The Journey Om

I Love the Smell of Incense in the Morning

Thailand is a land of contradictions.  Where else could you see garbage piled in front of a temple, or devout Buddhists using electric fly swatters to zap mosquitoes?  It’s the kind of place that you will fall in love with, and you won’t know why.  As Violet said “It’s not nice, but I like it.”

Buddhist temples are everywhere, and the monks are treated with a special status, even if it is normal for most males to do service in the monkhood at some point in their lives.  One of the many rules regarding the monks is that they may not come in direct contact with women, or accept something directly from the hands of a woman.

Although there are sexist overtones to this, (ie women might tempt them and so must be avoided,) there are no derogatory connotations, only funny moments, as in the time when we climbed into the back of a Song Thaew (truck taxi) to find several monks inside.  I showed a momentary lack of discretion as Violet and I sat opposite the monks, leaving one seat beside me, and one beside the monks.  Cyrus climbed in next, sitting beside me, leaving the spot beside the monks for Theresa.

As she climbed and assessed the situation, it didn’t take her long to realize that we (meaning I) had made an error in judgment, and hastily told Cyrus to switch places and sit beside the monks, allowing Theresa to sit next to me.  The few other Thai people in the truck were politely giggling, as they realized our embarrassment and cover up.

Cultural gaffes aside, taking Song Thaews is not always convenient, so we quickly remedied the situation by renting a scooter/motorcycle.  As there are more of them on the roads than cars, it becomes an easy way to blend, not to mention skirt around traffic.  We have become adept at squeezing 4 of us onto the scooter for very short distances, like the 5 blocks to the mall, which often gained us astonished glances from the Thais.

We ended up at times needing to split up, with Violet and I, or Cyrus and I taking the scooter home, and Theresa and the other child taking a Song Thaew.  The thing about Song Thaews is that anyone can and will get in anywhere, as long as the truck is going in the same direction as they are.  And sometimes the Song Thaew driver will alter his course slightly to accommodate the new passenger.

One night, after a lovely dinner at our favourite restaurant, (the Organic, macrobiotic Golden Trumpet,) I set off for home with Cyrus, while Violet went with Theresa in a Song Thaew.  Scooters will always beat cars or trucks, because you can move through the heavy traffic more easily, and you get to jockey up for a position in the front at traffic lights by riding up beside the curb.

Sometime after we got home, I started to wonder what was taking the girls so long.  I went back out on the bike, taking the shortcut to where they usually get off, and waited for at least 20 minutes before finally spotting them exiting a Song Thaew across the street.

I could tell right away that all was not exactly well, and the tale that followed was probably the most harrowing of our stay in Thailand.  Shortly after Theresa and Violet got into the Song Thaew, Violet fell asleep.  Several minutes later, some young Thai ladies got into the truck, and the driver changed course.  When the truck stopped next, Theresa noticed that they weren’t exactly in the nice part of town, more like the part of town she didn’t even know existed.  As she lamented, it was probably where the Thais went to find prostitutes and whatever other vices they craved.  The girls got out of the truck and then started to argue with the driver.  Some of the girls went into a nearby building, and the truck stayed put.

The thought crossed Theresa’s mind that they were inside negotiating a price for her and Violet.  The sketchy environment did little to dissuade her thoughts.  The girls came back out, argued some more with the driver, then jumped back into the Song Thaew, and the truck took off.  After a few blocks, all the girls jumped out of the back and took off laughing and shouting what Theresa most definitely thought of as obscenities.  The driver simply kept going, and took Theresa and Violet to where I met up with them.  As Theresa said, it was good that Violet was asleep, as the whole situation felt quite scary.  Thankful that my girls were safe and sound, we made the decision to no longer take Song Thaews at night.

Speaking of night, (and deliberately changing the subject) one of the must do things in Chiang Mai is the Night Bazaar.  All matter of Thai goods, from carvings, to jewelry, to fake watches, to clothing, to pirated DVD’s, are all there.  The whole affair is designed for tourists, and few, if any Thais shop there.  Bargaining is a must.  Buying anything is optional.  Intensity is guaranteed.

Better yet is the Sunday market at Tha Phae gate.  Everyone comes out for that, as the whole of downtown Chiang Mai becomes a giant street market, with friendlier people and prices.  Our love of the markets made us want to live in Thailand, just so we could cheaply buy all the things we wanted and adorn our home with them.  Our market habit made such an impression on Violet that she had taken to setting up shop at home, gathering all her things and setting them up on a table for sale.  We then bargain with her for the price, (10 butt?  Hmm no, 15 butt is better) and in the end she would always want to buy the stuff back from us for a lower price.  Mark my words, that girl is going places.

Luckily, Violet doesn’t share the Thai passion for plastic.  They love plastic.  They put everything in plastic.  When you buy vegetables at the grocery store, they put the plastic wrapped veggies in another plastic bag to seal it, then out it in another plastic bag at the checkout.  Your leftovers from a restaurant are often put in plastic bags, and then into a Styrofoam container, which is then transported in a plastic bag.  We carried around our own silk bags to avoid some of the plastic carnage, but there often seemed to be no getting around it.  They even put their Thai Iced Tea (Cha Yen) in plastic bags and drink it with a straw out of the bag!  The deliciousness of this beverage more than made up for the transgression of the container, in fact, it somewhat added to the charm.  I still crave that drink, and would pay far more than it’s worth to find one in North America.

In the end, Thailand is such a mix of old and new, good and bad, clean and dirty, that you must either look at it all as part of the beauty, or it will drive you crazy.  The small things are what make it beautiful.  The genuine smiles on the faces of people when you thank them in Thai, or the smell of incense flooding the streets as you wander through them in the morning are things beyond the mere descriptions of words.  It is a land rich in experience and being, as one would expect from a culture devoted to the principals of Buddhism.  We were in love, despite knowing that it was to be a short lived, or perhaps long distance affair.  C’est la vie!

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