I arrived in Chiang Mai last night at 5 p.m. If Bangkok is Thailand’s megatropolis, Chiang Mai is its charm. A city nestled in the Thai highlands and falling at the southern spur of the Silk Road – an ancient caravan trade route for opium, silk and timber. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s cultural epicenter. A city of universities, museums, temples, and schools offering classes in everything from meditation, massage, muay Thai, language, herbalism and cooking. You go to the islands to bask and relax. You come to Chiang Mai to learn something. I called a guesthouse in the old part of the city center, shared a taxi with two other solo travelers and somehow landed in the exact spot I needed to be. One block from Chiang Mai’s gigantic Sunday Walking Street Market and two blocks from AUA (American University Alumni Language Center) where I am taking Thai language courses each afternoon with a private tutor. I guess the travel gods were smiling upon me.
I was schluffing my suitcase, small backpack and messenger bag down the main soi (lane) of the Sunday market toward my guesthouse when the Thai national anthem began playing on loudspeaker. I read the cultural dos and don’ts before leaving the states and remembered that you must stand and freeze for the anthem no matter where you are or what you are doing. Imagine hundreds of people meandering through a crowded and noisy market suddenly standing still in silence. It was a strange and slightly funny collective moment of respect to the nation state – something that is taken very seriously here. Thais do not speak ill of the government or king regardless of their beliefs or opinions. To do so may get you in trouble with the authorities. I found myself chuckling at the oddity of it all.
I dumped my stuff at the guesthouse and headed straight for the Sunday Walking Street Market. Markets are everywhere in Thailand. And I mean everywhere. You can throw a coin in most directions in any area and hit one. There are early morning markets stating at 4 a.m. and closing by noon. There are floating markets, evening markets, weekend markets and night bazaars. Some cater to the locals; some cater to the farang. Bigger markets, like Chiang Mai’s Sunday market, are chock-full of vendors selling handicrafts, clothing, artwork, baskets, t-shirts, toys, flowers, magnets, soap, incense, jewelry, massage oil, souvenirs, trinkets, ice cream, noodle bowls, sushi, pork balls, curries, assorted meat products on sticks, rice bowls, fruit juices. You get the picture. What attracts me to the markets aside from the photography and cheap eats (you can get a bowl of spicy glass noodle for about 35 cents) is the merriment and massage. Thai massage is quickly becoming an addiction for me. The nomadic lifestyle can make a person weary. When you are continually hauling your shit up and down stairs, in and out of buses, ferries and taxis, and walking for hours on end sometimes completely lost, your body inevitably grows tired. Add 90 degree heat and the intensity of the sun when you are in close proximity to the equator and, voila, massage is your salvation! You can drop some major cash at an upscale spa or you can head to the market where 60 baht ($2.00) buys you a half-hour shoulder, neck, back and head massage. Very good. I’ll take two.
I toured Wat Phra Singh today, ate at a bustling Thai restaurant for lunch (the Thais may love to eat more than the Italians! Is it possible?), and successfully enrolled myself in a private language course which costs me about $10 per day. My session is supposed to be an hour but it went for much longer. My teacher, Rassada, is an adorable Thai woman whose laugh is highly infectious and who is teaching me the basics in the little time I have to do this insane crash course. She tells me it would take a full year to be fluent if I was studying daily. I generally pride myself in being language savvy but Thai is unlike anything I’ve learned before and I can tell it’s not going to come easily.
Most people study daily for 4-6 weeks. I’m trying to cram it into five days. Not because I think I can master it, but because my time is running short and I need to be to the DEPDC by February 1st. Yowza! Good thing the Thais are so good-natured. When I mess up royally or stare blankly at my tutor, she just howls with laughter. Sanuk, sanuk.
Tonight I’ll stay in and study. Tomorrow maybe I’ll visit the night bazaar, or the elephant sanctuary. Maybe the botanical gardens or a hill tribe village. So much to do. So little time.