Chiang Mai, Thailand
It’s already become a habit of mine to get up in the ‘morning’ and go hunt for a fresh fruit smoothie. Of course I never have to go too far but I’ve been trying to spread the joy and try out different places though the offering is much the same. This mornings mission inadvertently led me straight to an entirely different place I’d been looking for but hadn’t been able to find due to my shocking navigational skills – a massage parlour run by and for the benefit of people who are blind or sight impaired.
I opted for a reflexology foot massage and was led into a low lit room which for obvious reasons, didn’t have the same pleasing aesthetic as the other parlours I’d been in but it was clean, neat and wreaked of camphor. I laid down on my allotted bed and Mrs Ben got to work with practiced precision, she even used the stick things I’d seen around to poke deeper into tender parts between my toes. I suppose she couldn’t see me grimacing in pain and I didn’t want to break the silence of the room so I just sucked it up. It was interesting to watch the staff go about their work and to see the systems that were in place to compensate for their lack of site. Judging by the number of customers coming and going in the short time I was there, it seems safe to assume that they’re doing a roaring trade.
My fancy feet next led me to the biggest temple in the old city – Wat Phra Singh. The entry way was lined by tables laden with lotus flowers and other offerings including small wicker cages with little sparrow-like birds inside. I was shocked to see them and felt confronted by a moral dilemma – should I buy them all to set them free or should I abstain and therefore not create a demand for them and potentially just set them free to be captured again? In the end I went with my high school economics understanding of supply and demand and walked on by.
Inside the main temple, I decided to have a go at being reflective. I’d acquainted myself with all the appropriate etiquette (which oddly didn’t discourage the use of non-flash photography) at the outset of the trip to make sure my behaviour wasn’t inadvertently offensive. My attempt pretty much amounted to me sitting uncomfortably trying to think nice thoughts but I kept being distracted by an old monk meditating to one side. He was so still and focused in his practice that not even all the people coming and going to pray in front of him seemed to make him stir. Obviously he was someone of great importance to the temple so I thought maybe I’d benefit from being closer to him. I moved across and just watched him, marvelling at his stillness and enjoying the strange sensation of starring at someone who doesn’t mind. He didn’t even seem to be breathing! Hang on, he wasn’t! Oh my Buddha, he was dead!!! Well, not dead – they weren’t doing a Weekend at Bernies with him – rather he was a wax work replica of the 98 year old principle monk that died in 2009 (he was fibreglass actually according to the sign at his feet that I very gingerly approached to read)! Well, that freaked the hell out of me and blew any chance of finding my inner peace!
I gave it a shot in a couple of the smaller shrines on the same grounds and even made an offering of a lotus flower in one of them. I’m not sure I did it at all correctly but like lighting a candle in the many and variously denominated churches and places of worship I’ve visit around the world, I figure it’s more of a personal ritual and a dedicated moment to feel love and gratitude for the people I care for and the world at large. It can’t hurt, right?
I lingered in the temples gardens a while, reading the various tenets of Buddhism tied to the trees – I found most profound, some ridiculous and a few just plain funny though I’m sure they weren’t meant to be. I left in search of a highly recommended vegetarian place in the vicinity but was again thwarted by my map illiteracy. I asked at a hotel and they pointed me in the direction just a few doors up. I saw a big banner advertising vegetarian food and reasoned it must be it. On closer inspection, I didn’t think it was but was willing to give it a go. It was a tiny hole in the wall place with a few plastic tables and chairs out the back. I smiled at the novelty of being in such a place as grotty and grimy as it was – being vegetarian sometimes means missing out on authentic eating experiences, especially where the language barrier makes it difficult to articulate that fish is meat.
I walked back to my guesthouse hoping I hadn’t made a mistake, occasionally checking in with my stomach for signs of rebellion but found it still calm – I am mighty! I strolled down Ratchadamnoen Road to enjoy the street theatre of the vendors setting up for the evenings markets before heading back to get ready for my evening plans.
Rather than heading into the fray, I pushed against the flow of Sunday Walking Market crowds to the other end of town for a small reunion dinner with Becky, Abi, Jan and Dave who’d all spent a second week at Elephant Nature Park (ENP) and who’d just been released this afternoon. We met at one of the many ex-pat establishments down around the Night Bazar that don’t hold much appeal to me – I just don’t see the sense if traveling the world to hang out at places that replicate home. Having said that, I was more than happy to go with the flow to catch up with my new friends and hear how their extra week had been. Certain rumours were raised, discussed and denied again but I’m afraid to little avail. The beer flowed and a good night was had by all. We wandered en masse to the markets, buying a few nicknacks along the way before the time came to say goodbye again to Abi, Jan and Dave.
I took Becky hostage, or vice versa, and plunged headlong back into the inescapable Sunday Walking Market, chatting all the while and discovering more about this most remarkable woman! Having spent a week in close proximity at ENP, it struck me as bizarre that we hadn’t latched onto each other sooner given the instant magnetism we found tonight. As it happens, we’re both in remarkably similar situations having both spent the last half year (give and take a month respectively) traveling the globe solo (and recently so). Chiang Mai is the end of the line for both of us before we each head home (UK for Becky) to face uncertain futures. We also realised that we are both harbouring freakishly similar secret ambitions, the kind you only discuss with someone who doesn’t really know you and therefore is less likely to laugh! But laugh we did – have I mentioned how funny Becky is? Hilarious and it’s not just her accent either!
The night could not have been long enough to cover everything we were bursting to say so we made plans to pick up tomorrow where we reluctantly had to leave off tonight. I skipped off back to my guesthouse feeling so lucky to have discovered another kindred spirit and already looking forward to tomorrows instalment.