This morning I arrived in the old city earlier than usual and already it was a beehive of activity. The vendors were setting up their stands, tuk tuks drove by noisily with black fumes shooting out the tailpipes. Young tourists fresh off the bus walked around looking slightly dazed, backpacks overstuffed. It was another beautiful day in The Kingdom and I had a full hour to myself before class started. Precious time to explore the streets of Chiang Mai.
I will never get tired of this place. In every direction there is something interesting to see, something unexpected. There’s the woman sitting on her haunches chopping coconuts right next to the battery salesman with his portable display case. An ornate Buddhist statue provides shade to a lazy dog laying smack dab in the middle of the road. Fruit, water, and flowers are laid out as offerings, often in places I don’t understand such as at the base of a street light. A million nooks and crannies, tiny alleyways leading to hidden guest houses, the high key colors, the brightest light and the darkest shadows, the smells both good and bad,…and the sound of many languages being spoken. Chiang Mai is one big installation art project.
It was love at first sight although it took some energy to learn my way around. Now that I speak a little Thai, know the shape of the city, and can haggle at the street markets, I feel at home. So with my free time before class, I wandered a little taking it all in. Walking down a nearby soi (Thai for “alley), I found an open air market just setting up for the day, wide flat tables being stocked with pillow cases, carpet bags, jewelry, and all kinds of souvenirs. A year ago I might have felt uncomfortable walking through, greeting the vendors in Thai, asking for prices, touching things. The air was cool under the tent and we were all protected from the morning sun and bathed in a blue violet shade.
As I turned to leave I was completely startled by three young monks who were standing right behind me, their bright orange robes glowing in the sunlight. Barefoot and somber, they were silent, bowls in hand, giving us an opportunity to gain “merit” by making a donation. It is forbidden for them to touch a woman and I quickly backed up and gave a wide berth. As I walked away, one of them looked after me curiously. They patiently stood there for another few minutes and then left.
As usual, Chiang Mai took me by surprise. There I was, feeling a little smug and confident thinking about how I might haggle on the price of a purse or go order an iced coffee when out of the blue I encountered another world no more than three feet away. Don’t misunderstand me, the monks are everywhere in Chiang Mai and I’ve seen them talking on cell phones and riding public transportation. Many Thais become monks for some period of time, sometimes for only a day, and for the most part they are ordinary citizens. But for me they also represent something truly wonderful, something outside of everyday life. They represent simplicity and discipline. They represent a profound belief in the value of life, all life…and the rejection of ego. I am grateful that I live in a place where I get to see these monks on a regular basis and are reminded of some important truths.
I wanted to give a donation but wasn’t sure of the protocol. I later read that if a woman wishes to offer an object to a monk, it must pass through a third medium, such as a piece of cloth. I had no idea.
I may think I know some things but I am just beginning to understand this place and this culture. What a journey.