North, north and further north. Hopping another bus we find ourselves finally in Chaing Mai, touted as the culture capital of Northern Thailand. This place has it all: hand-crafts, jewelery, tons of religious sites, classes on yoga, language, cooking, and meditation (among others), shopping, traffic, art, night markets and, of course, bowling.
The city is surprisingly modern and we have to navigate busy streets as we stroll around from wat to wat which are as abundant here as are the 7-11’s. We spend our days walking, necks craned, looking up, amid the wondrous ancient temples as well as the bars, banks, and bookstores. At night we walk watching for wonders of a different sort: the ladyboys, and they are everywhere. The evening brings out those who prowl for business in the dark and, among the 1 million or so visitors Chaing Mai sees each year, there is plenty of willing prey.
One evening we stumble upon a bar complex that is situated around a boxing ring where foreigners can try their skills against a real Muay Thai fighter, a brutal form of martial art from Thailand. We aren’t sure whether the foreigners have paid to get into the ring or if they are students getting a chance to try their newly acquired skills on a big stage. Either way, it is obvious that the Muay Thai fighter, the same guy fighting each new subsequent foreigner, is taking it easy on the other contenders. And I am glad for that. I do not really want to see any bloodshed anyhow.
Another evening we see what appears to be a large bowling pin attached to the side of a building. We think– that’s a strange chedi! Like a homing device we are lured in, playing three games of 10 pin. In the second round, Scotty wins by 2 points (the first time he has ever beat me at the lanes! A sad day indeed, the end of an era.)
The highlights of our time in Chaing Mai came when we decided to rent a motorbike. First, we rode out of town, down a busy highway lined with gruesome photos of motorbike accident victims, to Tiger Kingdom. At first, Scotty was reluctant to go to this attraction despite his intense draw to and fascination with tigers since he was a wee boy. We were both worried that the tigers would be in chains, in small enclosures, drugged, or otherwise ill-treated. But upon arriving at the facility we felt immediately more at ease.
It is not cheap to pet a tiger. But then again, how many places exist in the world where you can do just that? Simple supply and demand; and we happily coughed up the cash to get into the cage. The first enclosure we enter had 3 juvenile tigers, about 6-9 months old. Nemo, was particularly frisky, and kept trying to use Scotty as a scratching post. Naughty kitty!!
In the second enclosure and find ourselves among 3 large 1-2 year old female tigers. The handler takes us over to pet the first of the females who is languidly laying, fully stretched out, looking quite comfortable. I am anything but comfortable as another seemingly unattended female who was, just a second ago, splashing around in a large pool, approaches us from behind. The handler notices my apprehension, perhaps the oh-shit! look on my face gave it away, and laughs. “Three tigers, three us, no problem” he says. Let’s hope so.
We had already received the full run down of do’s and don’ts in regards to tiger etiquette but I prompt more guidance as the joking handler notices my tiger petting technique. “No, no. More hard. She will think you are fly. Like this.” as he proceeds to not so delicately rub the tigers belly. Not wanting to get swatted by an enormous tiger paw, I ditch my feelings of trepidation and obey, going into full Thai massage mode making sure to use lots of pressure and even strokes.
We see how important following instructions is first hand when a group of girls outside the enclosure decide to run after one another. A big no-no around big cats. All 3 of the tigers immediately snapped to attention; lowering their massive heads, raising their powerful shoulders, achieving full stock and attack mode in a fraction of a second.
The experience is incredible. We are both grinning from ear to ear and may as well have been floating on clouds the entire ride home.
Since the motorbike is due back by 1 pm, and we are notorious for sleeping late into the day, we deciding to fore go sleep and are out the door by 4:30 am to catch the sunrise at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, the most famous temple in the Chaing Mai area. This temple dates from 1383 and stands on a hill by the same name, Doi Suthep, north-west of the city. On a clear day, it is said to offer superb views.
Riding up this hill in the dark presents an interesting challenge. No, we didn’t blow a tire and yes, our headlights were fully functional. The problem was the cold. Not something we have encountered too much on this trip so far. Unlike times in the past when weather was an issue, we were expecting it and planned accordingly, layering everything in our backpacks to stay warm. This time, we were not expecting it.
The chill gave me enough confidence to not hold on for dear life at the back of the motorbike and instead cross my arms in front of my chest attempting to keep as much of my body shielded from the wind as possible. Scotty on the other hand, bore the brunt of the cold. Going numb, he thought the road was severely ill-constructed when really, it was just his own body shaking and shivering for most of the way up.
Safely at the top, we were eventually rewarded as we climbed the dragon-lined staircase in solitude; we were the only farang (Thai for foreigner) around. After buying incense and flowers for a prayer offering, we wondered around a bit in the dark trying to ascertain the best viewing spot for sunrise. A helpful local, misinterpreting what we are seeking, ushers us into the main temple area and sets us to start the prayer ritual: walking 3 times clockwise around the central chedi before placing our prayer offering. Not wanting to insult him, we go through with the full procession, kneel and pray that we have not missed the sun’s arrival.
We make it out onto an east facing terrace to see the brightly glowing orange orb emerge through a thick layer of dense smog and cloud cover. Oh well. Some of the closer surroundings are visible and we can imagine that, indeed, on a clear day, the view must be pretty fantastic. The Wat itself makes up for the lackluster view and we are happy none the less.
Riding back down the hill is much more pleasant with the sun on our backs. We safely return the motorbike grateful for the mobility it provided, the experiences we gained, and another successful turn at navigating crazy Asian streets, road rules, and other drivers.