, , , , , , , , , , , ,

12-15 February 2013. Because we’d decided to stay extra time in Luang Prabang, and we already had a booking for a day on the khlongs in Bangkok, and bookings for Burma, we only had three days in Chiang Mai. What to do? I’d wanted to go to Chiang Mai for forty years. I’d heard about the hill tribes in the mountains and wanted to see them. My sister had an exquisite dress – all black with wondrous colourful binding and trim and hand made buttons and loops. For a time, years ago (in the 90’s) I had it hanging on my living room wall as a work of art. I have a vague memory it was a wedding dress from one of the ethnic groups living somewhere near Chiang Mai. Back in the 70’s when I, and all my hippie friends, were travelling, Chiang Mai was one of the places to go, and I never did get there. I knew that forty years later things would have changed. A lot. But I still wanted to see if there was a day trip hiking to some villages even though we’d read: 1. There is nothing left authentic to see, only displays put on for the tourists, and 2. The “long neck” women who traditionally gradually placed more and more rings around their necks to stretch them had begun to discontinue the practice, but started again because of the tourists. I don’t know anything more about the traditions of this ethnic group, only that if the rings are ever taken off the woman will die because her neck muscles, never having been developed, will not hold her head up.

Don didn’t really want to go anywhere, and was distressed with my fractured energy trying to grab hold of something that had disappeared because I didn’t want to miss out. We talked. We stopped. We felt inside. We listened. What was really wanted? No rushing off anywhere to see anything. Just easy days letting them unfold. We did take a trip to Wat Phra That, a Buddhist temple outside of the city, and we went to the zoo to see the pandas, but apart from that we decided that for our time in Chiang Mai we would spend our days with no agenda, no expectations, and a willingness to receive.

Wat Phra That at Doi Suthep is about fifteen km from Chiang Mai. I think we were just plain overwhelmed and mesmerized by the beauty of the temple and the statues, and all that gold everywhere. Reading Tripadvisor reviews almost everyone mentions the stunning views of the countryside with Chiang Mai in the distance. I have absolutely no recollection of any views. How could we have missed that? Probably because, according to Don’s notes, there was a thick smog that day. I do, however, remember the 300 steps we climbed.

Images from Wat Phra That

We became flaneurs again in Chiang Mai, sauntering through the streets, letting our feet guide us. No agenda. No expectations. A willingness to receive. Our steps led us into one of the lesser known, smaller temple-monastry complexes, drawn by the beauty of the architecture. We got into a conversation with a young monk who spoke good English, and an older monk with many tattoos – see this post: https://alisonanddon.wordpress.com/2013/03/02/the-nomadic-life-serendipity/ and as a result were invited to meditate with all the monks in the evening, and later were invited to stay there in the monastery. For free. What an honour. And what a beautiful meditation. It was the highlight of our time in Chiang Mai really, which turned out to be so very different from what I’d expected and hoped for after having waited all these years to finally get there.

The streets of Chiang Mai

One of the strangest shop dummies I’ve seen anywhere. Truly peculiar, especially with the juxtaposition of it wearing somewhat traditional Thai clothing

A small temple or shrine on the way to Wat Phra That

Street food vendor

Temple detail and illuminated stupa

Monks, both real and wax

We took a train to Bangkok. Ten hours, that turned out to be twelve. We like train travel, to a point. This train had AC and comfortable seats, and was a relaxing journey. The extra-unexpected two hours dragged a little, but it was a very valuable lesson for some future travel. We had been planning a fourteen-hour journey from Yangon to Mandalay. We’d read that there are very narrow gauge railways in Burma and as a result the trains rock and roll from side to side. No AC so the windows are open, the noise of the screaming train is soul-shattering, and all manner of dirt and dust blows in. Who knows what condition the seats are in. So after a twelve hour journey on a comfortable train we decided to forgo the ‘train ride from hell’ in Burma and booked ourselves a nice flight with Air Mandalay on one of its elderly turbo-props. More on that later.

All this reminds me of a childhood song that I loved and apparently need to share:

Clickety-clack ka-lunk! ka-lunk!
The train is coming, a-chunk a-chunk
Clickety-clack a mile away
It hasn’t a second of time to stay
It sings a noisy rockety song,
A rickety-rackety-rockety song
Get off the track! That isn’t where you belong!

Over the bridge across the lake
A mile a minute it has to make
A terrible snake with gleaming eyes
It wriggles and wriggles along the ties
The sparks all fall in fiery rain
The tunnel is waiting to swallow the train
Good-bye, good-bye, tomorrow we’ll come again!

Wooooohoooooo! The song is so evocative, and I have such strong memories from childhood of all the family singing it together at the tops of our tuneless voices. 🙂

We had a couple of days in Bangkok to regroup and prepare for our foray into Burma, and most importantly to do an excursion on the khlongs of Thonburi which I wrote about here: https://alisonanddon.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/thailand-part-3-bangkok/

That outing was when we first discovered the traditional puppet show at The Artists House. The puppet show was so good we went back to see it again after our trip to Burma. The performers do four different shows and we were lucky enough to see two of them. Both of the shows we saw were based on the Thai version of the Ramayana stories that are seen in the traditional dances throughout South East Asia, India and Bali.

Each puppet has three puppeteers, one for each arm (and I think one of the arm poles has a string that operates the jaw as the main puppet’s mouth certainly clattered rapidly open and closed from time to time), and a third to operate the feet. The main puppet in both shows we saw was an evil version of Hanuman the monkey god. The three puppeteers move in unison in a carefully choreographed dance matching the mood of the story, using foot stamping to indicate anger or fights, and more gentle movements to change the mood. It was completely gripping, so professionally and skillfully done, the people and puppets seamlessly working as one so that belief in the puppets as real characters arose automatically. Fantastical and fun.

At the beginning of the second show we attended a young boy came out dressed only in a white t-shirt and red cotton pants with red and gold trim sewn on the bottom of the legs. We watched as, layer after layer he was carefully and literally sewn into his costume – sheets of rich fabric draped around his waist, pulled through his legs, carefully arranged into pleats, a wide band around to hold it in place, then another layer, then the elaborate panels hanging down front and back and the tail, some of it held in place with ties, some of it sewn, then a jacket that was little more that sleeves, then the elaborate blue and gold vest with the flying shoulders that was sewn into place and topped with a wide green, red and gold cummerbund, then another elaborate panel tied around his waist to hang down the front, a wide collar draped around his neck, and various large pieces of gold adornment added at waist, chest and wrists to finish it all off. Well not quite . . . . .

Behind the scenes he completed his outfit with a grand mask, and later in the show came out and danced for us. Just fabulous.

Two photos from Don

In this photo you can see a man dressed as a puppet, with a puppeteer manipulating the poles attached at his wrists. The entire performance was as if he was a puppet. He had a huge fight with Hanuman, wonderfully and excitingly staged, back and forth they went. We were just about holding our breath. The real puppet won 🙂

Wandering around “downtown” Bangkok we came across some amazing pavement chalk-art creations, the tail-end of a festival

and the very busy Erawan Shrine where there was more or less continual sacred traditional dancing happening. People can hire a group of dancers to dance and sing a prayer for them. Flowers everywhere – offerings for sale at street-side stalls, which are then placed with a prayer on the shrine, along with copious the amounts of incense. Throughout South East Asia flowers are a huge wonderful colourful enriching part of prayer and worship.

And so ends our tales from Bangkok. We were there four times as it is a major hub for getting around SE Asia. If you want to read more see this post: https://alisonanddon.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/thailand-part-2-bangkok/

The next several posts will be about Burma (Myanmar). Very excited to write about Burma. Another place I’d waited forty years to experience. It was really really worth the wait.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.