Christmas in Thailand: Waiting for the Big Guy
This is first time I’ve been in Chiang Mai in three years and the first time I’ve spent more than a night or two in over ten. It’s changed, some for the better, but not all. It depends on how you count. The sex trade seems diminished, while the tourist trade—fortunately not the same thing—has definitely increased. That means that one of the town’s two main strip clubs has long since closed and the other seems not especially busy, while the pick-up bars that once sprouted up like mushrooms after a fresh rain, have at least stabilized in numbers or perhaps even decreased.
Meanwhile the number of Thai massage parlors, espresso joints, vegetarian restaurants, hostels and travel agents has increased exponentially. They have pretty much taken over the traditional central business area defined by the moat and the night bazaar, and most of the moated area, too, pushing the locals out into the Nimanhemin area as their main focus of entertainment, not that there is any sharp line dividing the two, Thailand’s main claim to tourist fame. The holy grail of travel—mingling with the locals—is imminently doable in Thailand.
It’s ironic that I seem to show up here at crucial moments in my life, literally crucial—crossroads—that somehow seem to
divide my life into more-or-less-equal twenty-year segments, previously as I was about to turn forty, now as I’m about to turn sixty. Everywhere are remnants of the past, interspersed with glimpses of the future, blended together in some sweet-and-sour hot-and-spicy present—pad prieow wan, tom yam goong, gaeng kari, or maybe pad thai, some of my favorite Thai dishes. Life is like food, I figure, the creation of our taste buds. But this is time travel, not a foodie tour.
The past is everywhere, Chiang Mai’s and my own. The market where betel-nut was once currency and cash crop 500 years ago is the same market where I once stocked up on fruits and veggies, and a quarter’s worth of sticky rice to last me through the night. Now there are smoothie stalls and English menus, and tattooed nose-ringed groovers in addition to the long-haired bearded ones of yore… and always food, food everywhere, both Eastern and Western. They say that at any given moment, half the country is cooking for the other half, and that sounds about right.
Thailand is at its most exotic in its Buddhist temples, of which there are dozens—no, hundreds. They’re everywhere, so it’s easy to just happen upon them, scattered like Baptist churches in the southern US, and as individual as the neighborhoods that they reside in. Some are famous, though, like the one up on Doi Suthep, and Jedi Luang, inside the moat on Prapokklao Road. This is a good road to see several, in fact, including some restored to their original gold-studded teak, and more than a few ruins dating back through the city’s 700-year history. Meditate on that.
No, I wasn’t born here, but I was re-born here, and may yet die here in the womb of someone else’s mother. Thailand is a comfort zone and safe haven for me now. Though I don’t look Thai at all, and used to be jealous of my friends that do, now I rarely get challenged linguistically, and that’s the key to fulfillment. When people switch from English to Thai the attitude changes also, and a different level of politeness kicks in. English is the language of aggression.
Still I doubt that I could handle Chiang Mai under the full tourist onslaught which has been diminished by the current political problems. At this level of tourism and with wintertime mild temps, it’s really nice. Temps here in ChiangMai drop to 10c/50f and people start breaking out the heavy jackets and standing around fires to keep warm. Given the occasional Christmas song, all you need is some big fat bearded Farang to dress up in red, and you could almost pretend that it’s… naah…
My main complaints are about the sidewalks, or lack thereof. It’s dangerous out there, in the country with the world’s third-highest road fatalities. And bicycle riders have got it worse. Don’t forget to wear protection—a helmet. And enjoy the light crowds while they last.