This is from Deni:
Tuesday we were going to go on a tour out of town but in the morning my stomach was feeling not so great. So, we stayed around the hotel for a while and then when I felt a little better we headed for the upscale shopping part of town outside the Old City. I’ve been hoping to find a blouse to replace the wonderful antique silk blouse Kymm brought me from Thailand 20 years ago when she was studying in Chiang Mai for her semester abroad. I still wear it, but it’s really starting to fall apart. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep it going. Anyway, what I’ve come to realize is that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” I can find nothing of the quality of my 20-year-old blouse. And forget about the wonderful silk bedspread she brought me. There is nothing like it anywhere. Later: Thursday. We went blouse hunting again today. I spoke to a man who has a nice shop of tribal clothing and such. He says that 20 years ago his wife and her business partner were cutting up antique silk skirts and making blouses and such out of them. That explains that. He knew nothing about where my wonderful patchwork Thai silk bedspread may have originated. I did find a $100 silk bedspread, but it wasn’t anywhere as cool as mine. So, thanks, Bug! I found a Thai silk blouse/jacket sort of thing today. It’s beautiful and cost way more than I wanted to pay, but, oh well.
I have some observations:
Food and such: I never thought I’d get tired of Thai/Lao/Cambodian food, but it happened. Wednesday night we had Italian, and it was a really nice change. Good red wine, great gaspacho, crab pasta, and lemon ice cream. Yummy. Ancillary to food is a discussion of napkins. I realized at the Italian restaurant that we finally had an actual napkin. It was paper, but it was napkin-sized and thick. I was stunned. In Bangladesh, we had tissues – like Kleenex only smaller. Of course, when you eat with your hand, you wash immediately after the meal. But in the interim, the tissues don’t do much. All over S.E. Asia we’ve had napkins that are one-ply and measure 5 inches square. Try to do something with that. And then there are conventions that go with eating. In Bangladesh, as we explained before, you eat with your right hand – no knife, fork, or spoon. In Laos, there is a certain amount of rolling sticky rice into a ball with either your right or left hand and then dipping it into sauces. And in Laos and Thailand, it’s considered rude to put the fork into your mouth. You are supposed to use the fork to push your food onto your spoon and the put the spoon in your mouth. Try it. It actually works pretty well. Tonight (Thursday) I had my least expensive dinner in S.E. Asia. At the bar, I had a 50 baht margarita. At the restaurant at 30 baht plate of roast pork and spicy sauce. At the third place, a dish of rum/raisin ice cream for 45 baht. At about 30 baht to the dollar, you can see that I ate well for next to nothing.
Conversations with travelers: First off, did you know that there is a party going on all over the world and young people seem to know where it is? It’s going on in Laos and Thailand for sure. We’ve talked to so many young people who have left school or quit their jobs and are just traveling until the money runs out. We’ve met some folks who plan on being gone a year. We have felt very old, seldom seeing grey hair until we got to Chiang Mai. In Vang Vieng, the only thing older than the two of us was the architecture. When we’ve had a chance to have meaningful conversations with people (Germans, Dutch, Australians, and Canadians mostly), the discussion frequently involves questions about the U.S. The things these folks don’t get about us at all are our lack of gun control, Republicans, lack of affordable health care, Republicans, the high cost of higher education, Republicans, our short vacations, Republicans, and why most Americans don’t travel outside the U.S. They are intrigued by the U.S., have visited at least once or plan on doing so, are overwhelmed at the size of our country, and they love Obama. I can’t disagree with any of their criticisms.
And now Coop:
Life is back in equilibrium. While we were waiting in the van in front of the tour office yesterday morning before departing to the villages I spotted a banner in front of a shop showing camera batteries. I went in and found a good supply of lithium batteries for our camera. It’s probably the only place in the city where they stock them. So now we can continue taking pictures without worrying about running out of battery before it’s time to depart on Saturday.
Our trip yesterday was to visit some hill tribe villages plus a limestone cave and orchid farm. The village visits reinforced my observation that there is a great deal of ethnic diversity here in northern Thailand as there was in northern Laos. It may be even more so here in Thailand. Chiang Mai is near the confluence of China, Laos, Burma (Myanmar), and Thailand. Depending on the stability of one area or another many tribal groups have moved for safety or economic opportunity. The “long neck” group (see pictures) that we visited came from Burma about twenty years ago to avoid the repression of minority groups there. Other groups moved earlier. So there’s an ethnic mix. Add in all of the tourists from Western Europe, Japan, China, and Australia. Then add the aged hippies from the 70’s that came and stayed, plus European expats. It’s quite a mixture.
Now at the end of two months of travel I can definitely say what I miss and will be glad to get back to when we return home: clear and pure air. Everywhere we’ve been the air is full of smoke giving a maximum of about five miles visibility. There is burning all over South and East Asia. In Bangladesh it is the coal fired brick ovens. Here in SE Asia it is land clearing and field burning. There is no wind now during the dry season to move the air. So the air just sits here and turns into white smog. The only time I’ve seen blue sky is when we were flying from Luang Prabang, Laos, to Chiang Mai at 22,000 feet. We were just at the top of the smoke and smog layer with blue sky above us. We couldn’t even see the ground from 10,000 feet. Plus, the air that is here to breathe is regularly punctuated with sewer gas because there are no sealed sewer systems. All sewer channels along the side of the road are covered and used as sidewalks. But the covers have vents in them so the smell wafts up every few feet as you walk along the side of the road. It’s pretty gross. Quite a few people wear face masks to keep from breathing the particulate matter. Security guards and traffic cops that have to stand at the side of the street all day breathing exhaust fumes plus smoky air are the most likely ones to be wearing a face mask. Automobile exhaust was controlled in Dhaka, Bangladesh, since most vehicles were required to use compressed natural gas (CNG) as fuel or use electric motors. There were no gasoline stations, only CNG stations, in town. Here in Chiang Mai anything goes. The other issue is cigarette smokers. It was the worst in Laos with the combination of many Laos smoking plus all of the French tourists smoking. Cough, cough.
And back to Deni:
Our trip to the hill tribes (Karen, Akha, Lisu, Mien, and Lahu) was interesting, but disturbing. According to The Lonely Planet, the tribes are marginalized and do not have full Thai citizenship. That means access to jobs, education, land ownership, and health care is restricted. Our tour guide told us that the children in the tribes we visited do go to Thai schools. So, they may have some rights.
Seems to me the tribes have become a living museum/freak show. There they sit in their villages, decked out in their tribal wear, waiting for the vans of tourists to appear. The tourists tumble out of the vans, and the villagers (women and children – the men are in the fields or working in the forests as mahouts) assume their positions beside their handicrafts. The tourists wander by looking at what’s for sale; the villagers smile and display their wares; the tourists take pictures, buy a few things, and load back into the vans; and the villagers resume their wait for the next load of potential buyers. For the most part, the villagers are low-pressure sales people. The Akha are a different story. They follow the tourists, plucking at them, pleading, “Madame, you buy? Nice. You buy?” Not pleasant.
The Karen (Long-Neck People) are an interesting group. They came to Thailand from Myanmar. The women wear brass rings on their necks, which they start adding at about age six. I had heard someplace that this custom was designed to keep women faithful. If a woman strayed, her male relatives would remove the rings, her neck wouldn’t support her head, and she would strangle. Not true. It isn’t so much the neck stretching as the collar bones lowering. They are pushed down and up goes the neck. I’m still not clear what holds the long neck up. But it does stay up without the rings. The lady with the longest neck in Thailand (52 rings, 6 kg.) has pictures showing her without her rings. There she is, smiling, her long, pale neck exposed and her little head perched on top. Unsettling.
Another oddness is betel nut chewing (we also saw this in Bangladesh). The Lisu lady in the picture has totally dark purple teeth. She is 84 and has been chewing all her life. According to our guide, the teeth are strong as a result of the betel, and she still has all her original teeth. Hmmm, maybe so, but it isn’t a good look. Think I’ll stick with my dentist. Although, given my recent tooth-breaking episode, maybe I should reconsider.
Today we started out early with a trip to the flower market. Oh my, such gorgeous flowers! Orchids. Roses. Asters. Ferns. Lilies. Cosmos. Lotus. Snap dragons. And on and on. Next to the flower market is a huge market where many local folks shop. Coop was ever so happy to find lots of dried fruit. At lunch I was thrilled to have an actual tuna sandwich on a croissant and a chocolate milkshake. Clearly, I’m ready to come home. After lunch we explored the Chiang Mai Arts and Culture Center. According to their exhibits, the hill tribes are all happy groups with no problems at all. Hmmm.
Tomorrow we are going to Doi Inthanon National Park, which has Thailand’s highest peak. Maybe we can get cool. It was 98 today and is supposed to be even hotter tomorrow.