Part I: Welcome To The Jungle
[dc]T[/dc]he road from Chiang Mai to Pai, boasting 672 curves, was the most quease-inducing ride since the Luang Prabang to Phonsavanh bus. Thankfully, it was only half as long as that one. I must say, however, that it may have been worse. I’m getting cross-eyed now, just thinking about it. But, the old rule of thumb came in handy yet again: never ever, ever eat breakfast the day of a mountainside bus passage.
Pai is a very small village with an delightful view of mountains on all sides. About ten years ago, it was discovered by the hippies, and the tourist boom was on. There are now two streets in town. The one, for the tourists, is filled up with Guest Houses, Restaurants, and Travel Agencies. The other, for the locals, is filled up with hardware stores and such.
It’s a nice, chill, laid-back environment. But…it’s also a Hell-hole: completely and totally infested with motorcycles. Both the locals and the tourists use them for transport of even the slightest distance; and there is not a single location in town from which to escape the ear-splitting din. Even my guest house — which promised a peaceful country environment away from the town – was within earshot of the damned things (not to mention of farmers’ tractors’ own caterwauling roar).
Recommendation: stay the FUCK away from Pai.
But if one does find oneself stuck there for a day or three, it’s possible to escape the noise. A few days reaching only into the mid-90s rather than triple-digits gave an opportunity to get out and do some hiking. OSM was showing a trailhead quite near my Guest House, so I went to have a look. Arriving to the location was a road, not a trail. But there didn’t seem to be any motorcycles using it, so for that reason alone it seemed worth a try.
A fine little walk beside an aquaduct, and past many Guest Houses. Eventually the road became a lane, then a dirt road, then a broad trail, then a narrow trail, then a rice-paddy trail. And, finally, after a ford in the river, it plunged right into the jungle canopy, and on up into the hills.
A beautiful and very peaceful two hours’ respite from the motorised terror.
Got about three-quarters of the way to the end of the trail, and decided to turn around as it was becoming a bit too overgrown and (literally) nettlesome. Then, back down at the ford, passed a couple on the way up, who asked me if it was the right way to the waterfall. I didn’t know about this!, I explained, but guessed (and later confirmed) that they were probably right. Oh, well.
Wanted to check out this big white Buddha up the mountain a little ways out of town…
…and which appeared to be in the general vicinity. The road did, indeed, lead to the mountain temple.
While I didn’t notice anybody taking the car, everybody did take the motorcycle, the lazy fucks. Only other exception was a nice German fellow — his accent was so similar-sounding to Werner Herzog’s, that I wondered was he not Bavarian? No, but from right next door, he allowed — who complained that his wife and daughter just wanted to sit around all day doing nothing, so he decided to go stretching his legs. Up we went.
The weird thing was, while a fair number of tourists did ride up to the temple, shockingly few of them elected to make the additional 500 metre climb on up to the BIg Image Of Buddha.
The Buddha is actually not quite yet finished…
…which may be why it doesn’t seem to be listed anywhere in Cool Shit To See In Pai directories. A fun great Buddha! Plopped down right in the middle of the jungle, visited by only a few, it’s a very relaxing setting.
Must here wonder whether there’s a Buddha in existence privileged to witness a better view than this one has?
It’s a good thing, though, that they painted his dimpled ass white, ‘cause the way the sun broils down upon this location, sumbitch is a-gonna need all the albedo he can get!
By the way, best part about being in the tropics? It might well be the enormous/beautiful leaves.
Next day, made a fourteen-mile round-trip to the Mor Paeng waterfall. Had been led to believe that this would be mostly a trailside hike; but turned out that, save for a couple-mile side-hike up to a nice viewpoint…
…it was all on the road. Fuck. Well, at least the views were nice. Can you spot the butterfly in this first shot? Sucker’s very well camouflaged!
Best of all, it was Lychee-tree central all up in this area. And they were groaning with fruit.
Couldn’t help munching down a few overhanging pieces. Yowee! Hadn’t eaten straight-from-the-tree Lychee since way back on the farm. Daresay, ain’t much in this world can compare to straight-from-the-tree Lychee. Despite the sweltering heat, the people out harvesting seemed to be in a jovial mood.
The jakfruit trees were burdened as well.
The waterfall is actually nothing special. It’s really just used as a swimming hole for the local kids – they divert the water to slick the rock-face up real good one, and then use it as a waterslide.
Given my history with slippery surfaces, there was no way in twenty that you’d find my dimpled ass clambering up that wall. In point of fact, a tourist cracked his head and died there last year. It’s no wonder they tell you to “Waterfall With Caution”!
It does look like fun, though.
Apart from the hiking, and the uber-delicious and uber-cheap Lychees, I can acknowledge that Pai has got some great signage – some of ‘em humorous, some of ‘em artistic-like.
Oh, and one thing more: Hear me now, and believe me one thousand times over, little tiny Pai is the Avocado capital of Southeast Asia. There was only one vendor selling them, and the seeds were overlarge. But they were cheap, ripe, and delicious. So if you need Avos, strap on your earplugs, and get your dimpled ass to Pai.
From Pai, the road continues on to the village of Mae Hong Song, near the Burmese frontier, before looping around back to Chiang Mai via Mae Sariang. As the former had recently distinguished itself by rocking out the country’s hottest temps on a few occasions, I decided to just head back to Chiang Mai instead.
The ride didn’t seem as bad to me as had been the outbound trip, though the driver was clearly a maniac. Must’ve just been me, though: I only noticed one person losing their stomach on the way out, while on the way back, it was a Barf-O-Rama all around me (including by some kids).
My reasoning paid off well, returning to a nice, cool ninety-seven degrees yesterday – a new record for the date. To-day, Sunday, was hotter still.
Worse yet, the Mangoes’ quality has taken a nosedive. They’re still available in spades, and still very cheap. But, while certainly still edible, the quality is not in the same ZIP Code as it had been just a few days before. If they are indeed on the wane, ‘tis a pity. But that was a truly unforgettable week of Mangoism. Has already got me looking forward to visiting India (where it’s not Durian, but Mango, which is considered the King Of Fruit).
Part II: Banana Republic?
[dc]S[/dc]o, how’s life under the Junta? Well…I think I saw a military man yesterday. Could’ve been a, like, bank Security Guard, though. Not sure. Did read an article in which some Israeli tourists lamented that they were probably going to leave Bangkok – not because they felt at all unsafe, but because the 10:00 PM curfew was adversely affecting their partyings. Was hoping that the Baht might drop down to thirty-five or forty to the Dollar – but she seems to be holding steady at thirty-two-point-five.
As for the Thais: if you think trivialities such as coups d’etat or hundred-degree temps are going to get in the way of their Festivalism, think again.
To-day was the official opening (though lots o’ stuff was up and running last night) of the weeklong City Pillar Festival, Inthakin. (Huhn, Wikipedia had the dates for this year wrong. Just made my first edit in many a moon to correct the error…) The Pillar dates from 1296 (!), and this is the festival to honour the city’s founding. To describe the Festival in a three words: Only in Thailand.
After only one full day, this is easily my favourite Asian Festival/Holiday since the 2012 Chinese New Year celebration in Bangkok. The Festival is situated on the grounds of Wat Chedi Luang – the site, since 1800, of the Pillar – and the surrounding street, which was blocked off to traffic.
Well, if it’s Thailand, and it’s a festival, it means street-food as far as the eye can see. But, of course, festival street-food is even wilder and crazier than the bewilderingly diverse offerings for sale each day in the cities’ many, many Street Markets. The desserts, especially, feature prominently at festival time.
Also, the signs – okay, banners — are much more elaborate.
Okay, here’s to it. An all-too-brisk, though none the less fascinating, stroll down the Food Row.
And remember: that’s only the half of it. The other side of the street was, if anything, even weirder and more outre than this. And that doesn’t include the tables and chairs down the middle – a people-watching extravaganza. Plus, there was a whole other slew of vendors inside the temple grounds.
Also, down a little side alley – anybody else find this little loop hypnotically compelling? If the last word is “alloy” (seems to be), that’s Thai for “delicious”. So, presumably this is a description of his frosty concoction.
The day’s primary points of order seemed to be, first, the Parade. An almost endless procession of colours and sounds…
…it appeared to be a troupe from each village in the District performing their ways down the street and on into the temple grounds.
The ladies were in charge of the dancing…
…and the joie de vivre…
…while the Gents took care of the musics.
Dig that Trad Thai Skronk, bay-bee!
The few tourists on hand looked, for the most part, befuddled.
But save for one village – whose ladies were sourpussed right down the line…
…the mood was merry and gay. Afterward, performers rubbed elbows and chowed on down alongside ever’body else.
As did the Novices.
The other order of the day was the giving of offerings. So, some shrines were drug out onto the temple grounds…
…while the chandeliers inside were lit up bright (for the first time that I’ve ever seen). The Buddha looked particularly great, here – though I was unable to coax my camera into finding a satisfying representation of the light and colour.
This one Buddha in front of the temple (I think it’s maybe the most important Buddha in the city)…
…was all after getting pelted from below with flowers and water, poor guy.
Call these goings-on opportunistical if you must – the purpose of the Festival is to “invoke blessings of peace, happiness, and prosperity for the city and its residents” – but it can’t be denied that Chiang Mai’s temples are hallowed spaces of incredible beauty and intense spirituality. Watching these simple acts, and hearing the wonderful music which accompanies, it’s easy for oneself to feel the tidal pull as well.
But if you thought that music sounded wonderful, check this little girl, hammering out an absolutely mesmerising tune, somehow unnoticed by the passersby. This was, for me, the show-stopping highlight of the day’s activities.
Not quite in her league, this dude was, I think, attempting to earn money for school.
So ended (my time at) the first day of the Festival.
It’s not at all difficult, at times, to feel cynical about Thailand, apparently dead-set upon squandering its unbelievably bounteous natural endowments with rivers of plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic doo-dads, and plastic surgeries; and oceans of traffic bringing deafening industrial clatter and wretched fumes of automobile exhaust. After many months traveling herein, one or two farang may possibly have even been of the mind that Thailand either has jumped, or is in the processing of jumping, that proverbial shark (but only after grabbing its fin to make soup with).
But then, it wins you over yet again, with its scenes of utterly wonderful beauty and camaraderie to go along with its innocent-if-completely-haywire over-the-top weirdness.
Hey, I’m the last person who’s gonna stump for a military dictatorship. But from where I’m sitting, John Kerry’s two-bit moralistic whining feels pitiful and ill-informed (er, just like everything else that ever comes out of his mouth…).
Yes, Thailand will be forced to deal with its ecological and economic contradictions just as surely as will the rest of Asia and the World at large. But it’s a culture that has persisted for century upon century. Ultimately, the Men With Guns will be required to conform to Thai culture, not the other way around.
As for myself, I’m off to Mae Sai. On account of Chanthaburi’s having been postponed by a week, I gots to make a Border Run. Mae Sai will be more out-of-the-way (a nine-hour round-trip) than Poipet would have been. But the cost will end up being about the same, I’ll save a page in my Passport, and I won’t have to deal with the unmitigated nightmare that is the Poipet crossing – including that the interminably slow-moving line to re-enter Thailand from there might just, in this heat, be more than the body could bear.