Sunday, October 02, 2005

Back from Chiang Dao & Chiang Mai

More Images from Chiang Mai/Chiang Dao

Chiang Dao

Did I mention I hitched a ride for the very first time?

On the road between Chiang Dao and Tha Ton/Fang, we alighted from our bus abruptly. We had long overshot our destination, Chiang Dao, by a good 40 minutes. We had planned to stay for a night at the tranquil Chiang Dao Nest, which is just under 1.5 hours from Chiang Mai. So, desperate to get to the hill station before it turned dark, we had our hands out-stretched, and before I knew it, I had successfully done it. The Thai gentleman was very friendly and sent us right up into the hills. We didn’t even have a chance to thank him.

As it drizzled incessantly, we stepped out of our huts into the café area to have a long dinner. I had a main course of pan-roasted duck breast piqued with honey lime and spices while my friend settled for slow-cooked tenderloin tempered with by garlic and lime. We ended dinner with a passion fruit cheese cake with very little conversation in between. I suppose it was therapeutic listening to the sky raining down into the heart of the forest. With clouds so near we could grab them, it was cooler than usual and convinced me for a wee moment that no amount of good deed would put me closer to heaven than a stay at a hill resort. We retreated to our simple hut of a room, which was cosy and comfortable and had no telly. We both read—I spent an evening pouring over a book on the ethnic minority tribes in the Golden Triangle and so wished I could see them up close.

Next morning, I woke up to a beautiful garden in a secluded forest. I made like Somerset Maugham at my balcony, taking in the quietude. I ate a breakfast of toasts and scrambled eggs, went back to sleep some more before leaving Chiang Dao for Chiang Mai. The rain of the night before—thanks to Vincente—had left many riverside communities submerged in water. The hotel staff had warned me the night before that if the rain got any heavier, I would have to take a boat over the submerged roads to get to my Chiang Mai-bound bus at a dry point. Thankfully, there wasn’t a drop of water on the roads leading to Chiang Mai. Much of Chiang Mai escaped unscathed except for the communities by the Ping River—much better than the flood of August 15th which saw a good part of Chiang Mai underwater.

Chiang Mai

Reflections on my second trip to Chiang Mai. I wanna celebrate Thai-ness, Chiang Mai, and the infectious and heart-warming Thai spirit, which seems to reside in every wai. Need I mention that everyone’s very friendly and ready to dispense a smile even to the most inconsequential stranger? It’s not just heart-melting, it’s life-affirming. Yes, granted that scholars like Hochschild (2003)—case in point, the Delta Airlines flight attendants in The Managed Heart—on emotional work have dismissed friendliness and the smile as commercialized emotions, packaged into a commodity and offered, sold. But it’s just so heart-warming and life-affirming to be surrounded by positive people who smile and attempt to make your day.

I often wonder if this friendly spirit seeps into another realm called creativity. Thailand’s artisan spirit manifests itself as happiness embodied. On my first night in Chiang Mai, I trawled the night bazaar in the Old City—an entity demarcated by a centuries-old moat and remnants of a brick-gate—along the streets of Thanon Intrawot and Thanon Rajdamnoen and surfaced with great purchases: some really lovely candle holders that would put Lim’s Arts and Crafts trailer trash to shame, a herbal shampoo infused with ylang-ylang and avocado essential oils and pure vegetable soaps (with scents like rice bran, papaya and green tea) that smell so good even as they exfoliate.

Chiang Mai has long been known as a production centre of handicrafts and furniture. Naysayers argue that wages and production costs—overheads in short—are very low in Thailand, which account for the variety and proliferation of such creative industries on a seemingly grassroots level (whereas in Singapore, costs deter such attempts), but I say that the Thai spirit of artistic production is inimitable and unparalleled.

In fusing the Thai spirit with the indigenous Lanna artisan style, many Bangkokians have been enticed to travel up north to its many villages outside the city proper to procure such great finds. The wonderful stuff you see (polished and prices marked up) in Bangkok’s Gaysorn Plaza and Suan Lum Night Bazaar probably had their roots in Chiang Mai. More interesting is the reverse flow: jaded Bangkokians have purportedly given up their metropolis-careers and hectic lives to go back to basics in Chiang Mai, reveling in the organic artistic spirit and producing works of arts and crafts.

Mandarin Oriental Dhara Devi, which allows cultural immersion in high style, the $80 million resort is an exercise at capturing the Lanna idyll just before the half-built tunnel freeways threaten to lodge Chiang Mai into the evil scheme of urbano-capitalismo swirl. Travel + Leisure’s Peter Jon Lindberg described the experience at the cascading patio of MO during dinner, “The sun is descending over the paddies, casting shadows across the old wooden rice barn and dripping banyan trees. A straw-hatted villager in an indigo smock guides two water buffalo down a muddy path, trailed by three clucking roosters. As daylight fades, torches spark to life, fireflies flicker, and the farmer and his team turn in for the night, leaving the fields to the scarecrows and crickets”. In creating a space to embody the Lanna spirit, owner Suchet Suwanmongkol and architect Rachen Intawong have built a temple to Lanna architecture.

I dropped by at the Dhara Devi for Oriental Bakery’s legendary cakes and saw how the whole property is akin to a northern Thai village-inspired Disneyland of teak buildings. Like a rural space, there are lotus ponds, moats, markets, temples, vegetable gardens. Wood carvers, shopkeepers, servants, artisans, cultural practioners, basket-weaving ladies are all part of the entourage that keep the village atmosphere alive in this luxurious resort. I fancied running into another fellow villager while partaking of my raspberry and champagne-infused cake and mousse, sipping ginger tea, all while perusing the day’s Bangkok Post and The Nation.

No, Chiang Mai is not to be mistaken as the back of beyond. Sure, as Thailand’s second city, it does not have many skyscrapers or a mass public transit system (relying still on trucks called songtaews), but it is a city at least in spirit. Judging from the citizens’ good taste, healthy expat population, modern art and design, no lack of cool restaurants and bars (whether perched in the mountains or nestling by the Ping River) or chic designer hotels like MO (Rachamanka, Chedi, Regent-turned-Four Seasons, Dusit’s D2, soon-to-be-here Shangri-la), it’s a cosmopolitan city in the making. The Lanna-ites (as the denizens of Chiang Mai would call themselves) are fairly clued in to the ‘international’, as their Bangkokian cousins are. Watch them chill on Sunday evening at the Night Bazaar, buy art at stalls set up in the temples, listen to a jazz performance or a cultural dance put up on the streets, schmooze with visitors from out of town. Lindberg observes that over the past decade, “Chiang Mai has witnessed a resurgence of state-endorsed regional pride. The northern dialect has made a pronounced return. Men, women, and children often dress in traditional clothes on Fridays (Culture Day). Classical dances and folk songs are performed in schools. Architects and interior designers are using northern motifs in new buildings”. It is an organic city capable of esteemed cognition.


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