Friday, August 19, 2005

Into Lanna

We took the overnight sleeper train northwards into the old kingdom of Lanna, "the land of a million rice fields", through glistening green paddy fields and mountains made slate grey in the monsoon rain, and past dark brown teak houses on stilts, and arrived at the town of Lampang, 100km south of Chiang Mai.

Lampang is not a tourist destination but an ordinary northern Thai town where my partner's brother teaches maths, music and English at a private school. So we strayed off the tourist path to spend a few days with him in this sleepy town. Surrounded by mountains, with wide, clean boulevards lined with advertising hoardings and shops, and big 4-by-4s and pickup trucks rumbling by -- this looks and feels much like a town of strip malls in the middle of the Colorado Rockies.

We've spent our time hanging out: eating by the river that cuts through the town in noisy resturant bars with names like Santa Fe, Relax, Soul Fly and The Sand Bar, watching young Thai rock bands belt out covers of The Eagles, The Beatles, Dire Straights, Robbie Williams, Dido and other bland MOR songs. The alternative entertainment in the town is karaoke, including hostess karaoke.

The northern Thai cuisine is much hotter than we've eaten so far: lots more fiery chillis that are, luckily, easily washed down with glugs of Sang Som, a sweet Thai rum. We've eaten: mushroom tom yam spiced with coriander, lemongrass and chillies; deep-fried shrimp and lemongrass cakes skewered on lemongrass stalks; marinated and deep-fried beef strips with deep-fried bitter herbs; soft-shell crab tempura; fresh mango with sticky rice sweetened with coconut; savoury candy floss on top of pineapple rice; herb-stuffed pork sausages that are famous to the region; and the best chocolate ice cream I've tasted in a long time. In fact, the chocolate ice cream I've eaten everywhere in Thailand is rich, creamy and more than 70% cocoa solids.

We took a songthaew -- a converted pickup truck with two facing rows in the back -- to Lampang's peaceful and deserted Buddhist temple Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao, where my partner claims to have achieved Englightenment helping two saffron-robed monks carry a petrol-driven lawnmower up the temple steps. He didn't want me to help, saying it would hurt my back, but I'm sure it was really because he didn't want to share the good karma.

Offerings in front of broken stone Buddha statues included fruit and food, but my favourites were a plastic bottle of mineral water and a pair of gardening shears. We also caught a glimpse of a golden Buddha through a locked but ajar wooden door. I took a photo but will have to wait until I return to London to upload them and hundreds more to this Flickr.

But what affected me most was the overwhelming quiet and serenity, strolling around the temple grounds and sitting under a tree in an empty courtyard until we noticed huge yellow ants crawling around our feet.

Another serene temple was Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, containing Thailand's oldest standing wooden structure, faded 16th century murals, a stunning green and blue chedi with gold-embossed oxidised copper panels, elegant golden Buddhas reverentially clad in saffron robes, intricately carved wooden panels, and a gaudy shrine to the Hindu elephant God Ganesh.

Yesterday we took a hot herbal sauna at the formal sounding Lampang Medicinal Plants Conservation Assembly. We sat in separate tiny, tiled saunas much like shower cubicles as wafts of herb-infused steam were sprayed over us for an hour. Thoroughly spaced out, we sauntered barefoot along a path of different-sized pebbles designed to massage the soles of the feet. I could have made many meditative rounds of this path, but I was driven away into our songthaew by clouds of big black mosquitoes draining the blood from my arms and legs as I walked. It was my own fault for forgetting to spray myself with Deet after the sauna.

We returned to chill in our luxurious hotel -- the excellent Wienglakor, Lampang's very own Overlook Hotel -- before heading out to the Night Bazaar with food stalls crammed with everything from deep-fried maggots and fluorescent, gelatinous, cubed desserts to small plastic bags of curries-to-go and pork scratchings.

Today we're on our way north to Chiang Mai.

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