No Place As Home
Contact Daniel: noplaceashome at yahoo.co.uk
General Musings (2)
Guide to this site
At home in the world
Not very heroic
Small town West Bengal
An ending approaches
Sights, frights and memories
Everyone's cup of tea
Introduction to Gari
In the hate period
Don't take this too seriously
Making the bag
Things which make me angry
May 14, 2004
You have a face like a girl!
Despite the post-rain searing heat, I went walking and exploring, and the more I saw of Chiang Mai, the more and more I liked it.
The non east parts of the old city (the centre of Chiang Mai, a square zone surrounded by a long, long canal) are far, far more pleasant, more everyday liveable than the grimy hub of hotels and bars I had first arrived in. Fewer cars, some attractive buildings, more and more shops only with Thai script in the windows.
I found a small park where locals hired bamboo mats and sat chatting and eating lunch. Everyone's shoes off, the sun was out, burning, but we all grouped under the shade of the jurassic-high palm and eucalyptus trees. Every hour or so everyone adjusted their mats a few feet to keep up with the shifting mid-day shadows. The girls selling the mats told me the price in Thai and said thank you in Thai - it was nice to feel a guest in someone else's culture again.
I walked on, back eastwards, out of the old city and across the Mae Ping River. I saw a sign, "Love at First Bite", and followed it. Love at First Bite seemed very much the fancy place for well off young Thai things to go and spoil themselves, a delectable cake shop. I cowered inside the air conditioning and took a rest. I got a slice of apple pie for an extravagant 50 baht (one dollar is 40 baht, one pound 70, my room for the night costs 100 baht). It was delicious. Groups of young Chiang Mai-ers sit in the flower garden outside and chat, mobile phones laid on tables like pregnant duelling pistols. Celebrating for some reason, I ordered a second indulgence, this time chicken pot pie, also fantastic.
I wanted to share something with you, a small thing that had become very important to me. Whenever I became weary of being "abroad", the image that meant home, the only image that I longed for, was a blue swivelling armchair. In my parents' house, we have a now rather old fading armchair that swivels around - it sits in front of the television. In days past, I would sometimes spend a large amount of time slumped in this chair, in my dressing gown, perhaps with a recently made sandwich nearby, flicking between music channels (I don't have enough patience with TV to watch anything more demanding than MTV). For reasons not entirely clear to me, this memory seemed to absorb like blotting paper every shred of my nostalgia and home-longing.
On Sunday, the Chiang Mai of my dreams materialised.
We cooked, ate, cooked, ate, then she took us to her local market. Nature must grow easier and wilder here than in cold England, the sun's energy more potent. Pink meteor-like "dragon fruit", different branches of the ginger family, different branches of the frog family, some fried on sticks, some toad-squatting resigned to their nets. Half a dozen types of rice in huge plastic bowls, pink eggs, deep fried chicken heads, tapioca puddings, six different chili pastes. I discovered that the Thai word for Guava is Farang, which is also the word for white foreigner... Yui explained that the story is that the French introduced Guavas to Thailand, and France, or Fr-ance, became Far-rang. She laughed, "But I think it is because of your big round heads"!
Yui, along with, if you'll permit the generalisation, people all over Asia, found my rosy cheeks remarkable. My brother and I have inherited the Wallace family reddish complexion which brought me no end of insecurity in university. But in Asia, or at least Thailand, my strangely rouge-like cheeks and lips seems quite a thing of exotic envy. Yui already had remarked on this earlier, and as she walked on after catching up with one market friend, she told me, "The woman there just said to me, "He has a face like a girl" "! Yui assured me this was a compliment in Thailand. "It's a way of saying a man is handsome". She said, "I wish I had red cheeks and lips like yours!" - I told her with a smile, "Pinch more"! She laughed, "Nah, I just bruise"!
We drove back to the house, and as we ate dessert, and the official 3pm ending time of the day's lessons came and went unnoticed, Yui taught us how to carve flowers from the peeled skin of cherry tomatoes. She told us about fun things to do in Chiang Mai, and about quarter to four drove the three of us to the Walking Market. At one point I asked her if she liked Love at First Bite, she said, "Wow, who told you about that"? I rather proudly explained I had discovered it for myself...
It was wonderful to meet someone who didn't seem interested in perpetuating that financially rewarding wall between tourists and the city. That afternoon the full extent of how far Chiang Mai's guesthouses control us travellers sank in for me. Yui told us a story about how a man had booked a day's lesson with her when he was in Bangkok. He got to Chiang Mai, asked his guesthouse if they had her phone number around. They called Yui and informed her they expected commission for this "connection". She pointed out she had already booked this guy, she had no intention of paying them commission... "Since then, that guesthouse has never sent anyone to me". It is a comprehensive racket. The guesthouses extract a commission from every bit of advice and help they offer, even if a traveller asks for the address of a hospital. If a product supplier (like Yui) argued against this, they could be cut off from further business and referrals. Yui even worried that if our guesthouse found out she was telling us innocuous things about Chiang Mai like street markets, this would be seen as a challenge to their rule.
If you'll permit the generalisation, there seem to be two main groups of foreigners living in Chiang Mai.
The second group seems to be an incredible host of people working towards spiritual, mystical and physical improvement. Chiang Mai, at least for the foreigner, has a strange self development air, one outshoot of this are the fliers advertising courses in thai massage, self massage, yoga (several different branches), meditation, buddhist meditation, thai cooking, thai boxing, tibetan kung fu, tai chi, reiki healing, organic farming, photography, writers' groups - I've probably missed a dozen other categories.
Perhaps ironically, although I could probably do with some help from Eastern wisdom at the moment, often feeling quite down and lonely in Chiang Mai, that mood has left me a bit too low and lethargic to begin a course of spiritual improvement. Perhaps as I cheer up more in the coming weeks I will be ready to find Happiness.
But while my body and spirit malinger, my mind is unquestionably being fed. Chiang Mai's bookshops are absurdly plentiful and easy going, as though the English language itself has also come to the city for an easier life. An extensive second hand bookshop is a window into how much the world and humanity have to offer - a window I can spend days peering through. Chiang Mai has seemingly a dozen of these. Curious about Derrida's views on Grammatology? Even one of smaller shops has both his original texts and a selection of guides and reviews to help the reader along. Italo Calvino, Bruce Chatwin, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Paul Auster... all begging to be investigated. In the painfully limited time and money at my disposal, I've so far bought and traded back in the rather uplifting "Jonathan Livingstone Seagull" and some of Salman Rushdie's essays ("Imaginary Homelands"), and have just began Rushdie's novel "Midnight's Children".
I came across the "Writers' Club and Wine Bar", run by a white moustached English man, Bob. It was an odd experience to chat with the older English regulars here about my writing and what I was doing with it. It was not hard to see why these men had exiled themselves from the mother country. Bob ran this bar with the local he lived with, a lovely Thai woman called Tong, who had nearly grown up children of her own. A few days later I came back to the bar in the afternoon - Tong started asking me, "Why aren't you going to bars, discos, meeting young women"? I replied that it wasn't my scene at the moment. She smiled, "Well, you can spend time with us not young women, we will look after you"!
Chiang Mai nightlife
But, skipping back in time to that first night, the night of the Sunday market, I got out of Bob's bar at quarter to one, and walked purposefully until it dawned on me I had no idea where I was going. I walked past a dog sprawled outside a chained up shop, and for reasons private to the dog, it felt I needed to be prowled after and barked at, until I was 200m further down the road. I walked on, now suspecting I was in fact going the opposite to the way I needed, but unwilling to tussle with the dog again. I walked a direction that seemed appropriate. I passed a dustbin with some black rubbish bags - too close, it seemed, the bin and black bags started trembling at my presence. Rats, long thin grey rats, shot out and bounded towards and through a nearby rat sized hole in the pavement, one by one, as if a magical pool shot was clearing the table into the top left corner. I jumped rather high. Although it is said that in London, one is never more than five yards from a rat, I suppose they must be English rats, reticent and skilled at keeping out of the way, so I can't recall ever seeing one back home. After my feet landed I took a few paces forward to get away from the bin. Those steps brought me to a metal gate, and instantly, from behind it large dogs exploded with hateful machine gun barking. I was quite shaken by this point.
Possibly this is just the low season, but there seem quite a unwarranted number of tuk tuks loitering around Chiang Mai, probably enough for every tourist to tear around in one, re-enacting a climatic scene from Mad Max. Tuk tuks either drive around looking for business, or park somewhere and accost me in the hope I'll give up my crazy walking thing. Every conversation they initiate with me takes exactly the same form, 1. "Tuk Tuk"? 2. "Where are you going today"? (If a no response, then..) 3. "So, where are you from"?
Him: "Tuk tuk"?
Him: "Tuk tuk"?
Him: "Tuk tuk"?
Him: "Tuk tuk"?
I sent Can an email from Chiang Mai, saying sorry that I would not be coming back to visit him. He replied - here is the email he sent me:
How are you ? for me . i'm find although you don't come to see me and visit
The problem was how. I wasn't too happy with Can's idea of posting cash to him. The other options seemed to be to getting some organisation in Luang Prabang to act as a recipient for a money transfer, or to ask some traveller heading to Luang Prabang to carry the cash and give it to Can.
Checking out of my hostel, a young American guy and girl were sitting by the reception desk. The male half and I got chatting about what Laos had been like - they were heading there that day. I walked away, and wondered if I should take the absurdly foolish step of entrusting them with the money for Can. I felt like they probably could be trusted, in all likelihood, and couldn't think of a better way to get the cash to Can quickly and relatively safely. I wasn't sure if Gari would think my doing this very, very stupid, but I decided I could pay it all myself if he wasn't happy.
Daniel, 14 May 2004, Lampang
Posted by Daniel on May 14, 2004 12:31 PM
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