Joy spelled out the lawsonsontheloose program before we ever set out: We must live for at least a few weeks in a place so we can absorb, if ever so briefly, something of its culture. In SE Asia, that meant pausing in Chiang Mai. We liked Thailand when we looked in on it earlier. It represents SE Asia to us. It’s cooler and less densely populated than Bangkok but with a large enough ex-pat population we could get by with English as our only language (I repeat, so we thought!). In addition, we’ve been informed that ten SE Asian countries have adopted English as their lingua franca to facilitate trade and communication. What has really impressed us is Thai gentle friendliness. And for whatever it’s worth (I know, it’s quite beside the point), Thai Airways has long been one of my favorite carriers. That’s reason enough to spend some time in Thailand!
We have not been disappointed. We had heard and now believe Chiang Mai is an excellent retirement location. In fact, while here I read that Costa Rica, Mexico and Thailand top the list of desirables for American retirees. The US dollar stretches remarkably in this country, particularly when you “go native” in food and clothing. The weather reminds us of Payson, Arizona in the summer: hot by day but, because the region is mountainous, cool temperatures set in after nightfall. We’re here at the best season of the year, they tell us, so we’re aware it might be quite otherwise later in the year.
While this is a fairly normal city with its share of congestion and construction and noise and dust, it is generally fairly clean by Asian standards and filled with and surrounded by beauty spots.
Chiang Mai is an old city. You can see vestiges of its earlier importance as the capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom (from its founding in 1296 to 1558) in the walls and moats and plethora of Buddhist temples—which we admit we didn’t rush around to see. At this stage of our wanderings we’ve just about met our quota of temples (one major one to see, though: Doi Suthep). We appreciate the TLC with which the government and people care for the 500 that are everywhere throughout Chiang Mai.
Thanks to our friends Tony and Kristin and Preston, we got to see something of the countryside outside the city, where we were impressed by the lush greenness, the “feel” of a rain forest without, at least while we were here, the constant rain we expected. We quickly adjusted to seeing the myriad of temples and the countless markets, huge and small, and the always nearly clogged city streets. You don’t plan on going anywhere quickly.
We deliberately turned down the usual tourist trips. We wanted to be among the people—and the people rewarded us. We did make a couple of exceptions. The first was with the Courseys, who took us to their favorite retreat center, Horizon Village. What a treat that was! Beautifully landscaped. Quiet. Serene. A rewarding escape from the city’s hustle and bustle. Joy’s pictures only give a hint of the reality.
Chiang Mai isn’t paradise. A big reminder of what human beings can do to natural beauty is the Ping River, which flows through the heart of town. It’s polluted. Two culprits are blamed: periodic droughts and waste water. Not much can be done about the former; not much is being done about the latter. That neglect is blamed primarily on the overlapping, contradicting departments that are supposed to be monitoring and managing the waste. So fish are being poisoned, raw sewage flows freely and builds up along the riverbank, and you don’t see anyone swimming. Flushing clears the stream somewhat, but not during a drought. Closer attention is paid to the many rice paddies, where individual farmers feel responsible for the stewardship of their plot of land.
We’ve learned a new appreciation for sticky rice (kôw nēe*o or kôw nêung). I’ve always liked it but didn’t know the rice actually comes from the plant “sticky.” I thought some kind of added nutritional glue held the rice together. Nope, it’s a quality of the rice itself. We also learned that northern Thai cuisine is the least spicy of Thailand’s several schools of cooking. What we did notice is the distinctive difference between the Thai food we love in the States and the native dishes we’ve eaten here. Both delicious, just different. The curry dishes I’ve tried here (Joy mostly avoids them because of gluten) are noticeably milder, with spices I have trouble distinguishing but have no trouble enjoying. My first choices? Kôw soy, wheat-and-egg noddles in curry broth and sâi òo*a, generously-spiced grilled pork sausage that resembles spicy Bratwurst.
Thailand celebrated Chinese new Year while we were here, February 16. We first saw preparations for the celebration in Hong Kong, splotches of red in the shops and streets. You’d think Chiang Mai was Chinese, so seriously do they take the occasion. Actually, Thailand has always had a rich Chinese heritage and today has a large Chinese population (69 million residents of Thailand, of whom about 14 percent are ethnic Chinese). Warorot Market, the city’s most popular shopping area, is also known as Chinatown. Chinese New Year’s appears the day is observed mostly in spectacle, worship, shopping, and eating.
Preston took us to Blessings Church on Sunday morning, a small Thai congregation that the leader, Pastor Boon, founded 30 years ago. We’d never have found it ourselves, tucked away on a side street of a side street in a small suburban village. We found, though, a welcoming group who made us feel immediately at home. Preston translated, so we were able to follow the sermon fairly well.
Preston and Kristin are busy people. Here’s how Kristin describes her work: “I have a passion for education and for helping at-risk, underprivileged or marginalized youth. Primarily my work is in anti-human trafficking and education.” She works at a children’s home for pregnant high school aged (or younger) girls who’ve been rescued from human trafficking. The home provides a safe shelter to live in, free education and guidance in becoming independent. Kristin teaches English to both the girls and the Thai staff; this linguistic skill will enable them to double their starting salary. The curriculum includes Bible, discipleship and spiritual growth. Kristin also teaches English at the Juvenile Detention Center for girls.
Preston’s work falls into two categories: 1) community development and discipleship using CHE (Community Health Evangelism) and DMM (Disciple Making Movement) in a few villages around Chiang Dao, north of here. A current focus is a natural pig farming project and working with the villagers in addressing some water supply issues. He also is heavily involved with the Thai church, where he took us Sunday. In effect Preston works with three groups:1) people outside Chiang Mai who often move to the city for work; 2) the local church inside the city; and 3) people who live and work in Chiang Mai itself.
Preston concentrates on the very poor, cooperating with them in their farming, aquaponics, and other “hands-on” projects. His is passionate about building relationships with Thai friends, hoping to help them grow spiritually as they grow more secure financially.
We received an email from Jill Widmer Noble urging us to get in touch with David and Andrea Buechler, Pioneers missionaries supported by her church (Northwood Christian in Springfield, Oregon). So we did. What a treat! Turns out Dave went to Northwest Christian University, our alma mater–about twenty years after we left. In the States he had two vocations, pastoring several churches and working with incarcerated youth. Then in mid-career he felt the call to missions, specifically to Thailand. He’s right back with his two loves, working the church and with troubled adolescents. He’s here as an English teacher. Andrea’s parents were missionaries with Arabs in Morocco and Southern France. Today she works beside David, exercising her gift of hospitality . They have a son and daughter-in-law and a grandchild in the States and another son with YWAM (Youth with a Mission). Sixteen-year-old Reuben lives with them in Thailand. We had so much fun at our first coffee date we immediately scheduled a second for the next day, which ended with popcorn at our house (about all the food we had left this late in our sojourn.
About Jill Noble. Many readers of this blog remember George and JoAnn Widmer, lifelong friends and Velcro family members. Jill’s their daughter. We got to know her better than ever last December, when we were with JoAnn during her final days. The Buechlers admire Jill in the same way we admire the whole Widmer family. Jill reports that George and son Mark and his wife Pam are traveling now in the southwestern states. We’ve been impressed with George’s courage and determination to keep going after having to part from the love of his life since their school days.
We departed on Thursday. On Wednesday Preston, Kristin and Killian picked us up for a trip up the mountain to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous Buddhist temple. The temple takes its name from Doi Suthep, the mountain on which it sits overlooking the city. Legend has it that in a dream the monk Sumanathera was ordered to Pang Cha to look for a relic. He went as told and found a bone that many claim was Gautama Buddha’s shoulder bone. It had magical powers. Sumanathera demonstrated its powers to the king–but the bone failed to cooperate. The king told the monk the could keep his bone.
King Nu Naone of Lan Na got wind of the relic and invited the monk to bring it to him. And it was done. That was in 1368. Once there, the bone broke into two pieces; one was enshrined in a temple in Suandok but the king placed the other on the back of a white elephant and released it into the jungle. The elephant must have sensed there was something special on his back, because it climbed Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times and collapsed, dead. An omen, it was said. King Nu Naone immediately ordered a temple built on that site. And it was so. It is this same site, greatly enlarged with numerous gold-leafed shrines, that we visited.
We climbed the 309 steps to the top, shed shoes, properly covered shoulders and arms, dodged throngs of camera toting, selfie-snapping tourists, and studied the dozens and dozens of Buddhas and their praying adherents. I confess I’ve tried to understand Buddhism in its manifold forms, but I remain a respectful outsider grateful for the opportunity to make this visit.
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