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Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads


Back to Part 5

At the same time that Sukhothai was a great power, the kingdom of Lan Na Thai to the north was also becoming very important. The capital of Lan Na was the city of Chiang Mai, which didn't actually become a part of Thailand itself until only about one hundred years ago. Today, Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and the second largest in all of Thailand. Some of the remains of the distant past are visible today: the walls surrounding the old city are still standing (in some places rebuilt, but in others crumbling or completely destroyed), and the moat (on the left in this photo) is still there, too.

Chiang Mai's most obvious characteristic is the juxtaposition (combination) of that old world with the new and the modern. As soon as you get out of the old city, you encounter brand-new buildings like this one. But not everything about this building is new. See those X-shaped figures at the peak of the roof? That figure is called a kalae (pronounced "gah-lay), and it's a common architectural feature in this area that goes back hundreds of years.

You can see a kalae more easily here. Thailand may not have been colonized, and Thai people are very proud of their independence, but they sure like things Western... it's really easy to find a lot of familiar things to make you feel at home. While a lot of this kind of development IS taking place, the Thai feel that Chiang Mai may be building up a little TOO fast; so, there are laws limiting the amount of development in and right around the city. I hope it's successful, because Chiang Mai right now is a very pleasant and interesting city without being TOO big. It's kind of like the San Francisco of Thailand, the way Bangkok is like LA: it's in the north, it's cooler, it's smaller and less frantic, and it's a cultural center in a beautiful environment. (Not that LA and Bangkok aren't cultural centers, too!) It also gets more tourists, like SF, and a lot of foreigners even choose to live here. (There's another city even farther north called Chiang Rai that I think of as Thailand's Seattle: pretty far from everything but really pretty and the kind of place "insiders" know about that isn't quite as popular a place to visit -- YET.)

Look familiar? Malls like these are all over the big cities of Thailand, though they're most evident in Bangkok. This is Central, the only big mall in Chiang Mai, and as you'd imagine it's a major hangout place for young people. Check out the Baskin-Robbins, Burger King and Mister Donut in the background for more signs of Western influence. It would be hard to call Burger King or McDonald's here fast food, though -- the Thai food stands are MUCH faster!

Look carefully at this sign from the mall directory. It's interesting to see which stores are listed in English and which are in Thai. There's a good deal of English spoken in Chiang Mai because of the tourism industry, which brings English-speaking people to the area and, therefore, the need for local people to be able to speak to them (so that they'll buy things, which creates jobs, mostly). Still, there's a constant debate about how much to allow Western influences to affect Thai culture.


There are also movie theaters in Central Mall, some of which show English-language features with Thai subtitles. Everyone in the theater stands before the main feature, when the king's picture is screened and the national anthem is played. Then comes the movie -- and even some great ones, like this!

I said before that it's impossible to describe how much food you find along the streets of Thailand. Well, it's equally impossible to describe the density of the markets. EVERYTHING is sold here, from vegetables of incredible variety... all different kinds of meats, some of which you're likely to have eaten and others, probably not.

A lot of Thai food, especially in the south but in the north as well, is very hot and spicy because of the use of chili peppers like these. A traditional northern Thai dish is papaya salad, which is made VERY spicy with the use of chilies.

Dishes in the north are different from those in the other parts of the country; each area has its own "regional cuisine". Most of the differences are in the spices used, though the north uses more noodles than the south and the rice is different -- it's called "sticky rice", and is eaten with your hands rather than utensils. You just grab a glob of rice, wrap it around one of the main dishes, and shove it into your mouth -- no need to worry about cleaning up until the end of the meal. As in most places in Thailand, though, meals include a variety of meats and vegetables, often in soups and curries but at other times fried or sautéed. You can find them in restaurants, served in big trays (you just point at the dishes you want),...

...or just wait for one of these "food cycles" to come by.

And, like everywhere, fruit is a major part of the diet. It just happened while I was here that durians came into season. I happen to think that durian is the most absolutely disgusting fruit in the world (it has a REALLY powerful smell, which to me is like something rotten, and a creamy texture -- so that, as someone once told me, eating one is like "licking fine brie cheese off a toilet seat -- YECCH!). But other people absolutely LOVE it! (I've also heard that about ten people a year die from durian -- not from eating it, but from sitting under durian trees and having the heavy, spiked fruit fall off the tree and crack their heads open.) I was personally very happy when I checked into a hotel and opened the information folder to see an image of a durian with that international "no" symbol (the red circle and slash) over it! I guess some other people can't stand the smell, either...

Well, I guess if some of you found that photo description disgusting, you'll find this even more so. I finally decided I'd have to try some of these interesting little delicacies. They were actually pretty good!

One very northern Thai dish (pictured here with a drink of young coconut) is khao soi. I love khao soi for two reasons -- not only does it taste absolutely delicious, but it also has a great story behind it that tells about the history of the region. The original form of this dish is the Yunnanese noodles of southern China. Yunnanese Muslim traders brought the dish with them as they moved through the region, and in each place they came to the locals picked it up and added their own influences, based on their own tastes and the locally-available ingredients. In Myanmar, for example, it became a dish called kao suey, which I look forward to trying when I get there. This kao suey eventually came with the traders into northern Thailand, where the Thai gave it their own twist and turned it into khao soi (by adding coconut milk, for example, among other changes). Most people would say that khao soi is better than any of its previous "ancestors" -- another example of how the Thai take the best of other cultures (again, in this case, Chinese) and make it even better.

Remember how I pointed out that Thai temples are used for many things other than religious purposes, including for sports? One day I was walking around and caught sight of these boys playing sepak ("kick") takraw. Takraw describes several games played with a woven wicker ball. One version is like hacky-sack, with participants standing in a circle and using all parts of the body except the hands to keep the ball in the air. Sepak takraw is more like volleyball, only participants can't use their hands. It's amazing to see the moves they make -- some even do backflips, spiking the ball over the net in mid-air with their foot! Thailand usually vies with Malaysia to be world champions in the sport, and won back the Asia Games gold medal this year after coming in second for the past four years in a row to the Malaysians. Other popular sports and games in Thailand: soccer (number ONE, as in most of the world), badminton, muay thai style boxing (as you've already seen), and kite fighting (which sounds REALLY cool, but I've never gotten to see it).

Farther back in the temple, I got to meet two very outgoing monks who were happy to talk to me about their lives in the monastery. One of the first things you may have noticed in this photo is that they have shaved their heads (one even shaved his eyebrows); I asked them the significance of this, and they told me that it is because monks are supposed to focus on their meditation and study, and not be concerned about "everyday" things like hairstyles. That goes for their clothes, too. A monk's only personal possessions are his yellow or orange robes and the bowl he uses to collect alms (food donations) in the morning. I also asked how long they'd been monks. Each had been ordained (blessed as monks) in their teens, and made the decision to devote their lives to Buddhism when they turned twenty. Many Thai men are ordained and become monks at least once in their lives, as an opportunity to escape the rush of daily life, to study Buddhist teachings, to meditate, and to have a purifying experience; however, most only stay temporarily, spending an average of about three months at the monastery before returning to their normal routines.

Walking back onto the streets, you can see that Buddhism is not the only force that guides the lives of Thai people. Here, a small offering of leftover food from breakfast has been left on the curb so that the spirits of the street and the ancestors of those who work there will be fed and not disturb the daily goings-on -- another piece of evidence of people's animist beliefs, and perhaps of Chinese influence (in ancestor worship).

And, in this Buddhist temple you can see how Hinduism can actually be merged with Buddhism, so that people need not hold to only one or the other but can take for themselves the best from both sets of beliefs. This sculpture is of Ganesh, a the elephant-headed god from Hindu mythology. He's given an equal position to the other figures, mostly Buddhist, who are honored in the temple.

But, again, Buddhism is clearly the dominant religion in Thailand. This "Naga Buddha" is at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the holiest temple around Chiang Mai. Temple visitors have covered the figure in gold leaf, which they buy at the temple; it costs ten baht (25 cents) for about a dozen super-thin, two-inch by two-inch sheets of 100% gold leaf, and you even get two flowers, six candles and several sticks of incense thrown in to make offerings with. (You can also spend ten baht to buy about five or six baby birds in a wicker cage that you crack open, letting them free.) The story of the naga is a famous one. While Prince Siddharta Gautama, the to-be-Buddha, was meditating under the bodhi tree in his quest for enlightenment, a fierce, torrential rain began to fall, and the resultant flooding threatened to wash Siddharta from his spot. The naga (multi-headed snake) saved the day by coiling himself underneath the meditating prince, lifting him above the raging flood waters, and even spread out his hooded heads above the prince to keep him dry.

Part 7

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