Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bangkok and Chiang Mai Summer 1971

As the summer of 1971 approached, some friends in my Malaysia Peace Corps group suggested that we should use our annual leave to visit Thailand. It sounded like a great adventure. None of us had ever been to Thailand or even had much information on what we could do there. But Thailand promised to be a great change from Malaysia, a country that was becoming very familiar.

At the Peace Corps office in Kuala Lumpur, we were able to read information sheets written by PCVs in Bangkok and beyond. These brief reports provided us with a lot of local information about Thailand: where to stay, where to shop, what to see and how to do it all on a PCV allowance. Armed with this intelligence, we coordinated our vacation schedules and prepared for our holiday.

We began our vacation in Kota Bharu in the Northeast corner of Malaysia. To cross into Thailand, we had to walk on a railway trestle over the river that marked the border between Malaysia and Thailand. After passing through Thai immigration and customs— a fairly impromptu set up— we boarded pedicabs for the short trip to the train station. Here we faced our first problem. None of us spoke Thai and nobody we met spoke English or Malay. While the train schedule was prominently posted, we couldn’t read it because it was written in Thai, a script that gave us not even a clue as to which of the many stations listed was Bangkok. All we could decipher were the departure and arrival times. Knowing that the trip took about one day from the border to Bangkok, we made a guess concerning which station should be our destination and, with a bit of trepidation, bought our tickets. We rationalized that, after all, we were traveling up the length of the Thai peninsula. There was no place for the train line to go but to Bangkok. At least, we hoped so.

Train to Bangkok?

When at last the train ended its journey at a major terminal, we disembarked and walked out into the sunlight still not quite knowing where we were. “Bangkok?” we asked a taxi driver standing outside the train station. He gave us a quick look and said, “Thirty dollars.” As our train tickets all the way from Malaysia had cost only a fraction of this amount we began to grow concerned that we perhaps had missed our mark by some distance. An attempt to negotiate a lower fare did not reduce the requested tariff by much. In his own way, the taximan indicated that Bangkok was a long drive. But as thirty dollars was more than any of us were willing to pay, we sought another solution.

We soon realized that few people leaving the train station were getting into taxis. Most headed across the street to the river and were boarding long, narrow boats powered by big engines fitted with a long-shaft to the propeller. We picked up our bags and followed the crowd down to the river. When we got to the pier, we again asked, “Bangkok?” The boatman pointed at the city skyline across the river. We quickly piled into the river taxi and within a few minutes arrived in Bangkok. The cost? Half a baht: about three cents!

We found Bangkok fascinating. With its klongs and temples, crowded markets and jumping nightlife, we enjoyed exploring the city day and night.

Erawan Prayers

After several days of seeing the sights in Bangkok, we talked about where else we might go. Some suggested we ought to cross over into Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. Others recommended we travel north to see Thailand’s hill towns. In the end, we agreed to visit Chiang Mai which we thought would be a comfortable change from Bangkok’s heat. We put Angkor Wat on our destination list for next year. As it turned out, however, the war that soon came to Cambodia closed the country for many years. It was not until 2005 that I was finally able to see the wonders of Angkor Wat.

An overnight night bus took us on the 700km journey (about 435 miles) from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I called this the Thai Gourmet Tour as our bus seemed to stop every few hours at another all-night eatery where every passenger took the opportunity to feast on grilled Thai chicken, fried noodles and other delights.

Our first view of Chiang Mai was memorable. The rooftops of Chiang Mai glimmered half hidden in the shadows of early morning. As dawn turned to daylight and the mist dissipated, Chiang Mai’s houses and temples gradually came into view, as mystically as Brigadoon, framed against a mountain backdrop. Instead of Bangkok’s din we heard cocks crowing and the quiet sounds of Chiang Mai—spirit house bells tinkling in the breeze like wind chimes.

Lovely Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, although the provincial capital, had a small town feel. It was easy to get around and meet residents, particularly students who just wanted the chance to practice their English. One student was kind enough to act as our guide in Chiang Mai and tell us something of its history.

As much as we enjoyed visiting many of Chiang Mai’s temples, there was much more to see in and around the city. We had a lot of fun going into various shops selling everything from Thai silk to carved furniture. Each shop seemed to employ a former Miss Chiang Mai as a sales girl to attract customers into buying their goods such as these hand-painted umbrellas.

Chiang Mai Umbrella Shop

I think the highlight of our visit was our trek to Wat Doi Suthep high in the mountains overlooking the Chiang Mai valley. The temple was built in the 14th century on a spot chosen by a sacred white elephant. For the people of Thailand, this temple is an important pilgrimage site on major Buddhist feasts. There was a spectacular view from the temple down to the fields of rice covering the valley floor. On seeing the endless irrigated padi fields stretching to the horizon, I had to remind myself that each of the millions of rice stalks had been planted individually by hand. Thailand’s bounty of rice is truly a miracle of man and nature.

Peace Corps Volunteers at Wat Doi Suthep

1 comment:

Beth said...

Except for my brief trip to Pakistan, Asia remains elusive to me, Frank. So I'm enjoying "being there" through your blog. Thanks.