.
Since we've more time in Thailand I hope I'll add some more to the positive column. In a future post, some annoyances.
Chiang Mai is said to have three must-see temples. We've seen two. The third, Wat Doi Suthep, is up on a mountain, about 45 minutes away. So after breakfast we walked down the block to Wat Phra Singh to look for a red truck with the words Doi Suthep on the front. It didn't take long, and after getting a price, 50 baht each (a little over $CAD 2) we piled into the back of the pickup to wait for it to fill. Once there were ten passengers the driver cranked up the engine and we were off.
I sat furthest back as it's least claustrophobic. I had a birds eye view of the vehicles behind us as we raced up the mountain, leaning in the curves, and hanging on for dear life.
Once at the temple parking lot we piled out, paid the driver, then followed the crowd up the cool staircase to the temple.
Wat Doi Suthep is a very popular temple, I guess it's because of the view, though the air is currently so dirty you can't see anything. This wasn't a surprise, it's been like this since we arrived, it's the time of year in Thailand when air quality sucks.
Once at the temple I found many people worshipping the various Buddhas. Some were on the ground, some lighting candles, and some were walking in a procession around a gold stupa while holding yellow flowers. Whatever floats your boat, eh.
Today was our last day in Chiang Mai. Tomorrow we catch the 8:50 train to Bangkok. I'll miss the delicious and cheap food, the comfortable hotel, and the old town chock-a-block with temples.
Given a choice we'll take a train over flying, so to get to Bangkok we took the 8:50 #8 train. It isn't a short trip, it takes over ten and a half hours to make the 700 kms. The train itself is small, three cars, all second class seats, so there isn't anywhere to walk to like a restaurant car. It comes with a/c and a meal.
We found the ride long and uncomfortable. Despite how it appears in the photos the train has seen better days. The seat padding is worn out. Paul's seat kept spontaneously reclining. The tiny toilet is a hole in the floor. And the poor train slows and struggles at the least incline which didn't inspire confidence. But it did finally get us to our destination.
I've left the best, or rather the worst, for last. The meal. I could describe it as worthy of a Survivor challenge. It appeared to be an invitation to food poisoning. It made Air Canada's offerings haute cuisine. Ha ha, I can laugh now.
We were served rice and two mackerels, one sweet and one spicy, all pre packaged so, said Paul, it must be safe. First off, looking at the local rivers I don't think I want to eat any fish. I won't show you the actual mackerel or you'll think I needed my head examined for having eaten it, which I did. It was very spicy, the crunchy chunks of fish absolutely disgusting looking but I was hungry and I wanted it out of my way asap as I also feared the nasty brown fish sauce would spill on me --- the rickety tray tables looked ready to go --- and then I'd smell of fish all day. I'm writing this, oh 12 hours later so I guess my decision was ok, no signs of illness. Yet.
As to the scenery, which is one reason to take a train versus a plane, it was interesting for awhile. Leaving Chiang Mai one got occasional glimpses of the outlines of hills, the smog obscuring details. We saw lots of birds, rice paddys, fields of sugar cane, water buffalo, cows, fields of solar panels, temples everywhere, big hilltop buddhas, rice fields burned, and endless little villages.
We were awfully glad when we pulled into Bangkok, in the dark night, where we availed ourselves of the train station bathroom and then walked out into the car-packed streets where we made death-defying runs to cross, then to look for our curious little hotel. But that's a story for tomorrow.
The from-the-train photos kind of suck because they are taken through dirty reflect-y glass and the train is moving, albeit slowly, but I figure sometimes a crappy pic is better than none.
Our last day in Thailand.
Hits: The food, the food, the food. Bangkok's river. Phra Singh Village hotel in Chiang Mai. Loy La Long hotel in Bangkok. Chiang Mai street markets. Mango shakes. EVA airlines.
Misses: Too much Chiang Mai, not enough Bangkok. Too many temples. Maybe I should have gone to see some elephants.
In summary I liked Bangkok more than expected and Chiang Mai less. Chiang Mai is not an attractive town and it's a challenging place to walk which is a shame as it's sized right for walking and the temperatures are marginally more comfortable. Bangkok just looks cleaner, is more attractive, and is easier walking. If only it weren't so hot and humid.
Next stop, Ubud.