Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Kiss in Chiang Mai

One of the best purchases I made in Bangkok was a used mobile phone, found in a stall in the hectic electronic section at the MBK: A Thai mall that defies Western sensibilities. When I got to the Chiang Mai bus station, I took out my Lonely Planet guide and called a list of moderately priced budget options, but found them all booked. Then I noticed a very basic one that a friend had recommended, Sara Guesthouse, and gave them a call. “We have a room and we’ll keep it for an hour,” said a female voice with a British accent. ‘Must be Sara,’ I thought to myself. “I’ll be there in 5 minutes,” I said. I picked up my bag and walked over to the Tuk Tuk driver who was sitting in his rig with his feet up. He came to attention as he saw me coming, “Where you go?” he asked. “Sara Guesthouse,” I showed him the address. We sped off in some direction and arrived a few minutes later down a very quiet soi (alley) in front of Sara Guesthouse.

The room was basic, but clean and quiet and with an attached bath. You can’t do better than 250 baht a night in Chiang Mai (about $7.50). I never did actually speak to the woman who answered the phone, she was always off doing something, but instead I talked to a Thai woman who seemed to be managing the place. I asked her if there were any good cooking schools, so she gave me a brochure. I called and made an appointment to take a two day cooking class beginning in the morning, then went out to see where I was.

I was in a vibrant and interesting city with temples and pagodas on every block, some of them very ancient and rich in history. I was in a shopping haven with everything from well crafted soft cotton clothing to Thai silks to laquers and silver and Hill Tribe antiques and oh my god! And I thought Bangkok was enticing. I was in an outdoor adventure advertisement arena with trekking, rafting, elephant riding, and more being advertised on every door front, there is no lack of things to do in Chiang Mai.

And I was signed up to spend all of the time I had in a cooking class.

In the morning, the minivan came to pick me up for the class. We drove to the market first, and had a tour of the kinds of foods used in Thai Cooking. Then we went to the school, which was set up, as Tom, a fellow student said in his German accent, “Like a military operation.” The staff was completely efficient at teaching a group of about 15 of us in a very assembly line manner, each group of 5 had its own assistant to teach a particular dish. We learned all the basic elements of Thai Cooking, sugar, coconut, fish sauce, chili pepper, kaffir lime leaf, basil, lemongrass, ginger. Once you have made a few dishes you realize that the above ingredients are used in every single Thai dish in varying proportions. We ate all of what we cooked, and we were all completely stuffed. I realized one day was all I needed, and got out of my two day commitment so I could spend more time exploring Chiang Mai.

I walked back to my guesthouse to freshen up, and then went out to take a walk, looking specifically for Wararot Market where I heard there might be some good silk deals. Winding my way through the streets to the market, I found myself in a Chinatown. It is always very obvious when you’ve come to a Chinese section of town, although the people look similar, the landscape changes. Suddenly everything is lined with red, red lanterns, red trim around the store, Chinese characters appear in the signs, and the population of the very small area increases by hundreds, it's difficult to miss. In any case, the Wararot market was a bustling food market by the time I got there. There were many kitchen utensil stalls behind the food markets, and although there were fabric stores, they only sold fake silk.

Around the market are many alleyways that are adorned with stores, and in some of those stores I found some astoundingly good deals on beautiful cotton clothing. It was on one of those little streets that I wandered into a store and noticed all of the Indian and Nepali things being displayed. The storekeeper had his back to me when I asked him if he was Indian, but when he turned around I knew I had it wrong. “Close,” he said “I am from Nepal.”

“Oops! Yes you are!,” I said, “I saw you from behind, I can see you look Nepali.”

“Thank you!,” he smiled.

“Where in Nepal?” I asked. It turns out he comes from a village up the same Nepali road where my bus crashed last Spring, a common occurrence there, so we got to talking.

The conversation moved on as it usually does, where do you come from, what do you do, etc., ‘I do media, bla bla bla’ I handed him my business card.

“Can you sit down and talk for a while?” he asked me, pulling up a chair. Always feeling a bit on the defensive with salesmen, I wondered what he had to sell me, this sitting down technique was employed by many Indian and Nepal sales folks I have encountered. Instead, he asked me more about my work, and about traveling, and we talked about the frustrations of traveling in India; a never-ending source of storytelling.

“Can I take you to get some dinner tomorrow night,” he asked me, “to chat?” I don’t remember doing this consciously but somehow at some subliminal level I must have been taking in his creamy youthful delicate skin, his warm brown eyes, the lovely shape of his lips.

“Sure,” I said without thinking, “why not?”

He smiled. “Six O’Clock” he said. “I can pick you up at your guesthouse?”

“I’ll come here,” I said, thinking that would be easier than trying to explain where my guesthouse was.

It did not hit me until halfway through the next day that I had agreed to go on a date, a recognition that immediately brought a shot of panic into my system. I had spent half the day walking through the section of town that sold silver, and then crossed the river into the inner moat section and explored all of the temples and pagodas therein, photographing signs advising ethical behavior which adorned some of the temples. By late afternoon I was completely exhausted and I began to feel my date fears really set in hard. It would have been very easy to cancel it at that moment and I almost did, but instead I called him and asked if he would come to the guesthouse and we could go somewhere close by. I gave him my phone number so he could call me when he arrived.

At about five minutes after 6, I heard a cat crying. It was very loud and regular and it was extremely close. I opened the door of the room to see if it was out on the balcony, but as I stuck my head out the door, I noticed it was farther away. That’s when I remembered that I had set the ring tone on my cell phone to ‘meow’. My date was calling, he was just outside the gate.

He picked me up on his motorcycle and took me up to a beautiful restaurant in a flowering garden overlooking a lake in the foothills of the mountains around Chiang Mai. We really did have a lot in common it seemed. He studied journalism and at one time had a radio show in Kathmandu until he was kicked off the air for interviewing a Maoist Folk Singer, someone who is now in favor. He told me gruesome stories of his days reporting, of the Maoist rebellion and of friends lost.

It was my last night in Chiang Mai, I had an early morning plane ticket. Things moved quickly for lack of time to move slowly. We tried to eat the banquet he had ordered but it seemed neither of us had much of an appetite, we nibbled. The mood was sweet. His eyes beaded as his smile broadened and the twinkle in his eye melted any last puritanical thread that might have been holding me back.

Despite the overwhelming desire to accept the kiss he was leaning in to give me at the restaurant, I remembered the sign in the monastery making it clear that such public displays of affection were strictly not acceptable in Thailand, so I held him off. “I love you,” he said as he stole a kiss from me in the dark outside the restaurant. ‘I don’t know what love is, but this sure feels good’ I thought as I melted into his arms and returned the kiss. I pushed him away as the lights of a car attempted to reveal our secret transgression. “Let’s go,” I said, putting on the motorcycle helmet.

I held on to him tightly as we navigated the way back through the city. The night air was thrilling as it rushed past my face. As we wound our way through the alleyways to the hotel, my eyes met a woman who was hawking at a massage parlor. I had seen her several times while out walking. Her glance and smile implied her suspicions of our intentions. I smiled back, confirming her suspicions. Weaving our way through the maze of alleys, we arrived at the guesthouse, parked the bike and walked up the stairs towards my room. I fumbled with the key and finally got it into the lock and the door opened. We walked nervously into my room and closed the door behind us. The sign on the back of the door was prominent:

“Guests who are not registered at Sara Guesthouse are not allowed in room.
Sara Guesthouse takes no responsibility for consequences as a result of not heeding the above rule.”


He gave me a delicate kiss before leaving in the wee hours of the morning and I shut the door behind him. I listened as he made several attempts to kick start his motorcycle before the engine eventually caught and the silence swallowed up the sound of him riding into the night. If I slept at all, it was superficial.

In the morning, he was gone, I had a plane to catch, I went to get a cup of coffee and some breakfast at a little restaurant down the street. Eva Cassidy’s lilting vocals came over the cafĂ© speakers singing ‘Fields of Gold’ and that’s when I felt it; that pang of desire to hold on to that sweetness, that passion, to kiss those lips again and again, that hope that maybe Love really is in there somewhere and maybe a little piece of it could be ours…if only I could stay in Chiang Mai a while.

Oh hell…that song always makes me feel that way, even if there is no particular person I’m thinking of. And besides, I CAN’T stay in Chiang Mai a while. I finished my coffee and paid, ran back to the guesthouse and got my bags.

I caught the Tuk Tuk to the airport, spent one crazy day in Bangkok at the dentist and the tailors, caught up with my son James for a few short hours in the middle of the night, endured negligible sleep rations, and then flew off to Cambodia early the next morning to explore the treasures of Angkor Wat.
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