It was that sly nudge of a knee against my leg that finally worked its magic. I was sitting outdoors at a Starbucks in Chiang Mai, not really paying much attention to a local trying to get some money out of me, when an employee brought out a plate with an old, dry, crumbling scone on it. Noting my mug of cooling brew he offered the plate with a smile, “Sample! Free!”
Even fresh Starbucks pastries are bad. Like being served pretzels in a bar, their soul purpose is to force you to buy another drink. Try eating one of Starbuck’s scones without a full mug to wash it down and you’ll hack, gag, hope someone nearby knows the Heimlich Maneuver. I smiled back (because I am after all polite) and was about to turn down the magical ‘free’ offering – probably a first in the history of Thailand – when I felt the nudge. That free pastry ended up costing me $25.
I’ve been to Chiang Mai more times that I can count. But they’ve always been short trips. Usually a day or two for business. Sometimes four or five days to show a travelling companion the sights. Chiang Mai is a nice getaway from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. And it’s cooler up north, too.
Last year I decided to add a few weeks to my normal trip and avoid the winter in California. Everyone always gets a mental picture of long stretches of sandy beaches, palm trees, and movie stars when you say California. That’s down south. And it is a desert, not a tropical oasis. Hollywood has done a great job on the spin for California, but they like to ignore the northern part of the state. Up north, we don’t have those beaches. Up north it gets cold in the winter. And wet. Sure our winters are nothing compared to the blizzards and freezing temperatures across the rest of the country. But then I’m not stupid enough to live in those places. So instead I get to bitch about 50 degree days and a few hours of rain.
Realizing the best way to experience a winter in California is not to, I decided I’d spend a few extra weeks in Chiang Mai. A real holiday. Time to do absolutely nothing. I’ve hit pretty much all of the major touri spots in and around Chiang Mai. I’ve also seen most of the major wats. There are a lot of wats in the area. Visiting a few new ones, though none specifically planned for, was on the agenda. But then visiting wats is not what I consider a touri activity. Visiting wats is me feeding my monk addiction.
Chiang Mai is pretty laid back for one of Thailand’s major touri destinations. And being laid back was my singular goal. Having just spent a few weeks in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, my soul was set on wasting long hours sitting in sidewalk cafes doing nothing more than existing. But that’s something Chiang Mai lacks. It really needs more sidewalk cafes. Not open beer bars; different animal. Just a comfortable place to spend a late morning drinking a pot full of coffee while the world goes by. Sans bar girls.
There are a few spots in the major downtown area that work for this lack of purpose, but the best is at the intersection of Loi Kroh and Chan Klan Roads. I’d guess this is Chiang Mai’s busiest intersection. Which really isn’t all that busy. Though it is probably an area locals avoid like the plague because of their definition of traffic congestion. It has changed since I first started going to Chiang Mai. Nowadays, I refer to that crossroads as little America. On one corner is a Burger King. Opposite side of the street is a McDonald’s next to a slightly buried Subway. And across from that is Starbucks. They built a Meridien Hotel on the remaining corner. A shame. There was room for a KFC.
I have a love/hate relationship with Starbucks. I love to hate them. Not because of the evil American corporate empire thingy. That I admire. I hate Starbucks because of what they’ve done to coffee. These days when someone suggests going for coffee, they really mean desert. When you order a coffee – I mean just a cup of coffee – at Starbucks, they give you a strange look. And keep suggesting various treatments: sugary toppings and flavorful syrups that have nothing to do with coffee beans. Even after it finally sinks in that you just want a cup of normal coffee, the barista will ask how much room you want left in the cup for cream and sugar.
Starbucks employees refer to themselves as baristas. That’s like calling the fry cook at McDonald’s a chef. The Starbucks world is a marketing wizard’s wet dream. But I don’t have to play the game. And don’t. I love ordering a large coffee at Starbucks. The barista always get a confused look on his face and then finally tries, “Oh, you mean a Venti.”
“No, thanks. I just want a large coffee.”
Keep it up for a few rounds and you can make them cry. The reason Stabucks pushes their mocha frappe latte whatevers is because their coffee sucks. 7/11 makes a better cup of coffee. Starbuck’s coffee always leaves a bitter taste, no matter which bean they claim to be using that day. But, the Stabucks at the intersection of Loi Kroh and Chan Klan Road has an open air seating area, nicely shaded, where you can laze about and people watch for hours. So I end up hanging there nursing a $4 cup of bitter brew. It’s not about the coffee. It’s about the location.
On the second day of my trip I was sitting idly at Starbucks with a firm plan to do nothing all day. The bad worldwide economy has made the tuk tuk drivers and taxi drivers more aggressive than usual. Even in laid back Chiang Mai. Being laid back is difficult when you are broke and cash no longer flows. It wasn’t long before a taxi driver approached, trolling for a fare. Mr. Ot, as he turned out to be, used the same exploratory greeting as a bar boi: Hello! Where you from? Where you stay? How long you stay Chiang Mai? Being a savvy traveller, I had no problem chatting with him for a bit. I certainly wasn’t gonna fall into his trap of being his meal ticket for the day.
Ot had a badly printed color brochure encased in plastic to show me all of the wonderful places he could help me to see. He’d point at each picture and, possibly figuring at my age my eyesight needed help, would provide commentary. “Elephant” he stated, pointing at a picture of an elephant camp.
“No thanks, already seen the elephants.”
“No thanks, already seen the tigers.”
“Uh, no.” And for that one he got a ‘you gotta be fucking kidding me’ look over the top of the rim of my glasses. Thinking I wasn’t a wildlife fan, he switched over to a series of wats.
“Doi Suthep,” he suggested.
“Been there, done that.”
“Wat Chedi Luang”
“Wat Chedi finit.” That one got a laugh. Persistent, but realizing he wasn’t tempting me, he tried a craft factory tour on for size and when that produced no result he decided to switch over to a plea,a plight of poverty, hoping I’d take pity on him and book him for any type of excursion. I listened to his sad tale of no business and a family to feed, but it wasn’t working. Fact was, I really didn’t want to go anywhere.
But then one of Starbucks employees, possibly someone who had not yet earned the right to be called a barista, arrived with that damn free pastry. And Mr. Ot gave me the nudge.
I know how magical the word free is to Thais. But this was something different. It wasn’t just free, it was food. And Mr. Ot was starving. He tapped my leg with his knee, a signal I immediately understood. I may be willing to turn free food away, but Ot was not. And wanted whatever was on that plate. Fortunately a small paper cup of some weird blend, I think it was pumpkin, was free, too. So Ot had a bit of liquid to wash down the dry scone, saving us all from another mysterious death in Chiang Mai. Fortunately for Mr. Ot, I’m not nearly the cold heartless bastard you might have thought I was, so I gave him a his free meal, and a chance.
In my best pidgin English, I made sure Ot knew I wasn’t interested in the regular touri excursion offerings having done them all before. But, if he had something new and interesting to offer, he might just luck out and add a few bucks to his morning’s good fortune of a free meal. I could see the wheels spinning as he tried to get a bite of scone down. Then Eureka!, a swallow, a quick nod, and he flew back over to his car to return with yet another ancient brochure encased in plastic.
This one had a map, and a few small color pictures that would never qualify as an enticement to visit wherever in the hell the tour company was trying to lure touri to. Ot pointed at a photo that looked like a country road, and proclaimed, “Lamphun! Tree!”
I was torn. Ot was quite proud of himself for coming up with an excursion for me and I could see he was already adding up the potential windfall in his mind. But, tree? That’s the best he could do?
The brochure showed a map of the area, a winding country road, and a few photos of Lamphun which looked like a quaint country town. Evidently, there were wats to be seen, too. Lamphun was new to me, and well, wats mean monks, so what the hell. Why not? Confusing greed for commerce, Ot started high but quickly agreed to a bartered down price of $25 for the trip – still way too much but not a worldly sum so we were soon off on a circuitous route dictated by Chiang Mai’s over reliance on one way roads. We headed south to Lamphun after a quick stop for $6 worth of gas to nudge the needle off the E on Ot’s car’s gas gauge.
Once beyond the border of the city, the road became a small shady two lane highway gently curving past small outposts of civilization. Ot showed a remarkable sense of control, refraining from driving like a maniac. Or an Asian. Not that there is a real difference between the two when behind the wheel. Windows down to allow a cool breeze in and negate the need for gas guzzling air conditioning, the hiss of his car’s bald tires played a steady rhythm, an off-key accompaniment to the dappled sunlight smoothly flowing across the windshield.
After about 15 minutes of driving, we rounded a bend and Ot pointed ahead with the delighted cry, “Tree!” And right he was. Though plural instead of singular. A series of tall trees lined the road, each with a faded saffron sash tied around it’s trunk, the diesel soot from passing vehicles adding bluish tints to the yellowed orange normally seen dressing monks instead of trees. The next curve brought more decorated trees into view, this time on the opposite side of the road. Soon both edges were lined with the tall stately trees, their leafy limbs hovering far above the road, filtering the sun, adumbrating a brindled impressionistic canvas of shadows, light, and asphalt.
Reminiscent of a ride through the redwood forests back in California, though the trees were not nearly as majestic, it was a laid back ride from a laid back town to what promised to be an even more bucolic ‘burb; a perfect daytrip for the pastoral region and for my halcyon mood.
It wasn’t until that night when I went on-line that I discovered what the trees were all about. There are 903 of the trees along H106, the old road to Lamphun. Sometimes called rubber trees because of the resin extracted from their trunks in days gone by, the towering trees are locally known as Yang-Na and they form the provincial boundary between Chiang Mai and Lamphun.
Legends differ but the basic story tells of two princes of the neighboring provinces who agreed in ancient times to set the boundary between the regions by planting different trees. Chiang Mai’s being the Yang-Na, Lamphun’s being pretty yellow flowered Khee Legk trees The crafty prince of Chiang Mai arrived at the border area hours before the agreed meeting time, and planted more trees over a larger area, ensuring that his principality would cover the most land. Ancient rifts carry over into modern day and Ot, being from Chiang Mai, made a big deal out of the saffron sash bearing Yang trees while ignoring the Khee Legk trees once we passed into Lamphun province.
Lamphun was a delight and the two and a half wats we visited were spectacular. But this tale is about the journey, not the destination, so that story will keep for another day. Returning to Chiang Mai we flew down the new superhighway, a quicker route and nowhere near as picturesque as the outbound ride. Ot wanted to drop me at my hotel, but knowing that could quickly become his new hang out spot I suggested Starbucks instead. The courtyard I’d started my day at shares space with a beer bar and a few hours of hanging at my favorite crossroads drinking a few cold ones seemed a good plan.
The day’s $25 excursion really was more of a $10 trip in line with local pricing, but I was content, even pleased with my new discovery thanks to Ot. But as I paid him and we said our good-byes, he blew it. Trying to squeeze another dime out of the day, he pleaded, “Tip?”
I don’t tip the baristas at Starbucks. And I don’t tip drivers with whom I’ve already bartered a fee. But I really couldn’t blame him for trying. Without agreeing to any definite plan, I considered using him again during my stay and told him so, “No tip, but maybe hire you again.”
Good enough. The possibility of another day’s wages, and maybe even another free breakfast sent him on his way and sent me back to pondering the meaning of life while watching others’ version pass by.
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