w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
We packed our bags in Istanbul, leaving behind our winter coats and boarded the long flight to Bangkok where we would hop yet another plane for Chiang Mai. Chris and I had been to Thailand before; 17 years ago we toured Bangkok, during which time a rogue tuk-tuk driver "kidnapped" us to a dead end alley filled with shady looking men (we screamed at the top of our lungs until he finally drove us to our desired location). By the time we left the city, I was overwhelmed and overheated, with an inexplicable and raging case of athlete's foot ON MY HANDS. And then there was Ko Samui, with its gorgeous beaches, sugar cane fields and cheap waterfront massages, back before it became an overdeveloped resort town teeming with tourists. But we had never been to Chiang Mai and we weren’t sure what to expect. Later, Facetiming with the Monroe Street gang, Mike asks, “So what is Chiang Mai like?’ and despite having been there for nearly two weeks, I found myself struggling for an answer.
Here’s the thing: Chiang Mai, is in so many ways, really very ugly – its low cement buildings ensnared under a tangle of telephone wires, the city taken over by 7-Elevens and the distant green mountains trapping the exhaust of tuk-tuks and song thaews and of course, the endless stream of motorbikes. Drive 20 minutes outside the city walls and watch as the landscape melts into rice fields, the clucking of chickens, and the tin and wood shacks that line the murky Ping River. There is much to be wary of here: the mosquitos, the pollution, the stray dogs that stalk the streets, avenues choked with grungy backpackers. Despite it all, Chiang Mai is irresistible. Everywhere you look there are gilded wats, saffron-robed monks, perfect 82 degree weather (their winter!), and the kindest people we’ve thus encountered. Last but not least, Chiang Mai has a cost of living so low you could drown in Thai massages and the insanely delicious food. It’s no wonder it has become a popular landing pad for expats, adding to the diversity of this fairly intimate city.
Chris and Isoo meet an older gentleman birder, Steve, who had spent decades traveling the world. When his wife passed away, he returned to his house in Cleveland, only to realize that without her, it no longer felt like home. So he asked himself where it was that he was last happy, and boarded a plane for Chiang Mai. He’s been here for 7 years. My childhood friend, Janice, spent a decade in New York City before work and school took her to locations as far flung as London, the Philippines, Korea and Germany (just to name a few). Despite her frequent travels she found herself returning again and again to Chiang Mai, finally settling here 4 years ago. Tammy, the landlady of our villa, was a successful HK consultant who took a gap year to decompress and travel only to find herself running a small resort in the countryside of Chiang Mai.
It's Tammy’s gorgeous resort we called home for the last two weeks, but if you ask any of us, we could have stayed much longer. Who knows, perhaps years from now we, too, will find our way back.
The overnight flight to Bangkok was 9 hours. The kids hate long flights, though I’m not sure what they’re complaining about. I feel much more sympathy for their seatmates. For the record, I was wearing that sleep mask between Oona's toes before she literally kicked it off my face and then plopped her foot onto my crotch. So much for trying to sleep.
Chris sometimes uses his powers of persuasion for good. When he was able to talk Tammy into letting us rent out the entire resort for our private use while she was away on a family emergency, he used it for very, very good. The property, located 20 minutes outside the walls of Chiang Mai, is actually a small resort comprised of an outdoor kitchen, meditation Sala, the owner’s villa, main house (with living, dining and kitchen) and four one bedroom villas anchored by a swimming pool. We loved being out in the countryside, listening to the geckos and watching the fish farmers across the Ping River. But we didn’t have as much privacy as we’d thought: The day we arrived in Chiang Mai was a sweltering 91 degrees. After the sweaty business of unpacking was complete, Chris and I peeled off our clothes and jumped into the pool. The kids came running and screamed, “Ewwww! Gross! Put your clothes back on!” We later discovered the closed caption security cameras. If you see us skinny dipping on Thai Internet, the answer is yes, we know we need to work out.
The oversized grown-ups villa.
While Chris and I had a more traditional semi-enclosed bathroom, the kids' was completely open to the elements. Very cool to be surrounded by so much nature, that is unless you're asleep and a gecko falls onto your bed. Just ask Isoo.
Walking down to the river for a little birding.
Just behind the villa is the meditation sala where Chris and Oona would work on their novel.
Isoo tries his hand at fishing in the Ping River behind our house. Here is Oona reminding him not to scare off the fish.
The fish farm across the river.
In the front yard is a little “Spirit House”. A component of Animism, the Thai believe that spirits live among us, and to discourage them from haunting the houses we live in, they create a little shelter to entice and house the spirits, honoring it with flowers and incense. Every couple of days village women would refill the vases with fresh flowers. You see this all over Chiang Mai, on the outside corner next to every house and business.
Sunset over the gorgeous rice paddies near our villa. Isoo especially loved birding the fields. One note about Chiang Mai – every evening around 6pm, everything stops for the King’s Announcement. And by stops, I mean you are not allowed to walk, drive or talk. In the countryside, our small farming village also did a morning announcement at 7am. Chris and I would lie in bed, the pillow over our heads, reminiscing about alternate side parking warnings in Evanston.
We visited a lot of wats, and I mean a lot. This is the Elephant Chedi in Wat Chiang Man.
Chiang Man Wihan
The gorgeous golden ruins of Wat Chedi Luang.
Monks sweeping outside Chedi Luang.
We went to Doi Suthep to visit Wat Phrathat, famous for its undulating serpent staircase. At the foot of the staircase are a couple of Hmong girls dressed in traditional costume. They pose with tourists in exchange for money. I asked Oona what she thought of the practice and her response: "Well, they seem to be having a good time, and if they can make money to buy food for their families, I don't think it's such a bad thing." We talked about it for awhile: What happens when the girls grow up? What about respect for culture? What are the tourists' responsibilities? Should parents rely on young children to support them? I'm not sure who's being exploited here, but for me, it's a complicated and uneasy alliance, and one I find myself wondering about again and again. So for whatever its worth, yes, I took a picture.
But our hands-down favorite was the tiny teak Wat Phan Tao where we got to listen to the mesmerizing chants of the Buddhist monks.
Wat else did we do? We went to Art in Paradise, Chiang Mai's 3D museum. I found the place to be pretty stupid, but Oona, being a ham, loved it.
We also went to the Chiang Mai's super crowded Sunday Walking Street. We had a great time sampling nearly 1km worth of street food and browsing the craft stands until we lost Janice and the kids and I had a near nervous breakdown searching for them. (They had broken off to buy these sleep masks.) I have never been so happy to finally see their goofy, ridiculous faces!
Scenes from Walking Street. Please walk on the left or your will incur the wrath of Janice!
We also went to Huay Tung Tao at the base of Doi Ithanon for lunch at one of the lake front restaurants. It was a lovely day hanging out with Janice, gorging ourselves on fresh fish, playing with the local cats and birding. Afterwards the kids and I took paddle boats onto the lake. A wonderfully relaxing way to spend the day.
Me and the girl devouring the fresh deep fried ruby fish smothered in crispy garlic. Yes, I did gain this much weight - no cardio and the food here is delicious!
So many things to do in Do Ithanon, like hike Wachirathan Waterfall...
Visit the terraced rice fields at Ban Mae Klang Luang.
Walk around the traditional stilt houses of the Karen tribe.
Bird the magnificent gardens. Isoo was so overwhelmed by the number of cool birds that he exclaimed, "I don't even know which way to look first!" Chiang Mai was one of everyone's favorites.
Janice turned us onto a great organization called We Women, a foundation that helps to educate ethnic minority refugee women from Burma. Yes, we knew about the ruling military regime in Burma, but we had much to learn about the civil war between the Burmese and it's seven minority groups. We were grateful for the chance to make lunch for the staff and volunteers, and learn a little about their mission. Here are Chris and Janice trying not to set fire to the kitchen.
The kids making salad and prepping the dragon fruit. In addition to making lunch, as part of their homeschool, they interviewed recent graduate Num Mye about growing up in Burma.
Lunch with just some of the staff and volunteers at We Women. To make a contribution and to learn more, check out their website: http://wewomenfoundation.org.
Another worthwhile endeavor: a visit to the Elephant Nature Park. Once revered in Thailand, elephants were free to roam wild in the forests of Chiang Mai. In more recent years, they were captured, violently tamed using arrows and hooks, and then used to haul trees in the logging industry (the cruel joke being that they played a principal role in the deforestation of their own habitats). After the national logging ban of 1989, the domesticated elephants suddenly found themselves unemployed, some left to wander the countryside no longer able to take care of themselves, others relocated to Bangkok and taught tricks to panhandle from humans, and most re-trained to ferry tourists on elephant rides. Believe it or not, despite their strength and size, elephants are not built to carry weight on their backs. In the process of training, most were injured or blinded. Others, after years of carrying around humans, suffer from dislocated hips and spine ailments. The Elephant Nature Park, unlike other elephant trekking parks, is a sanctuary for rescued and abused elephants. We didn't ride them. They didn't do tricks. But we did get to observe them in their natural habit.
A kind mahout, an elephant's best friend.
We were handed buckets and joined the elephants in the river to give them a bath.
It used to be that 60% of Thailand was covered in forests, but due to an increase in population and the thriving teak industry, only 16% of the forest remain. After a flood in Southern Thailand the government recognized the necessity of trees in preventing landslides. Laws were established to curb logging and efforts made to replant trees. However, illegal logging continues. Lek, the owner of Elephant Nature Park, enlisted the help of Buddhist monks to bless the trees. Once blessed, it is considered a sin to cut down the tree. You see the blessed trees, marked by pieces of the saffron colored monks' robes, throughout the forest.
We drove to neighboring Bosan Village for the Umbrella Festival to get a glimpse of the town's signature hand painted umbrellas. Lots of street food, a beauty contest, concert and parade. The parade, which featured floats from neighboring countries reflected Thailand's integral role in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations - an economic alliance similar to the European Union) community. Here are children from some of the tribes thoughout the Southeast Asian region.
No bathing suit competition. Instead, the beauty contestants wobble by on bicycles, smiling, waving and holding their umbrella. No easy feat.
Each of the kids got to select an activity. Isoo's? Birding, of course. Oona asked to go zip lining (remind me to cut her out of the Will). Don't let the expression on Isoo's face fool you. The kids had nerves of steel; I was the one shaking!
There were 33 platforms that made for 17 zip lines (the longest was 1/2 mile, one of the longest in the world), several rope bridges and rappelling. I'm smiling here, but I was really not happy about this sky bridge.
Chris doing the Superman.
LAST PLATFORM!!!! WOO HOO!
Our girls lunch and spa day with Janice was much more my speed. Oona got her first Thai massage (ask her about it). But a Chiang Mai highlight for me was getting to hang out with Janice. She spoiled us with a fantastic home cooked lunch, gave us awesome recommendations, and we got to meet several of her very cool friends. Janice, we're definitely coming back to visit again in the future!
And Mike, to answer your question, here are some Chiang Mai street scenes for you.
I was not kidding when I said the city is crawling with 7-Elevens. Thailand just opened its 8,000th branch, surpassing the number of 7-Elevens in the U.S. despite being a country the size of Texas with one-fifth of our population. While convenient, air-conditioned, and with better snacks than our disgusting rotisserie hot dogs, they are slowly putting the local Thai mom and pop shops out of business.
Last meal in Thailand! At the hot pot down the street from our villa.