Monday, June 20, 2011

Chiang Mai-Bangkok-Bangalore - June 13 2011

The ‘imported’ cooks had had a busy evening at the Royal Flora last evening. The South Indian food counters were extremely popular. The breakfast this morning was the regular fare at the Hotel. The spread was impressive and encompassed many cuisines. Pancakes and waffles with liberal helpings of maple syrup received my initial attention followed by sausages, ham and poached eggs. Fresh fruits and a large cup of strong coffee gave me adequate fuel to explore the local market immediately after breakfast. With little local currency in hand (I was loathe to exchange more of either USD or INR as I knew I would pick up stuff I would not need if I had more local currency) I decided to walk around the territory in the vicinity of the Hotel to observe the commerce and businesses.

The local market was just a km away from the Hotel. The place was bustling with activity. Every shop was open and the pavements were also used to set up shops. There was barely enough space, if the pedestrians moved aside, for motorised vehicles to ply in the street. The aroma of food and spices was strong - people on their way to work in offices or shops dropped by for quick bites at eateries or to pack their favourite dishes. Tourists were few. There were numerous signages announcing discounts and bargain buys. Just to sample the selling ‘habit’ of the local shops I walked into a textile shop that had on sale many ‘foreign’ brands of menswear. The politeness with which I was served and the trouble the salesperson took to explain the features of each and every material that I enquired about took my breath away. I was convinced to buy and I shortlisted two - one an Italian material and the other English. When I asked if they would accept a credit card I was told that I would have to make a sale of 1ooo THB at least. Apologising for the trouble I left the shop; but am convinced that I left behind good bargains.

I left the local market to explore if I could catch up with some more history of Chiang Mai before departing for the airport. This small town has a history of more than 1000 years. The Upper North of Thailand started getting ‘colonised’ from 1000 AD by the ‘Yuan Tai’. It is their revered leader Mengrai who founded Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai in the last quarter of the 13th century. The Golden Age of the ‘Lan Na’ was for about 170 years between 1355 and 1525 when Theravada Buddhism took deep roots and many important wars led to consolidation of the Lan Na ‘kingdom’. The prosperous land went into decline from 1525 to 1558 and paved the way for its occupation by the Burmese between 1558 and 1774. The period of restoration of the Lan Na lasted from 1774 to 1899. Between 1899 and 1937 Lan Na became a part of Siam as its Northern Province.

Walking to the Tha Phae Gate (TPG) and along the moat one gets a feel of the history and the power that this place would have wielded in the past. The TPG is the eastern gateway into the old city of Chiang Mai. The TPG is a plian red brick gate with stout teak doors. Tha Phae means ‘raft landing’ – people would travel on the Mae Ping River and arrive by rafts for commerce. The entire east side of Chiang Mai those days was protected by a wall and a moat. Vestiges of the brick wall can be seen when one walks around and the moat is now a water body with fountains at the centre of its sections and lovely flower beds on either side. The busy roads do not give any indication of the crucial role played by this region in the development of Siam and the later day Thailand. The Mae Ping River (known as the Lifeline of the Chiang Mai Province) and the other four major rivers make this area fertile and green.

While walking back to the Hotel from the TPG I came across the Wat Bupparam. I was not aware of its historical significance, but I stopped at the gate of this temple when I saw the ‘Three Lions of the Asoka Pillar’ on either side of the entrance to the temple premise. Experiences such as this help one to link up the cultures of the East UP, Bihar, the eastern States of India, and countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Sri Lanka. The site of Wat Bupparam is historically significant as it is from here that the then King took back the Chiang Mai from the Burmese after over 200 years of occupation. 

Walking around the city was enervating for the humidity. I had a long and luxurious bath in the Hotel to cool off. However, I felt extremely bad about having to leave “The Land of Smiles” without keeping the promised appointment at ‘Le Best’. The 50 THB remained in my wallet the whole day. I was on the same bus to the airport as Mr Aggarwal, who is a businessman from Coimbatore. This Marwari gentleman is a second generation settler in Coimbatore. His father set up many flour mills in the South. A detailed conversation with him lifted the air of ignorance on the origin of maida, suji, bran flakes and bran. The processing of wheat produces five products that are individually sold for different applications. This low investment business venture served the Aggarwals well for over 50 years in Coimbatore.

At the airport there was a slight confusion on whether to check in at the domestic or the international section of the airport. After that was cleared the check in was done in the fastest possible time with absolutely no hassles and with smiles all around. The visit to ‘The Land of Smiles’ was over and it was time for the return journey to the homeland. I spent the 50 THB I had on a packet of assorted crackers and used it to quieten the grouchy growls from the deprived abdomen, for I had foregone lunch.

There were many Indians on the flight and they did give the crew a hard time. The behaviour from many was downright shameful and I could make out that the crew discriminated the service of Indians on the flight. The stopover at Bangkok was just a couple of hours and the flight landed in Bangalore a half hour in advance of the appointed time before midnight. The baggage clearance took time; I used the time to shop for Single Malts – was lucky to get the Lagavulin that I had been in search of for nearly six months.

I tagged along with the ‘KPF’ team of Mr Modi that was returning to Bellary and got back to my township in time to attend office on the 14th. It has been a most amazing journey – the wedding, the hospitality, the Land of Smiles, the massage, the arts and crafts of Chiang Mai, etc will remain an evergreen memory.

Friday, June 17, 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.

Thursday, June 16, 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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bangalore-Bangkok-Chiang Mai - June 10 2011

The in-flight announcements about the impending landing and arrival requirements at Bangkok woke me up. There was no time for a bed coffee. With summer timing in force the time difference between India and Bangkok is 2 hours. The new Suvarnabhumi International Airport is not very exciting. It is a large facility no doubt with live orchids and quite a bit of greenery within the airport.  However, one does not get the feeling of it being special. On disembarking from the flight I headed for the ‘On Arrival Visa’ section.  A ‘morning walk’, albeit on travelators deposited me at a desk peopled by a couple of cheerful youngsters. Upon ascertaining that the visa would have to be paid for in local currency I submitted myself for a complete rip off at the airport currency changers. The premium is as high as 50% for exchanging Indian currency. After that was done what ensued was a horrendous wait of over two hours for issue of the visa. Wherever you are bound for in Thailand one has to obtain visa and immigration clearance in Bangkok. I soon realised that the delay was caused by a combination of less counters, lack of documentation and understanding by the arriving passengers. The Fast Track counter did brisk business, where one has to pay 20% more than the 1000 THB for the normal counters. I was short of the local currency and I had time on my hands; so I decided to wait it out. The queues had only Indians, in groups and otherwise. What irks you the most is the ‘Indianness’ of wanting to be the first in the queue even when you have arrived late. And, such attitude is not the preserve of brash youngsters, even senior citizens display this – is it because they feel that there is so much more to be done and there is not that much time left for it to be done in! After a patience and energy sapping wait of over two hours I presented myself before a young lady officer of the Thai Immigration. I presented all the documents required and waited for the necessary stampings on the passport. Instead the Officer passed me on to another as she was stumped and we could not communicate clearly with each other. Fortunately, I got my visa done soon with immigration clearance.

Another long trek took me to the transfer counter for Chiang Mai. I was in for a major panic when I discovered the loss of my travel kit with foreign exchange after the security check in. I ran out of the security enclosure in complete panic. Fortunately, the immigration officer stopped me and handed over the pouch; I had left it at her counter on the way for security check after completing the immigration formalities. With the anxiety of the loss and the relief of retrieval behind me I waited another couple of hours for the flight to Chiang Mai.

The flight was a short hop of over an hour – the distance from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is nearly 800 kms by road. Chiang Mai looked absolutely gorgeous from the air – a green valley surrounded by mountains.  Large tracts of agricultural farms, virtually manicured and geometrically laid out, was a visual treat.  Later I could connect the visual pictures of these farms with the lovely fruits and vegetables I consumed and the brilliant array of flowers that were so much part of the venues of the three days of various ceremonies connected with the wedding. High rise buildings were not part of the landscape – the city grows horizontally rather than vertically. The majority of houses have terracotta tiled sloping roofs and the blocks are well arranged. The misty mountains lend their magic to the city. While collecting the baggage i noticed a team that welcomed wedding guests at the airport.  Spectrum Events was in charge of all the arrangements for transport, accommodation, venue preparation, etc. They were very efficient at the airport, assisted by a group from Bellary. I was assigned a room at the Le Meridien and a transport allocated to take me there. The Hotel was just about 20 minutes from the airport. Another team comprising of Modi’s employees and Spectrum handled everything from specially erected booths that made the guests instantly comfortable.

After checking in and unpacking I was eager to schedule the next three days. I took the assistance of the Spectrum team at the Hotel. They drew up a two day schedule to visit the places I had shortlisted from the bits and pieces I picked up from the Internet. The beauty of the schedule was that I could cover the places I intended to visit and yet attend all the wedding related events; the entertainment related events had to be carefully chosen from. I sought the advice of the Spectrum team to go for a Thai massage before the evening program at the Shangri-La Hotel. With a naughty smile and a wink one of them asked me what kind of massage I wanted to go for. They seemed relieved when I told them that I had the traditional one in mind. They suggested a few places, but I had to get some local currency first. The poor rate offered for the INR came as a bit of a shock; against the official rate of 0.67, what was on offer was just 0.58. The USD was better treated and hence I exchanged that for the Thai Baht.

Just around the corner from Le Meridien is the ‘Le Best’ massage parlour. There was a long list of services advertised by the parlour. They had a promotion offer of foot, leg, neck and shoulder massage for 180 THB. I decided to try that out and walked in to a hall where a few customers were being massaged and many chairs were empty. A lady was assigned to me and I was asked to sit on a chair where my feet were thoroughly washed first. Then over the next one hour I was given an excellent massage that relaxed the ‘tough’ muscles and prompted me to decide on the same routine for the next three days too. It was then time to get back and get dressed for the ‘Thai Carnival’ and the many programs (including gaming and games of chances) that had been arranged from 7 pm at the Shangri-La Hotel. Before I left for the program I asked at the special counter where I could procure a local sim card from. Immediately I was given one with 105 THB worth of calls on it! All that would be necessary for the guests while in Thailand had been factored in.

I felt a bit guilty when I walked in to the Hotel at 7.15 pm, as it was a quarter hour later than what the invite mentioned. There was still a fairly large gathering at the High Tea counters and none to be seen near the Poolside, where the first function was to be held. I had completely forgotten the fact that the Indian Standard Time would be sacrosanct, even in Thailand, I walked around some and then decided to partake of the High Tea. There was a small offering of Thai eats while the Indian foods were predominant and all foods were vegetarian. The chat counter worked overtime.

A massive dose of rain ruined the most fascinating arrangements done in the open air. There was a fair amount of discussion on whether the program should be conducted inside the Hotel, more so because the Met Department forecast a 40% chance of further rain. However, by 9 pm it was decided to start the program at the Poolside. When I walked to the venue I found a man dressed like an entertainer. When I asked him what his repertoire was he told me that he could capture a silhouette merely by a few cuts of a scissor on a piece of paper. I asked if I was too complex a subject to start his evening! What he achieved in a few moments was nothing short of astounding. After he had finished, a lady who was passing by made a few positive comments and I could not resist asking if the comments were directed at me or the artist. I suppose she did not mean it at all when she said it was meant for both!

The program finally kicked off with the ‘Thai Carnival’ that showcased Chiang Mai handicrafts and the Lanna foods. The guests were asked to choose whatever handicrafts they liked as a souvenir. The perfumed flower candles, perfumed flower soap in a wooded dish, hand-painted wood pulp umbrella, hand-painted fan, coconut tree leaf hat, jasmine garland and handmade stone and gem jewellery were all on display. The candle making and the painting of fans and umbrellas attracted the attention of most of the guests. Another artist specialised in caricatures and I got mine done in the woven hat. The Lanna food spread was a stunning array of the most incredible vegetable preparations. I started with the delicious sugarcane juice and worked my way up noodles, rice, sattays, various dips and grills. I gorged on every fruit that was in sight. The Dragon Fruit was a discovery.

With the stomach looked after I settled down to the happenings at the Poolside. The couple looked absolutely stunning as they were brought into public view in a boat rowed by a traditionally dressed Thai oarsman. The floating of candles in the pool followed, which was meant to wish the couple. The music, the singing and the juggling acts all complemented the lovely evening. Personally I was disappointed by the two MCs. Through it all I had a couple of drinks and my head began to swim – a combination of exhaustion and the heady festivities. After a helping of a local recipe of the most delectable coconut soufflĂ©, the fireworks and the display of gas powered air borne lanterns I decided to call it a day. The Le Meridien is a short walk from the Shangri-La Hotel. On the way I sampled a few things on offer in the ‘Night Bazaar’, which was listed as a ‘must see’ in the Chiang Mai itinerary. The wood carvings and the ceramic work of Chiang Mai are famous. I short listed a few items to buy when I have the time to bargain. Back in the room I found a huge hamper of eats and beverages; no effort had been spared to take care of the guests.

A Destination Wedding – 9 June 2011

If you had asked me ten days back when I would be contemplating my next trip abroad I would have laughed in your face with incredulity. Alas, mere mortals we that do not know what the new dawn holds for us! A telephone call on 31st May set such an unusual string of events in motion that I am right now waiting for the gate to open for the red eye Thai flight to Bangkok, en route to Chiang Mai.

The call was from SK Modi, the Proprietor/CMD of BIOP, a leading iron ore export firm based in Bellary. Modi is exceptionally gifted in making friends and keeping them. I had made his initial acquaintance in September 2003 when I was posted in Hubli, then recently established as the headquarters of South Western Railway. That was the beginning of the iron ore export boom with China picking up anything even vaguely resembling iron ore to meet its commitments to build state-of-the-art infrastructure for the 2008 Olympics. South Western Railway was the star on the horizon with more than 10,000 rake indents pending for loading iron ore at various stations in its jurisdiction. Mine owners started amassing wealth beyond their wildest dreams, but few honestly accepted it. Modi was an exception. He used to narrate his early days of struggle when nobody wanted iron ore fines and mine owners were at the mercy of the consumers. He constantly thanked the Almighty for the riches that came his way. He used his extra finances to indulge in his passion for cars, tourism related foreign travel and experimenting with electronic technology.

Over a period of time we became family friends and I remember speaking to him on a few occasions even after I moved to Cochin after taking leave of the Railways. Thus, it was only natural that I announced my relocation to Toranagallu with JSW Steel as soon as I moved in there. He was abroad – not unusual. The next time I called him was to book a Maruti car at his Bellary dealership. He was abroad then too; he arranged to get the booking done.  He called up on 31st May to invite me to his daughter’s Mehendi ceremony in Bellary on the 2nd June. I apologised to him for I was travelling on duty to Chennai and Bangalore on the 1st and hence, would not be able to attend the function. He insisted that I drop in to his office on the way to the Guntakal railway station. I could not refuse that.

In his office Modi told me of his plans to celebrate the Mehendi in a humungous AC tent with dancers from Brazil and Russia! The program he detailed to me for the wedding in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was nothing short of extracts from fairy tale books I had read in my childhood. He must have fathomed the desire in my heart to attend the wedding, going by the widening chasm between the two sets of teeth. He had made arrangements to house 800 guests in Le Meridien and Shangrila Hotels in Chang Mai. Group booking in flights to Bangalore to Chiang Mai via Bangkok was also done. He offered air tickets and accommodation to attend the wedding. It was too good to believe. And, as luck would have it, I had my passport with me for Modi to arrange visa. Thus, in less than half an hour, the Thai trip for a ‘Destination Wedding’ was given shape to. The final requirement was the permission of my boss to take leave (it was easier than I expected).

By the time I returned from the visits to Chennai and Bangalore all except the visa was done, which I was to obtain on arrival in Bangkok. The wedding invitation card is by itself a piece of art.  The invitation contained programs for three days in Chiang Mai.  Besides, it also had a travel kit which did not leave anything to be ‘found out’. It even had baggage tags and ribbons for easy identification of the group baggage. The ‘Travel Guidelines’ listed every little matter that was needed to be known and acted upon, including the amount of foreign exchange that must be on the person arriving in Thailand and the weather conditions likely to be encountered.. The wedding itinerary of Ankit and Swetha did not leave a minute for any activity outside the Shangri-La Hotel in Chiang Mai. I had downloaded information on places to be seen in Chiang Mai. If I am to attend all the programs I will not have any time for it till the 13th. So be it. Attending the wedding and all its programs is the prime purpose of the visit.

Over the past two days I was more concerned with what I should pack for the trip and mentally trying to picture the likely gathering for the special functions. This can put a lot of pressure on the sartorial choices. In the end I discovered I had little choice for I had only to carry what I would fit into. Weight gain over the past three months in Toranagallu pared down choices to the bare minimum. The next issue was to arrange transport to the Bangalore International Airport. Here again, I was in luck. A Siemens engineer was being ferried to the airport this afternoon. I shamelessly tagged along.

The flight was scheduled to leave a half hour after midnight. Such flights are absolute ‘sleep slayers’. I reached the airport well in time to be told that the flight is delayed by an hour. After a dinner of Pizza I had over three hours to kill. I sauntered around all the Duty Free shops and even picked up a bottle each of Lagavulin and JW Double Black – only to be told that it may not be permitted into Thailand with immigration and customs clearance slated in Bangkok. I let go of the ‘liquid desires’ for I did not want to take the chance that could possibly sink me by more than $100. Rest of the time I spent watching late night news and working a tad on the laptop. The flight was full and it pulled out a few minutes to 2am from the parking bay. A most fortuitous journey was underway.

Some time into the flight – think it was 3 am IST – I was woken up for dinner; had a full meal over a gin and tonic! A strong cup of coffee set me up for a couple of hours of sleep.

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...