Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

I’ve been struggling with what to title this particular post. Since I am in the Thai town of Pai (sounds like pie) I thought maybe the title should be: “Hi, Hi Hi, I’m In Pai.” Nah! Too cutesy. I had just about decided on “Pie-Eyed In Pai” because of the eye-popping beauty of the area but then thought better of that title as well, worried someone might think I’d gone on a drinking binge. Maybe something to do with the Pied Piper – a takeoff on the fact that so many expats have flocked to this area? Again, it wasn’t quite right. I finally gave up (been doing a lot of that lately) and just started writing, figuring that the title would reveal itself along the way.

Rural mountain town of Pai in NE Thailand

Rural mountain town of Pai in NE Thailand

Main shopping district in center of Pai Thailand

Main shopping district in center of Pai

Street scene in Pai, Thailand

More street scenes in Pai, Thailand

Yesterday I tore myself away from the resort long enough to walk around the village. It didn’t take long – it’s not a big town. I walked the two blocks to the main street and turned right toward the highway, drinking in the views of the scenic mountains that ring the town. Read More

I’ve known since the day I arrived in Chiang Mai that I would be leaving on the 8th of May. What I didn’t know is where I would go from here. I considered Burma but then had second thoughts. I just couldn’t bring myself to donate any more money to the corrupt communist regime that has held the rightful leader of that peaceful nation under house arrest for so many years, while they plunder the country, destroy the monasteries, and oppress the people.

I thought about going back to the south of Thailand – perhaps the island of Koh Samui this time to soak up a bit more sun. But the weather forecast all over the south was dismal. The monsoons out of China had dumped so much rain on the south that the ferries were not running and people had even lost their lives in the resultant flooding, so that was not an option. I even thought about staying put in Chiang Mai but I was getting restless here and needed a change of venue.

The pool at the Quarter Hotel, Pai Thailand

The pool at the Quarter Hotel, Pai

I had always planned to go to Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, but by now I had ony four days before I needed to be back in Bangkok. During my travels, someone had told me about Luang Prabang, Laos – how beautiful it was and how much better than Vientiane, so I had pretty much decided to go overland by bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, Thailand, then cross over into Laos and take the two day boat trip down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. At least that WAS my plan until I read an article about the boat trip – how hot, crowded and uncomfortable it is, etc. Nope – not up for that at the moment.
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Every guide book says it. Every web site says it, too. And every person who’s ever been there insists that when visiting Chiang Mai, you must absolutely visit Wat Doi Suthep. So on my last full day in Chiang Mai I decided I had to make the effort, regardless of the fact that it was still raining.

The full name of this temple is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep Rajvoravihara and it is located atop the mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai, some 17 kilometers from the town. The few Tuk-Tuk drivers I’d talked to all wanted between 400 and 600 baht ($12-18 dollars) for the round trip, which is an exorbitant amount. Instead, I’d discovered that you could take a taxi to Chiang Mai University on the outskirts of town for about 40 baht. In front of the University is a taxi stand where people gather to go up to Doi Suthep. When eight people have collected, the taxi makes the trip up for 40 baht and comes back down again for 30 baht.

In Chiang Mai the taxis are red pickup trucks called songthaews

In Chiang Mai the taxis are red pickup trucks called songthaews

In Chiang Mai the taxis are red pickup trucks that have been converted to contain two long benches on either side of the truck bed with an awning overhead. They tool around town, beeping at anyone they believe could be a potential customer. You just hail one traveling in the general direction you want to go, tell the driver your destination, negotiate a fare, and off you go. I’m not a bad negotiator but being a ‘farang’ (white foreigner) puts me at a distinct disadvantage, so I felt pretty good when I negotiated a fare of 50 baht to get to the University. Once there I had to wait about 40 minutes for enough people to arrive to make it worth the driver’s time – he finally assented to go when we had six people and we all agreed to pay him 50 baht instead of 40.

The road up the mountain is narrow and especially curvy and our driver was a madman. With each curve I was thrown against the person next to me. I made the mistake of looking out the open back of the taxi as it made its way up the mountain and in no time I was motion sick. Closing my eyes and gritting my teeth Read More

I finally made it back to Wat Phra Singh today. You may remember that this is my Wat, as it represents the Year of The Dragon, under which I was born according to the Chinese calendar. This is the Wat where I am supposed to worship if I want to ensure that my spirit will go directly to heaven rather than hang around this earthly pagoda. So, facing yet another grey and rainy day, I thought my afternoon would be best spent inside this lovely temple.

Temple dogs join monks as they chant at Wat Phra Singh Chiang Mai Thailand

Temple dogs join monks as they chant at Wat Phra Singh

I wandered around the grounds, investigating the various buildings and reading about the history of the temple. At one point I tried to use the public bathrooms but my way was barricaded by three dogs that growled menacingly at me as I approached the toilets. I’ve learned my lesson about temple dogs. I don’t mess with them. I backed away slowly. Instead, I went to the Vihara – the gathering hall – and sat down on the floor in half-lotus position, intending to meditate. No sooner had I settled than young, novice monks started wandering in. They arrived in groups of two and three, quietly seating themselves in three long rows down the middle of the hall, their bright orange robes a riot of color against the vibrant red carpet and the gold Buddha statue at the front of the hall. Older monks in robes of a slightly darker hue sat in the front; one of the eldest positioned himself in front of a microphone.
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When I arrived in Thailand I was granted a free 30-day entry stamp. Thailand’s immigration law allows tourists to stay in the country for a maximum of 90 days in any 180 day period, however the entry stamp must be renewed every 30 days. The only way to accomplish this is to leaving the country and come back in again. Since I planned to be here slightly more than five weeks, that meant I had do a ‘visa run’ as it is commonly called (although it is a misnomer, since I do not technically need a visa to visit Thailand – just an entry stamp).

A giant industry has sprung up around the visa run. Tours are offered to all the nearby borders for ridiculously high prices, where busloads of backpackers traipse through Thai immigration, receiving an exit stamp that proves they have left the country, walk a few feet to get a passport stamp from the neighboring country, then reverse direction and come right back into Thailand. For those staying in northern Thailand, as I am, the most convenient visa run destination is Myanmar (Burma), about four hours north of Chiang Mai. So along with a host of others, I paid my 900 Baht (about $27 US) to the tour company and boarded the bus for the 14 hour round trip. It poured rain the entire day, which made me feel a bit better about the whole ordeal, since I probably would have been stuck inside the hotel anyway.

To their credit, the tour companies have tried to make the trip pleasant, throwing in some interesting sites along the way, such as the spectacular Wat Rong Kuhn in Chiang Rai. Called the ‘White Temple’ by the locals for obvious reasons, this wat has been under construction for ten years and the architect who designed it estimates that it will require another five years to complete. It was spectacular under gray skies. I can barely imagine how it must be in bright sunshine, the light sparkling and reflecting off the hundreds of thousands of mirrors embedded into its brilliant white stucco exterior.

Wat Rong Kuhn in Chiang Rai, called the White Temple

Spectacular Wat Rong Kuhn in Chiang Rai, called the ‘White Temple’ by the locals

The pit on either side of the walkway leading to the main entrance at Wat Rong Kuhn in Chiang Rai is filled with a sculpture of bleached white bones

The pit on either side of the walkway leading to the main entrance at Wat Rong Kuhn in Chiang Rai is filled with a sculpture of bleached white bones

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Three days ago I headed out on a walking tour of Chiang Mai, intent upon visiting the three major temples in the Old City that the guidebooks classify as ‘not-to-be-missed.’ The problem is that I suffer from a bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so I want to see everything and in Chiang Mai you can’t walk 500 yards without running into a temple. Over the past four days I figure I have walked at least 20 miles and seen scores of temples.

Wat Chedi Luang

By the end of the first day I was – technical term coming up now – templed out. I thought if I saw one more golden Chedi or one more mirrored great hall I would gag. By the end of the second day I was just numb and my feet hurt so bad I could barely walk. But by the third day I started noticing the differences in the temples. Like the one that’s dedicated to caring for the thousands of stray dogs in Chiang Mai. Or the temple that has dozens of animal statues scattered around its grounds, including a Donald Duck statue right out in front. There are temples with jade Buddhas, temples with quartz crystal Buddhas, and temples with traditional golden Buddhas.

I have learned that all the temples have Viharas (great halls) and Chedis (monolithic stupas, shaped like giant bells, each of which houses a relic of Buddha, such as one of his bones). There are Viharas built of intricately carved teak, Viharas that are covered entirely in multi-colored mirrors that sparkle and blind in the sunshine, and Viharas made of humble bricks cast from the red Asian clay. So, in honor of all this opulence, and in tribute to my very sore feet, I decided to dedicate this post to a photo tour of the temples of Chiang Mai.
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