Well, I’ve been home for two months and I suppose it’s time to write my final thoughts on this trip. Like with any other major life event, as you get further and further away from the actual event and you get re-immersed into your daily routine, the enthusiasm and some of the details fade a bit, but, for me, certainly not the overall feeling of having had a terrific time.
Our tour leader Pranee is actually from Phuket and while we were there, we were fortunate enough to meet her mother. I suppose that is part of the reason it has taken me a little bit longer to write this. After sending Pranee a photo I took of her with the elephants, she let me know that her mother had passed away shortly after we returned home – which makes this post all the more melancholy. And to be clear, it’s not as if I knew Pranee’s mother before the trip or became fabulous friends with her during the trip. It’s just a reminder that eventually, we all lose loved ones.Continue reading “Thailand – final days, final thoughts”→
So we go from the lowest point of the trip to the two absolute most shining moments of the trip – and the two experiences could not have been any more different.
The last full day in Chaing Mai was a Sunday. The morning was left open for everyone to do as they pleased but there was an activity planned for those who were interested. In addition to visiting several more local temples, it included a visit the temple directly behind the hotel in order to make an offering to the monks who lived there. There were 6 of us that went. The hotel did a beautiful job of packaging up the food (see photo) and we were led not only by Pranee but also by one of the hotel staff. Again, I suck with names and I did not record hers, but she was young, enthusiastic and absolutely lovely. What struck me about her as with other guides I have seen is how much she loves her country and her culture. There was a pride in the way she told us about ceremonies or the history of certain activities. She patiently answered all of our questions and when a tourist from another group started to listen to her, she simply included him in the discussion.
She reminded me of a different tour guide from a different trip. This tour guide was slightly older and had a master’s degree in art. We met her on my trip to Istanbul several years ago. During our visit to Hagia Soffia, we heard the Muslim call to prayer and one of the members of our group asked this tour leader how she reconciled not being able to pray at that moment. The woman paused and took several minutes to give her answer. She simply said that her god understood she had responsibilities and that she would pray when the time was appropriate. She had tears in her eyes as she told us and you could see that her worship was a very important part of her life. It was one of the most stirring moments I have ever witnessed first hand. And I respected her more for it. I don’t know how to convey my feelings here. What moved me was her conviction that she had a deep connection to her god and that god, in her view, did not think that her devotion had a specific timetable.
In Chaing Mai, our visit to the temple and our offering was very ceremonial and I did not understand a word that was spoken. I am not sure that I truly get all the pageantry but I respect it. I was not brought up with any formal religion so this is just different to me. One of the questions I never asked, but should have, was whether or not the monks were speaking in a language that everyone understood or if it was a language like Latin and no one understood it.
The remainder of the day was spent poolside and then there was a massive night market just after dinner. The market was just behind the hotel and stretched for several blocks in every direction. It is a weekly occurrence and you could buy anything you wanted. There were even banks of massage chairs set up for foot massages. The following morning we headed to the airport for our third city – Phuket.
Now I am not sure these two cities could be more different. Chiang Mai is agricultural, mountainous and quiet. Phuket on the other had is like Miami meets Vegas in Thailand. Where there were no buildings in Chiang Mai over five stories tall, Phuket had many hi-rises all along the coastline. The beaches were crowded and you could hear any language you wanted. Our hotel did not have beach access but it did have an infinity pool and a swim up bar. And that is the location of the second high point of the trip which was happy hour on our first day in Phuket.
I don’t know if it was the heat, the liquor, the fabulous pool or all of us just deciding at the same time to let our hair down, but it was just a blast. There was great conversation, splashing and silliness and a bonding that happens when a group travels together for two weeks. At one point, I was being goofy and twirling around on one of the granite stools in front of the swim up bar. I actually convinced one of the women in the group that the seats actually spun… Like I said, there was a little alcohol. In every single picture from that afternoon and early evening, everyone has a broad grin on their face and there was not a single negative comment. Okay, perhaps that’s not true. We did have a tough time getting the bartender to pay us a little more attention but that was so minor it’s barely worth mentioning… and yet I just did. The afternoon stretched into early evening and many of the concerns from earlier in the trip disappeared.
By this point in the trip, the photographic opportunities were winding down, but there are two more events worth mentioning, but that will be my next post. Until then…
Well finally, we have arrived in Chiang Mai – as far as blog topics. What a difference from Bangkok! Chiang Mai has a very small town feel to it even though there is a significant population. There is also a little bit of smog but because of the surroundings, it just didn’t feel like it did in Bangkok.
The first notable difference was our hotel. The rooms were built around a grand tamarind tree and the hotel buildings were only two stories tall. All dining was done poolside which is never a bad thing. The hotel front desk had a roof over it but was not enclosed and the staff of the hotel was small but exceedingly pleasant. There were several ways to access the hotel but perhaps the most charming was the formal entrance from the main road. The driveway itself was almost enclosed – there were very tall walls on either side of the drive. The pavement was cobblestone and there was bamboo planted in the margins. As the bamboo grew, it leaned over the drive from each side making an arched bamboo canopy. Within the bamboo there was subtle up-lighting from the ground and softer, billowy fabric light fixtures hung from above. The overall effect was enchanting.
On our first morning in Chiang Mai, Pranee, our fearless leader, took me and two other travelers out on an early morning exploratory walk. Okay, I’ll be honest – it turned from a casual walk to find interesting photo opportunities, into a full blown monk chase. Tacky but true. Now before going on about my somewhat stalker-ish mission to get casual monk photos, I’d like to make some observations about Buddhism in the West versus Buddhism in the East.Continue reading “Thailand and Chiang Mai”→
Behind the scenes, so to speak, I have been diligently working on the photographs of my recent trip to Thailand. This is no small feat since I took over 1800 photos in two weeks. What I have tried to do, simply for my sanity, is, for each blog post, to display a photo from the trip that is from the city we were visiting or the activity we were doing. Well, we were only in Bangkok for 3 days and I have really exhausted what I want to say about Bangkok but I have not gotten through processing all of the Bangkok photos. My head can’t move on to writing about a new city until I have finished with all of the photos of the current city.
While I could have very easily dumped all of my photos into Flickr for the world to see and not taken the time to do any editing, I am really trying to develop an on-line presence. As a result, I am being very critical and only posting photos that I find beautiful. And, in the same way that I am not posting link-backs to things I mention in my blog, I am trusting that the folks I traveled with have many of their own photos and are not relying on me to be the group historian.
I was dropped off at the footbridge on one side of the Ganga(Ganges) and told that the hotel was just on the other side. In my blind confidence, I told Mr. Negi that I did not need him to walk across the bridge with me to the hotel. At 5:45 am, the town was shuttered up tight and there was no red carpet to greet me. Initially, I had decided to sit and wait outside until a more decent hour to wake someone. It was windy and there was a slight chill in the air but the clothes I had were fine. While seated, I saw donkeys loaded with stone or gravel being herded to what I can only assume was a construction site. There were various individuals that walked by and lingered, but initially, I was simply enjoying the breeze on my face and the relative quiet. There was a hotel next door to my hotel that did have someone available to give me a room, but to be honest, my radar went up and I decided to politely decline. There was also a small storefront within twenty feet of where I was seated. Inside, an elderly man was sweeping, cleaning and in general just busy. Oddly, he struck me as authoritative and my instincts told me that if I really felt in danger and was vocal enough, he would come to my defense. I’ll admit there was a bit of a dicey moment when I had a concern about my personal safety, but that concern made me be a bit more assertive in trying to wake someone at the hotel to check me into my room.
After finally being ushered to my room and given a lesson on how to turn on the hot water tank and operate the heating unit, I took a brief nap and showered. While it’s one thing to travel to Africa and see poverty at a distance, (see previous blog here) we stayed at beautiful lodges that were at least familiar or accustomed to western standards. Yes, this hotel is clean, and that is very important, but it is not modern by any means. I had a little bit of fun trying to figure out which plug I could use for my hair dryer. Between the power converter, voltage rates and individual power switches, it was a game of trying different combinations until I found what worked. And while it is only one outlet, I am able to power my hair dryer and hot rollers. While that may seem vain, just accept that about me and know that if I feel good about how I look, I am more open to everything else around me. I am fairly confident that I will also be able to recharge things as I need.
Breakfast was in the open air restaurant at the top of the hotel. It overlooks the town and the Ganga. There was a remnant of monkey pooh near my table but other than that, it was fine. For the first time in a few years, I heard the loud boom of thunder and was able to see the storm move in, dump a mass amount of rain and then just as quickly move on. Breakfast was oatmeal with a banana and milk tea.
After breakfast, I headed out for a walk with my very large backpack strapped securely. The town itself has been a bit of a shock and I have now walked it from end to end. There are dozens of signs for yoga classes. There are open air markets and cows and dogs everywhere. There is also a huge amount of garbage. To say that I am an anomaly among the people here is somewhat of an understatement. I have seen less than a half dozen Caucasians among the hundreds of Indians I passed. My height and pale skin have made me noticeable but more than that, my build is different. I feel positively Amazonian amongst all these slender dark skinned people. I don’t know if I am looked upon with suspicion or disdain, but initial glances from the locals are not warm. This may be cultural and I do not want to make any sort of judgment, especially this early. But if I smile, for the most part, my smile is met in return.
By now I have no idea what time it is. I really tried to get assimilated to the time difference by staying up earlier today but after my walk I came back here to the room and surrendered to sleep. The noise from the street was constant until dark and I was bombarded with the sounds of horns blasting, vendors conversing, dogs barking and motor vehicles. It occurred to me more than once that as far as my spiritual journey, I may be more of a Tibetan monk girl rather than someone who can live so close to all this activity. The noise at times has been overwhelming. At one point I also heard chanting amplified by microphone. But tomorrow brings another day and hopefully a bit more comfort with what to do with myself. The goals include getting on the internet, visiting the ashram next door and taking more photos. In the meantime, here are some photos to tide you over.
Damyanti Biswas is an author, blogger, animal-lover, spiritualist. Her work is represented by Ed Wilson from the Johnson & Alcock agency. When not pottering about with her plants or her aquariums, you can find her nose deep in a book, or baking up a storm.