Chiang Mai: Mekong and Muay Thai
If Bangkok was our first taste of Thailand, the train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was our first distinctly “Thai experience.” “Mai pen rai” is a Thai phrase we have been instructed to embrace. Basically, it means “C’est la vie,” or less poetically, “whatever.” In Thailand you have to learn to go with the flow, fast. Our train was scheduled to take a monotonous 14 hours, an eternity after just having flown all the way from Chicago to Bangkok. The plan was to drink some Mekong whiskey and pass out with the help of our handy friend, Lunesta. Initially, it worked like a charm. After passing out just after 11 o’clock, we awoke the next morning at 9:00, only two hours to go until Chiang Mai! Not quite- we didn’t pull in until just after 1:00, making the ride upwards of 18 hrs. Were there technical difficulties, adverse weather conditions, a scheduling problem? No, it just simply didn’t arrive on time- Mai pen rai.
Chiang Mai is heralded as the “cultural capital” of Thailand. A former capital of Thailand, it’s lauded as the place to get hand crafts, encounter elephants, tigers, ride bamboo boats, jungle trek to remote tribes, learn Thai arts like cooking and massage. We were thrilled at the prospect of getting here, it sounded too good to be true. It was. To be honest, it would be much more aptly described if given the name “tourist capital;” but, perhaps those titles necessarily go hand in hand, maybe we had unfair expectations. The city itself is not particularly good looking, nor does it have some magical ambiance. It’s full of guest houses, eateries with large glossy photos or English menus, travel agents, and all the wide eyed tourists that perpetuate these institutions. Though something like 1/1,000th of the size of Bangkok, Chiang Mai seems to have just as many massage parlors, cooking schools, and girlfriend bars and has more (per capita) night bazaars, packed with merchants offering every souvenir imaginable: from wooden crickets, to scarves, DVDs, beads, other jewelry, Buddhist memorabilia, pictures, traditional clothing, fans, anything you could want.
To be honest, after visiting these meccas of mercantilism, there seemed to be very little to do in Chiang Mai. The go to plans are generally to go to an English speaking bar and have conversations with marauding backpackers. You know the chat- “I am so open minded,” “I am so adventurous,” “I have so much wisdom from traveling,” “I party so much harder than anyone else, “I have been everywhere: India, Cambodia, Laos, Africa, etc. etc.” “no one else gets it except ME.” If this conversation doesn’t sound super appealing “YOU just don’t get it, maaaaan.” Furthermore, we didn’t find a whole lot of appeal in being surrounded by Caucasians while in Thailand, or in being subjected to farang treatment and prices as a result. We were just looking for a place to sit, inconspicuously, listening, drinking a Chang or Singha beer. A place where we would make some mistakes and be laughed at some, but ultimately come away having been taking care of- given the tasting menu, having enjoyed a drink with the chef, leaving abuzz with the inebriating effects of local booze and local pseudo-conversation. But to find this paradise, there was an angrier road to be taken.
Our travel on the road less trodden started with a full blown acceptance of inhibition. This of course, starts with Mekong whiskey and proceeds with the most Thai activity we could think of, the country’s national sport, Muay Thai. Our first Thursday was the first truly successful night in the city. After some Mekong cocktails at home, we started on the familiar search for dinner. As we shuffled through the crowded night bizarre, we came upon a glorious display of fresh fish, categorized like books in a library in neatly stacked tanks. The decision was obvious, my Ninja Eagle instincts immediately kicked in and Cengiz already had the camera rolling- I was fishing for dinner. The snapper were bright red and big, so that’s right where I headed. Unfortunately, they are stronger than I anticipated. I went for the one handed lightning snatch and immediately scored; unfortunately, the strong little bugger swam right out of my grasp. After several similar outcomes, I was forced to go with the less spectacular, but more reliable, two handed gangster grab. I secured dinner on the first try, holding the trophy up for the camera. Of course, in my giddy state of excitement, I relaxed the death grab and the snapper flew out of my hands, clear across the street, finally coming to rest near the curb. It was demoralizing, but not even close to enough to permanently put a damper on the hunt. I quickly collected the fish and submitted it to a culinary expert who BBQed it whole. I picked the creature clean, even eating the delicious popcorn tasting eye, and perhaps several of its ribs.
The night proceeded gleefully as we joined some new friends in a stroll of the night bizarre, while imbibing more delicious Mekong, before finally settling on a game or two of billiards at a local pub. The game seemed to be dragging on, with no end in sight, as no one’s aim was true. Providence delivered us from the potentially embarrassing decision to abandon the game, as a third party approached. Two Muay Thai fighters came searching for tips (the ring in the plaza outside suggested that perhaps there were some show fights for patrons earlier that night). We weren’t willing to tip for something we hadn’t seen, but Cengiz was more than willing to compensate one of the fighters for graciously giving me intimate knowledge of a Muay Thai fight.
Shortly there after, I found myself in a rind. Gloved up, shorts on, adrenaline pumping. The fight is kind of a blur. Now, I wont say alcohol doesn’t attribute to some of that, but I mean blur in a different way. It was fast, fluid, and rhythmic. As a result, there isn’t a multitude of momentary memories; instead, there is a one massive memory of the 3 rounds as single entity. My kicks weren’t individual movements, they were extensions of what was going on, of his movements, of my own steps. I think the video will show this perfectly, there is a Kung Fu smoothness to attack in Muay Thai, me on the offensive quickly turned into me on the mat- not from a defensive kick, but from an offensive one, because the fluidity of the attacks opened up for a momentary attack opportunity for my well trained opponent. This half poetic description should not deceive too much, I am not some converted Muay Thai lover, or newly formed philosophical disciple. It’s just the honest to goodness truth of how I remember the experience. That being said, I also remember it in 5 simple words: “I got my ass kicked.” There are two distinct halves to the fight. The first, me being very aggressive, landing two surprisingly solid blows, and abusing the lack of effort this full fledged warrior was putting fourth. The second, after forgetting about the danger of lower limbs (even though he repeatedly tried to remind me), was him pummeling my ribs into pulp until I succumbed. I’m pretty sure it looked pretty bad, I don’t think I made a single aggressive move after he one inch punched the wind out of my chest and as a result, was a walking dummy. Cengiz’s repeated calls to “knock him out,” probably helped to spur the boxer on. I realize it may sound crazy to call “getting beat up” a great experience, but in a way it was. Most people don’t even get the chance to see a Muay Thai fight, let alone participate in one. That being said, breathing and sitting up were chores in the immediate days to follow and I still wake up a bit sore after a night of sleep.
The following night, we deduced that he best treatment for Muay Thai hangover was more Muay Thai- a “hair of the dog” approach to the pain. So, we once again grabbed our violent amigos, Tom and Gina, and after again partaking in some Mekong cocktails, this time headed to a professional fight. I hoped watching someone else get their ass kicked would make me feel better.
The arena was nothing spectacular, a gritty hanger, surrounded on four sides by stands. One, fenced off for farang tourists, another for Thai betters, and two sections for run of the mill Thai fans. The Thai betting section was as cool as you’re imagining- men piled on top of each other, craning their necks for a good view, shouting, smoking, and throwing around baht. Basically, (as was hoped) a barely toned down version of Cambodian roulette gamblers in “Deer Hunter.” This is the complete opposite of the farang section atmosphere. There is some minor betting, but for the most part, viewers more resembled theater goers, quiet observation with sporadic whispering with one’s neighbor. It was as if we were watching the fight in a library, I was very confused and did not follow decorum well. That night featured 12 fights and the skills displayed were impressive, going far beyond (duh) my experience from the night before. The brutality was enough to excite any UFC or boxing fan and there was enough blood for vapid WWE junkies. But, to be honest, my interest waned some. I would prefer just a couple of fights- perhaps a warm up or two, just to peak interest for a main event. With 12 fights, you need the adrenaline level and endurance of an X-Gamer to stay pumped for each blow.
The night ended with a humorous wrestling match that may or may not have involved sunglasses, a cap, the peoples’ elbow, and a choke out. I was not happy to be woken up. Tom was a worthy opponent, but after being slaughtered the night before, I took care of business quickly and savagely and escorted him out the door.
To be fair, Chiang Mai does have some amazing cultural sites, which make daily walks very enjoyable. Our favorite is situated just down the street. It’s one of the oldest Wats we have yet encountered: completely made of stone, crumbling, pyramidal, and surrounded by basilisks and elephants. You can feel the more superstitious and violent spirituality of its creators, who were clearly very influenced by the Northern jungle culture shared with Myanmar and Laos. It is not the most lauded of all Chiang Mai Wats, in fact that honor goes to Wat Doi Suthep atop the ever watchful mountain that hovers over the city. Second is just north of where we are staying and has yet to be explored; and, on a purposeless tuk tuk ride recently, we discovered a couple more ancient, stone sites to check out.
The temple expeditions should be great, because to be honest, I’m Muay Thaied out for a moment. Though I know I will be craving the combat soon enough, I need a break. It is very cool and thus far, one of the highlights of Thailand, but it adds a chaotic level of unpredictable pain to my life that I am willing to abate for a while. I purchased some bootleg DVDs (an unwatched legend- “The Sopranos,” a sentimental (and unfinished) abroad friend- “Over There,” and a perennial favorite- “Eastern Promises.”) that can provide entertainment on some more mild nights of drinks and dinner and home early. Additionally, a British colleague gave me the media gift of a lifetime, 200 GB of TV and movies (that may or may not have been legally attained) that includes “The Wire,” “Inglorious Bastards,” and “The Hangover.” Now, I’m not saying we are going to stop adventuring or exploring Thailand, a geographic and cultural playground, but the reality that there is work 5 days a week, that I have a health insurance plan, and a bank account has landed. This is home now. Books are once again something that will have to provide entertainment (which I couldn’t be more thrilled about). The high octane, 5th gear experiences will still come- on the weekends, holiday breaks, between semesters.
*Please note, this acceptance that every day will not be a 30 minute episode of “Madventures” will in no way encumber the entertainment value of this blog. As evidence, I site that I am forced to cut this entry short, as there is just too much more to include from the following week in Chiang Mai- Elephants, waterfalls, rain forests, mountaintop Wats, motorcycles, motorcycle crashes, and the wonders of Thai massage. I promise it will be up soon and am in no way offended if you correctly identify the last paragraph of this entry as a wistful prediction that would never (and has not) come true. And, as a result liar would be an accurate tag until I can redeem myself. That being said, there is a hint of accuracy, as “The Sopranos” has completely affected my life and demands an hour of worship a day. Similarly, work has been demanding, so only one multi-day adventure has occurred, and the nightly level of Mekong consumption has dramatically dipped to rational levels.