Absorbed into the culture of Chiang Mai
I wanted to go somewhere on vacation somewhere that would free my mind from the pressures of business, and stay in place that did not remind me of a hotel. I would have stayed in a tent in the jungle, except my wife Susan was with me, and being a creature of comfort, I was in no position to compromise.
We chose the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Chiang Mai. As the most significant city in northern Thailand, it is situated 400 miles north of Bangkok, far enough away to escape the hustle and bustle, congestion and madness of the capital. Sitting on the Ping River amongst some of the highest mountains in the country, its historical importance on an ancient trade route, and a major center for handcrafted goods and woodcarving, is fast becoming a tourist attraction. There is however a mandate to preserve its heritage.
After a brief layover in Bangkok and a ninety minute flight, we were in a taxi to the hotel. The Mandarin Oriental Dhara Devi in Chiang Mai is spread over 60 acres of natural landscape, including paddy fields and exotic plantations. As we entered the premises, we thought we were in the wrong place, maybe on a tour of one of the local grand temples. Before I was even checked in, my wish to stay in a place that did not remind me of a hotel was granted.
The hospitality of the Thai people is well documented, and the greeting we received was gracious and super efficient. We enjoyed a cold towel and a traditional cocktail while being educated about the resort, and then transported to our villa by golf cart through picturesque and immaculately maintained landscape. The colonial architecture of the villas is influenced from the history of the Lanna region and neighboring Myanmar, China and Laos. Our two story villa overlooked a large paddy field with all of the comforts of home. In fact, I was already thinking about an extended stay. Downstairs was the living area and upstairs was the bedroom, bathroom and wet bar. Each level has its own patio with sun loungers. A wooden walkway led out to a gazebo which stood above the paddy field. All very secluded and surrounded by foliage. It was all sublimely peaceful apart from the unique and pleasant sounds from the assumed local birdlife, as none were in view.
After taking an outdoor shower with a few friendly bugs, we decided to dress up a little for the evening ahead. We were chauffeured in a golf cart to La Grand Lanna restaurant for some authentic Thai food. It was not crowded, and we were strategically seated close to the stage. Immediately after we ordered, the Thai musicians and dancers appeared. It was as though we had the restaurant to ourselves and the entertainment was arranged just for us. Everything about the evening was first class. It was about a 10 minute walk back to our villa, during which time we saw no other humans. All of a sudden it seemed like we had the resort to ourselves.
After 10 hours of sleep, I woke up invigorated, made myself a cup of tea, and sat in the gazebo watching the rice farmers at work. They seemed quite content in going about their business at their own pace in an environment of unmatched peacefulness.
I borrowed a bicycle and a map and became my own tour guide. The resort had not once deviated away from the architecture of the past, and was not recognizable as a hotel. I had found my Garden of Eden, and a tranquility and inner peace that I have never felt before. After venturing down most of the roads in the resort complex I was back at my villa, sweating somewhat from the inescapable humidity. It is not unusual to have four or five showers a day in Thailand, and I was already on my second.
There was a choice of activities in and around the area, and although we had decided to stay close to the resort, there was enough to keep us occupied if we decided to venture outside our realm of total relaxation. Later in the afternoon, I decided to participate in a session of meditation, a daily activity open to guests in one of the temple like buildings. There were only two of us plus the instructor. It was a perfect setting for such a peaceful gathering of the minds. I had never done this before, so I struggled to maintain a comfortable crossed-leg sitting position for 5 minutes at a time. Keeping still and relaxing is a key to successful meditation, and it wasn't until the instructor asked us to lie flat on our backs that I could really space out, therefore enabling a consistent blood flow through my body, rather than being folded in various positions like a human origami project. Deep breathing, stretching, and focusing the mind on emptiness actually made me feel quite good. An hour passed by just as I had mastered the art of training my body to do what I wanted it to do. It was the end of the session - to be continued the next day if I wished.
When I returned to my villa, I made some tea to liven myself up a little in fear that if I lay down on the bed I would be asleep within a few minutes and for some time.
Before we left the villa for dinner that evening, we signed up for activities the next day. I was going to help the farmers in the paddy fields and Susan was going to take some cooking lessons from the head chef of the Mandarin Oriental. It seemed like I drew the short straw, but at that time, I was in the frame of mind that I would try anything that the resort could throw at me.
Our golf cart limo promptly turned up at our villa within minutes of calling reception to say we were ready for dinner. We decided to have a pre-dinner cocktail at the Horn Bar, an extraordinary lounge encapsulating the true essence of the mysteries of Asia. Every wall displayed masks depicting mythological characters from Myanmar, some of which are used in Thai dances. Subtle red and purple lighting emphasized the carved wood furnishings creating an unusual intimate atmosphere. We nearly filled up on snacks before we went for dinner, as the ambience of the place did what it was supposed to do, keep us in there for a while.
We were sleeping so soundly at night, probably because we were stress-free as a result of us being absorbed into the culture of Chiang Mai.
Promptly at eight thirty, my farming clothes arrived. The top resembled hospital scrubs, with pants to match. Long rubber boots reached my knee caps, and with a straw hat, I looked like one of the locals, although I didn't sound like one. Susan was preparing for her day in the kitchen, so she was excited about learning some Thai cooking techniques.
I was golf carted to the paddy fields where I was introduced to my fellow workers, including Boonchop, a pink buffalo recently purchased by the resort from a nearby farmer. I was told that the name Boonchop was defined as "happy or pleased to provide". He was treated like one of the family, which is not surprising as I understood he cost about $10,000. I planted a complete row of partially grown rice in the mud below about six inches of water, making sure that the majority of the plant was above the surface and in a straight line. Apart from getting caked in mud, it was an educational couple of hours. A few snippets of information I learned on my first day on the job: Thailand grows more rice than other country in the World; there are thousands of different varieties (there is even a special plant for sticky rice); there are many phases in its growth where it has to be re-planted from one paddy field to another. They try to protect the rice as best they can from the local bird population by randomly placing scarecrows around the paddy fields. These resembled farmers in a mode of a Thai greeting, referred to as the wai, where the palms are pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. In general it worked, although one or two species of birds had figured out that they were inanimate objects, and felt free to feast
After I had completed my row, it was time for some music, so three us sat under a gazebo with some classic Thai instruments and jammed using a Saw-U, a Seung, and a Sa Lor. That is, a Thai violin, a four string instrument like a guitar, and a two string bow. The session wasn't recorded for a pay per view special, however it was a lot of fun. I said goodbye to Boonchop and my colleagues, and returned to my villa for a lengthy shower.
Susan returned to the villa after her cooking lessons. She is a good cook anyway, but the experience she gained from the head chef at the resort, and her excitement of learning new cooking techniques, led me to think that we would be spending a few dollars of some new kitchen hardware and eating a lot of Thai food when we returned home. The food she actually prepared was saved in the kitchen for us later, if we decided to finish what she started. We had no plans for dinner, as was pretty much the case for the entirety of our stay. The restaurants were there when we needed them, in so much that we felt like if they were closed, they would open them up for us if we asked.
We went to La Grand Lanna again, but this time we ordered our own food, however we did purchase a bottle of the local wine, a Monsoon Valley cabernet. We didn't want to feel like we were eating and being entertained for nothing. Susan had cooked fish cakes and some green curry, which was served to us as a normal meal would have been if we had ordered off the menu. Some of the ingredients that she used to make the food, specifically certain herbs and spices are virtually impossible to find back in the USA. Any repeat performance by Chef Susan back home was unlikely.
We walked back to the villa to burn off some of the calories we had just consumed. It was a beautiful warm evening and a clear night sky that was filled with an abundance of stars, which provided us the light to guide us back over the walkways through the paddy fields.
It was our intention to make it a lazy final day at the resort; however it didn't turn out that way. Feeling somewhat invigorated and ambitious in the morning, I registered for a Thai kick boxing lesson and a spa treatment afterwards. It seemed like a good combination in a logical order under the assumption that my aching muscles would be in need of some therapy.
After a hearty breakfast we found a couple of well padded lounge chairs poolside, and were greeted with cold towels to help alleviate the heat and humidity. There we stayed for a couple of hours taking regular dips in the magnificent pool which was elevated over sprawling paddy fields.
One o'clock arrived too soon and I had an appointment in the sports center. Greeting me were two professional Muay Thai boxers dressed ready for action. Muay Thai boxing, the national sport of Thailand is referred to as the science of eight limbs because hands, shins, elbows and knees are used in combat. They handed me a pair of shorts, however they were too small, as were two other pairs they gave me. I had to wear something, so I settled for a tight fitting pair that was the least embarrassing for my svelte figure. Once I had the basic moves of left, right, kick perfected, I was encouraged to relentlessly attack. Apart from when I was in my teens and practiced judo for a number of years, this was the only other time I had participated in a martial art. After an hour of uncoordinated boxing, I was pretty exhausted, so I wished my teachers well, and returned to my lounge chair by the pool to rest my aching limbs.
Later in the afternoon, I had an appointment at the Dheva Spa, named after the Star Goddess, the guardian of longevity and spiritual enlightenment. I had my own treatment suite furnished with exquisite Thai furniture and fresh locally grown flowers. It was like having my own private health club. The massage was so relaxing that I fell to sleep for about fifteen minutes. For me, it was the ultimate in pampering and relaxation.
I cycled back to the villa in a trance. Susan and I were completely chilled out that we felt we didn't have the energy to go anywhere that evening. We called the restaurant and asked them if we could have dinner brought to us, and have it set up inside the gazebo. Of course they were happy to oblige.
As the sun went down, the catering staff arrived. They placed candles around the perimeter of the gazebo and on the table. It was a perfect set up as though we were dining in some exclusive restaurant. There was no light emanating from the paddy fields, so apart from our candlelit gazebo, we were in complete darkness. As I moved some items around on the table, I accidently set alight a napkin by placing it on top of one of the candles. Fortunately a major disaster was averted by dousing the flames with some water on the table. We slowly paced ourselves on some spicy curries and a couple of bottles Monsoon Valley. As the evening progressed, the wildlife nightshift presented a new set of sound effects, some of which were quite profound.
I asked Susan to listen to the sound of one bird that was quite pronounced. It must have been close by, maybe on one of the trees adjacent to the gazebo. Some birds have the capability of mimicking humans, and some even have a small vocabulary of words. If this one was the former, I cannot be held responsible for its language. Maybe the Monsoon Valley distorted my hearing a little; however, we both heard the same words. The words it said over and over were "Fxxx me, Fxxx me". They were quite clear and regularly repeated over the next hour. We couldn't see the bird to identify it, and although we are inquisitive people, we had no intention of asking any of the staff what type of bird said such naughty words. We laughed for a long time. We were completely full so we blew out the candles, covered the remains of the food with the tablecloth and decided to polish off the second bottle of wine by relaxing on the lounge chairs on the patio and view the clear night sky. The "Fxxx me" bird was still in fine voice.
It wasn't long before Susan alerted me to the lights in the sky. There were five or six bright yellowish lights hovering high in the sky. They were moving slowly and over the space of twenty minutes they gradually became more distant until disappearing. I had never seen anything like it before and had no explanation for it other than they must have been UFOs. At this time, I was questioning whether the Monsoon Valley had anything to do with us hallucinating. Maybe it explained why the bird in the tree spoke like it did. It was obviously time to get some rest, and analyze everything in the morning.
I was on the computer shortly after waking up. I typed in "UFO in Chiang Mai" and up popped the answer. What we saw were sky lanterns, which are made up of oiled rice paper and bamboo, and contain a small candle that heats the air inside and causes it to rise. They are typically used for celebrations and it just so happens that there was a wedding in the resort grounds the previous night. At least fifty percent of last night's mysteries were solved.
As hard as it was to leave, it was time to check out and head back to Bangkok. At the airport, reality hit me. I woke up. The last few days had seemed like a dream. I have never felt so immersed into a culture and actually had forgotten about the World outside. The Mandarin Oriental at Chiang Mai and all of its architectural beauty portrays the ultimate compliment to Thailand, by providing guests with something that is so un-hotel like, a place that exudes tranquility and transforms the mind into a state of total relaxation and euphoria.
See you again soon.
Published on 5/5/09