One of the benefits of traveling slow is that you get to dig a little deeper into a culture than you would just passing through. By spending time with locals and ex-pats here in Chiang Mai, I’ve learned a few things that came to me as a surprise.
It’s always Buddha Day. No visit to the Grand Palace in Bangkok is complete without a tout approaching you and explaining that the site is closed due to the fact that it’s Buddha Day. He will gladly direct you to a tuk tuk driver who will give you a tour of sites (and high-commission shops) that are open today. The Palace is, of course, open for business, with hundreds of tourists streaming in and out. If you’ve looked for hotels in Bangkok and found a place for a few days, you can return every day and learn that it’s Buddha Day again. They may as well call it Buddha Week.
There are quite a few real Buddha Days, but with the language barrier I can never seem to learn the significance of each one. The first hint you’ll receive is when you visit a 7-11 and notice that all of the beer and wine has been hidden behind flattened cardboard and the cooler door chained shut. The Buddha was a bit of a teetotaler. You can still have a drink in a restaurant or bar most times but on Visakha Bucha Day in May –which celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Lord Buddha– even the bars close down. And a good Buddha Day is often accompanied by massive fireworks displays, so be sure to get out at night and enjoy the show.
Everyone loves a parade. I’ve been in Chiang Mai for four months now and I’ve seen at least 8 parades, not counting the big ones tied to important holidays or the annual Flower Festival, for example. On any given day you can stumble into a procession of hundreds of people dressed in traditional dress, men carrying Buddha statues or ornate floral displays on pallets of bamboo, high school marching bands, people carrying pennants and banners, and men beating large drums mounted to rolling carts. It’s wonderful.
I recently passed a group of several hundred middle-school kids marching class-by-class and playing plastic recorders. Cops on motorcycles cleared the way, while the second lane was left open for traffic. Monks riding in the backs of Toyota trucks and silently watching over a large gilded Buddha statue are very popular too. Ask someone what the occasion is and they will invariably answer “Buddha Day!”
He’s not happy to see you, that really is a gun in his pocket. Many Thai men regularly pack heat when they go out — it’s not at all uncommon to catch a glimpse of a pistol tucked into a waistband or a bulge in a pocket. Now, I’m not saying that Thailand is the Wild Wild West, with raging gun battles in the streets, because it’s not — I’ve felt more safe here than anywhere I’ve visited. But if you’re out late in a Thai bar there’s a very good chance that you’re seriously outgunned, so I’d recommend minding your manners.
A good friend of mine recently attended a large wedding in Bangkok –500 people or more– and couldn’t help but notice that a loud dispute had broken out. The groom’s father had taken offense at something, was shouting and generally making a scene. The bride’s father decided that the quickest way to diffuse the situation was to pull his gun out and fire it in the air several times, which made quite an impression with the rest of the guests. The after-party was described as “a bit awkward”.
Those aren’t braces. I had noticed that I was seeing more and more young women wearing braces and took this as a sign of general prosperity amongst the growing middle class. My friend Louise, who has lived in Chiang Mai for 12 years and speaks fluent Thai, set me straight. “Most of them aren’t real braces, they’re vanity braces. They don’t correct anything, they’re just meant to look like you are wearing real braces.”
“Well, then why do they wear them?” I asked. “They think it makes them look younger and it suggests that they’re more well-off than they really are,” she replied. Coming from a land of Botox, tanning salons and liposuction, I certainly can’t judge.
Don’t mess with the monks. Monks are revered here and pretty much have the run of the place. Most parents hope to have at least one son become one, as it’s a great honor for the family. (Talk about pressure — I thought my Mom was being unreasonable asking for a grandkid.) But not all monks are there by choice.
It’s fairly common for young men who get into trouble with the law to be offered the choice between a year in jail or a year in the monkhood, rather like being forced into the Army in the West. I hadn’t realized this before but it certainly explains the few times I’ve seen young monks elbowing each other in the ribs as a scantily-clad woman walked by. So don’t mess with a monk — you never know what he’s in for.
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve found in Thailand?