After returning from the Elephant Park, we had some extra time in the old and fascinating city, Chiang Mai. Eager to explore, we hopped on the mountain bikes provided by our hotel, U Chiang Mai, and took to the streets, careful to attempt to stay outside the flow of mainstream traffic. The city pulsates with life, albeit much quieter and less crowded than the new capital of Bangkok. Mopeds, taxis, tuk-tuks, pedestrians, bikes…everyone in Asia seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere.
We peddle down packed streets, dodging cars and people, breathing in the noxious fumes of diesel; everywhere you look is a store, market or temple. The city is home to over 33 temples or shrines of some sort. We stop at the flower market near the old city gate, push our bikes down narrow lanes inside the market, flanked on all sides by vendors selling fish,
chicken feet, fruits that look like small works of art, vegetables known and unknown, freshly cut birds of paradise and chrysanthemums so orange they look like small sunbursts. Vendors call out loudly to sell their goods or ignore customers, seemingly more intent on reading a crumpled newspaper or watching a soap opera on a tiny black and white TV perched on a nearby table. We make our way through the maze of stalls, our eyes getting sidetracked by so many intoxicating sights, and finally pop out on the other side of the flower mart, into the hot heat and bright sunlight of noon in Chiang Mai.
Utterly lost, we pick a street and wheel our bikes onward, falling into the rhythm of the traffic. A brightly colored temple gate straddles the narrow street, an outdoor shrine on one side and a large building on the other, a dozen or so pairs of shoes lying in wait, empty, outside its doors. I can smell the incense, sweet and spicy. I slip of my sneakers and pad into the temple in my socked feet. Every inch of wall space is dedicated to an image: a tiger, a dragon, a Buddha, an elderly scholar. Women sit at a counter making paper offerings and for 20 baht I buy a packet of incense sticks and 2 red candles. I lite the candles and place them in a sand container and then lite the incense to take to the outdoor shrine. The sticks smolder and begin to burn, releasing their smoke and scent in to the air, wafting slowly upwards. I hand Walt a few sticks and we both make our offering to the shrine, say our prayers and leave our sticks to burn out in the sand. Supposedly the smoke will help our request make it upwards, to wherever it is prayers are heard and sometimes answered. A moment’s quiet, a silent offering before we jump back on the bikes in search of more temples. The city swallows us up again, moving us along inside the ebb and flow of Thailand’s second largest city.