Thursday, June 16, 2011

In Chiang Mai - June 12 2011


The day of the wedding dawned bright with a few rain clouds hanging low. The idlis served at breakfast were so soft that I found it a task to spoon it on to the plate. I also tried out the rava dosa, which was super. A cup of strong coffee was the last item of consumption at the breakfast table. I reported at the travel desk a bit early for a vehicle to complete the rest of the sights I had on the schedule. I was provided an exclusive vehicle to visit the Chiang Mai Zoo, the Gondee Gallery and a couple of the more visited temples.

The Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium is located on a 210-acre woody land at the foot of Doi Suthep Mountain.  The entry ticket to the Zoo does not include the Panda enclosure – the stars of the Zoo – the internal bus ride or the Aquarium. I decided to skip the Aquarium for want of time and took the 100 THB entry ticket to walk around the zoo. The Zoo is home to over 7,000 animals in a wooded, natural environment and is a popular attraction with the Pandas and the large number of animals and the beautiful natural setting. December 2003 saw a turnaround in the fortunes of the Chiang Mai Zoo. It has become a ‘must visit’ place for local and foreign tourists as it then received the Panda couple Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui from Sichuan, China.  Six years later, in May 2009, the couple produced a cute baby Panda named “Lin Ping”, who is now a new star of the zoo. Entry to the Panda enclosure cost a further 100 THB. Paying to visit these facilities do not hurt you when you see that the money is well spent on keeping the premises clean, neat and visitor friendly. While photography is not prohibited, the security person at the entrance seals the flash on the camera. The highlight of a visit to the Pandas is the photographs you get to take ‘with them’. For 50 THB you can get a photograph cuddling the baby Panda or just sitting on a bench with the family of Pandas around you. The computer assisted picture is a treat and a good souvenir of the visit. I also got some excellent shots of the couple, who were housed in separate enclosures. While the male was content feeding on bamboo seated royally on a garden bench, the female was seen pining for him with doleful eyes through the bars of the adjacent enclosure. The mournful wails of the female had no effect on the abdominal indulgence of the male.

The Chiang Mai Zoo also houses four koalas which it got from Australia in July 2006 to mark the 60th anniversary of His Majesty the King’s Accession to the Throne. Besides these star attractions there are lots to see and enjoy in the Zoo such as the pygmy hippos, Thai elephants, African animals like the giraffe, ostrich, zebras, camels, birds like parakeets, macaws, magpies, painted storks, flamingo, Albino RB Tigers, Royal Bengal Tigers, Lions, Leopards (normal and black), Jaguar, a large number of flowers and orchids in a huge area. What strikes you the most are the cheerful and smiling faces of those minding the Zoo and their overarching desire to be of service to the visitors.

The Gongdee Gallery is the area’s primary incubator for young artistic talent. It is a lane full of showrooms that showcase a mix of home decor, furniture, sculpture, art and paintings. For instance, one showroom was almost entirely full of a young artist’s wood carvings of elephants in different ‘poses’. They are all so realistic that some of the large pieces in the showroom can intimidate you. The items are a bit pricey, but they are worth it. The Byzantine icon–like Buddhas and altars painted by Chiang Mai artist Barinya are considered to be the most famous in the block. Some of the needlework on display was exquisite.

Chiang Mai’s most visited temple, the Wat Phra Singh, owes its fame to the fact that it houses the city’s most revered Buddha image, Phra Singh (Lion Buddha), and it has a fine collection of classic Lanna art and architecture.

The Wat Phan Tao, located near Wat Chedi Luang, contains a beautiful old teak vihara that was once a royal residence and is today one of the unsung treasures of Chiang Mai. Constructed entirely of moulded teak panels fitted together and supported by 28 gargantuan teak pillars, the vihara features naga bargeboards inset with coloured mirror mosaic. On display inside are old temple bells, some ceramics, a few old northern-style gilded wooden Buddhas, and antique cabinets stacked with old palm-leaf manuscripts. The front panel of the building displays a mirrored mosaic of a peacock standing over a dog, representing the astrological year of the former royal resident’s birth.

As preparation to attend the wedding I decided to try out the Le Best for a Thai body massage! As I was being prepared for the massage the lady masseur suggested that I opt for a two hour session instead of one hour as that would be more beneficial. I would have definitely heeded her suggestion if I knew in advance how relaxing the massage would be. I chose to have the one hour session as a sample and as the session went on I regretted not having opted for the longer version. The knots on the legs and shoulders were systematically addressed and I felt relaxed after the session. I promised to come back for a two hour session the next day and accordingly made a booking too.

The wedding was to be conducted in Royal Thai style in Royal Flora, which was readied as a tribute to His Majesty the King. The gardens reportedly don 1.8 million flowers. The late evening wedding unfortunately did not present the opportunity to experience the floral delights. The Royal Flora has been a venue for weddings only twice before; it is that exclusive. The setting was perfect for a romantic, theme wedding. The Thai temple at the centre of Royal Flora – reached by a steep climb - was turned into a mythological setting with lovely girls dressed as Apsaras and Rama, Seetha and a host of Hindu pantheon represented at the foot of the temple. While I reached the venue the ‘Barath’ of the groom was just being welcomed to the venue. It did take more than half hour for the groom to reach the exact site of the Varmala. Thereafter, it was a long wait for the bride to arrive. And finally when she did arrive on a doli made of solid bamboo and borne by about 50 young thai boys in traditional attire Shweta looked radiant atop the lotus shaped doli. The Varmala ceremony did take a while with laser displays and fireworks in the background. The ceremony was grander than what could have been visualised.

After the Varmala it was time for drinks, food and music, of which there was plenty. At the bar I encountered a few brash youngsters who took offence to the bartender offering them wine from a bottle that was already uncorked – the privilege of the rich and that of their scions! In contrast was Mr Gupta, a down to earth entrepreneur who pioneered the use of seat belts in Indian cars and drove it through many years of legislation and lobbying. He is now betting on the more widespread use of airbags and the new seat belts that would be required for that purpose. He narrated an instance where a car manufacturer charged Rs. 150,000 for an air bag from a customer while its supply cost is Rs. 4500. The margins in auto components are squeezed by the manufacturers, but they themselves inflate the cost of spares.  Another interesting meeting was with a Coke bottler from Delhi. He explained how the coke concentrate is blended with water, sugar and other ingredients in controlled conditions so as to make the product available all over the country with a single taste. The bottler also has the responsibility of the supply chain, product visibility in the market and advertising.

Technically I completed the sights I had identified for Chiang Mai with a late night visit to the famed Night Bazaar of the city. This extensive market sprawls along several blocks. Roofed concession areas, regular shops and street vendors offer a huge variety of Thai goods at bargain prices. Designer goods - real and fake - are also on offer. I was particularly impressed by the ceramic work (picked up a pair of ducks and two doggie families). The quality of wood carving is just too good – the elephants, owls, tigers et al on display are almost flawless. I picked up an elephant herd on a stand for about Rs. 450. The large number of stores that vend a variety of T-shirts and other cotton fabric will make you want to buy. I resisted and resisted till I was offered a ‘midnight bargain’ for three cotton shirts. At the end of the purchases I was left with only 50 TMB for the rest of the stay in Thailand. I was fated to miss out on the rendezvous at Le Best for the Thai massage.

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