Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Offerings in the forest

When you fly up to my home city of Chiang Mai – on Thai Airways, Bangkok Air or Air Asia (I have flown them all) you can look out over the forests, plains, rice fields and see the land literally sparkle. Wats (or temples) are everywhere and everywhere they are covered in gold and mosaiced mirrors that catch the light and juggle it back and forth. When surrounded by the walls of some of the more elaborate wats in the midday heat, the effect is so powerful you must squint. From the air it is as if glitter was strewn across the landscape.

Out of the hundreds of Wats that dot Chiang Mai, my favorite is Wat Umong – the reclusive forest temple tucked behind Suthep road and the back gate of CMU. Along the walkways the trees are wrapped with orange – a sign that they are blessed and protected. And strung on many are green plaques bearing Buddhist wisdoms and proverbs. “Physical charms attract the eye. Goodness attracts the mind.” “The lures of love often lead to the grave.” “There is no preventing a fire from emitting smoke.” “The mad dog hates water, the sex crazy man hates dharma.”

The temple there is not the most grand, though there is a large stone, cloth-wrapped, Chedi. There is a small museum with murals on the walls and there are tunneled caves with nooks holding cross-legged Buddhas. There is a pond and an island reachable by a small metal bridge. Pigeons are particularly fond of the island, long nosed turtles too. There is a monastery and a nunnery.

But my favorite place at Wat Umong is none of these. Rather it is a stretch of landscape running along the wall where there is a collection of Buddha heads and Buddha bodies. They sit crooked on a low rise wall with missing arms, heads, hands. One three-foot head sits cocked at an angle behind the others, pebbled hair covered with a veil of moss. One or two of the Buddhas are draped in yellow. Nearby is a raised circle that holds a collection of offerings – small plastic and metal Buddhas, horses, imposing men in high backed chairs, wooden elephants. They are in varying states – water and sun having worn away at paint and enamel. They are heaped, crooked and jumbled.

I come here to read, to study Thai, to eat bags of fresh cut fruit, to draw and to think. I have photographed this one spot in every season - hot, raining and cold. Out of all places it is the most peaceful in Chiang Mai.There is something about the place that is so full of life, despite the lack of distinction it holds compared the other sites in the temple complex. There is an acute presence and absence of people – all those who brought offerings for a milliard of reasons. The place is untidy, un-manicured, real - and for all this, enchantingly beautiful.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wai-ing Michelin Men

My diet is almost entirely sustained by food sold on the streets. While we have grocery stores and convenience stores I rarely step inside their air-con interiors, but sometimes when bored I peruse the neon lit aisles for fun. In many ways the commercial landscape mirrors any you might find in a US city. True we have Tesco and Carrefour instead of Walmart, but you can find practically anything there all the same – hair products, tea brands, Skippy Peanut butter – as long as you know where to look and don’t mind paying extra. (I do, so I forgo these comforts of my former life on a regular basis). However most of those familiar brands and stores come with a Thai twist if you look closely. Starbucks sells Thai Ice Tea and McDonalds Thai Tea McFlurries along with Mango McFlurries.

Driving along the moat road of the Old City I often pass a garage selling Michelin tires. Outside they have propped up one of those life-size cardboard cutouts. He’s got the normal rippled dimensions of a man constructed out of tires, but his arms are not raised in a wave or stretched out in a muscular stride. Rather they come together at his chin in a Thai Wai (traditional bow).

A Thai 7-11 has all the usual trappings, but then you look closer and start realizing that you are not in Kansas anymore. Let's take as example Lays potato chips, which we have in abundance. We do have some of the common flavors: Cheese and Onion, Sour Cream and Onion, Salt and Sour, Barbeque, Extra Barbeque. Even Hot Chicken and Lemon is not too out of the ordinary. But Lays varieties do not stop there, indeed most of the shelf space is taken up by the following flavors: Sweet Basil, Spicy Seafood, Spicy Lobster, Nori Seaweed, Shrimp Tempura, Hot Chili Squid, and of course Pla Sam Rod (Fermented Fish). I have sampled almost all of these and can attest to the shocking realization of biting down on a crunchy, oily, familiar looking potato sliver expecting Extra Cheese and tasting Spicy Seafood instead. In such instances I’d rather forgo the semblance of the familiar altogether and head over to the nearest late night food stand for some grilled intestine– at least that way, I’ll be prepared for the taste.