We spent the end of the year pampering ourselves. First we took our first tuk-tuk (cabs about the size of golf carts) to a new part of town for a western-style restaurant at a place Isaure had read about in her French guidebook. (It’s so wonderful having her here. Not only is she my personal paparazzo, she knows the best place to get a banana pancake.) Speaking of banana pancakes, fruit of any kind was very high on my doctor’s Do Not Eat If You Don’t Want to Spend Hours in the Bathroom List. But it is also basically my favorite food. In my one day in Chiang Mai I had bravely resisted smoothies, fruit salads, delicious-looking breakfast cakes, and the stall at the Sunday Market that sold tall cups full of absolutely gorgeous strawberries. But one look at this menu and I knew that resistance was futile. I got some French toast with a side of fruit salad, figuring that individual pieces of fruit I could at least rinse off with my bottled water. (Yes, it was a really weird thing to do and yes, I am sure our waitress will be talking about me at cocktail parties for years to come.)
After breakfast we decided to explore the neighborhood, which was really cute—narrow streets with lots of restaurants and guesthouses, so we walked around for a while, admiring flowering trees, exotic caged birds, and families on motorbikes. Highlights included an adorable little girl of about two sharing a motorbike sidecar with an equally adorable bulldog, and a woman at a market reaching into a barrel of fish, grabbing one, weighing it, and matter-of-factly bludgeoning it to death with a mallet. Since we were being indulgent and we were in Thailand, we decided to get massages. We picked a place that looked nice (through the window we could see a row of chaise lounges for people to recline on while they got pedicures) and chose options off the menu. Isaure and I both chose an hour-long traditional oil massage for $10. Now, I have had a lot of massages in the US, from a lot of different people, but this was definitely unique. They brought us to the top floor of the building and put us in individual curtained-off areas and had us take off our clothes and leave the clothes in a little basket, which they then removed (presumably so they didn’t have to step over them in the narrow space). Then once we were covered up they proceeded to sit on our feet and crawl up our backs (which actually felt really good). The one part that was slightly weird for me was when my masseuse began massaging my chest. And by my chest, I mean my chest. At the time I decided not to say anything and just experience the traditional massage all the way through, but I think in the future I would let them know up front that I’m not a fan of that. Or of having my stomach massaged. Especially when I’m so preoccupied all the time with whether or not it’s going to suddenly turn on me. After the massage we got pedicures (hey, aren’t you supposed to start the new year with a clean house? We thought that this was sort of along the same lines).
Then we decided to walk to the river, which we had yet to see (though we walked by the city’s moat every day). It was not the most pleasant walk—the neighborhood was not very pretty and we inhaled a lot of gas fumes—but eventually we did locate the (unremarkably, brown) river. We also saw the first person we had seen in Chiang Mai who appeared to be a beggar (though I can’t be sure since he was not begging, but lying facedown on the sidewalk beside his crutches, asleep). I have been amazed at the lack of panhandling in this city full of tourists. I can’t figure out if it’s because the city has somehow removed street people from the Old Quarter, or if it’s because the tourists make the town so prosperous that nobody needs to beg, or something in between.
Anyway, the highlight of our trip to the river was a visit to a tea house from Isaure’s book. It was a spectacular example of a colonial house, with beautiful woodwork and a flat-out beautiful back garden where you could have your tea. (Here I really went off the rails and had a fruit smoothie.)
By this time it was 5 o’clock, the time our Buddhism PhD student had told us that the walking meditation circle would begin, but we thought that it would probably last for a few hours at least, so we strolled back to town through a pedestrian market. Alas, when we finally reached the appropriate wat it was over. But another wat was having a “Moral Pray Countdown” at 11:30, so we added that to our agenda. Even though we had been to countless wats at this point (one thing I am very curious to find out is how on earth the city manages to support so many—each wat has several buildings and well-kept grounds, and you can often see the next one from the grounds of the one you’re standing in), we decided to explore the grounds. And I’m so glad we did because it turned out to be Chedi Luang, which is the most breathtaking temple I have ever seen. It is 80 meters tall and incredibly imposing. I’d describe it but I don’t think I could do it justice, so you’ll just have to look at the pictures!
While we were walking around Chedi Luang we spotted a sign for something called “Monk Chat.” No, it’s not a dating service; it’s a twice-daily opportunity to help the monks with their English and ask them questions about their lives. Which is now at the top of my must-do list. We decided to go into the main temple of the complex to look around. Like the wat with the money hanging from the ceiling, this one had narrow multicolored strips with all the signs of the Chinese zodiac. An older woman was selling them by the door. We asked her about them and she explained that you signed your name on the side and then hung it. We got one and each signed our names next to our animal, and then I took a long wooden pole and hung it in an empty spot. It felt like such a special thing to be a part of.
By this point we were exhausted (we had been up until 2:00 the night before, but the internet wasn’t working so I couldn’t post my blog entries, so I got up early and posted them), so we went back to the hotel for a nap. When Isaure and I were ready to go I went across the hall to make sure Khalid was ready, and he suggested I check out the view from his balcony. It took my breath away—the lanterns we had seen in the sky yesterday paled in comparison to the galaxy of lights there now. And the fireworks, which were being set off with almost equal abandon. (I should mention that the only reason we were in Chiang Mai for New Year’s was that the island we had wanted to be at was booked up. I had briefly googled to see what was going on in Chiang Mai for New Year’s, and I had read something like, “people gather for fireworks at the city gate.” So I was totally, totally unprepared for such an amazing sight.)
We hurried out of our hotel and pushed our way through the crowds towards the city gate. Watching the lanterns float up into the sky all around us, I said a little prayer that none of us would get burned. At the (very crowded) concert by the gate a beautiful woman was singing a Thai pop song. We listened for a while, then decided to go see what was happening at the Moral Pray Countdown.
Ten minutes later we had arrived back at the wat, now transformed by hundreds of candles flickering at a 15-foot wide makeshift altar in the side yard. Dozens of worshippers knelt on blankets they had spread on the dirt in front of it. We watched from a distance, beside the wat, but a Thai woman slid over to make space on the fence she was sitting on so I sat down beside her and copied the hand motions she was making. While the monk (we couldn’t see) was speaking over the loud speaker, she pointed her hands upward and bowed her head. When he stopped, she touched them to her face in what must be a sort of physical “amen.” After a few minutes of this a line of monks filed out and took seats among the candles. The speaking (all in Thai) continued. More fireworks went off and I glanced at the time; it was midnight. We gave each other discreet half-hugs since the monk was still talking (and a sign in front of the wat says “no hugging or kissing in the wat!”) Almost immediately after midnight the voice switched to English, and welcomed everyone and wished them a happy new year. He began listing some of the tenets of Buddhism, including remembering the past and reflecting on your mistakes, which sounded like very good ideas to me. We sat for a while and listened to him tell a parable about a boy who was so cruel to his mother that she jumped in a lake, but then he turned his life around and became good, so it is not too late for any of us.
With that happy thought, we went to a bar and danced the night away.
Yeah. 2013 is looking pretty good so far.