We flew into Chiang Mai from Cambodia and didn't really know what to expect. We had read that this city was one of the larger ones in Thailand, but it's population is only about 250,000. Apparently, most of Thailand's population is out in the country. We planned on using Chiang Mai as a sort of hub for us to explore Northern Thailand, but since we got sick after returning from New Years in Pai (next entry), we decided to just stay in this great little city and try to get to know it a bit better in order to maximize our time.
For our first bit of time in Chiang Mai, we went to "Monk Chat," as the Monks affectionately call it, at Wat Chedi Luang. The Wat is home to a 600 year old temple, a University, a High School, and many Monks. We intended on going for maybe an hour or so, and as per Mr. Brian Walsh, I had my prepared set of questions in my back pocket. We ended up staying nearly 5 hours. We talked about Buddhism, our culture, their culture, Monastic life, and we even helped with some homework (a Shakespeare Sonnet) as well as their English. At first it was a little hard to get the conversation going, but Laurie's good at that so we quickly learned the monk we were chatting with was not quite 21 yet and had just been ordained. I was slightly disappointed because I wasn't sure if I would get the answer to my important question: how to reconcile all the money in the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha with the Buddha's teaching to reject materialism. Well, I got two interesting answers after we were a few hours into our time with them; one from the young monk and one from an older one who joined us later. The answer from the young monk was informative though he had never been to the Palace and when we told him about all the Gold there, he seemed a bit shocked and expressed some of my confusion as well. He assumed that a lot of the gold was given to the previous Kings or monks as gifts. These gifts were designed to gain "karmic merit," not for the one giving, but for the parents of the donor. This practice reminds me a bit of the old Christian practice of selling Indulgences, but doesn't seem nearly as crooked. First, people aren't coerced into buying/donating with the direct threat of going to hell; instead, the donor gives because he wants his parents to earn more "karmic merit" for their next lives, a seemingly generous gesture. If you really boil it down logically though, no act is completely altruistic, especially when considering karma, but still it's not as crooked as selling Indulgences was. His assumption could've been true (that the gold came from these types of donations), but I don't know. All I do know is that was a lot of Gold, mang. And I doubt it all come from donations.
The second answer, from the more experienced monk who also was a comedian--that's him in my sunglasses--was more interesting from a sociological/historical perspective. He said many lay Thais revere gold, silver and gems. (Personally, I doubt this trait can be solely attributed to Thais, but they do like their yellow and gold in this country for sure.) He continued to say that the Emerald Buddha was very old and had traditionally been surrounded by beautiful things. Furthermore, he said it helped the people to see the magnificence of the Buddha's teachings, and, afterall, it had been that way for about 5 or 600 years. I asked him if he thought it would be better to sell the Gold and help alleviate some suffering with the millions (billions?) made from the sale. Unequivically, he said No, the symbol is more important and suffering will always exist. I see his point: selling the gold is like a short-term investment for the people of today. Keeping the symbol(s) will last perhaps another 500 years for generations of Buddhists. He also said that mostly foreigners ask about the principles/essence/intricacies of Buddhism, while most Thais only look at the surface of it. This is when he compared Buddhism to a tree. He said that the locals only looked at the bark, while the foreigners tried to see the core. Again, I doubt the generalization holds true for all, but I have heard that Jewish converts, for instance, are generally more devout and knowledgeable about all the intricacies of Judaism than say, me for example, so I think I see his point. All in all, it was a very interesting day we had with the monks. It was also really fun to help one of the University students with his Shakespeare homework. It has been such a long time since I've done that. And the language barrier provided an interesting twist on the exercise.
After this day, we left for Pai to celebrate New Years. After a few days there, we came back and got sick, which was no fun. I really wished I was home; it's no fun being sick where you can't get the comforts you are used to in order to help you deal with the illness. I think I had food poisoning, and Laurie had a really bad cold. All is better now and we had a few days in Chiang Mai to do some fun stuff like go to the Zoo, find some great restaurants, wandering through markets, going to the tribal museum, and taking a river cruise. I even found a place to watch the Giants whoop the Bucs, and since the game was delayed, there were NO commericials!
One of the benefits of getting sick in Chiang Mai is that it made us slow down a bit. We had plans to take some day trips or 2-3 day trips to neighboring towns or even a 3 day trek into the north to see some of the "hill tribes." Well, those plans got scrapped pretty quickly while Laurie was sick and I was throwing up that night. So we got to spend over a week in this town, and it's been really great. The zoo was a lot of fun; the highlight was the Panda exhibit. They are really funny animals. I guess in the zoo they act differently but the pandas were just eating these bamboo sticks and leaves and reclining and getting it all over themselves. They really looked like people in panda costumes. It looked like they wanted to yell to someone to get them a beer. So funny.
Another highlight was the Hill Tribe Museum. Since we couldn't go on a trek, we figured we might as well go to the Museum to see some of their tools, customs, and anything else they have on display. At the museum, I saw a lot of fundamental similarities between the tribes not only in Thailand/Burma/Laos, but also from the villages/tribes we learned a bit about in Fiji and Samoa. Of course there were differences among the tribes, but they were in the details not in the general structures. For example, all the tribes had a single leader, but sometimes he was elected and sometimes it was hereditary. The tribes also had advisory councils made up of elders. While elections and other choices could be made by the people, they still share most things. So material things had to be more or less equal across the village or else jealousy could threaten to tear the social fabric apart. Thus, it seems the tribes have found a way to blend democracy and socialism, which I found very interesting. I often wonder about how that can be done on a larger scale, if at all.
As far as religion goes, many of them practice Animism. It's not something I'm very familiar with but have read it is the oldest religion. I'd like to learn more about it. But some of the tribes, as they came into contact with "developed" society, have turned more to Buddhism and even Christianity. The marriage and courtship rituals were also very interesting. Again, some of the details varied across the tribes, for instance: some of the newlywed couples would go and live with the bride's family(matrilocal) and some with the husband's family (patrilocal). Some tribes are polygamous and some monogamous, but the tribes all intended for the marriage to strengthen the tribe by providing children/workers, by teaching the customs to them, and by passing along the lessons of the ancestors. Sex was not frequently seen as an activity for pleasure, more as a mechanism for creating offspring. Sounds like the Selfish Gene (by Richard Dawkins) to me.
Many of the tools used were written about in the book I read, "The Old Way" by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, mostly the all-important "digging stick." Who would've thought that a simple ole stick would be such an important tool......well, i guess hundreds of thousands of tribespeople would've thought that. All these tribes formed/evolved so many miles apart, yet the tribes show so many similarities. How can this be? The similarities are striking, yet the distances over which the customs have all developed has to suggest that the evolution occurred independently of each other. We really enjoyed the tribal museum but wish we could've spent time with a tribe in person.....oh well. C'est la vie.
Chiang Mai has a lot to offer locals and tourists alike. It has a small-town feel for being one of the bigger cities in Thailand, and the people were very friendly and helpful when we were feeling under the weather. And apparently, Thai people love Laurie's red hair.....well, at least they laugh a lot when they see it. haha.
Next entry should be a short one about our few days in Pai. Enjoy the pics everyone. Laos and elephants are next!