Wednesday, November 17, 2010

PEDALLING AROUND WITH FRESH EYES

The air was clear this morning, the huge bulk of Doi Sutep etched grey-blue against the paler western sky, and the breeze cool. I love the early hours here in Chiang Mai. The sun gives light but doesn’t bake, and that light is glowing and optimistic somehow.

No I’m not out for a run in the early mornings here, I am bicycling. I found a “lady’s bike”, an inelegant Chinese-made Raleigh one-speed with a black metal basket on the front and a black padded cushion on a rack over the back tire (handy for carrying a passenger). I’ve had it for two days now. So that means I’ve had two mornings of exploring routes I don’t know and places I haven’t been, or just rarely.

Yesterday I pedalled up the river, roughly northward, for about 10 km, then crossed a small bridge and headed back toward town with all the morning traffic. No, it wasn’t awful (well apart from the extra exhaust), because Thai drivers yield and are aware, rather than self-righteous. They give way for me, in that unbelievable road dance that is the norm here, in the same way as they do for a streetvendor pushing a cart, or as they would have for an oxcart not many years ago.

About this time last year I wrote about the yielding suppleness of the street traffic in Muang Mai Market here, the amazingness of no yelling or anger at the complications of getting a large truck unloaded while others are trying to get past, etc. And now I’m enjoying that same suppleness in the drivers I’m with on the roads as I pedal along, much more slowly than almost any of the traffic. It helps that there are slow scooters and people on small motorcycles loaded with schoolkids. Everyone is in it together, in the process of trying to move forward in traffic, and noone seems to be insisting on having the right of way.

What a welcome contrast with North American-style driving! There is no angry tooting of horns for example, just a rare horn in the case where a driver is tooting a warning,

Today I rode up Thapae road and across the old city and then into what I think of as the “uptown” part of Chiang Mai, with more modern shops and big two-way roads. I was looking for a Burmese restaurant I’d glimpsed a few days ago off Neimenhamen Road. It was there, but not yet open, so I had a plate of rice with two toppings: sliced squash tossed with a little egg; and ground pork fried with chopped long beans in a kind of red curry gravy enhanced greatly by fine slivers of lime leaf. It was a great start to my day. I headed back through Chiang Mai University’s leafy roads and through the old city to Chiang Mai Gate, where I stopped for a Thai coffee, “kafe ron” hot coffeee with a little sweetened condensed milk. It always comes with a second glass, this one filled with clear green tea, a chaser for the coffee. The same woman I went to all last winter is in the same place by the gate,. She greeted me with a smile (I haven’t been here for eight months) and poured my coffee before I’d asked for it.

It’s a luxury, this returning to the familiar. And it’s wonderful to, at the same time, be engaging differently with the city, thanks to the bicycle that extends my ambit, and to new and evolving friendships that warm my landscape.

This weekend is Loy Kratong, a huge festival at the November full moon each year. I haven’t been here for Loy Kratong since Dom was two, which is twenty-one years, yikes! “Kratongs” are small round floats, maybe dinner plate size, originally made of folded banana leaves or other leaves, with a candle and maybe some flowers as offerings. At dusk on the day, people traditionally take their kratong to the river or to a stream or down to the sea, light the candle, then set the kratong afloat. It carries away anything bad from the previous year and brings good luck for the coming months.

Loy Kratong has now become a huge elaborate affair here in Chiang Mai. Businesses and other organizations make huge kratongs, and lazy individuals can buy pre-made ones of course. There’s a big parade too, at some point.

I remember from years ago being frightened by the bang-bang-bang of strings of friecrackers tossed into the street everywhere, mostly by young guys of course. That noise and scariness is now hugely magnified, I’ve been told. So the best place for me in the evening this weekend is not going to be on one of the bridges or down by the water, with crowds and firecrackers and wildness, but up high. From here, in the apartment with friends, I’ll watch the fire-heated paper lanterns ascend into the dark sky....well, not so dark, because that moon will be fat and full!

I hope your full moon is rich with pleasure, and with anticipation too.

2 comments:

tcb said...

Great write-up! I'm here by way of Derk Richardson, and in Chiang Mai for the next few weeks. Heading up to Mae Jo this afternoon to see the mass ascension of lanterns into the night sky. What's the name of that Burmese place?

naomi said...

I don't know the bname of the place I mentioned, but it's on Neimenhamen opposite soi 13 and there's a big sign "Burmese restaurant and library. And I've found another Burmese place, called Hmwe.