Life in Chiang Mai was beginning to settle into a routine. In the mornings, I would drive Theresa and Violet to the Chiang Mai International School, where Theresa had been teaching, and Violet had been schooling, followed by driving Cyrus to whatever class he was taking. In the evenings, we would peruse the markets and grocery stores for food and drink, and enjoy a nice dinner, occasionally eating out, exploring the amazing selection of restaurants and street vendors of Chiang Mai.
Theresa and I had also taken to frequenting the Art Bar, a Reggae bar with amazing live music every night, cheap drinks, irie vibes, and paintings of famous musicians adorning the walls. It was close enough to our home that we could dance away the night, and walk home if need be, should I happen to be incapable of driving a scooter without possibly endangering ourselves and anyone else on the street. The owners of the Art Bar were dreadlocked Thai Rasta’s, although I couldn’t quite figure out how Rastafarianism and Buddhism mingled. It seemed more of a lifestyle and fashion statement than a political or religious one, and seeing as they knew how to throw a good party, we didn’t really mind.
We had befriended the owner, ‘Boy’, and discovered that among his many talents, he was a renowned local tattoo artist, preferring to use the traditional hand method of tattooing, which involved methodically pricking the skin with bamboo slivers dipped in ink. Although I had never been inked, this intrigued me, and set the wheels rolling in my mind about getting my first ever tattoo. Theresa had several tattoos, and I had always admired the canvas that her body provided, but had never been inspired enough to receive one myself, suspecting that my body was far less inspiring to look at. However, I sensed a future endeavor at hand.
Our indulgences were beginning to get the better of us, as we noticed a tendency to be slow moving in the mornings, which never blends well with parenting. Violet, ever our trusty alarm clock, would often pounce on us shortly after daybreak, eliciting a sinking feeling as we realized that a lack of sleep, a slight hangover, and a hungry child made for a painful combination. Resolving to clean up our act a little, we started opting for healthier habits, including meditating and practicing our massage techniques on each other. This had the added benefit of bringing back a measure of connection to our relationship, which had dwindled, as it often does, in the first few years of raising a young child.
It also brought an increased resolve to do more with our children. We were often focused on domestic tasks, or on our various schoolings, preventing us from engaging in activities focused on what the kids would like to do. The Zoo had turned out to be a bit of a flop, deflating some of our belief that kid-centric activities were up to our standards of quality in Chiang Mai. Perhaps we only needed to dig a little deeper.
One day, while taking a short cut to the International School, and getting hopelessly mired in traffic and one-way streets, we stumbled upon a little-known secret of Chiang Mai, the Museum of Insects and Natural Wonders. Doing my best to memorize the maze-like route we had taken to get there, we vowed to come back as a family, fondly remembering the fun we had experienced at the Victoria Bug Zoo. After all, nothing bonds a family more than handling creepy crawlies and watching with horror as your daughter fearlessly holds a deadly insect in her hands.
Speaking of bugs, we had, like any responsible and safe travelers, been using bottled water for drinking, for as any experienced world travelers will attest, tap water can be sketchy, even in relatively developed countries like Thailand. Or at least, in relatively developed urban areas in countries like Thailand. Shower in it, probably ok. Brush your teeth with it, you might be taking your chances. Drink it, you were probably going to end up spending some time getting acquainted with the toilet.
Not one to be daunted by trivial things like World Health Organization warnings, I decided to sample the brownish sludge coming out of our taps one day, more out of necessity than out of desire, as we were out of bottled water, and I was thirsty. Noting the putrid top notes accentuated by a hint of awful, I decided to investigate why our water should be so hideous. Surely a city of three hundred thousand couldn’t all be sustaining themselves on bottled water. Won’t someone please think of the environment?
Putting on my plumber’s hat, I traced the source of our water back to the cistern located on our front porch. It wasn’t that hard to do, really, as most Thai houses are made of cinderblock or poured concrete, and plumbing and electricity are added as an afterthought, leaving wires and pipes exposed for easy access. It was also a bit obvious where our water was stored, as we passed by the large wooden-topped brick and mortar structure every day as we came and went from the house. I had often wondered what that strange feature was, thinking it to be a large and useless table, and now having traced the ridiculously obvious water pipes back to their source, realized exactly what it was for.
Sealed and secured only by a loosely fitted wooden lid, I enlisted Cyrus’s help to slide the lid aside and witness the pristine water that lay inside. If I sound like I’m leaning towards the optimistic side of things here, it’s because I am. After all, who wants to think that their prime source of water is a tank that would have made Darwin forget all about the Galapagos and set to work on examining the survival of the deadest? Dead Gecko’s, dead pill bugs, dead mosquitos, they had all found a cozy grave to prepare them for their reincarnation as humans imbibing their remains in the confines of our tank.
I for one, enjoyed the chirp of the Gecko’s as they perched themselves on our walls, calling out their namesake (geck-go, geck-go), and was quite disheartened to learn that a great number of them had met a horrible fate while learning that they are not the greatest of swimmers. The smell was more suited to a septic than a water tank, and I decided that showers and brushing of teeth were overrated things.
Realizing that industrial chemicals were in order if we were to actually make use of the liquid flowing from our taps, I enlisted the help of our landlord in procuring some bleach, and a pool net. Scooping out the poor deceased creatures from the tank, and adding enough bleach to the tank on a daily basis to ensure that all of our hair would turn a shade blonder, we felt secure enough to at least shower in the water that we had previously taken for granted. We now included the tap water in our teeth brushing regimen, excited by the potential for shiny, white teeth.
Having experienced an unofficial collection of dead creatures firsthand, it only made sense to view them in a setting where they were labelled and protected from human consumption. Feeling brave enough to squeeze all four of us onto the scooter, we made our way through the back streets, eliciting many astonished glances for being crazy enough to fit a family on something just a step above a moped, and arrived at the Bug Museum. The building alone was worth the trip, hosted in an old timber frame house with dark hues of wood, open spaces, and lush gardens.
Although it lacked the excitement of the bug zoo in Victoria, where we could hold live bugs, the vast array of deceased creatures more than made up for it. We spent hours being fascinated by the variety of moths, butterflies, crawling things, and yes, giant centipedes. At least these ones were dead, although they still brought flashbacks to the horror we had experienced in Hawaii.
Nothing works up an appetite like looking at dead insects for several hours, and we were decidedly ready to feast on something substantial. As much as it has been predicted that the survival of humanity might depend on our willingness to eat insects, we didn’t feel that it was an urgent need, and that we could still indulge in real food, at least for the time being.
Remembering a swanky looking restaurant, we had passed on our way to the bug zoo, we stopped to check it out, only to learn that it was a bona fide Italian restaurant. Like, real Italian. Not Thai cooks trying to emulate one of the most famous types of cuisine in the western world, but prepared by genuine Italian chefs. The prices reflected this, and seemed outrageous after the ludicrously low prices we had become accustomed to, but we all agreed that we needed to sample something other than Thai cuisine lest we come to take it for granted.
Indulging in steak, chicken, and other meats we had given up for the sake of our health and safety while in Thailand, not to mention wine, which we had not given up, but were more than happy to drink, we realized that we had been missing the foods we were used to, and that giving in to our cravings only gave us a deeper appreciation for the exotic cuisine we were slowly becoming accustomed to. Sometimes a bit of the strange gives you gratitude for the normal, even if the normal is strange.
In this light, we decided several days later to venture to the most Western mall in Chiang Mai (culturally and geographically speaking), the Central Plaza Chiang Mai Airport. Although not actually located at the airport, it was close enough that the name made some measure of sense. Compared to the mall close to our house, which was a blend of Thai and Western influences, the Central Plaza might as well have been in downtown New York. Full of major American brand name stores, it served more as a curiosity to us than as a practical location to shop. After all, we were hardly in need of Armani suits and Chanel perfume. They did, however, have a waffle house, and a pretzel stand, which furthered our indulgence in the treats of home we had been missing.
Never one to miss out on the latest in tech and gadgetry, I persuaded Cyrus to accompany me to an electronics store, marveling at the variety of useless gadgets at North American prices. Theresa and Violet wandered off to admire the fashion, and we agreed on a rendezvous point. Quickly tiring of the latest uselessly beautiful offering from Apple, Cyrus and I wandered off in search of the girls, only to find Theresa frantically looking for Violet. With all the sketchy places we had been to, the swanky Western style mall was the last place we had imagined someone would try to snatch Violet, and keeping our heads cool was the most prudent course of action.
Not wanting to alert security just yet, we made our way through some of the places we had already visited, most notably the pretzel stand, as it seemed Violet had found a new love in the soft doughy salty goodness, but alas, she wasn’t there scrounging for crumbs. It was then that Cyrus spotted her unmistakable blond locks – two stories below the balcony we were on, watching none other than a live animal show. Ever one to be drawn to creatures of all shapes and sizes, she had neglected to tell her mother where she was going when she heard the announcement of the live creatures on display. Chastising her thoroughly for her lack of good judgement, we decided we had had enough of the spectacle and opted for the next point of interest, the famed ‘Monk Chat.’
Most of the temples in Chiang Mai are welcoming to curious foreigners, although they limit the interaction to a brief conversation at the gate, or perhaps the occasional cooked meal on market days. At Wat Chedi Luang, however, they have designated question and answer periods known as ‘Monk Chat’, where you can sit with a monk, engage in conversation, and learn something of the life of a Buddhist Monk in a temple. This fascinated us, and seeing as the temple was only a few minutes away from the mall, it afforded us a great opportunity for contrast to what we had just experienced.
Arriving at the temple, we were amazed, as always by the splendor, beauty, and attention to detail the adorned a place that housed monks who were devoted to a simple life. We were also amazed that we had managed to pick a time that the monks weren’t so interested in chatting. Disappointed as we were, we decided to call it a day, and hopped into a Song Thaew to make the long journey home, to the north side of the walled moat the defined Chiang Mai.