Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In Chiang Mai - June 11 2011

Everything relating to the wedding was custom-made. So was the breakfast – the 44 culinary specialists flown in from India took care of the palate of those invited and present. Had I not been conscious of being in Thailand I would not have believed that the Dosa, chutneys and sambar served for breakfast was made there. They were delicious and naturally, I could not stop with one or two or even three! The poha, the Bhatura and chole and everything else was so Indian in taste that one felt firmly ‘seated’ in India.

The first half of the day was reserved for local sightseeing. The Hawaiian Party and the Citrus lunch at the Shangri-La Hotel were sacrificed to flavour the local culture and history. I took the free transportation that had been arranged for the guests. First on the agenda was the Bhubing Palace, the winter residence of the Royals in Chiang Mai (usually between January and March), built in 1961. The Palace is set in a salubrious environment where the weather is different from that in the city, which is only 20 kms away. The Doi Suthep and Doi Pui mountains keep the Palace air nippy and misty. The entire area of the Palace grounds is a healthy walk; battery operated golf carts are another option. The log cabins, the rose and fern gardens, the water reservoir (where there is a musical fountain called ‘The Fountain of Celestial Water of People’ which comes to life by dancing fountains moving in sync to musical compositions by the king and beautifully laid out flower beds), the Palace itself and the biggest bamboo in the world are all sights to savour at leisure. Thai food and fruits can be sampled in shops in the Palace Grounds.

6 kms down from the Palace, at the foot of the Doi Suthep Mountain, is the Khruba Siwichai Monument. The revered monk was instrumental in inducing the local people to build the road up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in 1935. The Wat located 3000 feet above MSL is perhaps the most important landmark in Chiang Mai and is a ‘must visit’ for those who come to the province. The Wat can be approached either by the 300 step Naga stairway or by an elevator (it is a misnomer to call it a cable car – it is an enclosed, inclined elevator). It is recommended to go up to the Wat in the elevator and walk down the Naga stairway to experience both the accesses. The golden pagoda of the temple contains holy relics of the Buddha. The temple also offers an interesting collection of Lanna art and architecture and can offer lovely views of the city views if the day is clear. Perhaps due to its importance in the tourist circuit the temple is full of self proclaimed professional photographers. A few children had set up dance and music shows for donation, which was a pleasant diversion for tourists visiting the temple.

While exiting the stairway of the Wat I was besieged by vendors selling paintings and handicrafts. The workmanship of the handicrafts is of a high quality, I noticed. On the way to the car park I came to the ‘Jade and Orchid Factory.” While admiring the jade pieces and a magnificent wood sculpture called ‘serpentine’ I was invited to visit the factory by a pleasant young girl. I told her that my interests only lay in quenching my curiosity and not in purchasing. She took me around and showed me different types and quality of jade and how the craftsmen work on the rough pieces to create unique works of art for buyers from all over the world. In between admiring the local handicrafts and the jade I bought two skewers of grilled sausages for lunch. They tasted yummy, though I did not check what the filling was. I was attracted to a vendor selling gems. He took a ruby and cut a glass piece into two. But what attracted me the most was the ‘Burmese crystal’ that was white but radiated a bright blue. I could not muster enough courage to strike a deal – they were at a good bargain – suspecting that the gems would not be originals.

The next stop was at the Three Kings Monument, which is right in front of the Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre. The Monument commemorates the alliance forged between the three northern Thai-Lao kings Phaya Ngam Meuang of Phayao, Phaya Mengrai of Chiang Mai and Phaya Khun Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai in the founding of Chiang Mai. The bronze statues of the three kings are seen proudly wearing 14th-century royal garb. The Monument marks one of the city’s spiritual centres and has become a shrine to local residents, who regularly leave offerings of flowers, incense and candles at the bronze feet in return for blessings from the powerful spirits of the three kings. A huge tent had been erected in front of the Monument for dancing and festivities. Young and old were seen shaking a leg to local instrumental music to seek blessings.

The Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre offers a kaleidoscopic primer on Chiang Mai history and culture. The Centre is located in a building of vintage architecture where the royal hall once stood. The beauty of this post-colonial building, Chiang Mai’s former Provincial Hall, is best appreciated from the second floor.
What I could see wherever I went were the smiling locals – no wonder Chiang Mai is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’ - clean roads, disciplined driving, greenery and flowers everywhere. The tuk tuks and taxis never collared you; they were extremely polite in soliciting a fare. Some naughtily announced a visit to ‘Thai massage’ parlours. However, I headed for the ‘Le Best’ once again for another round of neck, shoulders, leg and foot massage at 180 THB. The one hour goes by so quickly that I was tempted to ask for another hour of the same treatment! I reluctantly dragged myself off after the customary cup of Green Tea.

The Sagai and Tilak were listed to be at 7 pm. Wiser from the experience of the previous day I knew that the program would not start in time. But, habits are not easy to change. I landed up at the Shangri-La a bit after the appointed time and waited for the functions to start with a cup of coffee. The Lanna Ballroom had been done up exquisitely and a stage had been specially got up for the wedding related events and the RDB band (flown in from UK) and the VJs. The sagai and tilak ceremonies finally started at a half past eight. By that time I had made a few friends and occupied a table with some starters and a Single Malt. I was fascinated by the company of two sisters who had come from Bangalore. I admired their happy go lucky attitude, warmth and friendliness. The younger of the two works in the Administrative section of the Narayana Hridalaya and is almost exclusively in charge of their charitable activities and CSR. The two of them, in their Kancheepuram sarees enjoyed the programs to the hilt and were always there when the situation called for a few shakes of the legs and hips!!

The Sagai and Tilak were done within a half hour. The family members then occupied the stage with some skits and dances to ‘warn’ Shweta and Ankit of what they are in for. The MCs tried their best to drum up crowd enthusiasm, but it fell a bit short. The RDB was a bit too loud for my musical sensibilities. But it did get the crowd swinging finally. The food was in plenty – Amritsari, Jaipuri, Japanese, Continental, etc., etc. I left for my hotel close to midnight when I felt that the sounds emanating from the speakers would still my heart and the food would choke my gullet.

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