Being a coffee lover, I am delighted to report there are coffee shops are all over Chiang Mai. You can’t walk down the street without encountering one. I don’t know if this is a result of an influx of caffeine loving tourists or if the locals come by it naturally but I am grateful either way. The quality ranges from fine espresso made from beans hand picked by local hill tribes to instant Nescafe, a staple in these parts. Usually it’s Nescafe 3 in 1 meaning the sugar and cream are already added in. Not my favorite. And then there’s “Thai” coffee that drips out of a cloth sack strong and dark. No amount of cream will lighten that brew. The first time I drank Thai coffee, it was good. The second time I had to secretly pour it out on a tree stump so as not to insult the vendor.
Some of the coffee shops resemble Starbucks back in Seattle, in fact some ARE Starbucks and thus avoided like the plague. Wawee is another big coffee chain where the service is great and iced lattes delicious. Black Canyon Coffee sits just off the famous Thapae Gate and I think the name suits it for there always seem to be a lot of gloomy, weather beaten foreigners sitting on the front porch. And in one particular corner, there is a spot I swear is designated for an angst ridden young European man because there always seems to be one sitting there.
My idea of the perfect Chiang Mai coffee shop is one where they serve great coffee and you can sit in an atmosphere full of local culture, perhaps meet some fellow travelers, read a book, or better yet…draw a picture. I found just such a place one morning across from Gecko Books. It was early in the morning and the scooter traffic was relatively quiet. Charlie, the resident dog, laid on the stoop watching the coming and going. Using my limited Thai, I was able to have a lovely conversation with the barista who told me Charlie belonged to the entire street and wandered from shop to shop at will.
On that particular morning, there was an exotic looking couple in the coffee shop, so exotic looking that a tourist stopped and asked permission to take their picture. The gentleman agreed and I got the impression this was not an unusual request. There was something so elegant about them, so wise and beautiful. I felt honored to be in their company. Later as I walked to school, there they were again sitting on a bench near my path. I really wanted to take their picture but also didn’t want to be intrusive and I walked a few steps past. Something made me stop and walk back. I told them I was an artist and would love to draw them. In my mind, this seemed more noble a request than merely wanting to take a photo. They agreed graciously enough but sat straight faced as I took the picture. I said I would be happy to show them the sketch when it was finished and they replied that they would be at the coffee shop for the next few mornings. They also told me they were here in Chiang Mai because their son had loved it here. He had died recently and they were sprinkling his ashes around Thailand. I decided at that moment that I would give them the sketch in honor of their boy.
A few days later I had not one but two versions of the couple. I was a little nervous as I rounded the corner and there they were, sitting in the same spot as the first time I saw them. They seemed genuinely pleased with the sketches and chose the colored version which I thought was the better piece. We drank coffee and talked for a long time before parting company. During these past few months, I have met many wonderful people and for a brief time there is an intense and significant connection. Then it’s over. Travelers are on the move. They come into your life and then they go out not so much like “ships passing in the night” but more like bicycles in the full light of day, frantically pedaling or leisurely coasting, bells ringing, hands waving, faces smiling.
Free Art Lessons:
1. Getting the composition right
What attracted me to this scene was the balance between the dogs dense and dark little body and the vast cavern of the used book store across the way. The quiet street is almost like a river running between the two. Below is the original drawing. Although I liked it, I felt as if the image needed to expand beyond the boundries of the paper so I came back on two more occasions, extending the drawing to include the BOOKS sign, the gecko, and the narrow wall to the right of Charlie. That wall, and the chair below it, serve to bring the eye back into the composition. (I taped two additional pieces of paper to the orginal drawing in order to do this. In Photoshop, I hid a lot of the evidence including the use of both blue and black ink.)