Sunshine On A Rainy Day


This blog entry about the events of Thursday, November 25, 2004 was originally posted on November 30, 2004.

DAY 404:  The overnight express from Bangkok to Chiang Mai continued on its way through the northern Thai countryside when I woke up that morning.  It was a casual morning of reading, writing and eating the breakfast served to me by the train attendants, one of which was a cross-dressing “ladyboy,” a common personality-type in the Kingdom of Thailand.  The morning was just like any other morning I’d had in recent history but with one difference:  for the first time in about two months, it was raining.

Rain, as I usually say to people who see it as a hindrance to their day’s plans, is “just water” and I knew that even with precipitation falling from the sky, I could find a little figurative sunshine.

CHIANG MAI, THE FORMER CAPITAL of the Lanna Kingdom, is Thailand’s second largest city in both population and tourist appeal.  Unlike its bigger sibling Bangkok, it is a much less glitzy city, a relaxed suburban-like town surrounded by jungle and mountains, where a laid-back attitude replaces a barrage of neon city lights.  As always, I arrived at the train station with no real agenda other than to find a place to stay, and then to figure it out from there.  I was going to check out the Libra Guest House as recommended by Let’s Go until I arrived at the tourist information booth at the end of the train platform.

“Which one are you looking for?” a young blonde traveler with a Dutch accent and a bright smile asked me when we both arrived at the same time.

“I don’t really know.”

“I heard about this one,” she said, pointing to a brochure of the Chiang Mai Guesthouse, which coincidentally was the one the booth lady was suggesting.  The Dutch girl, whose name was Lot, told me her friends recommended the guesthouse, along with the trekking expedition their affiliated tour agency offered.  She said her friends told her the place was run by an eccentric middle-aged motorscooter-riding Thai woman with thick glasses who would introduce herself as “Mama” that the Anne de Rooy character of Dutch comedian Paul de Leeun might have been based on.

“You can check it out.  If it’s not good, it’s not my fault, it’s theirs,” Lot told me. 

“I’m sure it’ll be fine.”  I gave it a shot since I was already in good company after a long train ride of meeting no one.  The owner “Mama” was there at the station to meet her new guests. 

“You come and see room.  Single, one hundred fifty.  You, one fifty, you, one fifty!  Ha ha ha!”  She was as quirky as Lot had described to me.

Lot and I were led to a free shuttle van along with two English girls and an Australian redhead named Elise — the three of them were surprised that they found a place to stay since everyone in Bangkok told them Chiang Mai accommodations would be hard to come by because of a big festival.  Lot and I both sort of just showed up not knowing of any festival, but were glad to have gotten there when we did.

As the van drove across town, a fast-talking tour agent rode with us and gave us a speedy pitch for the standard three-day trekking, elephant riding and rafting excursion offered by every travel agency in town.  She scribbled an itinerary all over a map she had, connecting the dots from place to place in a rushed manner that we figured she did everyday.  The whole program, although incomprehensible on paper, seemed like an okay deal, and the price was right too.

Mama, rode in on her motorscooter and greeted us at the guesthouse and gave us our room assignments.  The tour agent lady was still around for anyone that was interested in her pitch and Lot joined right up because of the recommendation she got.  I just went on her word again and wrote my name on the registration form under hers and signed up too.  I figured I wanted to do the standard trek anyway and I might as well book one recommended instead of wasting the afternoon going from agency to agency who would all essentially tell me the same thing.

A DRIZZLE CAME DOWN FROM THE OVERCAST SKY when Lot and I went out to explore the neighborhood with no real agenda in mind.  We crossed the moat left over from the old days, when the old city was surrounded by a water and a fortification wall, and eventually found (not surprisingly) a temple to visit.  It was the Wat Chedi Luang, a Buddhist temple complex built by King Saen Suang Ma in 1401, home to Chiang Mai’s largest chedi (temple) guarded by dragon statues.  Behind the chedi was a wiharn, which housed a big gold Buddha protected by life-size stone elephants at one corner

Inside the temple a big standing Buddha statue held its hand out where about thirty little Buddha statues were sitting underneath.  The hand of the big statue was connected to each little statue by a string, and it sparked some curiosity in my new Dutch friend.  “What is the meaning of the wire?” Lot asked.

“I dunno.”

“I want to ask a monk.”  One walked by and she called him over but he didn’t know any English.  She asked another in the corner and he said something about a birthday.  For Lot it was sometimes hard to process broken English, especially when she still thought in Dutch. 

Flipping through Lot’s Lonely Planet guidebook, we saw that the monks in town held something called Monk Chat, an informal question-and-answer session of monks for tourists.  The book said Monk Chat was far out of town, but then we saw a sign that said Monk Chat was available where we were.  We wondered into an administrative-looking building and snooped around, joking about this and that, noticing the monk in one room on a mobile phone.  “It’s funny we’re laughing like this, I’ve known you an hour,” Lot told me.

I approached the monk with the mobile phone when he was through and asked him about Monk Chat.  He said in broken but decent English that it was canceled because of the celebration on the temple grounds, the birthday of the founder or something like that.  The monk’s name was Lau and he was a decent fellow as most monks are, and offered us a seat for an impromptu Monk Chat.  Lot asked about the strings on the Buddhas — it was a good luck thing for the celebration — and I asked about the festival in town (which wasn’t affiliated with the festival in the monk community).  Lau told us the town celebration would happen in two main places:  by the river and by the house of the…  (He couldn’t think of the word.) 

“Mayor?” I asked, trying to complete his sentence.

“No… no….  Arno…  You know Arno?  California?”

“Oh, governor.”

“Yeah, governor.”

THE DRIZZLE TURNED INTO A STEADY RAIN, but Lot and I didn’t mind for the most part.  It’s just water, as I said.  We wandered some more, stopping by a 7-Eleven for drinking water and a couple of different travel agencies to try and move Lot’s flight.  We escaped the downpour of mid-afternoon in a small local’s restaurant, with service also from a cross-dressing “ladyboy.”  “I think that she is a he,” Lot told me.  We continued to hit it off as we ate our Thai rice dishes — at one point that afternoon she accidentally spoke to me in Dutch, only to be answered with my blank stare.

ELISE THE AUSSIE REDHEAD was in the lobby of the Mama’s Chiang Mai Guesthouse to join us when Lot and I were going to wander around that night.  Also there was another girl named Ani who I pegged as an American as soon as she started using the adjective “awesome” the way Americans do.  “I’m sorry, I’m totally crashing your party,” Ani told Elise. 

“Well, I’m crashing their party,” Elise said.

“We’re crashing each others,” Lot said, pointing at herself and me.

“If nobody crashed, there’d be no party.”

The real “party” that night was the nighttime festivities of the Thai festival Loy Krathong, known and celebrated in Chiang Mai as the Yi Peng Festival.  There was a hint of irony that night as it rained; the festival was meant to celebrate the end of the rainy season.  No matter, it was “just water” and sunshine would prevail.  Sunshine came in the form of the many rice paper lanterns flying in the sky, launched by people on the ground.  Before I knew what they were, they looked like UFOs from Mars getting ready to attack the earth.

Essentially the lanterns were miniature hot-air balloons; imagine a rice paper condom about four feet tall with a wire ring about a foot in diameter at the base to keep the cylindrical form.  Mounted in the center of the wire ring is a ring of slow-burning cardboard that is ignited.  The heat generated from the flame inflates the balloon and sets it flying for a good two hours.

Inspired by the lanterns flying in the sky, the four of us chipped in and bought one and tried to set it off.  We were complete novices at the practice and didn’t exactly know what we were doing when we tried to launch it from the bridge over the river on the east end of town.  We lit the center and let the balloon fill with hot air and let it go… 

“Wooo!” we cheered as the rain fell on our heads.

It floated away sideways without rising though and eventually sank down into the river.  The flame was extinguished in the water and the big paper lantern went flaccid and floated away rather pathetically under the rain.

THE NAWARAT BRIDGE WAS THE BIG LAUNCHING AREA for the paper lanterns and we bought another one there for another shot, this time with the help of a local Thai guy with a torch specifically for lighting them up.  We held it up for him to ignite, holding it as it filled with more than enough hot air so it would just leave our hands.  It worked that time and our ball of sunshine was up in the air with the others, creating a starry night of yellow constellations underneath the high overcast clouds. 

“The best part [of this festival] is that we didn’t even know about it!” I told Lot.

“Yeah, I know!”

The good vibe continued when we went to the riverside and launched off little krathongs that I bought from a “ladyboy”, these little floating flower bouquets with a candle and incense sticks in the center (picture above).  According to one Thai person, the point of floating the bouquets down the river was to (ironically) apologize to the river goddess for polluting the river.  The worst of it wasn’t the littering of candles and other non-biodegradables in the river, it was the fact that some guys under the bridge were stealing the money people often put in the little floaters.  That and the fact that people were launching their little flower boats with firecrackers on them so they’d explode and sink.  (Firecrackers and other pyrotechnics were a huge part of the festival, but I’ll get to that in the next entry.)

The good times continued that night when we ended up in a bar with live music, first from a trio from Colorado that played R&B classics from the likes of Marvin Gaye as well as some of their own originals, some with lyrics in Thai.  They were followed by a Thai band that played American covers.  Over another round of drinks, Elise showed us a trick she knew that was similar to the principles of the rice paper lanterns:  she lit a dismantled teabag on fire to make it rise.  I was giddy to see it launch, only the bag was a dud and it just burned to nothing on the table.  Meanwhile, people outside were still lighting up the paper lanterns with fire in the street.  There was a near disaster when the group near the bar set one off — it rose and got caught on some electrical cables and shifted over to the pole where all the wires met at some electrical box.  Luckily someone threw a shoe and dislodged it. 

Lot and Elise turned in early and in the end it was just Ani and me.  “Oh, hey,” she said to me that night.  “Happy Thanksgiving!” 

“Happy Thanksgiving!”

She too was the only American around on the American holiday the day before and was happy to have another one around for a change.  She got a kick out of the fact that we did the American after-drinking thing of going out for pizza — at a stand coincidentally run by an American ex-pat and his “ladyboy” partner.

THE MORNING AFTER, the rain was finally gone and the sun had come out — not that I wouldn’t have had a good time either way.  Elise did her flaming teabag trick at breakfast and it finally lifted off the table as a little bag of sunshine that made me smile.

Next entry: Recipes

Previous entry: Giving Thanks

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Comments for “Sunshine On A Rainy Day”


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/30  at  08:29 AM

  • he said ... “Bags of Sunshine” hehehe ...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/30  at  01:47 PM

  • wiran pic is the same pic/link as the dragon statues

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/30  at  04:42 PM

  • Erik:  The “dragon statues” link and the “wiharn, which housed a big gold Buddha” link both open the dragon statue picture.


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/30  at  04:53 PM

  • I love Chang Mai!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/30  at  04:57 PM

  • wow, those paper lanterns are so cool! though it would be bad if one drifted onto something and set a house on fire. does that happen much? i wish we had cool festivals like that here in the U.S. =(

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/30  at  07:00 PM

  • god forbid we can any cool festivals in the states…....

    tea bags on fire…niiice…tea bags…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/30  at  09:43 PM

  • “Wiharn” picture fixed.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/01  at  12:13 PM

  • Mama does seem like a good choice…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/01  at  02:22 PM

  • BTW - I’m rather mortified that my governor is known all the way over there… that’s sad.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/01  at  05:53 PM

  • I have to say the last week or so has been full of temples and statues, and they’re all wonderful. In particular I think the guardian ones are the most intricate and unique to my western eyes.

    I’m so close to being caught up, but I’ve been sitting here for HOURS and my ass is falling to sleep and I’m starving. Must get up… walk… eat.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/03  at  11:09 PM

  • Hey Eric.  You probably don’t remember me, but I met you in Prague.  I just came to check up on you, and see your progress.  First of all, I think it’s awsome that you did all that Buddhist stuff.  Secondly, if I remember correctly, I thought you planned to be finished by now.  Anyways, good luck on your journeys, and I wish you the best!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/10  at  08:03 PM

  • GREG:  Actually, you came immediately to mind when I was at the rock garden in Kyoto…  I remember you said you made one yourself…

    Anyway, glad you’re still reading!  Keep in touch, I won’t forget…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/11  at  01:14 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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