Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Goodbye Chiang Mai

Where to begin? My time in this old imperial city has been amazing: I've met great people, devoured great food, absorbed sights and smells, gotten crash courses in Thai culture and taken in travel suggestions for moving on.

I had the pleasure of spending a few hours at a local restaurant where Obama's inauguration was live on the television. I was the only one in the place – save a local girl behind the bar – who seemed interested in the event, and the sound was been turned off. But still I managed to absorb the gravity of the moment and shed a couple of tears, hoping with all my might that a silent shot wouldn't ring out across the National Mall. Heavy thoughts, I know, but an eerie premonition has been weighing on me since the election, and I was relieved that the oath faux pas was the only disaster of the day.

In general, many Thais are excited about Obama – though, as with politics the world over, there is a fair amount of ambivalence as well. I saw a tuk-tuk driver with an Obama bumper sticker, and I gave my Obama T-shirt to a local barber, who was quite excited. But others looked at me blankly when I mentioned anything about it.

But politics has far from defined my time in Chiang Mai.

Another night, after wandering in and out of wats before dusk settled, I stumbled into a local club, P.S. Snooker, where I met Bob and Alan, a couple of media-minded British expats who eventually warmed up to my intrusion and were kind enough to show me the game. As the three of us discussed local events, recent movies and the subtleties and difficulties of the Thai language, a thick girl wearing all pink and a big smile racked the balls, kept score and brought soda waters with lime.

It turned out that Bob owned a local spot called The Writers Club & Wine Bar, a hangout for local wordsmiths and a meeting spot for likeminded souls. Bob invited me to an informal gathering that Friday where I met a fellow journalist, Tom, who gave me the skinny on Cambodia, and a filmmaker, Neville, who joined me a rousing discussion of conspiracy theories involving the economy, Sept. 11 and the powers that be. Throughout my time in Chiang Mai, The Writer's Club was a great resource and I stopped by occasionally to ask questions about local customs and glean information about destinations beyond. If I ever make it back to CM, I know where to find my people.

The day after meeting Bob and Alan, I rented a scooter, picked up a bag of oranges from a small street market and took off with only a vague idea of where I'm going or how to get there ("Sometime getting lost beautiful way to go," the woman who runs my guesthouse tells me).

The scooter was pretty zippy for an automatic, and (Mom, stop reading) I get it up to 80 km/hr on the highway north of town. Eventually, I turn off the highway onto the road to Prem International School, a sprawling luxurious complex of clean buildings and tended fields, set in the quiet lush countryside a half hour north of Chiang Mai proper. My contact, one of the school's directors, is away in Bangkok, so I leave a note and share a couple of oranges with the guards at the gate, who are pleasant and thankful for the snack.

Back on the small paved lane that runs past the school, I race further into the beckoning landscape, enjoying the wind in my face and the rising and falling, twisting and turning of the road. I ride through small villages and past empty temples until I come to the end of the road – literally. The asphalt came to an abrupt conclusion and I turned around and headed back toward civilization.

At a roadside string of stalls, I purchase a bottle of water from a woman who marvels at my scooter and my camera – she is shy and giggly, but reluctantly lets me take her picture – and the other villagers at the their stalls titter something about the farang – Thai for foreigner – before I jump back on the scooter and back to Chiang Mai.

I get a little lost – for real this time – on my way back, and make two consecutive loops past and through a large intersection (at red lights I am surrounded by dozens of other scooters filled with locals on their way home) trying to hit the right exit headed back south.

I finally pull into Chiang Mai just before sundown, and cap the day on a small restaurant patio across the street from the Chiang Mai's imperial moat of green water that surrounds the old city, the warm night breeze carrying sounds of traffic, smells of street vendors and the night shops buzzing to life.

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