THAILAND – Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, is at first glance no different from any other hot smog-laden, scooter-riddled street-market maze, but what is it that pulsates from this city’s core causing it to seduce tourists, serial travellers and ex-pats alike?

Perhaps it is the uncertainty of being trapped between the Thai jubilation and the Buddhist enigma. Chiang Mai’s 300 Buddhist temples are essential to the lifeblood of the city.

Temple tourism takes precedence over the enthusiasm for music festivals, the addictive yoga culture, and the film-festival and art-seeker fanaticism. Perhaps it’s the peace that calms the restlessness of those possessed by wanderlust when they visit the Watts (temples), listening to the chanting of the monks at daybreak and enjoying the discernment of the alluring architecture. Each Wat is unique; it has a history; a resident Buddha (or two) and the usual pack of stray dogs cared for by the temple residents.   Thailand’s solicitous spirituality is well-known for the part it plays in the journey rather than its exotic destination. Entering a Wat demands nothing but respect for the Buddhist belief where little more is expected than being bare-footed and adequately clothed. To experience the sense of peace is personal but the architecture and adornment is a shared encounter. Wat Chiang Man is the oldest in the city, dating back to 1297 and houses two Buddha figurines; Phra Sila, the stone Buddha and Phra Sae Tang Khamani, the crystal Buddha. Wat Phra Singh is situated on the western side of the old city and boasts classic northern Thai architecture dating back to the 14th century. The resident Buddha is Phra Buddha Sihing, the Lion Buddha.

The most famous Wat is Phra That Doi Suthep on a hill north west of the city. The 309- step trek from the car-park is well worthwhile. The staircase is flanked by an emerald flecked balustrade carved in the shape of two giant nagas; a mythical dragon headed serpent. Pilgrimages by Buddhists and Hindus are popular; a replica of the Emerald Buddha and a statue of Hindu god, Ganesh, are also available for viewing. Most of the temples’ architecture is influenced by Lama Thai, Burmese and Sri Lankan styles as are some of the buildings in the old city.

The old city’s central square is surrounded by a sizable moat and the remains of the original 700-year-old walled city, which is partially intact and still resonates its medieval charm. Thapae gate, on the eastern side of the old city centre has been restored to resemble its original Thai-style design. On the face of it, spaghetti-jumbled power lines draped along streetlight poles that venture down the narrowest of alleyways where street vendors are strategically placed to hone-in on the hungry, gives one a sense of rural living. In spite of this backward appearance, there is a compulsive vibe to this laidback lifestyle.  More impressive is the vibrant functional society that drives what appears to be an almost entire informal sector.

But walking past some modest run-down village house-cum-businesses tells a story not of poverty but of productivity. Traders of every caliber breathe life into the city; the originality of make-shift shops and home industries are innovative and adequate. Zealous tailors, hairdressers and back-yard mechanics line the narrow streets and then there are the professional massage parlours that are lodged at almost every intersection.  A thorough foot massage lasting an hour can be obtained for a mere 150 Baht. More up-market health centres can be enjoyed in the inner city or at exclusive villas with air-conditioned private rooms. The Color Factory shop, a non-profit outlet in conjunction with the Elephant Foundation specializes in one-of-a-kind hand-painted elephants. Departing from conventional shops, it’s the markets that set the Thai culture aside and nothing beats the night markets of Chiang Mai where the street-food frenzy is elevated to another level.

Stalls are erected miraculously at dusk; bright lights provide full views of the varied cuisine where fresh comes first. Robust Thai curries and soups are adjusted to suit individual tastes, green papaya salad (Som Tum) is freshly prepared whilst you wait as is fried rice and glass noodles.  As with any organised take-away, food can be either packaged to go or served at basic tables along the moat. Food is just one cultural indulgence, as is the music, art and film festivals and the night markets that are ongoing attractions. The old city’s nights are transformed on Sundays as streets are re-zoned for strollers, shoppers and bar-lovers.

North Gate Jazz Co-op owned and run by local musicians does everything to compete with any professional gig you would find at an up-market arena and is famous for its Tuesday night jam session. The crowded bar’s nightly riveting jazz entertains ex-pats and locals with its vibrant performances. But riding alongside this lucrative tourist trade is an affordable transport sector making the Tuk-Tuk bike taxis the most efficient way to get around. Tuk-Tuks come into their own at night; they are usually brightly lit ensuring them perceivable to passersby. Sometimes they deviate and render different duties. A Tuk-Tuk positioned near a trendy shopping centre can be transformed for the night into cocktail car or a food stall.

The sophisticated tourist industry in Chiang Mai rests on reliable street-food, liberty-style lodgings, and thrifty travel where lifestyle dictates the days ahead and routine becomes a meaningless mantra. Chiang Mai’s diverse cultural attractions for those chilling out completes the satisfaction cycle, but when does the wanderlust-bug resurface and spur the backpacker to embark on yet another journey of limbo-living?

Things to do in Chiang Mai

  • Visit the mineral hot springs just off Chiangmai Sankampaeng Road
  • Shop at the night bazaar in Chang Khlan Road
  • Embark on the Maeping River Cruise
  • Meander through the orchid and butterfly farm
  • Enjoy a visit to the tiger kingdom and buffalo camp
  • Stroll through the Thai art and cultural hall in Ratchawithi Road
  • Set time aside to have a full body massage
  • Embrace the tranquility of the temples
  • Receive a blessing from a Buddhist monk

SRI LANKA – Sap Tappers

I refused to leave Sri Lanka without seeing the sap tapping that was mentioned in the guide book. Palm toddy wine is a favourite of Sri Lankans. Often tell-tale signs leave puffy eyed locals struggling to hide their indulgences. I vow my sap tapping tour is not complete until I sample the fiery spirit with it’s distinct taste.

Kumara, our driver, beeps his Tuk Tuk through Negombo’s peak-hour town traffic, finally 4 kilometres later the vehicle bumps towards Dagonna’s lush fields canopied by towering palm trees. At 7am the grove’s density shortens the breath; it’s dampness leaves a glistening garnish on the ground. Our enterprising driver/guide befriends a worker who agrees to show us the ropes of his trade. Without a word being spoken I watch the durava (toddy tapper) take to the tight rope; not a safety net in sight. Silently, the scantly red-clothed figure makes short work of a 30-40 foot climb as he shrinks to a small spec among the flowing palm flabellums. Unlike the circus’s attention seeking trapeze artist, this labour intensive job of the tapper is tricky. His spindly legs resemble robotic pistons as he rhythmically shins himself higher towards the skylight.

I wait with bated breath, watching the match-stick man squirrel up the tree’s length with sizable steps on bare feet leaving them free to find the knotted coarse fibre rope footholds, while his arms clutch the trunk’s torso. His lankiness does not undermine his physical strength, powerful enough to lug his Ukunilla (a wooden holder for cutting tools, mallet and sap collecting vessel) attached to his waist; weighing roughly 55 kilograms. The climber knifes off the young leaves from their petioles preventing the splitting of the expanding spadix. The virgin bloom’s tip is severed and tapped with a stick enabling bursting of the cells, letting the sap flow.

The field’s sereneness is soon polluted with the hollow thud of the spathe’s outer skin being struck with the mallet. The spirited tight-rope walker snakes precariously from tree to tree on a rope constructed suspension bridge. Using only stiffly strung palm strands positioned chest high as a balustrade for keeping his balance, his feet slide automatically along the rope-line to the connecting trunk.

This painstaking rupturing and bruising of tender tissues allows enough sap to seep for weeks to come. Efficient sap flow is only achieved after 6 days of tapping when the collection pot can be left to gather the white milky nectar. Shielding the flower buds from becoming pulp and rendering them useless is a tactile skill that requires temperate tapping and appears to be an art passed on from father to son. Sap tappers must collect 100 litres of sap per day to earn 750 rupees (roughly R7.50). Sap tapping for a living carries a social stigma added to which is its low wage and hazardous working conditions especially during the Monsoon season.

It is inevitable that younger generations avoid this gruelling occupation leaving the less educated to be skivvies to the ailing sap tapping industry.

But travellers like me, who find the taste too exotic and toxic for that matter, may spare a thought for the life-threatening labour involved in tapping the sap to keep this rural livelihood sustainable.