It started out as a vacation; we just needed to get away. It turned into a life-changer. Here’s what happened to me and Virginia for three and a half weeks in June.
All of my posts began as emails from Thailand to my incredibly talented and loving daughter, Layla (think I’m only saying that because I’m her father? Check out her website www.laylaangulo.com then come back here and apologize). She not only house-sat for us, but six days after we left had to deal the death of our 21 year old Persian cat, Luna, who took the opportunity to spare us from the ordeal. I loved her dearly, but she was my wife Virginia’s animal soul-mate.
She was one special creature. I dedicate this journey to her, as her death made me look more closely at my own life. Thank you, my dear Luna. And, as always, I know you don’t care. I’m doing it anyway.
An excellent day, full of interesting turns of events — and it is not over. I’m with V at an internet café, half a block from our hotel, which has lousy internet service. V is slated to go to the Chiang Mai Cultural Centre for a dinner and traditional dancing. I no likey. I’m doing something else. Bar Girls at the Foxy Lady! “Mister Geezer, I love you long time!”
No. Even better. I’m going with our elephant guide, Somboone, to a Thai boxing match. Muaythai boxing, a mixture of regular boxing with kickboxing and other martial arts — and a lot of gambling — thrown in.
Somboone, sweetheart that he is, really wanted V to come just so we would not be separated, but the fact is I know my wife. Thirty seconds into the match she would be gasping, hiding her face with her hands and desperate to leave, but would be so polite as to say she was going to stand outside and wait for the match to end. It would be a TKO for her (Technical Knock Out). So this is better for us both.
Day before yesterday Somboone took us on an all-day trip. We went to Doi Suthep, a sacred temple near the top of the mountain that looms just outside the city.
They say that if you haven’t been to the shrine at Suthep, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai.
It is a long, winding drive through a verdant forest with mountain streams and tall, billowy trees that are often the sacred bodhi trees, along with stretches of bamboo forests growing 50 feet above, blocking out the sky — the sound of which is this ethereal whoosh that blows over the mountain top and adds to the already heady reputation that the forest is a mystical place full of ancient legends, spirits, and gods.
We parked in a large lot and walked to the entrance, always heading up an ever-steeper grade, passing endless stalls of vendors selling juices, hats, tee shirts, lottery tickets, jewelry (always fake, we were told), and a continuous parade of souvenirs and knock-off clothing.
Many vendors in the early morning were already frying sausages of pork, chicken and some other unknown meats, but not dog or cat — they love them here. Dogs and cats are simply everywhere, walking the streets, always well-fed and not diseased, in and out of traffic like they own the place, which they do, and generally act as though they are in dog and cat heaven.
It is weird. You look at all the dogs that simply lay down anywhere they choose — in some places in the middle of the street — they walk around with an ease and a sense that they can’t believe they have this karma; here they are with no job, no predators, nothing to do but hang out, see what all the humans are doing, and wait to be fed, as if they know, like the saffron robed monks, that Buddha will provide, no matter what.
We began the climb. Up wide steps, stepping over the sleeping or wandering dogs, to the next level. Then to the next level of steps. Steeper. V heard something and asked Somboone what it was.
A lady in her makeshift stall says to Somboone in Thai. ‘Buy birds. For health or success or whatever you desire, then set them free.’ We bought a six-pack of tiny sparrow-like birdies and continued up the steps. Bought our tickets to the shrine. Somboone and all Thai people are always free to this and all shrines, temples and holy places. Only foreigners or ‘farang’ which is what they call us — a mispronunciation of a French word they turned into farang – have to pay the entrance fee.
At the base of the last and steepest set of stairs — 309 to the top, we stepped aside to an overlook.
We said a prayer for Luna and asked these creatures the same thing we asked of Chang: To let her know we love her and to tell her that we are all right, even though we miss her dearly. V untied the ribbon on the basket. A moment later and six anxious birds took flight faster than I’d ever seen; like they were shot into the sky, free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty – except…wait a minute.
V asked where the birds would go. Somboone said that they would likely return. Only to be caged again. Only to be bought again. Only to be freed again. And on and on. Kind of like the whole Buddhist reincarnation belief system wrapped up in a single gesture that contains everything within it: the end, the middle, and the beginning again and again. Until they (and we) get it right.
Exactly 309 stairs later (!) we huff and puff to the chedi (shrine). It is an impressive golden stupa consisting of a thick round base, more than a 100 feet in diameter with a spire reaching like an antennae up to the sky another 50 feet or so. It is said to contain a most precious relic: a piece of the shoulder bone of Buddha.
There are many ‘stations’ or stopping points around it and groups of pilgrims walk the stations, burning incense, reciting prayers on laminated sheets left for that purpose, like hymnal books in a church, and even more vendors.
It is said that a white elephant was given the relic, and was released into the jungle. It climbed up Soi Suthep which was at that time called ‘Sugar Elephant Mountain.’ Perfect name. It trumpeted three times, fell down and died right here on this site. The king called for the temple to be built. And so it was.
Almost as many vendors as pilgrims, selling lotus flowers, photo displays of the chedi and holy spots and other smaller Buddhas placed around the shrine. We passed a beautiful white Buddha, a gleaming ceramic deity about six feet tall, rare as they are mostly gold.
It was sort of like seeing a black Jesus instead of the usual brown-haired European version so popular with a lot of Christians.
I have to run. End of Part I of our adventure to Doi Suthep. Part II tomorrow. I love you! DAD