Saturday, 14 August 2010 00:00
Nestled amongst some of the highest mountains of Thailand, the city of Chiang Mai is a treat to the soul. Dr Beena Menon takes in the sights and senses of this little paradise.
As the sun creeps over the deep blue line of the mountains turning the sky into a breathtaking blue-gold and the mists lift from the valley of Chiang Mai, another glorious morning dawns as a gift from the Gods. As I sit by my window and breathe in the fresh cool air, a cup of tea in hand taking in the magic of the dappled green-gold sunlight that filters through the leaves, listening to the call of numerous birds and watching the squirrels and chipmunks chase each other up and down the tree trunks, I think of the golden Buddha seated in silent contemplation of eternity atop Doi Suthep mountain which presides over Chiang Mai and get the distinct notion that He blesses the beautiful valley with eternal peace and prosperity... and out of some place deep within eternity, unbidden, whispers my soul, "I'm home...this is home..."
We all realize that deep down we crave a world where there is simple asking and simpler giving, where the smile is quick to come and the frown is unknown; we wish for a world in which we're met with calm, patient, smiling service; where people look for solutions rather than rave and rant about the problems; where there is only mutual respect prevents the tongue from doing irreparable damage, and where insult is missing; where there is no road rage; where anger and hatred do not exist; where there is appreciation, sharing, caring and support; where there is joy in partaking of nature's abundant bounty; where Peace holds us securely in her arms and where, unbidden our soul glides down from eternity and proclaims it as "home".
Perhaps for this reason thousands of people of varied nationalities have made Chiang Mai their permanent home. Once here, Chiang Mai grows on one to the extent that it's nearly impossible to tear oneself away...
A dream come true
The first time I heard of Chiang Mai, "the Rose of the North" was when one of my course mates at the TESOL course at Ban Phe (Rayong, Thailand) mentioned it as one of the most beautiful cities in the whole of Thailand. Nearly everyone on the course had already been to Chiang Mai and two of the girls had even landed summer jobs and would spend about three months there, after our TESOL course. Curious as I was, at the time, I had neither the means nor the time to travel to any other part of Thailand, this very beautiful country. Having no choice but to return to India, I decided to lay my pangs of envy to rest and took the flight home ward.
I had scarcely imagined that it wouldn't be long before I would come to live and work at the State University in this tranquil, idyllic, serene and lovely valley town of Chiang Mai which has since become my 'second home'. Nestled in the hills of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is the seat of the ancient Lan-na kingdom dating back 700 years, ruled by King Meng Rai and his two associate kings. "The Three Kings" are an example of best friends who were colleagues and partners and ruled a large part of North Thailand (Siam) collaboratively.
Chiang Mai seamlessly combines the traditional and the modern. The ruins of the ancient Lan-na capital are surrounded by a deep moat over which there are small bridges to get into and out of the old city into the extended area of the city outside the moat. The ramparts of the old fort city border the moat on the inner side and the moat itself is bordered with trees like the flame of the forest and bahwa acacia which blaze their orange and bright yellow blossoms during most seasons. The moat is also decorated with flowers of all colours while fountains keep the water well circulated and clean.
The tranquil Ping River flows through, rendering the valley verdant, fertile and lush. The surrounding hills seem to decide the prevalent weather which changes on a daily basis. The valley has a perpetual atmosphere of beauty, peace and harmony.
Nature has truly blessed Chiang Mai with excellent balmy weather all year round. The landscape is green and heavily wooded with splashes of blazing colours amidst the rolling green. Tropical flowers and fruit of all shapes sizes and colours and f l a vours abound. Orchids and fruit are now cultivated for d o m e s t i c consumption as well as for export. Flower drinks are very popular for their health benefits.
The people and the culture
There are nearly a thousand temples of Buddha called "wat", each more beautiful than the other, showcasing local art and architecture. Some of these wat are monasteries where monks live exactly as the Buddha is believed to have done. Living in Spartan austerity, going barefoot, begging for alms and food, following a strict regimen, studying Buddhist scriptures learning from sermons, performing religious rites and chanting mantras, it would seem that these monks, young and old lead a drab life full of strictures.
Yet, it seems that it is one of the ways in which boys from poor village families have little recourse but to accept a life of asceticism in order to claim a right to education. Thewat offers many services for weddings and funerals.Aunique feature is that the monks nurture and take care of stray animals. Eachwat is presided over by a chief monk who is held in very high respect.
A delight to the senses
Chiang Mai offers a lot of options for sightseeing. Being thickly wooded, there are a number of natural preserves for elephants, tigers, monkeys, snakes and other animals as well as aquariums and bird sanctuaries. The highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon is an hour's drive away. The hill slopes are replete with orchid cultivation and exotic flower, vegetable and fruit farms grown by the hill tribe villagers under the auspices of the Thai royal family's patronage in lieu of the traditional opium farming.
Thai people are extremely proud of their heritage and culture and love to show it off to visitors. Chiang Mai has other interesting features like the night market, the weekend market and the walking street where artisans from the surrounding villages and hill tribes showcase their unique northern Thai art.
Clothes, jewellery, footwear, hand-woven rugs, and tapestry, wax work, wood art paper and beadwork, terracotta, canework there's hundreds of things to choose from. Tourists flock to these markets to pick up these beautiful souvenirs.
Food for thought
Hotels offer excellent facilities at reasonable rates. Many of them are built entirely with teakwood or ebony, giving the warm feel and appearance of the typical, traditional northern style housing.
Northern Thai food is inspired by influences of Chinese, Indian and Burmese traditions. There are literally thousands of goodies to choose from. Food is available in abundant supply, to suit every taste; cheap, clean and safe to eat - ranging from mild to spicy.
It is said that our experience of a place depends largely upon the way the locals treat the traveller the welcome or lack of it, the warmth or lack of it, and so forth. There's something for everyone who visits Chiang Mai wild life, nightclubs, strip shows, bars and pubs, fast food joints, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Korean,Vietnamese and Thai food restaurants; flower shows, designer shops, tribal folk art, malls, multiplexes, temples and what have you...
It is hard to tear oneself away from Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai has a mystical magic a magnetic quality that makes one belong such that anyone whowanders in leaves a part of their soul here forever and would take the memory of its unique magical blendaway with them too, forever...
The author is a Professor at the Department of English, Chiang Mai Rajabhat University. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.