Saturday, December 16, 2006

No-one mentioned the earthquakes!

I was feeling a bit melancholic, very conscious of being alone now that there are hordes of fellow travellers around. It really did not help that the Guest House I ended up in, after the popular ones I had visited were all full, turned out to be completely empty - albeit in an ideal location, clean and very cheap. But my four days in Chiang Mai with its attendant pleasures, big and small, have helped lift the mood.

Small pleasures were to be encountered simply by walking around: the mother and young child scootering through town, singing to each other; the coffee-maker happily dancing away behind her counter (until she noticed I had noticed, then she smiled and went back to work); the surreal sight of some young monks throwing bricks into the air (I presume someone was catching them, to continue their building project); the beauty of the moat late at night when the crowds and noise have subsided; even the fellow who stopped to tell me I have "beautiful hair" before trying to sting me for bus fare to Burma. Then for the larger pleasures - the coffee, the food, the shopping. This place is really well set up for coffee - I think there might be just the one Starbucks, but they'll be having a hard time making inroads against the local competition. Take Black Canyon, at the local branch of which I established a routine of having my morning coffee. Their shop was nicely designed, the staff chorused a welcome as I entered and bade me take a seat, their coffee was very good, they do a full meal and alcohol service, plus lots of non-alcoholic drinks and many variations on their core drink, coffee. And this is just one of the local chains, and there are heaps of other one-off ventures.

Of course, there was plenty of Thai food to be had: I wandered around and never went to the same place twice for food, and never repeated a menu item, except once. This is because I went to a flash restaurant my first night there, which specialised in the local dish, Khaoy Soy - basically a curry broth, flat noodles, meat of your choice, veges and crispy fried noodles on top. The only problem was, this place gave the customers so many choices and allowed so much degree of self-assembly of the dish, that it became very likely that it would be screwed up. As I did. So I had to go to a place where they just say "this is how it is" in order to have a dose of the real thing. If someone was ever to get tired of Thai food, then there are plenty of places providing food from most cuisines of the world, and at dirt cheap prices. Special travellers' cafes would have a wide range of Eurpoean and local food, and they'd do a roaring trade - making me wonder how come we have nothing like it at home.

The problem with shopping is that it is very difficult to carry it around. I wandered around several markets, as well as the famous Night Bazaar and the Airport Central Plaza, which had a section devoted to local arts and handcrafts. There were so many things I wanted - great ceramics, textiles, art, silverwear, clothing and random bits and pieces. I had to compromise, and get some nice chopsticks, some shirts and some wooden bookmarks. I reckon I could easily come to Chiang Mai and fill up a container of stuff to furnish a house.

In fact, as I was walking about, I thought I could easily live here: it has pretty much all I depend upon, in terms of food, coffee, entertainment (although no movies worth watching) and amazing bookshops, the accumulated deposits of thousands of travellers.

There are a couple of downsides: it is very noisy (tuktuks and scooters mainly) and, on my second night, there was an earthquake. Sure, it was a small one, but they scare the hell out of me, partly because there is no way of knowing just how big a quake it is going to be. When I visited the museum, things became clear - there are FOUR faultlines in the northern Thailand region, one of which goes bang through Chiang Mai province.

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