Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rai and the Sky

January 15, 2010

...we awoke before dawn to catch the morning market. Over a breakfast of Chinese frybread and hot soymilk we watched the hill people sell their textiles and jewelry. A couple of old monks were on their begging rounds. I waved over a couple of guys I'd seen yesterday, one Japanese and one American. I'd noticed them when they'd arrived since the girl they were traveling with had quickly jumped atop their song taa-ou to get the bags, swinging up one sexy bare leg for leverage.

At 7:30, we climbed into our own song taa-ou with three hairdressers from Bangkok. Our truck twisted and weaved back down the mountain. A gate like a torii arch was an obvious hint of an Akha village below. I smiled at a nearby sign written with, "Agro Tourist Bureau." We stopped at an army checkpoint, its soldiers on the lookout for drugs. Men in uniform were huddled around a pot cooking rice. One soldier strode across the grounds, and I noticed one of the hairdressers nudge another. Miki and I went to see what the soldiers were eating, and they offered us each a rice ball dipped in chili sauce. It was the best rice of the trip. I looked up to notice the hairdressers giggling and filming us from the truck.

We drove for the next hour, picking up passengers along the way. By the time we stopped we had 10 aboard, plus 2 infants. Our connecting truck wasn't carrying quite as many passengers, but was cramped nonetheless. It let us out in Chiang Rai, near Wat Jet Yot, where we grabbed a cheap room at Orchid Guest House. We walked over to Orn bookshop, housed on the second floor of a quiet suburban home. Its layout and stock would rival any used bookstore in a comparably sized college town. After popping into the wat, we walked through town to a restaurant on the western edge, reputed to be the best local food in town. Nothing on the menu appealed, so we ate instead in a quaint cafe nearby. We continued our ramble, no plan in mind.

Near the river, we ran into Thom, a Frenchman we had met in Chiang Saen while we had been sitting in the street waiting for our ride north. He'd invited us to his home to stay, but as his village was 25 km out of town, we begged off. (We were to meet him yet again in front of a bar.) We passed the vocational college, the streets filled with girls in their school uniforms, which included long, hip-hugging sarongs. Nearby was the hilltribe museum, a simple yet informative intro to the subject. A group of tourists there were in the final preparations before setting off on a trek.

After a quick coffee at Cabbages and Condoms downstairs, we walked over to Wat Singh, with its beautifully carved doors and puzzling murals of Krishna. Outside, two cyclo drivers napped in their machines. Down the street we saw a man looking through a broken piece of glass burned black. I suddenly remembered the eclipse. He gave us a peek, the sun with a large chunk bitten out. By the time we got to Wat Phra Kaew, the sky was dimming as if a thunderstorm was rolling in. The temple grounds were lush and shaded, the buildings masterpieces of reddish wood and overlapping roofs. The pieces in the museum were wonderful, and I appreciated the fact that it was free. The real gem was the jade Buddha, housed in a lovely building that had a massive and apparently ancient turtle in its pond. The Buddha itself was magical in the way it captured the green light.

We zigzagged around town, occasionally looking up at the eclipse through my sunglasses lenses smeared with Tiger Balm. Later, I saw a well decorated truck with a half dozen people in the back, driving slowly past the market, speaker blaring, "The end is near! The end is near!" Past the mosque, through the market, and back to the tourist ghetto of Wat Jet Yot.

Miki and I split up, me in search of an imported beer after seeing two Germans enjoying a Weitzen earlier in the day. Afterward, I compared prices at the massage parlors around. In front of one, a sexy middle-aged woman took my arm and tried to pull me inside. Based on how she and the others were (barely) dressed, I suppose they have a more extensive repertoire than the others.

Later, we went to the night market. The food stalls were built around a large courtyard filled with plastic tables and chairs. Over food and a beer, it was a pleasant way to pass a warm summer night in January, under perfect weather. On stage, a musician was playing music that was vaguely Hawai'ian. He was later joined by a second guitarist and a drummer, the latter over-miked and playing a monotonous rhythm on congas with sticks. The singer's way of singing in his native Thai made it sound like the mic had a short. Between sets, a half dozen girls danced in a trad style, their hand swirling and turning to hypnotize, lulling us into peaceful warm places of our own making...

On the turntable: Deep Purple, "Purple Passages"
On the nighttable: Oliver La Farge, Laughing Boy"

No comments: