Tag Archives: traveling

Travel Tip # 84

 

Tuk Tuks, Minivans, Longboats and Lessons

In our travels so far, we've been taking the easy routes. Instead of a 9 to 12-hour bus ride, we took the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Instead of an 11-hour minivan ride, we flew Nok Air from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. And instead of the 6-hour “butt-pounding” fast boat, or the 2-day slow boat, we took a rather luxurious flight from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. We even had cake!

But when it comes time to leave Luang Prabang, then there are no more easy routes to take. If you want to explore the interior of Laos, there are no overnight trains and there are no airplanes and a very low probability of cake. There are tuk tuks, there are busses, there are minivans, there are jumbos and there are boats. And in our travels to and from Meung Noi, a tiny town whose name translates as “little city,” we rode them all.

These are Lao tuk tuk. The travel agent that we dealt with, one Mr. Dickey, arranged to have one come to our guesthouse between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. Now why, you may be asking, are our intrepid travelers going to travel agents? Why aren't they working it out all on their own? Why aren't they going to the bus station by themselves, checking the schedules with their own two eyes, thus bypassing the tourist track that they've been complaining about.

Well, to be honest, when you find yourself in places like Laos — where the spoken language is ineffable and the written language even more so — you have to ask for help. Whether you like it or not. Because it's not just the language that's unknowable, it is the whole underlying system. What is the bus schedule? Which of the many bus terminals do you go to? How much will you be expected to pay? Can tickets be reserved ahead of time or simply bought on the day of travel. Do you have to switch busses or, in our case, modes of transportation? Where? How? And if you ask three different people — say, the person working the desk at your guest house, a random tuk-tuk driver, and the gentleman at the tourist information center — you're likely to get three different answers. It can be overwhelming.

So here is another (rather obvious) life lesson that reveals itself when you are traveling: if you are feeling overwhelmed and at a loss, it is okay to ask for help. I know this is hard to believe, especially for those of you who fancy yourselves rugged individualists, but you do not — in fact you cannot — know all of the answers. To expect yourself to be able to do everything without help or assistance from anyone at all is a recipe for disaster.

This is how we ended up talking to Mr. Dickey. We needed some help figuring out travel logistics and seeing how he was a travel agent, it seemed likely he would be able to provide some definitive answers. Mr. Dickey was an energetic young man with a big smile and a rapid-fire conversational style. We told him we were interested in going to Meung Noi and within minutes, he was proposing an entire itinerary — minivan to Nang Kiaow, boat to Meung Noi, and then a short hike to Ban Na, where he knew someone that could set us up with a home stay with the village chief. Afterwards, a boat trip back to Nang Kiaow for a couple of nights, and then a 5-hour boat ride to Luang Prabang.

Tim and I looked at each other. Here's another life lesson that comes with traveling: asking for help doesn't mean that you will get the help you desire or expect. You might still end up getting cheated, or misled, or simply overcharged. In the end, you must go with your instincts and throw yourself into the unknown. Because no matter how many travel agents you visit, no matter how many people you ask, the unknown will remain unknown…until you get close enough to see it for yourself.

We decided to go with Mr. Dickey. He showed us pictures of the rice paddies spread out before Ban Na like a great jigsaw puzzle. He described his last visit there. He talked about the stars in the night sky and the quiet bungalows waiting for us. He said that we would be hiking along a river on our way to Ban Na, and that we could stop whenever we wanted and swim in its crystalline waters. It sounded absolutely magical. And so this is how we ended up in a tuk-tuk at 9:00am, crammed in with 7 other tourists, all headed towards Nang Kiaow.

When we got to the southern bus terminal, where we would catch our minivan to Nang Kiaow, all thoughts of crystalline waters and quiet bungalows were dispelled. Here, we were alternately directed and then ignored, and generally treated like cattle. A half-full minivan leaving for NK was waiting in one of the bays, and several people from our tuk-tuk ran for it, wanting to make sure they weren't left behind. The rest of us stood about confusedly, looking around for some sort of authority to tell us what would happen next. Eventually, it became clear that another minivan would be leaving soon, and so we waited and made small talk with one Kenny Dobbs, from Scotland, who had just arrived in Laos from Myanmar.

This is the minivan that took us from LP to NK. See that sticker that says “12P” on the back end? That indicates the maximum number of passengers that it can carry. It also indicates the minimum number of passengers required before it will leave the terminal. For a hot second, I fooled myself into thinking that my front row seat would give me more space and leg-room than anyone else on the minivan, but then Sob, a backpacking Cambodian-American arrived and it became clear that we were to be seatmates. We crammed ourselves into the front row, trying our best to leave room for the driver to shift gears, and then off we went. Four passengers in the back row, three passengers in each of the two middle rows, and me and Sob seated next to the driver; making 12 unhappy, overheated tourists.

As we were leaving LP, a tuk tuk pulled in front of us. Two tourists with their compulsory backpacks were seated in the back. Given the way of Lao drivers, Sob and I were close enough to read their lips. The first, a white woman, sat on one of the bench seats facing forward, her back turned on her male companion. He sat on the opposite bench with his head in his hands. As we drove on, it became apparent that the two of them were having a terrible time of it. The man, in fact, was sobbing and pleading, descending into hot mess territory. At one point the woman turned abruptly and let loose a torrent of anger and vitriol, full of finger pointing and everything. The man, visibly desperate, lifted his head and wailed “Oh God!” He reached out to the woman with open hands, seeming to beg for forgiveness or at least understanding, but the woman spat a reply and again turned her back to him. The man deflated and continued sobbing into his palms.

“Whoa,” I said to Sob. “Looks like someone's having a hard time in Laos.”

We watched, occasionally commenting on the action, until the tuk-tuk turned right, leaving us with nothing to watch but a thin sliver of road and an unfolding landscape. “I hope they're okay,” I mumbled.

Sob and I chatted for a while. He had been away from American soil for almost two years now, working in Australia and New Zealand for half that time, traveling around SE Asia for the other half. “I used to be all about my career,” he said, “but now that I've started traveling, I don't think I'll ever be able to go back to that life.”

“I worked in insurance for years,” he explained, “and at one point I realized that I had been talking about going to Australia for forever but I wasn't getting any closer to actually doing it.” He worked and saved money for two more years, quit his job and then headed to Australia. “I love this lifestyle,” he continued. “I have to go back to the states to earn more money, but I don't care what I do for work; I just want to keep traveling.” He has plans to visit Europe in 2014 and then South America after that.

As we chatted, Laos opened before us; rice paddies and burnt mountainsides, blue-green rivers and limestone ridges, structures of cinderblock and woven bamboo. We passed children on bicycles, trucks stopped by the side of the road, minivans full of tourists, and countless motorcycles and scooters. My window was rolled all the way down and a hot breeze blew through the van, slowly forcing my fellow passengers into lethargy and then sleep.

As if pulled from their dreams, a creature loomed large in the windshield and then disappeared in our wake; an elephant, my mind informed me. But it still made no sense in this place, this land of a thousand elephants, wrapped in chains and driven to work in the suffocating glare and heat. When I sent this picture to my sisters and my niece, my niece replied, “they make them work!?” My sister wrote back, “I hate this picture…I loathe it.”

Sob and I lapsed into silence. He, reading a worn paperback; me, listening to an audiobook about science fiction vampires. We passed through a thickening snarl of buildings and traffic, turned right at a restaurant boasting a sign with chinese calligraphy, and then left into a dirt parking lot. We had arrived at the bus terminal in Nang Kiaow. We emerged from the minivan, stretching and blinking our way into this new reality. We looked around for some sort of signage, some indication of what to do next. Nothing. A foursome of men played a variant of bocce ball in the shade of a sparse stand of trees. A group of locals sat under the overhang of a nearby building eating noodle soup. Some members of our transient pack, including Sob, hefted their packs onto their backs and started walking. Kenny Dobbs approached us and asked if we knew what we were going from here. All I knew is that we were trying to reach the boat landing, where we would hopefully catch a boat heading for Meung Noi. Everything else was a mystery.

Once again, time to ask for help. I approached the men playing bocce ball and in broken Lao, tried to ascertain in which direction and how far the river lay. The men exchanged some words, laughing and smiling, and then one of them said, in English, “5 kilos to river…I drive you for 50,000K.” “Per person?” I asked. He nodded. I returned to Tim and Kenny and shared my newfound knowledge. After some quick math, we realized that the damage to our wallets would be minimal. I nodded to the man, now our driver, and loaded our things into another minivan. We drove down a dirt road lined with biodegradable structures and then emerged into a cluster of stores, street side food carts, and restaurants catering to tourists. Nang Kiaow, aka Transit-Town, Anywhere. The van turned down a curving drive that descended into a dead end of shops selling water, motorcycle tires, plastic rope, mechanical parts, and other daily necessities of life in the interior of Laos. “Buy tickets,” our driver said, pointing to a tiny booth. We got out, paid the man, and, following his succinct advice, went to buy our tickets.

With repeated success, one's confidence builds rapidly. We had survived the tuk tuk and the minivan and we had managed to make it to Nang Kiaow. Now, all that stood between us and our final destination was a single boat trip! I approached the booth boldly and with assurance, confident that my limited Lao vocabulary would be sufficient to the task: “phuk koi bpai Meung Noi…song.” We go to Meung Noi…two. Sadly, the ticket booth was closed, but the carefully handwritten schedule confirmed the legitimacy of our plans. A boat would be leaving from Nang Kiaow to Meung Noi at 1:30pm. The ticket booth would reopen at 1:00.

Which left us just enough time to grab some lunch.

When you order food in Laos, especially away from the big cities of Ventiane and Luang Prabang, it is an entirely homespun affair. The person who wiped the ants off of your table as you sat down is the same person who will take your order and will probably be the same person who will make both your food and, if requested, your fruit shakes too. In all likelihood, they will probably bus your table and then wash your dishes.

What this means is that you should not expect your food to arrive in a timely manner. Laos PDR, according to the merry Mr. Dickey, also stands for “Laos. Please Don't Rush!” Also, don't expect much in the way of explanation when it comes to menu options. The noodle section may contain a dish called fried noodles with egg and vegetables, followed by a dish called fried noodles with vegetables and egg and if you attempt to question your waitress about what makes these dishes distinct and separate, it is likely that you will end up ordering both of them. In my experience, it is best to simply point at something and hope for the best. Which is what I did.

If you are at a roadside restaurant in the interior of Laos and you order, say, fried noodles with vegetables and egg and and a watermelon shake — and your companion orders stir fried vegetables with chicken and a pineapple shake — this is probably what will happen. The person (generally a woman) who took your order will disappear into the back of the restaurant for what seems like an inordinately long time. It is possible that she has gone to a nearby store to purchase the watermelon and pineapple that will become your shakes. At some point, you will hear their single blender whirring to life, once for each fruit shake. She will reappear momentarily, in order to deliver your shakes and then she will disappear again, this time to cook your food. After she finishes one dish, she will bring it to your table and then return to the kitchen. When the next dish is completed, she will deliver that one. No sous chef, no waitstaff, no busboy, no hostess. Just the one person doing everything for everyone in the restaurant.

Another life lesson, then. What you understand as “normal” is forever changed by travel. You realize that the life you had back home, with its endless selection of cheeses, its cheap gasoline, and its thoughtless acceptance of gays and lesbians (practical, if not yet legal), is absolutely NOT the norm. It is an aberration, a bubble of freedom and excess. Even the notion of this kind of travel — to put your life on hold for two weeks, or three months, or five years, and simply go out into the world to see it — has been unheard of for most of human history. In Luang Prabang, I told our friend Syfohn that if he ever came to the US, he would have a place to stay with Tim and Me. He laughed uproariously at the thought. “It would be very very difficult for me to arrive in the US,” he said. A boundary that separated us and that we had been ignoring suddenly reasserted itself. Even in the simple and familiar act of ordering food at a restaurant reveals a world larger than you had previously imagined.

By the time we completed our meal, the ticket booth had reopened. I appeared at the window, eager to apply the sentence I had been rehearsing while waiting for my fried noodles and watermelon shake. Imagine my disappointment when I was met by a young man wearing stylish glasses and a pink polo shirt who, in perfect English, greeted me with a “yes, sir, how may I help you?”

“Two tickets for Meung Noi, please,” I mumbled.

“300,000K please,” he said, and then handed me a form to fill out.

This is the kind of boat that took us up the Nam Ou to Meung Noi. Our boat carried:

  1. An assortment of locals carrying food, equipment, and other necessities to their far-flung villages.
  2. A beautiful, brassy young Lao woman who was returning from Udomxai to visit her family in Meung Noi.
  3. A 50-something Australian couple who were regular visitors to Meung Noi and who were clearly involved in some sort of commercial enterprise there.
  4. A handful of foreign tourists, including an overly affectionate Spanish couple, a pair of very pale Germans, and this episode's special guest star, Mr. Kenny Dobbs!
  5. Me and Tim.

The trip upriver was spectacular. The Nam Ou had been exhausted by the dry season, and our captain was navigated this reduced, but still powerful river without any charts or aids whatsoever. He threaded the thin wooden boat between limestone islands, younger siblings of the giant karst formations that loomed above us on either side of the river. The locals chattered with each other and with the Australian couple. The tourists stared in wonder as the world we recognized — as foreign it might have been — slowly disappeared downriver. From time to time something that existed at human scale would pass before us. A boat carrying two fisherman. Smiling Europeans perched on innertubes. Water buffalo. But mostly, we were irrelevant. Ahead, an endless forest, an infinite river, grandfather mountains, and a towering sky.

As Americans, we have this thing about privacy and personal space. We have yards to keep our neighbors visible and at bay. Our cars are as hermetic and protective as turtle shells. In theaters and on busses and at restaurants, we sit as far away from each other as possible. Unless absolutely required to — or unless someone is being paid — we would rather not touch or be touched by strangers for any length of time. Most of the time we do not question or even recognize this tremendous luxury of space and preference.

In SE Asia, generally — and in the minivan to Nang Kiaow and the boat to Meung Noi, specifically — such a thing as a desire for personal space seemed hopelessly irrelevant and fanciful, like wishing you were born with a mermaid's tail or enormous butterfly's wings. Sob and I sat as close together as newlyweds as we discussed his transition from insurance salesman to itinerant traveler. On the boat, nothing so chaste marked the intersections of our bodies. It was a veritable orgy; arm crossing leg, foot caressing hip, knee pressing inner thigh. Tim, who has had surgery on both of his knees, found temporarily relief by extending his leg across tha aisle and wedging his foot between me and my neighbor. I shook my head crossly, afraid that he had violated some Lao taboo about where you point your feet.

We continued on in the thickening light of afternoon. The haze from a dozen slash and burn sites diluted the sky into a pale, porcelain blue. We shifted our positions, as fickle as swingers, as we bowed a single perfect note upon the Nam Ou's shimmering cord. We stopped once to release a handful of passengers. They retrieved their cargo from the rear of the boat and we moved on. The next stop, at the base of a long staircase built a high bluff, was Meung Noi. We unfolded ourselves from our cramped positions and disembarked on a long plank jutting pragmatically from the river's edge. We climbed, joints happy to be moving, even in the labor of hefting our backpacks up a hundred uneven stairs.

At the top, we were greeted by a tree thick with magenta flowers and a scattering of souls attempting to draw tourists to their various guesthouses. Incongruously, a handsome twenty-something year old white boy with a tank top and a French accent stood with them. “Bungalow,” he called out, “would you like to rent a beautiful bungalow.”

Tim and I passed him and moved through the rest of the welcoming committee. I found myself being paced by a slight woman with downcast eyes. “Do you have a reservation for your stay?” She asked. And rather than the practiced brush-off that I had been applying to tuk tuk drivers, restaurant hostesses, food cart hawkers, and night market crafts-folk, I found myself responding honestly. “No, we don't,” I said.

“We have bungalows overlooking the river,” she said, flashing her eyes upward momentarily and catching mine. “Would you like to see?” I looked at Tim and shrugged. “If you don't like them, you don't have to stay. No problem.”

“Sure, okay” I said and she smiled. We followed her up Meung Noi's narrow main street, past locals who regarded us simply as the next batch of foreigners, past the Australian couple being welcomed at a ramshackle store/restaurant, past scratching chickens and clumsy puppies. “Where are you from?” She asked. “New Mexico,” we replied. “Oh, Mexico,” she said, “it's very beautiful there?” Not wanting to get into it, we simply nodded.

Near the far end of the street, she gestured towards an alley. She led us through a small bamboo gate and onto the grounds of beautifully situated guesthouse. Four small buildings made of burnished wood and set on stilts to compensate for the sloping ground sat along three sides of a wide central platform. Below, the now pale green waters of the Nam Ou continued flowing, visible between stands of bamboo. She called out to a man who had been curled in a hammock, smoking a cigarette in the shade. He roused himself and unlocked two vacant rooms, one of which had a padlock instead of the usual doorknob. “For this room, you have to use this lock,” he said in a gruff, monotone voice. “Tourist forget to return key.”

 

“Tourists,” I replied sympathetically.

One last life lesson from traveling and then I'll shut up about it and let you get back to learning your own life lessons from whatever it is you're doing. Sometimes, its okay to stop worrying about whether you're getting swindled, cheated, or misled and to simply accept what is being offered to you. This is how we found our way to Dr. Joy's lovely, Suan Phao (Coconut Garden) Guesthouse and how I began to fall in love with Laos in earnest.

 

Once in a Lifetime

I glossed over it in my last post, but our time in Sayfohn's English class was a truly amazing experience. Like sitting with Shimi in Iporanga, watching the face of the Great Magician manifest in the night sky; like camping outside Natural Bridges with Pati, Andrew and Tim, it will be a memory that I will cherish forever.

Monks are everywhere in Thailand and Laos. At first, you tend to gawk, drawn to by the bright orange robes, the shaved heads, and the implication of a greater peace and serenity. Time passes. You see older monks, praying at the shrine of the Emerald buddha or riding the Chao Praya express. You see young novices roaming the streets of Chiang Mai, arms around each others' shoulders. You see monks riding jeepneys, drinking coconut water, sitting in front of a laptop. After a while, they no longer seem quite as strange or (dare I say it) exotic. Nonetheless, they still seem to exist in a slightly different plane of existence; one step removed from the the mundane life of the every day. In Thailand, even with all of the opportunities that presented themselves, I never once approached or started a conversation with a monk. Several times I smiled and nodded my head at a passing monk, but these acknowledgements were met with silent, expressionless faces. I resisted the urge to make a fetish of buddhism; I was content to let them be.

When we first entered Syfohn's English class, I will admit to a little nervousness. A room, lit by flourescent bulbs, filled with handmade wooden benches and desks. At the head of the room, a well-used whiteboard covered in ghostly handwriting from lessons past. At the back, a small map of the globe. On the walls, a few scrawled bits of graffiti. Seated, with thin notebooks and loose papers scattered on the desks in front of them, about 25 novices, aged 11-18, each dressed in an orange robe. With their heads and eyebrows shaved, they seemed remarkably young. They stared as we entered, some of them giggling into cupped hands.

Syfohn asked us to sit, and then returned to the whiteboard, where a series of novices were writing sentences in English. When they finished, he encouraged us to stand and introduced us to his students: “This is Mr. Fil and Mr. Tim, and they have come to help with tonight's English classes. Won't you all welcome them?”

A chorus of voices. “Good evening Mr. Fil! Good evening Mr. Tim!” Their English was tentative and carefully enunciated. The word evening contained three syllables.

Syfohn then continued with the lesson. The students has been given a paragraph of English to read and translate. It told the story of a young novice, much like themselves, whose name was Bun Pheng. Most of the novices, we learned from Syfohn, had come from very poor families. They had travelled great distances to take their vows. While Buddhism may have been an important part of their previous lives, Syfohn told us that most of them entered the monastery because it provided them with a place to live, clothes to wear, food to eat, and a chance at an education; opportunities that were rare in their home provinces. These kids were here, in the historic heart of Luang Prabang, surrounded by tourists and far from home, in search of a better life. Here, with their fellow novices, they studied a variety of subjects including Mathematics, History, Buddhist Thought, and English.

Syfohn walked the students through a series of spoken exercises centered on the story of Novice Bun Pheng. It must have been quite familiar to the novices, perhaps even an exact description of their own lives. It described life in the monastery, from 4 am wake up calls to pray to the Buddha, to afternoons spent cleaning the temple ground, to evenings spent fasting.

Afterwards, Syfohn asked us to join the students in small groups of about 6-7, and to practice English with them. I sat on a small bench and the young novices backed away from me. “Good evening,” I said, “how are you?” They stared at me, some giggling, and then they conferred with each other in quiet whispers. One of them then spoke tentatively. “Good evening. I am fine.”

“What is your name” I asked, pronouncing the words clearly and loudly. Again, they whispered with each other. A different novice responded, “My name is Novice Keo. What is your name?” We continued on, at first simply repeating the questions that they had been asked about their fictional brother, Novice Bun Pheng. How old are you? Where are you from? But soon enough, we had all gained enough comfort and confidence to move into an actual conversation. I asked them about what they learned in school; they asked me what I liked to in my free time. I asked if they had any siblings; they asked how long I had been in Luang Prabang. Eventually, we were all smiling and laughing, winding our way through the minor obstacles of confusion, incomprehension, and mispronunciation. “Kho jai hien pasaa Lao,” I informed them (I would like to learn the Lao language). They laughed and repeated the sentence correctly so that I could imitate them.

It was a lovely time. As the class ended, we all thanked each other profusely. We had shared a couple of hours in a classroom in Luang Prabang and now we were all dispersing into our own individual lives, caught up in the conflicting, chaotic flow of existence. Where will life take these young men? Some will continue within the monastic tradition, spending their entire lives as monks. Others will leave their orange robes behind and return to the secular life, perhaps marry and one day send their own sons to take vows at some faraway monastery. What will happen to our wonderful friend, Syfohn? Will we ever see his smile again?

It is impossible to know, of course. We never know what waits for us, even around the nearest corner. The important thing is to be present right here, right now, to seek awareness of what makes every experience unique and instructive. I cannot remember the names of all the novices I met that night, but I can still see their smiles, their bright eyes, their openness and curiosity. I wish them all the happiness in the world, and i hope that wherever they might find themselves, they remain just as open and just as curious.

I gave Syfohn the t-shirt I was wearing on the night that we met. Emblazoned across the chest are three words SELF. DISCO. VERY. Self Discovery. May you never stop seeking and discovering, Syfohn. And may the self you discover be full of joy, peace and love. Khop jai lai lai.

 

 

Food Party, Luang Prabang Style

At some time or another, pretty much everyone who travels in SE Asia takes a cooking class. Our hotel in Chiang Mai, for example, had brochures for no less than 10 culinary outlets, each offering the same basic itinerary: choose 2-3 dishes you would like to make, visit a local market to learn about various ingredients, and then return to the kitchen — sometimes at a restaurant, sometimes at an organic farm, sometimes in a pavilion overlooking a river — to learn how to make your chosen dishes. And then you EAT them!

We ended up taking our cooking class at Tum Tum Cheng, a restaurant in Luang Prabang that specializes in traditional Lao cuisine. For a while, it looked like it wouldn't happen because I was the only person signed up and they won't hold a class unless there are at least two students. Luckily for me, however, Tim was game enough to sign up too, even though he was ambivalent about the whole cooking class idea.

Our morning began with an a cup of coffee and a list of dishes to select from. If there had been more students, we could have chosen three dishes to make, but since it was just the two of us, we were allowed to choose just two. I chose two very traditional Lao dishes, Ho Mok Kai (steamed chicken wrapped in banan leaf) and Aw Lam (Luang Prabang beef stew.) Tim chose Nem Juen (fried spring rolls) and Kai Kua Sai Si Kai (lemongrass chicken). Chef Linda, the instructor for what amounted to a private class, complimented our choices and then sent us off to the Phosi Market, accompanied by a team of expert shoppers and our own personal tour guide (whose name I have since forgotten).

The Phosi market was a quintessential locals' market, selling everything from shoes to blankets, hardware to cookware, fresh vegetables to pickled crabs. Our guide walked us through the maze of stalls, occasionally stopping to identify various ingredients or to offer us a chance to sample some of the wares.

These are banana flowers.

Dried chilies, chili powder, and a variety of dried fish parts.

Small eggplants, about the size of a tomato. Not to be confused with what the Lao call baby eggplant which are bright green, a little bigger than a sweet pea, and both hard and bitter.

Stainless steel steamer pots. Along with a woven bamboo basket which fits on top, these are the most basic and vital cooking implements in the Lao kitchen. Without them, it would be impossible to cook sticky rice, the foundation of any Lao meal. It is impossible to underplay the importance of sticky rice to Lao culture. Lao for “breakfast,” for example, is “khao sao” which means, literally, “morning rice.” When the monks gather in the morning to beg alms from Luang Prabang's residents, they are given morsels of sticky rice. If you pay close attention while walking around LP, you will notice balls of this rice placed on the roots of especially old or beautiful trees or in front of statues of the Buddha or in the mouths of the sculpted nagas that guard the temples.

Rice noodles.

This is curdled blood, a very traditional Lao ingredient, but one that was thankfully absent from our cooking class.

These are not French Fries. These are cut up pieces of water buffalo fat. To prepare them for eating, they are either soaked in water until soft and then cooked, or simply deep fried. The smell is an unimaginably gamy combination of leather, meat, and feet.

Catfish, probably caught in either the Mekong or the Nam Khan.

This is Sakhan, aka chili wood, another traditional Lao ingredient. A vine that grows in the jungle, this wood provides a peppery, smoky and slightly sweet note to a variety of dishes (including the Aw Lam that I chose to make.)

A variety of fresh greens, some familiar — cilantro, basil, spinach — and some untranslatable. The recipe for Aw Lam, for example, calls for 1 handful of local edible leaves. These are usually wild-foraged in the jungle.

 

Not only are these markets places to buy your daily necessities, they are social centers for the local community. The sounds of laughter, gossip, yelling, and conversation fill the air. As Tim and I passed, enormous and clumsy falang that we are, the vendors would often stare, comment to each other, and smile conspiratorially.

Wen we got back to Tum Tum Cheng, Chef Linda gave us a quick rundown of the staple ingredients that form the foundation of Lao cuisine: galangal, lemongrass, ginger, spring onions, and of course, sticky rice. She also taught us how to make a rose-like garnish using a tomato peel and a carefully sliced cucumber.

We then ventured into the kitchen area where we learned how to make our dishes. In all fairness, it should be said that we did not prepare these dishes from start to finish. Rather, the restaurant's team of sous chefs did all the preparatory work — washing, slicing, chopping, and organizing the ingredients — and we simply assembled, mixed, and stirred.

This is the Ho Mok Kai. It was extremely aromatic, providing a complex layering of flavors and textures within a custard-like suspension.

The Kai Kua Sai Si Kai and Aw Lam. The chicken, according to Tim, was “infused with lemongrass flavor…delicious, moist and succulent.” The beef stew — thickened with mashed eggplant and roasted sticky rice and flavored with chili wood and local greens — tasted both unfamiliar and yummy.

Fried spring rolls wrapped in rice paper. OMG!

And of course, the sticky rice. The cooking method for Khao Neow is unlike any rice preparation that I've seen. The rice is washed, soaked overnight, and then washed until the water runs clear. The drained rice is them placed in a bamboo basket and steamed. After 20 minutes, the rice is flipped over and then returned to steam for another 10 minutes. After it has been cooked, the rice is placed on a damp wooden tray and gently folded to let the heat dissapate. Afterwards, the rice is placed in a traditional basket and served alongside the other dishes.

The Lao meal is communal and all the dishes are served simultaneously. Older people serve themselves first, but once they touch the sticky rice, everyone else can begin eating too!

Chef Timmy!

Iron Monkey Chef Fil!

I will admit that when I was first informed that we could choose only two dishes to make, I was a bit salty. I wanted to learn how to cook three dishes! Three! But after eating the meal we prepared, including a dessert of bananas and pineapples carmelized with powdered sesame seed, I realized the wisdom behind Chef Linda's decision. This was an ungodly amount of food. When we got back to our guesthouse, I literally passed out from overeating. Tim remained ambulatory and took himself for a walk while I slept.

When I awoke and Tim returned, we headed to Wat Sop to help with Sayfohn's English class. And then we took Sayfohn out to dinner at a hotpot restaurant on the banks of the Nam Khan. We ate chicken and beef and pork and shrimp and squid and egg and all manner of greens and sprouts and veggies, barbecued and/or boiled at our table. By the time we were done, Tim was woozy with food. We thanked, hugged, and then parted ways with Sayfohn and then we headed back to our guesthouse.

But I wasn't done yet. While Tim stumbled back to the room, I walked to the nearest crepe stand and ordered a banana and Nutella crepe. And then I ate it. And it was GOOD!

 

Welcome to Laos, PDR!

 

After a couple of practical and not particularly noteworthy days in Chiang Mai, we left the relative comfort and familiarity of Thailand. On February 25, 2013, we entered the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, the first communist country either of us have ever been to. The visa-upon-arrival process was relatively easy, but no less confusing because of it. We each had two passport photos, $US35.00 and two forms that we had filled out while waiting at the Chiang Mai airport — one a visa application, the other a customs form. Beyond this, all that was required was an additional $US1.00, patience, and the willingness to smile and shrug when being confronted with scowls and military uniforms. Everyone on our flight — including a foursome of middle-aged Aussie girlfriends, a beer-happy Spanish couple traveling with one of their mothers, several pairs of Germans wearing beige traveling get-ups, one of the ubiquitous couplings of old-white-dude and much-younger-Asian-woman, and an American who insisted upon complaining about the fact that the visa fee charged to Americans was a whole $5.00 more than that charged to Europeans — was admitted.

The currency in Laos is the Kip. One US dollar is equivalent to about 7,888.77 Kip. The old white dude traveling with the much younger Asian woman apparently did not realize that crossing a border into another country might entail the use of an entirely different currency. I guess that's what happens when you become part of the Euro Zone. When the woman manning the taxi stand portion of the airport's welcome desk informed him that it would cost K50,000 to have an air-conditioned van drive he and his companion to their hotel in the center of Luang Prabang, he went on for several minutes, throwing his hands around and sputtering something about “zee Internet.” When his tirade was met with blank stares and a half-smirk, he repeated with greater volume, “ZEE INTERNET!”

The Lao welcoming committee stared pointedly at his companion, who attempted to explain the whole Lao Kip v. Thai Baht thing. English, the first language of neither half of this couple, was an unwieldy tool with which to pry open this dude's brain. Eventually he got it and then spent the next minute trying to apologize and explain away his ignorance. The Lao welcoming committee returned an expression that seemed to say, “you have made us all lose face and we are not amused.”

I understand that Laos is becoming a much more open society, and that tourism is growing in leaps and bounds. Still, it seems to me unwise to antagonize the people who greet you upon arrival.

Me, I was raised right by my Filipino parents, and so I was respectful and raised no stink at all, even when our guesthouse's promised “airport transfer” turned out to be the same K50,000 taxi trip that everyone else had been using. My inner brat wanted to wave my hands about while exclaiming “zee Internet! Zee INTERNET!” but I was wise enough to realize that such antics were likely to be unwelcome. I guess that's what turning 42 gets you! We simply paid the woman, received a slip of paper which we then handed to a waiting driver, and got into the next silver mini-van waiting by the curb.

One of the first questions that one gets asked in Laos is, “Where are you from?” That is the first thing the taxi driver asked us and when we answered “America,” he gave us a big smile and said, “Dollar! Very good!” Many Americans might attempt to argue this point, but when $1.33 can buy you a heaping plate of home cooked Lao cuisine, such behavior borders on downright offensive. Not that being offensive seems to trouble most of the falang visiting Laos, but as I said, I was raised right by Filipino parents. And so I nodded and agreed and gamely took the taxi driver's “card” — a scrap of paper with his name and number written on it — in case we decided to go to the waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang.

We arrived in central LP just as the heat and glare of the afternoon were softening into evening. Smoke from nearby slash and burn agriculture spread a diffuse golden light and as we wound our way through Luang Prabang's outer neighborhoods towards its historic center (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), a happy exhaustion spread over me. Traveling to unfamiliar places, immersed in languages that are beyond your capacity to hear or speak, navigating arcane procedures; it's an exhausting affair. Everything we had done that day — from negotiating with a tuk tuk driver to get a reasonable fare to Chiang Mai's airport to checking into our flight on Lao Air to entering a communist country to getting local currency from a bright red ATM to figuring out where our guesthouse was — had required all of our attention and all of our vigilance. We had done it all without a hitch, but my brain was pretty much fried.

By the time we arrived at the Sieng Khaen Lao Guesthouse and were shown to our boxy first floor room, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. Tim turned on the air conditioner, I lay down on the utilitarian mattress and fell instantly asleep.

I woke up just as the sun was setting. Luang Prabang has a 12:00am curfew, so it was either get up and get out or surrender to sleep and start over in the morning. Not wanting to spend my first night in this famously beautiful town in the company of a disgruntled New Englander and a television, I pulled myself together, completed my first costume change, and stumbled out into the shady warmth of dusk.

Much has been made of Luang Prabang's charm. I will not offer any contradictions. It is a beautiful little city, still carrying the stains of French Colonialism with a strange sort of pride. Its historic district extends into a peninsula flanked on one side by the storied Nam Mekong, and on the other by the smaller Nam Khan. Despite the droves of (mostly French) tourists and the bustle of the nightly handicrafts market, the city has a languid, relaxed air that is best experienced leisurely and on foot. That first night we wandered all the way from our guesthouse, along the banks of the Mekong, almost to the very end of land. There, we happened across a Wat, one of the most important and most famous monastaries in Laos, Wat Xieng Thong.

As we wandered the grounds of this lovely temple, a young man approached us and said, in a sweetly accented English, “There will be a candlelight procession later on. If you like, you can stay and participate.” Whatever friendliness Tim and I had experienced in Thailand, we had never been approached by a complete stranger unless some sort of monetary exchange was expected, so we hung back a bit, waiting for the sales pitch. There was none. Instead, under the full moon and in the sultry night air, the young man told us about the history of the temple, helped us grasp some of the basics of the Lao language, and explained how he had come to speak English (and French and German and Korean) so well.

This was how we met our friend Syfohn. “Sounds like cellphone!” he said cheerily as we introduced ourselves. We chatted with him for an hour and a half, while the temple grounds slowly began to fill with both locals and tourists. At one point a trio of novices approached him, their orange robes muted in the darkness, and asked him an undecipherable question. “Candlelight procession,” he replied carefully. “Candlelight procession,” the monks repeated.

“They are my students,” he explained. “I teach an English class at a monastery school.” He paused and then added, “perhaps, if you have time, you would like to come to a class and help. You are native speakers, and it is very helpful to hear native speakers.” His English was careful and deliberate and very charming. Even if we had wanted to, there was no possible way we could refuse.

And so this was our welcome to Laos. Bureaucracy, exhaustion, beauty and kindness. We hung out with Sayfohn for the rest of the evening, until he had to go to what I believe is his third job, that of a security guard at a hotel. The monks held a service in the ornate temple, the sound of chanting spilling out into the night air while tourists gawped and peeked through doorways. The three of us sat on the pavement outside, nibbled by ants and mosquitos, chatting quietly. Local children ran and laughed, giving a happy, festival edge to the night. After a while, the energy within the temple loosened and released. Perhaps twenty monks, each of them lit by glowing candle flame, emerged into the courtyard. The people who had been waiting there gathered up their offerings — various flowers as well as complex forms made of folded banana leaves and marigolds — and lit incense and candles. Sayfohn dismantled his fistful of devotions and gave us each a stick of incense and a flower. Then, barefoot, we were caught up in the gentle flow. Led by an orange blaze of monks, we circled the temple three times.

After the third circuit, people made their way to a trio of chedi, where they knelt, offered prayers and sent their wishes out into the universe. For a while, the three of us were silent, stilled by immediacy. Then, we put on our shoes and began walking through Luang Prabang's historic streets, as closely and as casually bound as three childhood friends. Sayfohn was separated from us by age, culture, history, geography, economy, and language. And yet somehow, as easy and courageous as a smile, he had reached across those distances and transformed us from falang into friends. Sayfohn, if you are reading this, thank you once again. You are a hero to me.

On our walk, Sayfohn pointed out Wat Sop Sickharam, the temple where he held his nightly English classes. We made our promises to meet him there in a couple of days and said our goodbyes.

I started off this post by making fun of the older-French-dude-with-younger-Asian-girlfriend for not realizing that the unit of currency would change once he entered Laos. Bu it turned out I had made a similar mistake. Perhaps because of the short plane ride, or because of the similarities in language and food, I had believed that Laos would be just another kind of Thailand. Different in some abstract, historical and/or political way, perhaps, but not in any way that would be obvious or discernible to the senses. Cross the boundary from southern Indiana into Kentucky, for example, and you might never know the difference. A few short hours in Luang Prabang had proven me wrong. Laos feels as different from Thailand as silk does from cotton. Due in large part to Sayfohn's open heart, I felt welcomed and at home in Laos in a way that I had not experienced in all of my time in Thailand. It was surprising and lovely and I was eager for more.

I could not have known it at the time, but Laos had even greater surprises — both weird and wonderful — waiting just around the corner.

 

Look As Long As You Can At the Friend That You Love, No Matter Whether That Friend is Moving Away From You or Coming Back Toward You

When you travel to faraway places, you expect to feel displaced and disoriented. You expect the strangeness of an indecipherable language, of unknowable aromas and unimaginable sights. Even when homesickness strikes, and you search out something comforting and familiar — a pizza, for example — a part of you knows that no matter how close to the “real thing” it is, it will be just different enough to make your homesickness worth. It will have corn and oyster mushrooms on it, or the cheese will taste like butter; it will be a Bizarro Pizza.

What you do not expect to happen is to travel thousands of miles into the unknown only to experience something so intimately connected to the story of who you are that it doesn't just feel familiar, it feels like a flashback; an emotional echo rebounding through time, distorted, but clearly and eerily recognizable. This is what I felt when, after a helmet-less ride through Thailand's northern forest, I pulled up at the doorstep of The Cave Lodge, 9km north of the dusty town of Pang Mapha.

About 10 years ago, I visited Brasil for the first time. I flew into Curitiba, in the state of Paranà, where my dear friends Pati and Andrew picked me up at the airport and gave me my first taste of fresh coconut water. I had a one-month ticket and since I didn't have a lick of Portuguese and had no clear idea of what I was going to do, I was planning on relying very heavily on the two of them. The first excursion they had planned was to a place called Iporanga. It was a town bordering a a tiny sliver of the once great Mata Atlântica rain floresta that had blanketed São Paulo state. I checked my Lonely Planet guidebook and there was no mention of such a place.

When we arrived in Ipo, as I came to know it, we drove to the top of the town where a lumber yard had been turned into a hostel. Albergue Capitão Caverna, named for the cartoon character known in the States as Captain Caveman. It was a place unlike anywhere I had ever been. I remember orchids and other epiphytes tied into the branches of trees. I remember showers that provided hot water in demand and — if you didn't do it right — a frightening electric tingle that rebounded down to your toes. I remember little translucent pink lizards with eyes like papaya seeds. I remember hammocks, and banana trees, and a German Shepherd named Astor, and sweet black coffee, and a thin curl of moon rising above Morro da Coruja (Owl Hill). But what I remember most of all are the people. Jana, who ran the hostel. Luciane, who worked there. Queila, visiting from São Paulo. Guiné, a registered guide for PETAR (Parque Estadual Turistico do Alto Ribeiro), a state park preserving about 140 square miles of old growth rainforest.

Originally, we had planned to stay in Ipo for three days; one weekend. In those first three days, we hiked through the forest, dazzled by the diversity and sheer thickness of life, we swam in rivers and waterfalls, we ate arroz e feijão, and we visited a scant few of the over 300 caves that dot the park — Morro Preto, Agua Suja, Santana. Just the sound of these names, rolling around in my head, bring back memories so sensual that they eclipse the world I am currently inhabiting. This strangely proprortioned room in a guesthouse in Luang Prabang, Laos fades away into the impenetrable sound of an underground waterfall, into puffs of black dust rising from our footsteps, into the warmth of sunlight after hours in darkness. On what was to be our final day, we explored Alembary, a cave whose entrance I remember as an unassuming hole in a patch of grassy ground, its depth obscured by water. We scrambled into this dark mouth and plunged into icy waters.

On our way back to town, golden in the setting sun, we stopped at a cluster of ramshackle structures. We ate pasteis fresh from the fryer and sublime in their warmth and comfort. We drank caldo de cana, an emerald brew pressed from rods of sugar cane, in flimsy plastic cups. The sky turned lavender as we drove the rest of the way back to Ipo. In the distance a single mercury light blinked into existence, a tiny green star illuminating a square building and a stand of banana trees. An emotion welled inside of me, something deep and primal and unnameable in my first language. Desire and Hunger were the wrong color. Need was too mundane. Longing came close, but even this is too melancholy, too absent of joy and the blissful divine. In Portuguese, I later learned, the word for this ineffable feeling is Saudades.

I wanted to stay in that river valley, wanted to slouch in the redes that lined the alburgue's veranda, wanted to learn enough Portuguese to sufficiently express my love of and gratitude for this place. I wanted to hold on to this feeling forever, until the seed that had been planted in my soul had burst and taken root and given flowers.

That first visit to Iporanga changed my life. Somewhere on a dirt road in Brasil, a part of me awoke, took the steering wheel and pulled. The maps that I had been given became useless. In a very real sense, this is where The Endless Road Trip began.

These pictures were not taken in Iporanga, or even Brasil. They were taken in northern Thailand, just miles from the Myanmar border. These are not the caverns, or the forest, or the rivers that greeted me in beautiful PETAR. These are not the friends that I made while staying at Alburgue Capitão Caverna. But they might have been. They were that familiar. The tastes were different; the sustenance was the same.
The view from atop Morro da Coruja, the highest point of Iporanga, was breathtaking. Emerald green forest, leaves glittering like dew, stretching in every direction, disappearing into a hazy eternity. Fragile infinity. I encountered it again on a mountaintop near Ban Tham Loc. An echo reminding me of the simple choice that I made more than ten years ago. To stay in Iporanga for my entire month in Brasil. To listen to a part of me that I had forgotten existed. To become permeable.

To find myself confronted by this view, experiencing something so similar to Iporanga and yet so different, was an unexpected and comforting confirmation. The person that I was stood face to face with the person that I have become, and both incarnations were filled with gratitude. So much time has passed, so many things have changed, but some underlying, essential form remains. The tides have come and gone, but the ocean is still whole. Iporanga, Pang Mapha; threads in a grand pattern. Fragile, but infinite. Saudades for the world that is receding, Joy for the horizon drawing me forward.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Decisions, not kilometers or baht, are the basic unit of travel. This is what makes it so exhilarating, and intimidating, and vital. You must make decisions without all of the necessary information. You must make decisions without knowing how things will turn out or which option will be most delicious or satisfying or enjoyable. You must make decisions understanding full well that you might not be able to unmake them. Once you depart, you might never return. Once you arrive and the bus or the plane or the motorbike taxi or the minivan pulls away, you must agree to be where you are.

Let's say you are trying to decide where to go when you leave Chiang Mai. A friend who has been to Thailand several times tells you that Pai is the place to go, goes so far as to offer recommendations and suggestions of things you might enjoy there. An expat you've met in a corner restaurant in Chiang Mai, someone who has cycled throughout SE Asia and is dating the owner of said corner restaurant, tells you that Pai is nothing but tourists, pretty perhaps, but overpriced and inauthentic. He recommends Mae Hong Son instead, describing a small town centered around a picturesque lake, describing its local flavor and slow, gentle pace. Another friend, a seasoned traveler who passed this way over 15 years ago, tells you to use your Lonely Planet book as a guide of where NOT to go, says that you should pick a place that is beneath notice. There, he says, you will find the best places.

And let's say that although you've enjoyed Chiang Mai, you're starting to feel that you are just another tourist following the exact same route laid out by the exact same guidebook you see in every foreigner's hands. In Chiang Mai, you've randomly run into the same German couple that took your picture in Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Railway Station and they asked you about going to Doi Sutep, where you have just been, and say they are thinking of going to Pai, which is where you may be going next. The Lonely Planet is starting to feel positively overcrowded.

What do you do? Which decision is the right decision? Should you follow your friend's glowing recommendations and go to Pai, even though you may find yourself in the same guesthouse as Helmut and Marta? Should you take the British ex-pat's advice and bypass Pai, choosing Mae Hong Son instead? Or should you cross these towns off of your list because your guidebook has described them both in great detail? Perhaps you should go to Nan, a rarely mentioned city in a primarily rural, agricultural province in NE Thailand. Which of these is the RIGHT decision?

This is why I dislike sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor. Everyone has an opinion, and yet the more opinions you read, the less sure of your decisions you become. Yuki from Japan, says that Pai is overrated. Carl from Canada says Pai is just perfect. Hanna from Austria says that the hotel you were thinking of staying in is dirty and a long walk from all the sights. Martin from Germany says that its conveniently located, quiet, and that it serves the best breakfast he's had in all of Thailand. I mean how can you make sense of any of this? Maybe Yuki is an entitled princess and Hanna has OCD. Maybe Martin hates spicy food and Carl is scared of drinking anything that isn't pre packaged. How can you know? With all of these conflicting opinions, how can you make the right decision?

Here's a secret: There is no right decision. You cannot know what destination will make you happier because it's not the destination that makes you happy. The decision itself is what makes you happy. You choose a direction knowing full well you have no idea what will happen, and you begin walking. We chose to go to Mae Hong Son, a perfectly lovely town set into the mountains of NW Thailand, and we had a great time. We ate more street food and visited more temples; we continued to mangle the Thai language and we expanded our comfort zone; we visited places that we had never even imagined and witnessed sights that we could never have predicted. Our universe of experience expanded. We grew.

And the truth is, this would have happened whether we had decided on Pai, Nan, Mae Hong Son, or Chiang Rai.

This is one of the ever-present — but often obscured — truths that the act of traveling lays bare: It doesn't matter what you decide so much as THAT you decide. The acknowledgement that you have the power to choose how to interact with the world is an initial step towards conscious living. You may not be able to choose how everything will turn out, but you do have the power to choose your next step. Will you complain? Will you accept? Will you step off of the path you've been walking and into a frightening unknown? Will you continue on with faith, or anger, or resentment, or hope? These decisions are more subtle than Pai v. MHS v. Nan, but they carry more weight because we face them every single day.

If you forget that you have the power of choice, then you have surrendered a mighty gift. If you choose to live a life of regret and self doubt, constantly wondering if things would have been better if you had followed a different path, then you accede to the role of victim. You cease to be at play in the universe, you become the universe's plaything. I, for one, believe we are here to play.

Would we have liked Pai more than Mae Hong Son? Would we have discovered unexpected delights in Nan? Perhaps. Probably not. Absolutely. In the end, these are pointless questions. The real questions are these: Did we make the most of our time in Mae Hong Son? Did we engage fully in the world we chose to inhabit? Did we free ourselves from the hold of ego and release into the immense flow that brought us here; that has always carried us every second of every day of this life?

Perhaps. Probably not. Absolutely. But it's nothing to worry about. We'll be given the gift of another decision very very soon.

 

Chiang Mai: Temple Central

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, with a population of about 200,000 people. According to Wikipedia, approximately 1.4 million to 2 million foreigners visit this former Capitol of the ancient kingdom of Lanna every year. If that is correct — and judging from our own experiences in CM, it certainly seems feasible — it is an remarkable statistic.

What do all of these tourists do when they get here? First and foremost, they visit any number of Buddhist temples. There are over 300 wat in Chiang Mai and on any given day, you will walk past 3-4 of them. When we first arrived in Chiang Mai, we had to wait a couple of hours for our room to be readied, and on our first short walk around town, we accidentally stumbled upon three of them. The first of these (I think) was a relatively obscure temple named Wat Pa Phra Nai. It doesn't appear on Google Map and an Internet search for that name comes up empty. The only source to provide this name is the the map of CM we bought at one of the dozens of 7-11s scattered throughout the city.

We walked down this unremarkable soi (small lane, as opposed to thanon, which means road), and my eye was drawn to a beautifully detailed wall.

The wall turned a corner and opened up into an empty courtyard. The gate was open, there were no people in sight, and so cautiously, we entered and began exploring.

One of the things that makes Chiang Mai's temples remarkable — other than their sheer number — is the absolute lack of preciousness surrounding them. Most are not intended or managed as tourist sites; most of them are centers of local community. Wat Phra Pa Nai, Wat Methang, and Wat Umong Maha Thera Chan (again, these are my best guesses reached by cross referencing my memories and our map of CM) are examples of this. We didn't see a single other tourist at these temples. The main buildings, when open, had a comfortable lived-in quality. Yes, there were gigantic golden Buddhas, but there were also sagging couches, folding chairs, and threadbare rugs.

Wat Methang sits right across the street from our hotel. We first noticed it while eating breakfast.

We happened across Wat Umong Maha Thera Chan after dinner one night. Bats swooped across a rose-colored sky, French tourists smoked cigarettes in violation of Thai law, and a song lifted into the darkening air, occasionally obscurd by the rev of a passing tuk tuk.

Other temples in Chiang Mai may be more majestic, more photogenic, more historically or culturally significant. But the manner in which these quiet, unassuming, everyday places of devotion are integrated into the fabric of the city — and into its inhabitants' lives — are what makes me love them. They are unpretentious and more beautiful because of it. They reveal how fully Buddhism has saturated this place. These unremarkable wat are as mundane — and as holy — as a stray dog, a food cart selling sliced fruit with salt and chili powder, a uniformed student sitting sidesaddle on a speeding scooter.

 

Wat Phrathat Doi Sutep

Another day, another temple. The famous, the legendary Wat Phrathat Doi Sutep. Set high in the mountains outside of Chiang Mai, this is another of the must-sees that is listed in pretty much every single guidebook and/or website devotes to things Chiang Mai. Apparently, this location was chosen by a white elephant who was carrying a relic of the Buddha. He wandered around a bit, climbed a mountain, found a spot where he trumpeted three times and then died. And so, King Na Nuone, leader of the Lanna empire and one who could recognize a sign when he saw one, built Wat Prathat Doi Sutep on the site of the white elephant's death.

Getting to this temple nowadays is a bit of a process, but at least does not involve killing white elephants. We caught a tuk tuk from our hotel out to the University area and then from there, we sat at a songthaew stand, waiting for a full complement of riders. Once our group assembled — a Japanese family of three, a Thai couple, a pair of gays (one of which was wearing the best t-shirt I've seen in Thailand; multicolored appliqué letters spelling out “SUPER LADY BOY”), a young woman from Germany traveling solo, Tim, and yours truly — we loaded up and wound our way up the flanks of Doi Suthep. For the first time since landing in Bangkok, we cleared the layer of haze and/or smog that has followed is everywhere, and saw a blue(ish) sky!

The scene that greeted us at the foot of the temple complex was part Disneyland, part Chatuchak. Stalls selling everything from Buddhist tchotchkes to roasted chestnuts, watermelon slices to hill tribe clothing, lined the four lane road leading past Wat Prathat Doi Sutep and on to the highest point of the mountain, Doi Pui. Hordes of tourists were congregating around three points: the base of a giant golden statue of Sumanathera (the monk whose dream started off the whole Buddha's relic/white elephant adventure), the aforementioned market, and a ticket booth selling combined admission to the temple and a ride in funicular rail car, thus bypassing the naga-lined stairwell. The Japanese family headed to the market. The ladyboys hurried to the tram building.

Tim and I made for Sumanathera and then climbed the 309 steps leading to the entrance to Wat Prathat Doi Sutep.

Inside this temple was everything. When I say everything, I mean everything.

A burning Ganesh.

Bugs.

Big tacky billboards featuring the King of Thailand.
Ladyboys.
Pretty flowers.
Fresh squeezed orange juice.
Beautiful views of the rainforest.
Weird, kitschy sculptures.
The mess and clutter of everyday life.
Fruit that looks like testicles.
Tourists. DUH.
Beautiful Buddhist forms.
Shopping carts parked in unexpected corners.
Flip flops with the word “SPERM” embossed into their foot beds.

I guess that's one of the things I find interesting about Buddhism. There is room for everything. It's not about denying your body, or the griminess of earthly existence, it's not about attempting to be pristine or perfect. It, like the great mystical traditions, sees this human incarnation not as a punishment, but an opportunity. Yes, there is suffering, and pain, and inexplicable tragedy; there is happiness and joy and love. And when the right perspective is found, when all of these individual forms reveal their great unity, what is revealed is beauty. Everything, all together, is beautiful.

 

Wat Pra Singh

One of the most famous, most venerated and well documented wat in Chiang Mai. Also, one of the most photographed. I am pretty sure that thousands of other visitors have taken the exact same pictures you see here. Oh well, what can be done? It is truly a magnificent place and when you're there, its difficult to take the camera off of your face.

Please no comments about Asian tourists and their cameras.

Ah well. In the end, I can't help but feel that it's worth it. Even though the Internet is stuffed with images like these, these are mine. And now I share them with you.

 

In Chiang Mai, Buddhist culture has become fully manifest. These wat, even those as tourist-friendly as Wat Pra Singh and Wat Doi Sutep, are not museum displays of an historic and irrelevant philosophy attempting to withdraw from the secular world. Rather, they are vibrant, engaged, and productive. In this Wat alone, more than 700 monks are studying away, trying to bring an end to human suffering while grappling with how to address the complexities of the changing world. A nearby wat (Wat Soun Dok, which I will document later) houses the Chiang Mai branch of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, a public university which offers 26 undergraduate programs, 10 masters programs, and 2 doctoral programs as well as other educational offerings.

It is as intriguing to me as it is inscrutable. A part of me wishes to dive deeper, to seek out a greater understanding of this thoroughly modern aspect of Buddhism. On these campuses, young men and women in western-style uniforms mix easily with the orange, saffron and red robes worn by monks. What are the classes like; what is the curriculum? How does the holistic All-Is-One interface with the parsing, dissecting mindset of academia?

These questions, like the sound of unnamed birds and temple bells, fade into the hum of everyday life. Our time in lovely Chang Mai is short, and my attention span is even shorter. I am distracted by the smell of frying foods and by the heat, and by my attempts to untangle some meaning from the flow of Thai syllables. Peace and an integrated mind, even in the heart of Buddhist Thailand, remains elusive. Luckily for us, wonder, excitement, and a full stomach are much more accessible.