Chiang Mai oh My (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

A strange comparison – Jay and I dig Buddhism – NGOs and tales from Burma – Motorbikes are fun

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Chiang Mai is a Thai version of Los Angeles.

Chiang Mai sits in a small basin in the north of Thailand, surrounded by mountains and saturated in smog…so far, the comparison holds.  Traffic is wild, with motorcycles, cars and tuk tuks jostling for position on the roads.  If you venture into the hills beyond the city you can even see villages of hill-tribes living in huts and wearing colorful hand-woven garments.  Similarly, if you drive up Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles you will quickly discover large murals of Buddha and tiny villages in the forest, home to tribes of hippies living in huts and wearing colorful hand-woven garments.  Same same, but different?

Ahh, but I only jest.

Chiang Mai is a funky city of about 1.75 million people, large in size but slow in pace.  This city is much more livable than chaotic Bangkok.  The city is surrounded by a moat dating from an older era when the city was threatened by the invading Burmese.  It’s cheap, the heat is bearable and the food is great (albeit spicy).

Jay and I explored the city’s cultural sites and wats and even had the opportunity to witness an extended family perform a lengthy Buddhist prayer.  The matriarch and patriarch led the family through the chanting, bowing their heads and genuflecting at the feet of a giant golden Buddha.  It was a totally different experience than Bangkok and the southern islands.  I was finally experiencing some genuine culture.

Chiang Mai has more wats per capita than most large cities in Thailand, possibly even the most  Every other building seemed to be another temple and saffron-robed monks smiled from every street corner.  At the center of the town stood a large decaying stone edifice, shaped like a pyramid and encircled by large stone elephants.  The top of the monument crumbled on one side and Jay noticed it looked like Half Dome.  This was the center of Chiang Mai, and it was surrounded on all sides by beautiful wats of all sizes.  We circumambulated the temple for two hours, ducking in and out of the surrounding wats and admiring the inescapable beauty of the Buddhist people.

At nighttime we had drinks with American expats working for NGOs operating illegally in Burma.  The NGO workers cross the border into Burma and provide relief to the ethnic groups targeted by the military junta running Burma.  Specifically, they assist the minority ethnic groups the government forcefully relocates.  They are referred to as Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) – refugees in their own country.  I was quite impressed with these individuals, and their stories from Burma resonated with me and weighed heavily on my mind.

After a few days of relaxation, Jay and I decided to rent a couple of motorbikes and take off through the countryside.  We checked out a hill tribe village just outside of Chiang Mai, dropped in on an amazing temple, and then returned to Chiang Mai to tell the owner we wanted the bikes for a few more days…riding motorcycles is just too much fun.  We packed up overnight bags and set off on a multi-day bike ride to the find the old hippy outpost of Pai.

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