The awkward love child of old and new

We’re trying something new in this post – larger images! We hope you like them. Of course, you can still check out all our Chiang Mai photos in our slide show. And now the story…

What is Webbigail doing in the Buddha Cemetery? - Chiang Mai, Thailand
Webbigail’s a Buddha groupie | Photo by Lauren Girardin

There is an overriding theme to our week in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Usually you’ll hear platitudes like beautiful, historic, cultural, or fascinating used to describe this Thai metropolis. Chiang Mai is all of those things. Like any major city, at times it’s also touristy, skeezy, and polluted. But, but most of all, Chiang Mai is just plain weird.

Naga's eye catches the light - Chiang Mai, Thailand
Naga’s eye catches the sunlight | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Perhaps the weirdness is a condition caused by the diversity of foreigners that inundate the city. Todd and I spend Superbowl Sunday at a Western-style saloon surrounded by American expats drinking bloody marys, wearing bright yellow tropical-pattered Hawaiian shirts, and twirling authentic Pittsburgh Terrible Towels. This sports fandom scene is entirely familiar except that the kickoff was at 6 a.m. and the Thai broadcast’s commercial breaks, instead of being the usual barrage of expensive and vaguely offensive commercials, are nothing more than lingering extreme long shots of the empty football field.

Maybe the weirdness is the awkward love child of old and new. There’s a whiff of America’s 1980s here – not in Aqua-net enabled hairstyles or neon clothing, but in the sense that what’s being done has not been done before, and so it’s done kind of badly or for the wrong reasons. Chiang Mai feels like the moment in Billy Joel’s Pressure video where the kid playing young Billy freaks out as crudely composited images of a film reel, ketchup bottles, and a pair of scissors (at 2:19) inexplicably fly by his head. Early on, the music video medium was über-stimulating, but clearly not as good as it could be and would be once we got that green screen technology worked out.

Love the braces in this 1-story photo studio ad - Chiang Mai, Thailand
Love the braces | Photo by Lauren Girardin

We see this clash of old and new at a flower festival where the a pop number’s gaudily, extravagantly dressed teen girl backup dancers haven’t bothered to put shoes on over their hot lavender tights (okay, maybe the clothing is a little 1980s) nor find their rhythm. Or when Todd, looking for a cold snack to counter the hot sun, returns with a coconut ice cream sundae encased in a slice of untoasted white sandwich bread. I’ve long suspected that white bread was closer to styrofoam than food, and now my tongue knows for certain and can never forget.

And at Wat Chedi Luang, where, along with svelte, shiny Buddha statues, sculptures of departed monks fill the halls, two of which are done in hyper-realism style – impressively lifelike recreations of shrunken old monks, down to their liver spots, spare head hair, and frowns. Reaching enlightenment doesn’t seem to make you smile.

Hyperreal monk sculpture - Chiang Mai, Thailand
Hyper-real monk sculpture | Photo by Lauren Girardin

And at Wat Umong, a forest temple famous for its eccentric underground tunnels, but which we’ll remember most for its Mural Room. The walls are covered, floor to ceiling, with colorful contemporary paintings that attempt to make Buddhist teachings comprehensible by mixing religious symbolism with modern day conceptualism, often to bizarre effect. The murals waver between talentless and artsy, confusing and informative, folksy and high-art.

Buddhist mural at Wat Umong - Chiang Mai, Thailand
Jacket wearing tiger and tiger-pants wearing man | Photo by Lauren Girardin

And we see this at Wat Buppharam, where the temple’s front garden is crowded with a menagerie of lawn ornaments better suited to the crazy neighbor’s yard in my suburban home town. Though I don’t see a stereotypical gnome, there’s a duck, horse, cow, zebra, stork, tiger, leopard, rabbit, camel, goat, giraffe, and elephant; Donald Duck eating a bowl of noodles; what might be a llama or a short-nosed, anorexic Snuffleupagus; lions, both lifelike and stylized Chinese; many cherubic praying Buddhists, including one tarted up with a pen to look like a lost member of Kiss; and more than the usual number of nagas, Buddhas, and bodhisattvas.

The very strange Wat Buppararm - Chiang Mai, Thailand
At the very weird Wat Buppharam | Photo by Lauren Girardin

It’s at Wat Buppharam that we have our oddest encounter. Just as we finish exploring the temple grounds, a monk calls us over. As we step into his tchotchke-cluttered prayer room and accept the offered seats on the floor, he begins a torrent of cheerful babbling, only briefly pausing for our answers to his questions, like “What is your name?,” “Where are you from?,” “Are you married?,” and the million dollar question, “Are you happy?”

Small talk complete, the monk Achan Su-eet offers us a blessing. He begins by looping a string around Todd’s hands then my own, carefully avoiding my skin, the mere touching of which some Buddhists believe could incite unwelcome lust. Then with a ring of a bell, he solemnly intones, “much money big company rolls royce car good job many babies (inhale, bell) much money big company rolls royce car good job many babies (inhale, bell) much money big company rolls royce car good job many babies (inhale, bell).”

Still as a statue monk - Chiang Mai, Thailand
Still as a statue | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Then, Achan grabs a brass bowl and uses a thick wooden stick called a puja to fling water on our heads, most of which splatters on our faces, mixing with our sweat. On Todd he uses his thumb, and on me a stick, to anoint our heads with aromatic oil. Finally, after unwinding the string from our hands, he gives us both knotted bracelets strung with a small bit of gold leaf wrapped into a bead shape. “You wear this until you get back to home, for luck, for being safe.”

Impressively, he puts the bracelet on my wrist without touching me in the slightest. I imagine Achan as a young monk-in-training, he and his classmates spending hours practicing putting blessing bracelets on each other without making contact, like a Buddhist version of the board game Operation.

Though Achan’s blessing is sincere, it’s not as if we asked him to pray for those things in particular. It’s probably the same mantra he recites for most visitors, tourist and Thai alike. I’d like the job he mentioned, and I won’t turn down a chunk of money in this economy, but right now I’d rather have a merciful mojo against food poisoning, overlong bus rides, and flight delays.

Photos from Chiang Mai, Thailand

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.