Infiltrating the Land of Smiles.

11 November, 2008 § Leave a comment

Bamboo and mahogany. Dark green banana leaves surrounded by vibrant splashes of bougainvillea bushes. Sticky, humid air and crowded motorways. Creased eyelids and high, wrinkled cheekbones. Scarlets, golds and indigos tempered by gray haze, torn awnings and brown puddles of mud mixed with urine.

We bump down the road in a well-loved, rusty caravan (the phrase, “God bless you!” emblazoned underneath a logo of a juniper tree on the front hood), and my head cranes right and left, trying to soak it all in. In so many ways, memories of India and Morocco come flooding back. . . and yet, I love the different nuances distinguishing this country and making it unique. So far, everyone I’ve encountered has upheld the values of hospitality and grace that characterizes the Thai people. They press their palms together and bow, eyes glimmering underneath a thick shock of dark hair. Somehow, it seems genuine and the token gesture avoids subservience or cheese-factor – – although I’m sure the color of our skin and the size of our group does draw extra attention. Over all, though, the hand-pressing and accompanying bow comes across as a show of camaraderie and respect, however light-hearted or fleeting.

As with most non-Western cities I’ve been to, Chiang Mai is a compact cauldron bubbling over with people, vehicles, scooters, garish billboards, crammed apartment complexes and (where would we be without them, anyway?), the ever-present stray dog. Housewives with a determined marketing-glint in their eye march boldly across the constantly packed streets, their bustling demeanor just daring another vehicle or pedestrian to interrupt their path of trajectory to the vendor across the way. Families of four or five with spare limbs, extra bundles and squawking livestock dart in and out of the traffic, their casual insouciance putting Audubon drivers to shame. Also, everywhere: noise. It blankets the city in an audible blanket of sound as exhaust pipes cough, mothers scold, arrogant teens yell at each other, horns honk, wheels creak, mongrels yap. . . in Thailand, the conversation is never over.

And yet, at the same time, the serene mountains rising in implacable beauty and misty grandeur behind it all join forces with lush rice fields to beckon our interest. Moist, green fields stretch out next to crowded highways, and everywhere, even in the ugliest parts of the city, there is foliage to provide a respite in the constant activity and dirt. Fronds, leaves, bushes and skinny trees parade on the sides of the road and the city lines, acting as a natural neutralizer and bringing a much-needed stillness to the city’s constant motion.

Another personal favorite is the nasalized use of the word, “Ka” – – which can be drawn out to at least four or five syllables when enthusiastic moments call for it – – that punctuates interactions like an auditory comma, period or exclamation mark. Most times it rises towards the beginning and then trails off at the end, but the interval of time and space involved varies from person to person depending on the context:

“Are you hungry?”

“Ka.” (Yes).


“How much does this item cost?”

“For you, best customer, I make-a good price ka-a-a.”


“You never look-a so good, pret’y lady. . . ka-a-a-a-a-a!” (Can’t you feel the passion in that one?)

I’m finding there are moments when life slows down, and for a space of time, where you are and what you’re doing – – even if it simply involves sitting on a granite wall and laughing at the antics of the compound guards – – becomes contentment embodied in physical experience. These are my favorite times.



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