As a famous song once said, “I left my heart in San Francisco…” Having spent some time in that misty city, I know what they mean. The rolling hills and vistas. The Mediterranean style villas. The graceful curve of the Golden Gate Bridge, the scenic backdrops of Marin County and Mount Tamalpais, the East Bay mountains, and the ocean. You feel as though you are floating in a city of cloud, truly a city of Angels, unlike that other City of Lost Angels to the south.
In a twist of cosmic fate, or perhaps an affinity for the divine, there is another ‘City of Angels’ halfway around the world whose name is translated as Krung Thep. It is more commonly known to Westerners as ‘Bangkok’. In parallel, there is a city some 700 km to the north which has an allure and charm which is equally as captivating as that of the Golden Gate city. Chiang Mai, which means ‘new city’, is over 700 years old, and was the capitol of the Kingdom of Lanna for most of that time, while Siam was the name given to the land in the south. The incorporation of Northern Thailand into the present kingdom of Thailand only happened in the late 1800’s.
Chiang Mai is still considered the Heart of Lanna culture, and retains a unique flavour compared to southern Thailand. People move slower and seem more relaxed. Even the mosquitoes seemed more relaxed. Despite what the guidebooks and World Health Organization might have you believe, Malaria was not a problem, and finding anti-malaria medication was next to impossible.
One of the more endearing charms of Chiang Mai is the ancient moat which still encircles the heart of the old city, with the remnants of an old brick wall lining the inside edge of the moat, forming a square, 2 km on each side. On the Eastern edge of the old barrier is a large stretch of wall with a functional gate, known as Tha Pae Gate. 20 feet tall, it was constructed to keep out the invading hoards from Mongolia, Cambodia, and Burma. Northern Thailand has been invaded numerous times in the past, and reflects this in its cultural mélange. As they say, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’
Our hotel was a few hundred feet from the south-east corner of the moat, and after arriving and dumping our bags, we were restless with train fever and the excitement of exploring a new city. We set out and started walking toward the vibrating downtown, and quickly discovered that pedestrian traffic takes second place to vehicular traffic.
Luckily, we had been working with the kids in preparation for the moment when we might have to cross a six lane highway with no traffic lights, so this was going to be a piece of cake. We dashed across the first three lanes of traffic to take refuge in the concrete meridian, waiting for our chance to cross back to the street side. Our moment arrived, and we bolted across the next three lanes of traffic to the sidewalk. It was something that would take some getting used to. At home on the Sunshine Coast, passing motorists would stop to let you cross if you so much as looked like you were thinking of crossing the street.
On the van ride from the train station to our hotel, we had noticed several restaurants that looked appealing, so we orientated ourselves as to what direction they had been in. We started to walk north, with the moat across the street from us, and soon noticed that sidewalks in Thailand also double as parking and patio space. At points we were walking on the road as we scurried around cars and trees. Theresa pointed out the large empty sidewalk across the street running alongside the moat, so at the first available moment, we made a break for it, crossing the three lanes once again.
I was visibly relieved to be away from the roadside, and Theresa seemed to share my relief. Walking along with the moat beside us stirred my romantic nature into action, and I reached for Theresa’s hand. It was then that Violet spoke up, the excitement in her voice palpable. “Oooh, what’s that?”
Cyrus replied, full of cool facts as usual, “Oh, that’s a cockroach. You know, you can touch them. They’re actually very clean. If they touch a human, they will spend minutes afterwards cleaning themselves. Would you like to hold one?” We respectfully declined, and continued our journey up the moat. Our children, however, had other notions, and we soon noticed they were not following. Rushing back to where they were, we found Violet enjoying the company of a cockroach as it scurried between her hands while Cyrus continued spouting useful facts as he hopped around trying to dodge the numerous cockroaches scurrying underfoot. We finally convinced Violet to put the insect down. “Can I just give it a little, itty, bitty kiss first though?” she asked in her sweet, ‘I want something’ voice. Theresa and I both responded rather strongly with a resounding “No!”. As much as roaches might be considered a culinary delicacy by some in Thailand, I wasn’t too eager to have Violet put one to her lips.
A little further up, Theresa noticed a shape floating in the water.
“Oooh, kids, look, a turtle!”
“Hmmm,” I said, noticing that the turtle wasn’t really moving much, “he seems to be sleeping. It must be past his bedtime.” Given the colour of the water in the moat, I started to think that anything in the moat might just be taking a very long nap. Except the cockroaches, of course. As Cyrus had mentioned, they can survive just about anything.