Sunday, October 27, 2002

Chang Mai, Thailand

Friends: One of the great joys of travel, and especially travel by bike, is visiting a friend after a week or more on the road. Laurie and I are presently enjoying that great joy in Chang Mai thanks to Esther, a friend I have worked with at the Telluride Film Festival for the past decade. Esther took up residence in Chang Mai seven years ago, but returns to Telluride every year for the film fest. She is one of its longest associates, having been involved in each of its 29 editions except the first. She was among the first wave of counter-culturists to move to Telluride in the '70s when it was a virtual ghost town and was just about to be reborn as a ski town. She teaches English here and lives the good life in an exotic two story three-bedroom wooden house in the walled and moated old inner city.

It is a tradition among Thais to set aside a room in their house in case the king should be in the neighborhood and need a place to stay. Esther has several photos of the king and queen on her walls, as do most Thais, including an odd one in her kitchen with another king, Elvis. The King, Queen and Elvis are engaged in conversation, sitting in the first row in a movie theater in Germany. Esther doesn't have a room specifically set aside for the king, but he could be assured of the royal treatment based on how well Esther has treated us since we arrived a couple of days ago. Her great hospitality reminds me of the countless times I have shown up at my esteemed cycling friend Siegi's door step in Toronto and Puerto Escondio on my bike, announced and unannounced, and was welcomed like some potentate. Laurie and I will have plenty to revel over as we reminisce about our time with Esther when we get back on the bikes and head for Laos. Such hospitality is never forgotten and forever gladdens the heart.

Chang Mai is at an elevation of 1,000 feet so its hot here, though not as beastly as further south. Doi Suthep, a 4,000 foot mountain, overlooks this bustling city of 200,000. I bicycled it yesterday on the recommendation of one of Esther's many ex-patriot friends, who have embraced us as warmly as Esther. Its upper reaches were in the clouds, and it was cool enough that I could see my breath at its summit. A royal palace resides just below the summit and four kilometers below it a Buddhist temple. One reason I made the ten mile, 3,200 foot climb was that I was told I'd see many other cyclists riding the road on a Sunday morning. There were a handful, but nothing like the thousands I encountered in Medellin, Colombia one Sunday morning many years ago. The memory of being a part of that unexpected mob is a recurring memory that still thrills me. The twenty or so cyclists I encountered struggling up or flying down Doi Suthep each brought a smile to my face, though I had been hoping for more. There were many many more Thais and a handful of tourists at the palace and the temple, however, and plenty of food stalls.

Where there are people in Thailand, you can count on food being sold in carts or small restaurants with two or three tables. I was delighted to find a food Esther had introduced us to the day before in the market--something she calls a Thai Power Bar, though I will refer to as an Esther Bar in her honor. It is a foot-long length of bamboo filled with sticky rice and coconut milk and a few beans. One peels off the bamboo to reveal the tasty and nutritious food stuffed inside. We had never noticed this item before, and, if we had, we never would have guessed what it was. They are generally sold in bundles of three and look like dynamite. Unless we saw someone eating one, we never would have guessed what it was. Its Thai name is kowlum.

Esther has been a bottomless source of such information, and, teacher that she is, thrives on sharing it. We commented that we had seen showers at many of the service stations along the road. Esther told us that Thais shower so often, sometimes two or three times a day, that a common greeting among friends is, "Hello, have you showered yet," rather than the standard, "How are you." She remains fascinated and enthralled by all things Thai. She is known about town as the walking farang as she walks everywhere, unlike the locals, or foreigners, who prefer to use the ultra cheap motorized transport. Esther's house is off in a warren of narrow alleys. She has led us in and out in more ways than I can remember, always having something special or surprising to show us along the way.

Among Esther's many friends is Holly, a 42-year old woman who led bike trips for Backroads in Thailand and elsewhere for nine years until 9/11 of last year when all of a sudden the number of Westerners wishing to bicycle Thailand and Vietnam plummeted. Holly loves Thailand too much to leave. Her fluency in Thai has enabled her to get involved with several businesses. She still loves to bike, and, in fact, will be leading a trip in Vietnam in January for another company, her first since the Twin Towers fell. Laurie and I were privileged to be included in a monthly luncheon of Holly and Esther and two other ex-pat friends, Julie and Renee, yesterday, out at Holly's palatial house, a 20-minute drive out in to the country. Laurie and I could have listened to Holly's bicycling stories all day, but each of these women had plenty of fascinating stories to share.

They all encouraged us not to bother with the malaria medicine that Laurie had brought along. Holly thought that the northern border crossing from Laos to Vietnam was open, which will make getting to Hanoi easier than having to cross further south. We won't know for sure, however, until we get well into Laos. Holly's biggest concern was that we have warm enough clothes for northern Vietnam. She couldn't recommend a particular beach for R&R in Vietnam. She said most are aswarm with vendors trying to sell stuff and we'd have no peace. She gave us the good news, though, that the traffic is fairly minimal for several hundred kilometers south of Hanoi on the main coastal route and that the route was flat except for one 9.3 kilometer climb, less than the climb up Doi Suthep. Laurie has yet to acquire a fondness for climbing, so that was good news for her. Esther runs an import business as well and has been happy to take us around to the hundreds of shops in the night bazaar and elsewhere. There are many items of great beauty-- silver and textiles and carvings of Buddhas and elephants. Laurie is delighted to have plenty of time to shop and Esther is happy to do some perusing herself and to banter with the many friends she does business with. I have tagged along for a bit, but have enjoyed the opportunity to explore on my bike shed of its gear.

Later, George

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