The Yin and Yang of Chiang Mai

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Saturday, February 5, 2005

In a town that derives a large bulk of its revenue from sending people out of town and hawking all kinds of entertainment venues it's safe to say that just being here isn't good enough. With the glut of vastly different entertainment options however I'm no longer complaining.

In less than 24 hours I was already itching to see or do something other than roam the charmless cafeteria lined streets and hostess bars that dot every block. It's important to experience the living culture of a people and see types of entertainment one would not normally choose to see. Once I even went to a baseball game in Chicago and though I left an hour later I at least went and saw what one was like.

Last night I bought a ticket from my hotel to see an authentic Thai boxing match. I have to add "authentic" as fake muay Thai shows are in abundance for the tourists. From where I was sitting in the second row it would have pretty hard to fake some of those loud bone-cracking face kicks however.

The crowd was roughly half farang and half Thai and judging by the audience's response it was a hit with everyone. It certainly was for me. It began simply and humbly enough in a dusty decrepit stadium open to the elements on all sides with mounted fans blowing away the mosquitoes. There were refreshments and souvenirs just as you'd expect and of course a few wandering dogs.

The anthem was played, we were told to stand and immediately afterward the fun began. A live five person band of warbling flute, drums and chimes started vacillating from melody to cacophony and back again. The musicians were more or less the soundtrack for the action and changed their rhythm to go along with the pacing of the match. The weight devision began from the lightest weight to the heaviest weight. There were nine matches of generally five rounds each. The first matches were children in the early teens and the last was a boxer with a bit of a paunch who fought a white man from New Zealand.

The first two matches had some surprising bursts of excitement that came in spits and spats but the serious blows were soon to come with the next several matches. With almost balletic grace the boxers would hold their gloved hands at face level while the head and torso would fluidly shift from side to side. They looked at times like marionettes as the heads would float and the arms remain rigid. Their faces were frozen masks, some with an almost beatific smile and others with a twisted scrunch. Then in a snap the top of a foot would curl to the side and fly up smacking the head, the ribs or the lower calf. The other would attempt retaliation often this would end with the boxers hanging on each other while they side kicked and kneed, sweat pouring from their faces their masks would drop and the exhaustion would melt through.

In one match in particular there was an exceptionally fierce boxer. He taunted his opponent even verbally with raised eyebrows. Unlike the others his expressive facial gestures were impressive. He'd smile, tilt his head to the side and slice his right foot against the other's chest and with a left hook throw him to the tarp. He'd squint and prance all around him defying him to get up and snarl then lean forward and smirk. At one point he seemed maniacal. With each blow and kick the music soared, the flute warbled faster, the drum beats turned chaotic and the pitch of the chimes rose. He danced around, slice, kick, smile, jab, snarl, chimes louder, drums harder, crowd cheering, old Thais throwing their bets down through the smoke, the chimes higher, beer cans raised, the yells, the flute choked faster, the kicks popped and then he was down. I yelped and exhaled.

When it came time for the white man afterward I was already spent. I couldn't have cared less. I'd already seen Thai boxing about as vicious as I could imagine it and by God it was thrilling. In case you're wondering the white man unfortunately won. I was very disappointed because after seeing all these nasty white men in Southeast Asia I was really hoping to watch one of them at least get the living crap beat out of him. I guess just like everything else I'll probably have to be the one to do it myself.

I stayed for the full four hours and afterward snagged a tuk-tuk and headed back to my guesthouse to get some sleep since I'd have to get up early for the parade.

Just like everything and everyone else here in this town you can ask the same question to twenty people and get 20 different responses. Yesterday I asked five people what time the parade started today and was told 7:00, 8:00, 8:30 ,9:00 and 10:00. I felt pretty safe that 7:00 was too early but at 7:45 I was downstairs, dressed and ready for breakfast and a flower parade, by God! This is Chiang Mai's number one festival and I couldn't wait to see all the excitement! It started at 9:30 but several cups of coffee later I was in the middle of that thing with the mercury rising in the high 90s sweating and laughing.

It was terrific. Ill-organized and scattered but great fun. It lasted close to three and a half hours but had it continued at a normal pace it could have been closer to two. Myriad times floats would stop and bands would sit down and fan themselves and people would bring them water. Ten minutes later they'd get up, the majorette would raise her staff and they'd commence marching and playing their hearts out. I don't know about you when I hear an anthemic tune in a parade and the brass section passes by I feel something. There's something so uplifting about that and if you don't feel just a little tingle then chances are you are a heartless bastard in need of a good face kick. These bands played everything from traditional Thai music to ABBA's "Dancing Queen" to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" to the best showstopper when they broke formation and tore up one of those Rocky theme songs, "The Eye of Tiger". People were dancing, I was jumping in there and snapping pictures and beaming it was that exciting.

Some of the floats made me think, Rose Bowl Parade my ass! Buddhas, Nagas, pandas, and you-name-it were made of flowers and were exquisitely crafted. Each neighborhood here has their own float and their own beauty queen who competes for "Miss Floral Bloom Festival". I don't know who won but I do know that there was some serious competition.

After the parade I walked over to one of Chiang Mai's famous wats and frankly was underwhelmed. After Bangkok's Grand Palace, Cambodia's Temples of Angkor and Lao's graceful and stunning wats I've become a bit jaded. Within the compound however is a monk school and by a concession stand was a sign that said, "Monk Chat". I was in desperate need of a refreshing beverage and headed over and ended up chatting with a monk for almost an hour. Prah M was his name and he was fascinating. We discussed various religions and philosophies (he's currently majoring in English and minoring in world religions and philosophies) and I found his comments enlightening. I've always thought that one of the best aspects of Buddhism is that it tells you to question everything. As Prah M said, "Do not believe your teachers, do not believe the scriptures, do not believe that the cup is hot, learn it yourself and then you will know it." I asked if Christians had ever tried to convert him and he told me, "all the time." He said that some have told him that there's only one path to God and that his is wrong. He told me that it doesn't upset him but that he can't argue with anyone about their faith. He told me something that really jumped out at me, "Faith without wisdom is ego and therefore worthless." He then gave me a book as a gift about meditation by one of his teachers. I hope to see him again before I leave Thailand on Thursday.

And so the past 24 hours here in Chiang Mai have been a veritable mendicant's bowl overflowing with stimuli from fighting, to flowers to philosophizing. Tomorrow I plan to take up another of Chiang Mai's entertainment offerings and get out of town and onto an elephant.

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