Friday, December 30, 2011

A Lad in Saen

January 13, 2010

The dawn light was still gray as we climbed the steep stairs of Wat Jom Khao. The temple hall was decorated with paintings of Buddhist lore--most of them quite surreal. The male figures had the cheesy mustaches of a silent film villain, and the Buddha himself was quite ugly, his face old and out of proportion. Beside the temple was a low squat tower. From this hilltop, we could watch the sun rise behind the old French fort, watch the light take hold in Thailand across the water.

Back down the hill, the monks were finishing their final alms rounds. About a dozen women were kneeling in the street. Upon a certain verbal cue in the monks chant, they all simultaneously began to pour water from soft, shapely vessels.

Miki and I hustled up our own breakfast, then walked down a slope to the Mekong that served as the border. We were processed out of Laos and jumped into a waiting pirogue to make the crossing. It was ridiculous how easy it all was, how casual everyone was. Infected with this spirit I tried to talk the woman at Thai immigration into giving us 18 day visas rather than the usual 15. She seemed to go for it, until an official little man in a starched brown uniform popped his head in the window and explained (politely, but slightly aggressively) how to pay the overstay fee. Fifteen days it was.

We took a song taa-ou, following the Mekong to Chiang Saen. we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the quiet little town, past the old ruins which were much like those in Ayuthaya, usually a broad platform of raised brick, with a few chedi or a seated Buddha at the end. Unlike the segregation of the ruins into parks as at the old capital, here the town had been built to encompass them, houses and shops constructed right up to the leaf-covered grounds. Three of the old city walls remained, the fourth having crumbled into the Mekong long ago. We walked the north wall, under large trees growing through gaps in the brick.

The waterfront was lined completely with Chinese boats, their crews loading them with various goods. We watched one group carrying 5 cases of Red Bull, holding a chopstick in one hand which the foreman would take as a means of keeping count.

We spent the better part of the day at Wat Chedi Leung. The chedi is --was-- massive and furry with weeds. There was a variation on the broken platform theme in that this one had had a roof built over it to protect the large gold Buddhas it housed. A group of monks from Chiang Rai came and filled the floor with their orange forms. Two guys had unmistakable gang tattoos, and one was probably a ladyboy, very delicate in face and gesture. I found myself wondering why, if they didn't take food after noon, were so many so fat? After a brief chant, they were off again, filing in pairs through gaps in the ruins. The head monk came and found us, a nice young man of 24, who seemed eager to practice his English. Such a dichotomy, this young guy overseeing such an ancient site. Adjacent to the main hall was a small outdoor cafe called 'Heaven on Earth.' It did have a semblance of such, with thoughtfully arranged flowers, colorful art, and comfy chairs in which to pass a couple of hours.

We had a massage while the light faded, followed by a simple meal by the river. Then began the worst night of the entire trip. Our quiet, peaceful bungalow by day became the center of the party by night. Voices drifted from the vendors across the street, eventually drowned out by the thump of 3 or 4 competing sound systems. Our pipes must've backed up at some point for the air in the room became thick with the reek of raw sewage. No, I don't believe I can recommend the Chiang Saen Guest House...

On the turntable: Nirvana, "Bleach"
On the nighttable: John Nichols, "On the Mesa"

No comments: