Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Last day in Chiang Mai

It's been several days since my last posting. We've been very busy travelling around and internet access has been scarce/dear. I'll try to catch up over the next few days. Photos will be added ASAP.

The day after our elephant adventure was our last day in Chiang Mai. We had a flight booked to head down to Krabi the next day.

We woke up late and had a nice pancake breakfast. Then we tried to negotiate cab fare to a temple up the local mountain and a bit outside of town, called Doi Suthep. We knew where we wanted to go, but getting there proved challenging. The first cab/bus wanted 500 baht, 4 times what we'd been told to pay. The second wanted 400. The third wanted 250. We decided that that was worth getting taken for, but he wanted to make it a return trip. Of course he did. He was already getting ridiculously overpaid for one way, why not get twice as much. Eventually we settled on a one way trek up the hill, knowing we'd have to negotiate again once we arrive.

We visited Doi Suthep, which we'd been told was pretty spectacular. It was somewhat impressive, being a big temple on a hill and all, but not much more than that. It was very crowded with Thai's and tourists alike. It's got a massive golden chedi in the middle of the temple, which is supposed to be one of the most holy in Thailand. Really though, it's just rather big and gaudy. Colleen and I are very confused about this. We've been told that Buddhism is all about finding the middle path, about avoiding extremes, and about losing desire. But every important modern Buddhist thing we see seems to be about building the "biggest" or the "greatest" or the "most expensive". If Buddhism is about finding the middle way, then why is everything made of gold? I have several theories, but I think I need to have a good discussion with someone who understands Thai Buddhism to get a proper answer. There are some temples that have "talk with a monk" sessions, and I think I might have to go to one of those.

From Doi Suthep there is also a pretty good view of all of Chiang Mai. The first thing you notice is that you can't see that much, for all the smog. This is a little sad, as we're in the North, which is really the most forested area of the country. The second thing you notice is that there isn't that much to see of Chiang Mai. A local enthusiastically pointed out their airport. Yes, yes, they're lovely runways. (Sorry Chiang Mai-ians.)

After Chiang Mai we had intended to visit some of the trails through the surrounding national parklands. Now we just had to find them. We asked some of the Doi Suthep folks if they knew where to go, and just got puzzled looks about the idea of hiking. We saw a sign on one of the taxi/buses advertising "National Park - 200 baht each way", which seemed excessive. Then Colleen approached a "farang" (foreigner) who seemed to be giving his friends a bit of a tour. She asked him about the park and whether 200 baht was reasonable. He said that he didn't know of any hiking trails, but he did know where the bus/taxis were going, and that 200 baht was crazy for that. He offered to have us join him and his family as they continued up the hill to the nearby Hmong village. He didn't seem like a serial killer, so we happily accepted his offer.

His name was Steve and he was an American engineer, who had worked all over the world and had settled in Chiang Mai a few years before. With him was his friend Richard, Richard's two daughters, Mary and Lynn, Lynn's fiance whose name I can't remember but who said he's an outfielder for the White Sox, and a Thai friend.

Steve and Richard seemed to be doing a lot of wandering around before we headed further up the hill. They took their entire family into the jade tourist trap, where little jade sculptures were going for US$50k. Then they tried out various random things from the corner store. Eventually we all piled in to a van fit for 20 people and headed up the hill.

After about half an hour we came to an Hmong village. The Hmong seem to live in higher altitudes all across this region. Back when Colleen and I visited Vietnam we spent some time with a Black Hmong tribe in Sapa. That village was pretty remote and seemed more of a real Hmong home. The village that we arrived at with Steve and crew seemed to be a bit more of a suburb of Chiang Mai, fairly well set up to take advantage of the tourist trade. We walked around the village for a bit and checked out some of the shops. It was quite pleasant, but quite poor, with construction materials made out of whatever was found lying around.

We walked to the high-point of the village and Richard mentioned that there was a Buddhist temple / monastery at the top of a hill nearby. We were all in for it and climbed the 500 plus steps up to a little group of homes, with a small temple in the middle. It was a wonderful contrast to Doi Suthep. This was small, quiet and peaceful. It was at the top of a hill with a beautiful view of the surrounding area. And, apart from the monks, we were the only ones there. In fact, one of the monks, in broken English, asked me who told us about the temple. I think they were keeping it their own little secret, to keep the tourist hordes, both Thai and farang, away.

Following this we all went back through the village and caught a ride down the hill from Steve and Richard. They dropped us off near our guesthouse. We went back, got changed, went out for dinner, did a little shopping at the Chiang Mai night market. (I got a little something for Cameron with lots of legs and horns. Let's see if we make it through customs.) And back to our hotel for bed. The next day was to be a travelling day.

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