Apparently, in the UK Tesco supermarkets take one pound in every 8 spent. Here in Thailand I think 7 out of every 8 must be spent on the street. From snack shacks along kerbs and temple tourist stalls to thriving local food markets, there's a buying opportunity at every turn. We went by scooter - an exhilarating trip as helmet laws are undetectable here - to the market my hosts use, a sprawl of gorgeous looking fruit & vegetables, still hectic at sunset though the entire place froze on the dot of 6pm for the Thai national anthem. We went by rickshaw, towed by a cheery septagenarian who peddled at the pace of - well, a 70-year old on a bike towing a rickshaw gives the picture - to the huge night market in Chiang Rai.
We walked over the Myanmar border into Tacheleik on a day pass and were overwhelmed with offers of fake relics, fake designer accessories, fake gems and fake viagra. Rather more sadly you can also buy real tusks, horns, and skins of baby tigers. Like the past, Burma is another country: they do things differently there.
Back in Chiang Mai there's Sunday Walking Street, with hill tribe crafts alongside the usual commercial tourist teeshirts, Beautiful bodies are for sale too, on a time-share basis. Bars -not especially aimed at tourists- feature catwalks where girls, boys, and boy-girls in scanty attire gyrate with their sale numbers on display. How do I know? Because after supper in town my host and his charming university colleague on hearing I've been to Thailand 3 times but never been to a ladyboy bar or watched the beautiful kathoye cabarets, decided this must be instantly remedied & carted me off for a wow!-style eyeopener. Home by tuk-tuk.
It's a week now since I left the snow of England, and I'm half-way through my stay. In that time, as well as exploring my local environs, I've journeyed with Steve to the northernmost tip of Thailand, through the beautiful Chiang Rai province with its Laos-y landscape of rice fields and misty distant mountains; I've been to the Golden Triangle and watched the mighty Mekong river winding between Laos, Thailand, and Burma; I've spent time in sacred places, and enjoyed food so delectable it needs a separate post.
Scenes I'll remember: the viridian paddy fields of Chiang Rai hedged with stumpy palms, with water buffalo and workers in broad-brimmed straw hats; and the brilliant jammy colours of bougainvillea along the central reservations of city roads; Wat Rong Khun with its fountains and extraordinary shimmering spiky contours; the sumptuous ancient temples and buddhas, mostly gilded, with their elephant and dragon acolytes. Why is it that these gaudy golden figures, often with supercilious or even fatuous expressions, evoke such feelings of tranquility and awe? I don't know, but they do. Maybe they've become so saturated by generations of reverence and sincerity that even a wary westerner can feel stirred by a bubble of hope for something universally connecting and life affirming...
I'll conclude these transcendental thoughts with an image of one of the many signs along Hang Dong Road.