Offerings in the market down the street Julia Hubbel

Early Sunday morning at the Lanna Tree Boutique Hotel, and musings on a lovely country

In one of those miracles of  nature, right now the birdsong is louder than the traffic. That won't stay that way for too much longer, as buses and taxis start picking up travelers and tourists for the many adventures offered by the now-bustling town-sorry, city- of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

This is my third trip here. It's changed a lot since 2105, when an earthquake in Nepal ended my plans to hike Annapurna.

Farangs (a slightly derisive word for white folks) flock here for many reasons. Old men desperate for young girls who are desperately poor, those like me itching for a chance to do some adventuring, others hungry for Thai cooking lessons, and endless hordes in love with the sparkling beaches.

It's relatively cheap here. I was just complimenting Colombia for the fact that I could get a big lunch or dinner for under ten bucks. Here I could eat three meals on that, and perhaps healthier.

One turn down the alley were my hotel office sits and along that way are endless offerings from marijuana buds to paleo food to Thai food to plenty of massages.  At the end of the street is an open market when I can get fresh fruit and veggies for nothing, comparatively.

While at the airport, Burger King and McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme abound. At least once past the consumer traps you can eat well. One young man boarding a flight from Bangkok to here clearly had a donut party in mind:

Julia Hubbel

Sadly, if this keeps up, the bodies of the Thai people, largely the result of eating very well and mostly fish, veggies and fruit, will start to look like Americans. That is not a compliment. For now, however, it remains a world of smallish people for the most part, polite and deferential, conservative in their customs, and deeply appreciative of any effort to learn their deeply complex language.

One reason I come to Chiang Mai is that for years it has been a place of great beauty. Still is. That said it's growing, and some of the growth isn't attractive. Because of tourist interest in tigers and elephants, far too many so-called "sanctuaries" popped up, far too many of them little more than breeding farms for profit, sold to the public as retirement homes for working elephants.

Before Covid there were some forty of them. You don't need that many if for no other reason- and this is just my opinion-than first, elephants used for logging are banned in Thailand, and besides, so called retirement homes are all over the rest of SE Asia, often little more than places for a breeding animal to give birth before she is returned to work and/or a working animal to recover from an injury before returning to logging work. I didn't make that up, I found it out. So, kindly, bit of phooey on elephant "sanctuary" claims. The same can be said of the tiger facilities, many of which have been shut down due to back alley dealings and sales to bad operators in other parts of Asia.

Tourists who see charming pictures of baby elephants climbing all over visitors wanna have dat for themselves. In too many cases, they don't realize that the hordes of visitors who want to play with baby is precisely what cause other people to open up yet another competing operation. You have to breed ellies to have babies. That's not retirement. That's profiteering.

In another article I addressed the simple fact that there isn't enough wild for the tigers to survive, and elephants across Asia face the same fate. So there is always and forever this damning but delicate balance of tourist demand and the downside of breeding and selling of these animals for profit. I don't have the answers. However the Thai government, in response in part to world wildlife organizations, has been much better at managing, investigating and controlling.

Then Covid came and weeded out a great many anyway. Those operations which are left appear to be the better versions, and I am visiting them this week.

Photo by Miltiadis Fragkidis / Unsplash

One lesson I learned a long time ago when I began this kind of travel was to invest time in one place long enough to get the feel of it. Old-town Chiang Mai is surrounded by an aging brick wall, full of wats (enclosures, usually meaning temples and the like), untold tiny restaurants and parlors, and jam-packed with tourists looking for pleasurable experiences.

By now I've been here four days, including today. The hotel where I'm staying features a lovely pool (see top), bordered on one side by a family home with all the typical kid detritus you'd expect. All our balconies feature pull-out bars so that we can hand-wash and dry our laundry, which I am doing daily. The afternoon sun strikes the wet clothing hard and in no time it's all dry.

You really can live on very little. Nobody cares if you wear the same thing every day. Lots of these folks do, too.

Here, manners are everything. It behooves any of us to learn proper greetings; here in Thailand you are expected to greet everyone at any time with the proper sawasdee-ka (or krap, if male) upon any interaction. People forgive tourists for forgetting, but they appreciate those who remember.

This trip I bought a SIM card, which has allowed me to use Google Translate far more freely and easily. For non-English speakers this is a godsend. For me, too, for even while my skills at charades works, the culture translation (try asking for bug juice at Lotus, the local equivalent of Walmart) can be awfully funny. Photos sufficed.

Honestly, I didn't used to travel with a phone. This time, given that I refused to check any luggage at all, I had to cut my baggage to the bare minimum. There went the camera. That said, this has forced me to better learn Whats App, which is prevalent here, and other apps which heretofore I'd avoided using. That said, I still don't like being tethered to my phone unless I'm reading a damned good novel.

Why? Look. Given what I do for a living, and then write about it, there is nothing on my phone which can compete with my lived experiences:

Massaging Mr. Bang Julia Hubbel

This trip I've planned about a week in three major areas. Some I've visited before. Others are new. People often have no idea how much work goes into planning such a long trip.That's in part because Thailand's tourist infrastructure is excellent, and the competition for the tourist dollar fierce indeed.

It took the better part of a solid week to suss out all the options, get them paid for, identify those no longer in business and all the other minute details. Not my strong point. But after all that work I had a month of marvelous ahead of me, and it is so far exceeding all expectations.

Most of the other offerings don't entice at all. I massage large animals, so any excuse to get my hands on them, something that lawyers in America have made impossible except between friends, is a good excuse. So that's what I am doing this week.

Others hike or swim or bike or whatever. I am nursing a recovering hand from surgery, finally at the point where I  can braid my own hair, and stronger from every hour I invest in some big creature's comfort. This is a fine place to be distracted from the pain of that hand as it heals.

Thailand was eager to help its economy recover from two years of shutdown due to Covid and has offered visas appealing to digital nomads, for example, as have many other nations. Those nations have seen how many Americans are distressed and troubled about our home country, and are eager to invite us to head on over and spend time and money in relative paradise.

After all, it's kind nice to be able to eat excellent food without going broke.

As a (clumsy) practicing Buddhist, the overarching Buddhist sensibility here is attractive. You can see massive statues over the tops of trees, and there are gorgeous archways inviting you into cool temples. Places to sit, be quiet, consider. Things we don't do enough in Western society.

There is a lot that isn't good, too. The royal family's prince is a playboy according to the taxi drivers, widely acknowledged as a disaster after the long reign of their beloved king. The country sees uprisings, so there is always an undercurrent to the superficial calm.

But that's true all over. The world is at an inflection point, with pandemics and pandemonium from wars. We're human, after all. This is what we do.  

Traveling on motorbike in norther thailand we came across these amazing sculptural temples and buildings.
Photo by Mathew Schwartz / Unsplash

Eleven bucks a night gets me a nice room with a lovely view off my balcony, a solid night sleep, modern conveniences and access to everything worth seeing and doing.

Can you be happy? I guess that's up to you. I sure am. By the way, so was the tiger.

Kitty gets a belly rub. Julia Hubbel

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