Thailand: First Looks

January 8th, 2007

Chiang Mai, Thailand – Monday morning and we are creeping along in an AirCon bus, winding through hills thick with foliage. Our driver is grinding gears while the girl next to me, Pat, shares her farung cha buwai, an apple-esque fruit, while telling me stories of working at a Wendy’s in Alabama on a student exchange program.

We’ve just been stopped at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere; a police officer boarded the bus, chatting away on his mobile. Everyone pulled out their ID’s so we did too but Pat told me they are looking for Myanmar. Marshall and Megan, my Seattle friends who have moved to Chian Mai, shrugged. “I must not look Burmese,” Marshall joked. Like the hunt for illegal Hispanic immigrants in the states, Myanmar refugees are pulled from buses or elsewhere and returned to the persecution they are trying to escape.

I arrived four days ago after 25 hours of travel. Seattle-Taipei-Bangkok-Chiang Mai. Marshall, megan, and Jeff picked me up at the airport. I’ll confess, so far I’ve had it easy on this trip with an expat community to show me around. I’ve managed to do much more than I could have otherwise. (at left: leaving the airport)

Marshall strapped my heavy duffel to his back, I tightened down my 40lbs of digital gear and a poorly fitting helmet, and then off into the heavy, diesel-filled traffic of Chiang Mai we forged.

The city is flat although immediately to the west are mountains; not Cascade style rugged peaks but steep-sided ridge after ridge, gentle with their forested canopies. In all other directions are paddy-filled river valleys with their own low hills. (at right: tuk tuk driving)

Central to Chiang Mai is the square ‘old town,’ complete with the remnants of a city wall and a moat. Major intersections tend to be u-turns bridging the moat to join the one-way roads. Sprawl radiates out from this core. The inner moat runs counter-clockwise, the outer moat clockwise. It makes for some chaos as motor bikes, oily tuk tuks, diesel sung taos and various other vehicles jockey for position. The only real rules seem to be that there are none. But there is no road rage. (at left: Marshall’s haircut w/ head massage)

Marshall and Megan live in a cute two-story house with a foot print no larger than the living room in my Seattle one-bedroom apartment, including the patio where where the “kitchen” is: a wok and a propane tank. They live in a more “authentic” part of town with few expats.

The neighbor to the left, a devout Budhist, chants in prayer twice a day. The scent of incense often wafts across the low concrete wall. To their right is a kind woman with a dog who hacks emphysemically. It’s the cold season here, with daytime temps in the low 80’s (F) so most family pets have jackets on. (at right: tasty snacks at the market)

On my first night we went out for Thai food. Still within the city walls, we were in the NE part, a more touristy area where many farang (foreigners) were wandering between a wealth of restaurants, bars, guest houses, and internet cafes. Later we went to a popular bar “Warm Up” a short ride into the sprawl outside the old city. There we sipped Thai whiskey and soda water in the warm night air.

Jet lag hits in odd ways with moments of absolute alertness followed by periods of dazed confusion, a gauzy, drugged out stupor. In spite of passing out on Marshall and Megan’s couch in this state at midnight, I was up at 4 am with the neighbor’s rooster. In the bathroom I met Herman, the three inch cockroach that lives in the floor drain. I forced a couple more hours of sleep then opened the battered wood door to sunshine and the scent of sewage from the partly covered street drains. Across a drive down which my battered Subaru wagon back home wouldn’t fit was a school filled with the chatter of children.

Getting a Thai SIM card for my phone was the day’s mission which was accomplished along with lunch and a haircut for Marshall. Mindy joined us at the market where we got snacks of meat-on-a-stick for a bouldering session in the hills to the west of town. (at left: more tuk tuk)

Nursing a finger injury I quit early to go for a run. Meat-on-a-stick doesn’t digest well, especially when accompanied by deep fried fish and kaffir lime leaf, but I did find some gorgeous trails up in the hills with sweeping views of smog covered Chiang Mai.

We had another late night at a club where old white men hung out with young Thai women and the band played every Thai hit with a costume change for each song. It was pretty hot, and pretty unsettling, and I was politely told not to take photos. (at right: in the club. the guy w/ the tie is about to shut me down)

Saturday Marshall, Megan, and I took country roads up to her school, an hour by motorbike. The evening event was a dedication for the school; it’s a private boarding school for hill tribe kids up to age 12. It is one of two funded by an American multimillionaire who also functions as a mini Gates Foundation giving money to project he deems important in SE Asia like health care and education. On our ride back from the school, which was dark and a little edgy, we stopped at a random road-side fair where we watched five rounds of Thai kickboxing. (at right: late night noodles)

we took a sung tao an hour east of town for climbing. Developed by an American climber who runs a guiding company out of Chiang Mai, it is filled with moderate sport climbs (.10a-12) and is a place I’d like to return to shoot. The highly featured rock is amazingly fun and lends itself to some dramatic imagery.

That brings us to today, on a bus, now only an hour out from Mae Sai and at another police check point looking for Myanmar. Pat got off for her school and Megan, who stayed out until 3.30 in the morning is quietly suffering through a hangover.

I’m looking forward to getting back to work. In the meanwhile, a few more pics:

(cruising in the countryside)

(megan’s kids performing at the dedication)

(lighting dozens of floating lanterns which rise hundreds of feet into the air)

(muy thai boxing at the roadside fair)

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