Saturday, March 11, 2006

Chiang Mai - An Elephant carrying Lord Buddha's relics


Almost a decade ago, while in Oman. I had heard about Chiang Mai. Since then, I must have made at least ten trips to Bangkok but every time Chiang Mai and Phuket remained out of my reach. Pictures of elephant rides amidst the exotic greenery of Chiang Mai made yearning for this place more acute. It was coincidence that on my way to this place, I happen to see a Japanese movie shot in Chiang Mai.

Reaching one day prior to business meeting can be a good excuse to avoid jet lag but it also gives an opportunity to do some sightseeing. In my previous meeting, I spent a day at Mekong Delta after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City and then seeing Ku Chi caves as a part of ‘beating retreat’. I was hoping to see something spectacular next day and therefore immediately started rummaging through travel magazines as soon as I arrived past midnight. It became evident, most of the exotic places were out of the city limits and most day tours would start only by early morning to extend till late hours. I was in no condition to undertake grueling sightseeing after Eight hours of travel time from Dubai with stop over of two hours at Bangkok and three hours time gap. I knew I had to settle for something in the city that didn’t appear to go beyond Thai Massage and shopping.

My first impression of the city was a bit disappointing. Sheraton Chiang Mai hotel room was spacious with window across the ping river- a tributary of Chao Phraya River but it had sparse water flow and whatever it had, it was dusty brown. Next day, after my b’fast, I wandered aimlessly in the nearby marketplace only to get overheated and drenched by the sun and humid weather. After cooling my body in the company of “shantaram – a journey of Australian prisoner from mumbai to Kabul”, I decided to head for ‘Night Bazaar’ – the only place in the city that comes alive after the dusk descends. Night Bazaar is similar to Pampong in Bangkok. Both sides of the street are filled with shops, restaurants that would delight any compulsive shopper. The exception was absence of nude bars. It takes 20 minutes to walk from one end of the Night Bazaar to other but can take hours if one stops and wanders the side streets or browse the shops that sell anything from trinkets, purses, sports shoes to pirated CD’s and Thai food selections adjacent to open foot massage chairs. Most of the big hotels are along this street and so are the restaurants. I visited Taj- Indian restaurant and felt cheated by the misuse of the name ‘Taj’ that had nothing in common with the Indian cuisine, Moreover it didn’t even accept credit card. A visit to the pagoda at the end of the road was welcome change to end chaotic bustle with a tranquil serenity.

Next few days went in hotel meeting room followed by sumptuous dining at exotic Thai restaurants. Last day, we went to ''Wat Phra That Doi Suthep'' a symbol of Chiang Mai at 3,250 ft above sea level, amidst wild forest bordering Myanmar. ''Wat'' means ''Temple'' in Thai, this temple has special place among Buddhist as it has relics of Lord Buddha. Story says that “relics of the Lord Buddha was placed on elephant's back and he was let to roam until he came across a place where he circled before lying down. The believers took this as auspicious place to build a commemorative place”. The temple was built in 1383 and since then, many buddhist people spread all over the world chose to house their’s/loved ones relics at this temple premises by donating money to the temple. The temple's location on top of the hill gives a all around view over the city on a clear day. Once we reach this place, one can climb either through ropeway or staircase comprising about 300 steps on foot. I chose later to test my lungs. These stairs are flanked on both sides by an elongated, wavy, dragon with multiple mouth. At the center, a large golden ''Chedi'' (''Chedi'' means ''stupa'' in Thai.) contains Holy Buddha relics. There is a popular saying that those who go to Chiang Mai without visiting Doi Suthep are no better than those who have never been to Chiang Mai at all. After reading this, I was glad that I made to this place.

One of Chiang Mai's main attraction is trekking. Numerous trekking packages of two-day/one night trek starts about an hours drive from Doi Inthanon National Park. The trek begins with 1-1/2 hours of elephant riding, followed by hike over a two day period (about three hours a day) which includes one night's stay in a White (Skor) Karen hill tribe village, and ends with a one-hour bamboo raft trip. Places like Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle, and Laos across the Mekong River are within a day’s tour from Chiang Mai.

All in all, Chiang Mai did let me carry fascinating memories of Night Bazaar, Doi Suthep and an experience of buying with a bit of skepticism, pirated DVD’s of Beautiful Mind, Munich, De Vinci Code, and Memoirs of Geisha for 80 baht each. When I reached Bangkok and tried these with DVD player in my Amari Watergate hotel. I was in store for pleasant surprise. They were as crisp as original!!!.

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