Monday, 14 October 2013

chiang mai

 13 October
I’ve spent my first couple of days just wandering around at random in this city, which is always the best way to absorb the atmosphere (I’m not talking about car fumes, but that too).  I visited the National Museum today, which means, if you’re walking, negotiating the grandly named Superhighway, which is a bit like the North Circular but with 10 times as many motorbikes.  The only way to get to the museum on foot seems to be to hike along the hard shoulder in the blazing sunshine.  My advice – get a tuk-tuk if you do it.  The museum is a large, ‘modern lanna style’ collection of pitched roofs and stucco, quite fine and in pleasant grounds, but seems a little down on its luck these days, a shabby reminder of former glory days.  There seemed to be only three other visitors while I was there.  There was a wall of lockers for your bags, but only about 10 had keys and only half of those worked.  The exhibits (in the part that was open) were like the museums I remember from my childhood – mahogany cases with dioramas of stone age families and forgotten wars, papier mache relief maps of  the region’s geology, plaster casts of graves with skeletons and grave goods.  References to research and archaeological digs seemed to stop in the 1960s.  It was all quite nostalgic.  

I did learn quite a lot about the Lanna kingdom.  The earliest known people were taken over by more advanced people from the south, though their culture still exists in a few villages, and some elements of their religion have been absorbed into the local version of Buddhism.  Lanna – which is said to  mean ‘A million rice-fields’: quite a lot of meaning to pack into two syllables – was a catch, as its name suggests, its fertile river valleys surrounded by less arable mountainous regions.  As a result it has been constantly  invaded and conquered by its neighbours.  In the 18th century, tyrannical Burma was kicked out with the help of Siam, which then demanded suzerainty, though the kings of Lanna continued well into the 19th century, when they married into and were absorbed by the current Thai line.  Chiang Rai after the Burmese expulsion was abandoned with just the temples remaining.  A diorama in the museum shows the walls intact, the temples, and the few tracks linking them (which form the basis of today’s roads), with a scattering of single storey wooden houses.  How it’s changed.

Another trek along the merciless Superhighway and another oasis - Wat Jed Yod is one of the most important and has some great old chedi and other building in a huge forest park.  Calm and cool before I brave the fumes and solar glare again. 

Pursuing all things Lanna, I went to a restaurant recommended for its northern style cooking last night. No, not tripe and deep fried whippets: bear with me.  It is located in a little back street, based on two traditional teak houses with lots of flowing water and a small jungle of plants, very atmospheric.  The waiter, seeing me struggle over the menu, and after a bit of mutual  incomprehensibility over my questions and his answers, recommended a tasting plate of local specialities.  This included: roast pork knuckle; minced pork in spicy tomato curry; pork scratchings; belly pork (beginning to spot a theme here?) in chilli and garlic gravy; and northern pork sausages infused with lemon grass; and a slightly steamed salad with fiery green chilli sauce.   Yes, a lot of pork, but somehow it was a meal that rhymed rather than clashed.  Anyway I got through the lot.

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