Temples and tigers and pagodas, oh my

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Photographer’s note: Please forgive any blurries or repetition. The photo galleries are a raw look into my camera snapping. I’ve never been a fan of making picture-taking complex or lugging camera equipment just to get an average, un-staged picture. I prescribe to a minimalist process (i.e. 1-step up from my iPhone). In order to take advantage of the short spurts of time that I have to scribe and upload due to the clockwork of my travels and limited stinking Internet, I’m shoveling material without filter.

Welcome to Chiang Mai

I flew from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (Thailand) on Friday.

I came in on a Bangkok Airways 8:00 am flight to find a nice, cool-aired morning; rather refreshing after the swelter of Bangkok. Chiang Mai, a population of some 1,600,000; 172,000 of those live in the city proper. 80% of the people are locals by birth and speak kam muang, a language close to Thai but has its own vocabulary and tones.

Chaing Mai is a bit over 1,000-feet above sea level, but it’s surrounded by mountains. One of these is topped by Wat Prathat Doi Suthep temple, 3,520-feet above sea level. I am certain we made it up the winding road to the temple in record time as our driver wove in and out of the mountain like threading a shoelace faster than most might have driven it; all with the greatest familiarity and utter nausea to a weary traveller whose inner ear and sinuses are already on the fritz from days of flying.

Once at the temple, my guide Tang and I stood at the base of 400-feet of stairs shooting straight up to “nirvana.” More like going to heaven after suffering a heart attack. “There’s a huge queue at the lift,” said Tang. “Are you able to take the stairs,” he said already turned to the elevator.

“Actually,” I replied. “That would be marvelous.” While Tang needed to stop 3 times, I made it to the top in rapid fashion, and I’m rather proud of that.

Still, with the flying, poor eating and drinking, I was sure I’d have a problem getting to the top.

In fact, I could have gone 400 more. I’m still loving every minute of this trip and am energized.

Still, the trip has been one of great faith when it comes to eating. I eat, maybe a meal a day (I should become a monk since they eat 1 meal a day by vow) and I am never clear of the origin of the edibles before me. Food is very different here. Just is. And I probably give the locals a laugh as my face turns red, I shed tears and suddenly hear octaves I couldn’t hear before partaking in a particularly spicy dish of whatever. I don’t need to know the name. It’s not like I’ll be ordering it when I get home. The inside of my mouth is raw and I’d like to give it time to heal.

I had been drinking bottle after bottle of water with no satisfaction whatsoever. Between the beating heat, continual trekking, and the original blast off of 24 hours in an airplane, I mentally knew I was fighting dehydration. The good news (thanks Tomei) is that I couldn’t feel a thing. I was thirsty but I remain excited and on fire about the path ahead. I was so excited to be able to walk. And discover. And learn. And walk. And walk even more.

While my inclination was to absorb every single little thing within my visual purview, mouth agape in awe, I noted early on that I needed to keep an eye on the ground. Nearly every Thai threshold includes a ground-board rise, every step (unlike the U.S.) is a different height, some varying greatly within the same set of steps. While you might think this is nothing of consequence, Americans don’t realize that we’ve all inherently locked into a coded step height, leaving us to walk steps without thinking in our conscious mind. Even, steady, up the stairs, down the stairs. Different heights slows the muscle memory and causes angst.

As well, there are small rises, regularly and for no reason, that will trip the unsuspecting, untrained foreigner who assumes the whole world subscribes to one big happy building code, and that such nuances are simply friendly challenges.

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The day deceived me. A couple hours into our walk of  the local temples, the sun began to beat down with a fierce admonition for my Irish-German skin. Even as the double necklace of Jasmine that my guide had kindly placed around my neck began to go limp drown in surrender, I stood tall and resolute and yet happy to be here.

Yesterday was amazing. Saturday by my pin dot on the earth. Friday by my friends and family in the great state of California. The day began with my guide, Yute, which is short for something no less than 5 syllables and extreme-Thai. A gent no higher than my navel, Yute was born in Bangkok and moved back to Chiang Mai 30 years ago where his mother and family live. Nice guy. Hard working. Fairly good English.

Yute and day 2 in Chiang Mai

Upon arrival at the airport, and  once in the car he proceeded to tell me that although the woman behind the wheel (on the right side of the vehicle) was, well, female, she was a very capable driver. I giggled. I wasn’t trying to be rude, but I had a burst of Chinese driver jokes explode in my head like, well, a burp is all I can think of to describe the moment.

In my mind, like the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when everyone is floating toward the ceiling fan of certain death and someone discovers that burping is the only way to save their lives and of course, everyone starts burping because it’s a small social disgrace compared to being chopping into a million bits. And so the jokes kept coming, and I kept laughing. I was certainly doomed with Yute. He just kept looking at me, I think that was a look of puzzlement because, well, all his expressions are fairly similar. A big grin and continual bowing.

Important note — I am abundantly clear that mentally cross-pollinating a Thai female with a Chinese female in my mental book of jokes is so uncool no matter what side of the political table you might sit. For this, I apologize. It is merely my personal, oh-so isolated American context. Not.

Once I finally settled down, just plain happy to be in Yute’s car driving on the wrong side of the road with a female driver who kept forgetting to turn off her blinker, we started talking religion. We were after all, heading to see a number of temples so it’s not like I pulled the topic out of thin air.

I already had Bank’s (my guide in Bangkok) give me the low-down on statistics according to Bank: 90% Buddhist. 5% Christian. 5% Muslim and 5% no religion. Math is not everyone’s strong suit so go with the flow with me here. And of course truth is a closely-held belief. So bearing that in mind I postured the question: Exactly how many Buddhists are in Thailand, Yute?

90%, he replied. Hhmmm, I thought. National figures, maybe? Same script, certainly. “No- wait,” he said. “80% Buddhists. 10% Christian. 10% other,” he amended.

“And you?” I asked.

“I was born a Buddhist, I like the temples, but I’ve converted. I’m a Christian,” he said. With that I reached out and shook his hand. “Glad to have you,” I replied. He smiled, likely feeling confident of his tip.

“Any chance you’re Catholic?” I pressed looking for a further camaraderie.

“No,” he replied.

“It’s all good,” I smiled. He smiled and bowed.

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