Dave is right… It’s the guy on the left who makes the image. Neha, my charming airbnb host, believes it’s the guy standing, but he’s the bass, not the lead. BTW, Dave is a girl with a boy’s name, and she’s not a girl but a young woman who works as an editor for India’s largest daily. Ten minutes before, the 2 inseparable friends stumbled into the flat; it’s only 9, they’re already drunk and giggling uncontrollably. I took the foto earlier that day in Mumbai’s urban train as it was nearing Andheri station. My station. Andheri (west) is where Neha lives with her boyfriend in a slick apartment dating from the 30s or 40s. The lights are low and we sit on the floor. I sip red wine and the girls argue over where I should buy a piece of leather for my new leather bike grips that came with fake leather from Taiwan. We listen to the Orb and venture to the window sill every 10-15 minutes to smoke that cigarette. The two share panda eyes… ‘I stay up every night and smoke and giggle eyes’. Knackered, Neha vanishes into her bedroom… Dave stays behind a few minutes then retires; I told you, the two are inseparable. I’m left looking at my images; a Mumbai night finally cools, some red wine left in the bottle and there’s the window sill, waiting to be finished.
Yes she’s shy, like so many women in India are. In a 2 by 3 meter brick and dirt cubicle, she lives with her husband and 3 children. There’s no door. On the floor there’s a thin mattress where the 5 sleep. They quibble with the neighbors for space and for no other reason other than to express their frustrations. Yet, a huge fighting spirit resides in the heart of this woman, and she’s proud of the tea she makes for me. I ask her to pose for a photo… I’m intruding her space but I can see that this brings a moment of happiness amidst her life of struggles. Instinctively, like so many women do, she covers her smile with her hands. I’m stunned by the beauty in her eyes. Her husband asks her to bring them down, but I stop him. I want her like this. This is the moment… Disarmed and innocent. She’s perfect. When you live on the edge, the only thing that matters is now.
I’m being chased by 2 Shivas. Around 5, Neeraj picked me up on his scooter and we headed to the main gat in Ujjain for one of the most important Aarti events (fire ritual at sunset) of Khumb Mela… It’s the most auspicious bathing day of the entire festival, and literally millions have been gathering all day along the banks of the sacred Shipra river. Neeraj knows the young priests, we’re in the inner circle. Skinny young holly men draw large circles with fire in the air facing all cardinal directions while drums are being played and the Aarti climaxes with people caressing the flames with their hands and touching their face. I’m left to my own as Neeraj has to rush home. Alone to cross an ocean of 100, 200, 300 thousand people packed in the tiny Ujjain streets. It’s hot, I’m still recovering from my bike ride from Indore, the flu is peaking in my throat and I’m in cold sweat mode, almost shivering. I come across a young boy dressed as a pink Shiva, complete with his trident… ‘Cool’… After a few photos, his twin appears, this time it’s the blue version, smaller, but much more aggressive, like they always are. They both begin to whip my bald head with long broom like things which is a sort of blessing; ‘there, I’ve blessed you, now give me money’… Within seconds, they’re chasing me down Ujjain, amidst a tightly packed crowd of thousands of festival goers and obviously, these thousands of people all have eyes, all keenly focused on the bald sweaty white guy being chased by twin Hindu deities, one blue and one pink, screaming Money Money Money. Thus begins the weirdest 10 minutes of my life. Relentless, they won’t give up… Money Money Money!!! This is not happening… This is not happening. They’re like two little machines; unstoppable, un-exhaustable and un-lostable. A normal person would have stopped after 10-20 meters. If I stop, they’ll just hit my bald head a million times with that broom thing saying Money, Money, Money with identical gusto… I’ll look even more ridiculous. Obviously, it’s easy to spot the bald white man, the only white man, at the event. A kilometer of about 100 Money Money Money later, I finally reach a police post… The Shivas vanish.
Chiang Mai is one of the most interesting and charming cities in Asia and to experience it on the road will only broaden and enhance the experience. But their are some recommendations which you should invariably follow in order to ensure a safe and pleasant ride.
Do check your motorbike carefully before renting it
I recommend starting it and making sure it runs smoothly. Also photograph all scratches and visible defects. Also make sure they are all duly noted by the shop keeper.
Do wear a helmet, and a good one at that
Thailand is plagued by a huge number of road accidents and Chiang Mai is no exception. The motorbike shop will usually give you a little flimsy helmet, but a few more baht will get you a full face helmet. Enough said.
Do pay constant attention
Driving in Thailand is at times very unpredictable. Thais don’t signal their intentions as frequently as people from Europe, North America, Australia or Japan do. Driving can therefore be challenging. Car drivers will also sometime consider motor cyclists and cyclists as inferior on the road simply because they have much smaller vehicles, and won’t hesitate to cut you off.
Do get a regional map
The region surrounding Chiang Mai is beautiful. There are several interesting and charming spots just 30 or 40 minutes outside the city such as the San Kampheang hot spring. Or simply riding around the country side and eating with local farmers can be quite fun.
Do lock your motorbike
Chiang Mai is a very safe city but motorbike theft is relatively high. Try to bring your motorbike within the gates of your guesthouse or hotel and lock it. Also note that motorbikes can easily disappear from monitored parking lots at shopping malls.
Don’t drink and drive
Let’s face it : alcohol in Thailand is very cheap, and it’s extremely easy to loose awareness. Because of this, the roads in Chiang Mai at night are full of drivers who have had a little too much to drink, thus, making the road generally much more dangerous than during the daytime. An important recommendation would be to simply go out by foot ; Chiang Mai is a fairly small city and several drinking spots within walking distance of all guesthouse areas.
Don’t drive too quickly
Relax, you’re on holiday.
Don’t get upset
You will get cut off; this is just a fact. In fact, you will cut off 2 or 3 times per hour of riding. This is how drivers are in Thailand. Let it go.
Don’t leave any purse or bag in the front basket
This is an easy target. Although rare, this kind of theft does happen.
Most of us enjoy taking holidays away from home, but very few are comfortable at being continuously or often on the move. This is a particular lifestyle which involves certain sacrifices but begets extraordinary rewards. Here are the signs that you are a born traveller:
1. You love airports. You love going to the airport, train station or even the bus terminal for any reason. Maybe you are going somewhere or just dropping off your mom or brother. Periodically, you will simply spend an afternoon soaking in the hustle and bustle of travelers rushing to their respective gates, all in the hopes that it was you who was leaving.
2. You like being on the move. When going about your life, arriving kind a sucks. What you crave is the movement; you enjoy the movement of the bus, subway train or car as it travels through the streets of your city. But arriving a your destination gives a tiny sense of sadness.
3. You have few possessions. Real travelers don’t accumulate things. Instead, they focus on objects which further their careers or expends their inner selfs. You find yourself borrowing things often. You don’t see this as being cheap, but rather as frugal. Things are meant to be used, and should be so by as many people possible. For example; if they want to read a certain book, you will get it at the library, borrow it from a friend or get a kindle version. Hardcore travelers are the opposite of hoarders.
4. Your different. A life where you have a steady job, house in the burbs and a car or 2 in the garage is strange behavior to you.
5. Your jobs are short. You have or always seek short time or temporary work. Most likely, you are your own boss and work as a freelancer or contractor. Even computer engineers, technicians and health care providers can work on an independent basis today. One of my friends is a computer geek who takes on 3 to 6 month very well paid work during which he lives like a monk. He then travels for up to a year after wards. Many travelers make excellent businessmen or women as the two require similar traits of character.
6. You love culture. You are always reading and viewing documentaries about far away tribes or recently discovered archeological sites. You’re fascinated with different cultural practices which make up the human experience such as clothing and food.
7. You love languages. You’re planning or are currently learning a new language.
8. Your home is with you at all time. You know deep down that home is not a place but a feeling. It is where ever you are at this moment.
9. You prefer quality over quantity. All your purchases focus on quality. In your mind, going places means being light; this means that that jacket or sleeping bag must go a long way because you have only one.
10. You’re accepting of others and are easy going. Traveling means experiencing different people and cultures then your own. This also means that human behaviour and daily practices will differ from yours. For most short time vacationers, this is relatively easy and even fun. But a lifetime of experience something different is challenging. Not everyone can handle this for 2 or 3 years or even just 3 months.
11. You’re adventurous. You like to try new things, meet new people and learn new things. You are looking for new things, different things to do.
12. You’re curious. You love to inquire and ask questions. You have a strong desire to know. What’s at the end of road, behind this wall or what does Kimchi tastes like; the discovery is pure pleasure.
13. You’re courageous. You might at times be afraid but you don’t let that stop you as you plunge onwards. Wether it is downhill skiing in the Rockies or the Alps, biking through traffic in New York, applying for a dream job or striking a conversation with that cute stranger, you’re doing it.
When visitors spend one or two weeks in Chiang Mai, they will normally visited a few temples and photographed some Buddhist monks. Here are ways to go deeper into this philosophy and start to practice and understand some Buddhist concepts.
1. Give alms
Each morning, all Buddhist monks get up before dawn and set to walk in and around their respective temples. The goal is to collect offerings in the form or food or even money. In exchange, the giver receives blessings in the form of a chant.
What to do: Put your offering in the monk’s alms bowl and kneel while bringing your hands in a praying position while lowering your head. The monk will chant for about 1 minute.
Where to do it: At any moment when you see a monk walk around between 4:30 and 7AM. The most popular place to do this in Chiang Mai is the at the Chiang Mai Gate Market near the South-East corner of the old city where dozens of monks gather every morning.
2. Attend a Dharma talk
A Dharma talk will give you the opportunity to directly discuss Buddhism with monks. You will be introduced to the basic principals of Buddhism such as karma and precepts, learn about daily life for a monk and even be allowed to ask questions.
Where to do this: Wat Suandok offers a 2 hour talk beginning at 17:00 Monday to Friday.
3. Learn to meditate
Meditation is at the center of Buddhism; this is the way the Buddha attained enlightenment. Contrary to popular beliefs, meditation is not practiced while listening to relaxing music. It’s a practice which takes time, regularity and discipline. There are several methods but the ones taught and practiced in Thailand are mostly Vipassana and walking meditation.
Where to do it: Wat Rampoeng (temple) offers a mini 10 meditation retreat. If you have more time, they also offer one of 26 days. These two retreats are considered very basic introduction but will give you a very strong basis for a life long practice which will change your life.
Wat Suandok offers a tiny 2 day retreat.
The historical Wat Umong also offers a retreats. We suggest that you show up a few days before you decide to begin your retreat.
Please be warned that you will need to obey the very strict rules which are a part of daily life in a Buddhist temple.