Friday, August 13, 2010

Chiang Mai: Day 11

We made up for yesterday's relaxed morning pace by snapping out of bed at an ungodly hour in order to catch a ride to the airport - just in time to arrive two hours earlier than necessary. That's my preference, of course. Nonetheless we felt a little silly hanging around the gate while the minutes oozed by. Adding a bit of texture to the time was the thrum of rain pounding against the concourse windows. This was the first serious precipitation we'd seen the entire trip, and given how many times we'd been warned to prepare for monsoons, I was feeling lucky. At the same time I fought to suppress a rising feeling of dread that our trip into the jungle near Chiang Mai might be marred by lousy weather.

Old Town stupa
So we caught our plane, heading north toward the Burmese border. I thought about the Indochina conflicts of the 70s - and how regional struggles continue to bloody this part of the world. Yes, Jenny and I would remain firmly entrenched in the sphere of travel agent assurances and credit card promises, even in a potentially dangerous place. Still, we couldn't ignore that gloriously sticky heat we felt upon deplaning. There's no faking a place like this. Chiang Mai is at least one or two steps closer to the real world than the airport we cheerfully departed. The dripping palm fronds reminded us of our trip to Key West, the kind of environment where the sweat never stops rolling, and you just don't care.

Crumbling defensive wall on the edge of Old Town
The heart of Chiang Mai is its Old Town, a square surrounded by a moat and a crumbling defensive wall. Tormented clouds gathered overhead, but we had to get out there for a few hours at least. Our plan was to amble about; tomorrow would begin the real adventure: riding elephants, meeting villagers, and taking a bamboo raft downriver. We had low expectations for the afternoon, which is a good thing. Once we made our way to the wall, the rain returned. First sprinkles, then a deluge. Jenny and I ran down a street on the edge of Old Town until we had to duck under the eave of a cafe. The place was closed, but we could see folks cleaning up. I felt guilty sitting there. I'd have preferred to buy something. One of the workers smiled and offered wordless assurance, though; we could stay as long as necessary. Dipping our heads away from the overhang we laughed to see daredevil mopeders using one hand to hoist an umbrella aloft while using the other hand to steer.

Chiang Mai dragon
The rain wasn't going to let up, not for a while anyway, which meant that we had to flag down a taxi-bus back to the hotel. Around here, these vehicles - covered pickup trucks - take on passengers wherever they're hailed and drop them off in the order deemed most convenient by the driver. It's not the most efficient form of personal transportation, but it makes sense on a larger scale. We found an additional benefit on this particular day: the chance to sit with other locals and enjoy a weatherproof tour of town.

Chiang Mai Street, Rainy Day
Returning to our hotel we relaxed until the rain finally died off. Technically it was a light drizzle when we set off, a couple hours before dusk. Hitting the streets once more we hiked along broken sidewalks and narrow alleys in search of the oldest temple in Chiang Mai: Wat Chiang Man. Jenny mapped a path using major roads, but I insisted we find a "back way." Thankfully, Jenny was up for the adventure.

Elephant and Buddha at Wat Chiang Man

At Wat Chiang Man monks were worshiping inside the main hall so we occupied ourselves by wandering about the smaller buildings; we'd learned already that monks in prayer ought not be hassled by tourists. The grass was covered with rain water and the spectre of mosquitos kept us vigilant about spray-on repellent. Later on we meandered by stalls offering freshly killed meat and poultry, stopping to pet a dog whose cocksure attitude left no doubt: he owned the street (perhaps that's why the backpacker's hotel nearby is called The Funky Dog).

Jenny meets the Funky Dog
Dinner was at a riverside restaurant where I had my first non-Westernized version of Tom Yum Goong, the regionally ubiquitous chile pepper-spiced soup that features prawns, lime juice, lemon grass, fish sauce, and other delectables. This stuff sizzled my tongue, mostly because I forgot to ask, "Pet nit noi" (some variation of "a little spicy but not too hot"). Later we ventured in the Night Market and haggled for trinkets. Jenny got suckered into buying a wooden frog that "croaks" when you rub a stick over its serrated wooden surface. I took a minor plunge on a miniature tuk-tuk made out of a beer can. Returning to our hotel I wondered about tomorrow and the rains that could wreck the day. Mostly though, I felt wonderful just to be here.

Dreaming of elephants in the jungle

Day 10 | Day 12

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