Blog: Chiang Mai Pt. 1 2011 > Six months living out of a small backpack…

Chiang Mai – Muay Thai and Markets

Thailand – the land of smiles.  And it’s true.  Everyone has a ready smile for you, even when you’re massacring their language.  Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, so I guess you could compare it to Birmingham in England.  Oh, except it’s beautiful and isn’t full of Brummies.  It’s over 700 years old, there are almost no high rise buildings, and I think others would agree with me that the best word to describe it is charming.  We were staying in the old town, within the old city walls, which has a very small town atmosphere to it.  Again we had chosen well with our guesthouse, having a huge room, en suite bathroom, balcony and great location, still within our budget.  Seriously, why do I spend so much on rent in London??

It’s full of history and temples, but also has a lot in the way of attractions and nightlife, either within the city or nearby.  On our first night in this wonderful city we went to see a Muay Thai boxing match.  I wondered how this fits in with the culture, having read that Thais are not a competitive race.  I had also read that they would rather tell a kind lie than hurt anybody’s feelings, and that they do not understand sarcasm.  This left be bereft – how on earth would I communicate with people without being my normal untactful, sarcastic self?

There were eight fights in total, four between boys, one lady fight, and two men fights.  Yes, this only totals seven.  The eighth match, before the title fight, was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.  Six rather portly men get in the ring, put blindfolds on, and proceed to pretty much roundhouse around the ring until they make contact.  The ultimate goal is to be the last man standing.  Pity the poor ref, who kept being caught in the middle of it all, and was knocked down more than once.

For the more serious fights, every contestant has a ritual of walking round the ring touching the ropes and bowing in each corner, as well as doing a stretching/praying/dancing exercise in the middle of the ring, I think to bless their endeavours.  All I could make out of the rules was that pretty much anything goes, but when fighters get too close and start hugging each other, the ref grabs them by the scruff of the neck and hurls them back to their own corners.

Apart from that the winner is decided either by a points system, or by knocking out their opponent.  The title fight was fantastic, it seemed to be the existing champion, who had got a little complacent if truth be known, vs the new young blood, and the young blood won!  But I did see a lot of sportsmanship, with all the fighters congratulating their opponent when they had been beaten, and taking them back to their corner for the trainer to give them both a drink of water.

The next day, and don’t ask me which day this was, I’ve completely lost track, we went to the Sunday market.  Oh wait, maybe it was Sunday then.  It’s a huge street market which they close the road off for, and it spills into the surrounding temples as well.  There are clothes, souvenirs, food, musicians, artists, a gun shooting range (see photos – I beat Mark!), the strange sight of a man in a very military looking uniform performing karaoke, and just all sorts of beautiful things, which unfortunately I couldn’t buy due to luggage and money limits.  But it’s always nice to window shop.  We found out one of the scams outside temples is women with small cages containing birds, who ask you to pay them to set them free.  They then go around the corner and catch them again!  Thankfully we only found this out by word of mouth, not by experience.

There are loudspeakers all along the road, from which pours forth social commentary.  I think we would call it propaganda.  And in the mornings and evenings when the national anthem is played, everybody stops in the street.  This completely freaked me out.  Have you ever seen the M. Night Shyamalan film “The Happening”?  If you haven’t, don’t bother, it is rubbish.  But in it, everyone in the street stands completely still for a few moments, before they start committing suicide.  It’s a moral tale on nature fighting back, by releasing something into the air to make humans kill ourselves off.  I thought for a horrible moment that that’s what was happening!  But then when I realised, my horror subsided, only to be replaced by the terrible urge to giggle, the one you always get in situations where the worst thing to do would be to laugh.  I managed to hold it in… just.

Chiang Mai – Bars and Temples

After Sunday market we walked back to our guesthouse, along which there were numerous little bars full of westerners.  When we saw one with the football results posted outside, we stopped to have a look, and when we saw that someone had written next to Liverpool’s winning score the phrase “jammy scouse b*******”, we decided this was the kind of place we would like to have a drink in.

The owner and the bar staff were all Thai, and again full of smiles and friendly chatter, but most of the clientele were pretty well inebriated older white men, playing pool or sharing their woes with one another.  One of them christened me Mary Potter – I think because of my glasses.  So I beat him at pool as payback.  I also beat Mark… I think.  We were pretty drunk.  Another of them poured out his tale of woe about his lost love Lucy.  And another told me that he once went to Laos for a couple of days, ended up staying for five, and nearly got married to a nymphomaniac.  Which proves my theory: if you get a man drunk he’ll tell you anything.

There are lots of these little bars around Chiang Mai.  What I found nice was they were Thai run bars, and most of the people frequenting them live in Chiang Mai, so it’s a real mixture of east meets west.  It’s more fun, and as a tourist you feel you’re experiencing more of local life than you would if you went to one of the bigger, soulless tourist bars.  Oh and I got to pet a pooch as well.  That’s not a pun, I really did!  I chased him round the bar until he allowed me to pick him up.  You can see the photo.  He looked like a little Ewok.  The local girls looked at me like I was having a fit.

Next day we felt a bit seedy, so took a long walk around Chiang Mai, stopping to look at some of the many temples or Wats dotted around the place.  They all give a sense of peace, but it’s difficult to really appreciate them without knowing the history and modern day application of the religion.  I started to read a book called “The Teachings of Buddha” which was in one of our guesthouses.  I guess it’s the equivalent to us putting bibles in hotels.  But I didn’t get very far as we were only there for one night.  I think I’ll try to pick it up somewhere though as it would give a good background to the structures and statues you see in each one, and the way in which people worship.

There is as in most places we have visited the interesting contrast between east and west in terms of shopping and food.  You have the traditional food stalls by the side of the road, and right next door will be a restaurant advertising western food, such as bacon and eggs and the like.  And there are weekly markets as well as a daily night market, with stalls so full of vibrant colour, selling everything under the sun.  Again right next door to the night market is a large comparatively boring indoor shopping mall.

The culmination of our temple visiting was to head up to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple.  It’s the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, dating from 1383, and it sits on on Doi Suthep, a hill to the north-west of the city.  By tradition, its site was chosen by placing a relic of Buddha on an elephant’s back and letting it roam until it trumpeted, then circled, and finally laid down and died.  You take a taxi or tuk tuk up the hill, then walk 309 steps up to the temple.  It’s a good workout.  Before you enter you have to remove your shoes and make sure you are suitably attired, ie no short shorts, and shoulders covered.  You also have to keep your head lower than the images of Buddha, and the monks walking around the temple, as a sign of respect.  Asian men are quite short.  Mark had sore knees.

It’s a magnificent temple, filled with pagodas, statues, bells and shrines.  Visitors will either actively worship, of for us non Buddhists, can wander round at leisure taking it all in.  The most holy area of the temple is the original copper plated chedi, which is a mound like structure containing Buddhist relics.  The outer area has one wall entirely lined in large bells.  We didn’t have the courage to go and ring them all, tempting though it was.  We did bang a big gong though!  There is a huge terrace like area from which you get the best view of the city on a clear day.  We had timed it to arrive just before dusk and it was a bit hazy, so the photos haven’t come out that well, but it felt fantastic, like we were sitting on top of the world.

We wound our way back down the hill to the city feeling thoroughly spiritual, in our red taxi van.  These are invaluable in and around Chiang Mai as well as the tuk tuks, as they tend to be a bit cheaper and you can stretch out a bit more.  Anyone going in the same direction will jump on and off.  They’re like big covered pickup trucks with benches in the back, and a very open view of the road.  It’s not as unsafe as it sounds, there are handles to hold on to.  Generally the locals like to be last in, first out, so they’re more likely to fall out anyway.  But we did also take a romantic tuk tuk ride across the river and down to the night market for dinner.  I’ll make the most of it for now.  After all, I can’t expect all that romance crap after we’re married.

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