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Zen and the Art of Not Dying

We woke not that long after sunrise in our comfortable, albeit somewhat insect-infested quarters in Doi Mae Salong. The smoke was still thick, obscuring the greater part of what must have been a fantastic view from our balcony at the top of the mountain. In fact, there was only one point higher than our guest house compound, and that was a golden temple that sat veiled in smoke on an adjacent peak.

Dane had suggested the night before that we might do well to attempt to run to the top of that hill and visit the temple. I was excited to get a little exercise, since we had been doing a much more sedentary, albeit high voltage, type of wheeling as of late. So, with that, I changed out of my Choco sandals and into my pair of Vibram five fingers. With that, we took off jogging down the mountain.

It was rough going, the ambient smoke had definitely been doing a number on my lungs. Paired with the high elevation, I found myself huffing and puffing quite uncontrollably, and that was even before we turned uphill towards the temple. Sweat was pouring into my eyes, matting my hair to my head. As I slapped the soles of my feet against each step, I took a moment to look up and saw only thousands more, snaking up the mountain as far as I could see. It was time to just dig in.

I though about my sister. She is a very serious rower, looking right now at the possibility of competing for her team in the NCAA championships in Los Angeles. She mentioned to me once that her coxswain would yell out to the boat as they were in the throes of a particularly tough bit of rowing, “have you entered your pain cave?” It also might be a fight club reference… I’m not sure, but I certainly entered my pain cave.

When we finally reached the top of the mountain, the temple proved almost blindingly shiny, though the view from the top was almost completely submerged in that ever-present smoke, giving us the feeling of having run up into a kingdom in the clouds. The temple was covered in gold foil or paint of some kind, and was positively burning in the morning sun. Meanwhile my throat was killing me, and my lungs were none too interested in ceasing a painful session of huffing and puffing.

It was not until we had walked almost halfway down the mountain that I finally began to return to my normal respiratory state. When we finally returned to the guesthouse to find Scott happily typing away on his Macbook on the porch, he looked up and asked, “How was the run?”

“I’ve been born again…” I replied hoarsely.

Back on the motorcycles, we made our way down the mountain to sweet Maesalong where we gave our friend’s breakfast offerings a try.

They proved delightful, with thick slices of home-made whole grain bread, fried eggs, and crispy bacon.

Dane also insisted we order the honey toast, which came out positively swimming in melted butter and steaming with piping hot and startlingly fragrant local floral honey.

There was of course the coffee as well: a dark rich Americano, swirled with golden crema and so mellow it tasted creamy even with no milk.

Back on the motorcycles we chose a route back to Chiang Rai which took us around the other side of the mountain and down a steeply twisting, and rather treacherous dirt road.

We put the cycles into first gear.  The sun was setting once again into the smokey infinite by the time we returned to the city.

For our last night in Chiang Rai, Dane took us on a tour of the nightlife, which was unbelievably vibrant even on a Monday night. We visited venue after packed venue, filled with Thai young people, listening to live bands create deafening Thai pop-rock hits. Few of the Thai seemed inclined to dance, and our repeated efforts to start a dance party were mostly unsuccessful, and hopefully not offensive.

One particularly interesting part of the Thai nightlife scene is the presence of the hexagonal table. Rather than leaving the floor area of the nightclub free of obstructions to encourage general raging, the floor is covered with a great many hexagonal tables. Your average Thai nightclub patron will usually attend one of these venues along with a group of friends, secure a hexagonal table, and purchase –to be shared among them– a bottle of hard liquor (generally heinous scotch), a number of bottles of cola and soda, and a vast bucket of ice which they will have brought to the table. They will then commence drinking and yelling, while scanning the room for new people to make friends with and execute clinking of glasses with. Once they find a friend, they can call a night club employee over and have the tables moved together and fused into one great honeycomb. It is this way that the party develops. Cigarettes are often also part of the night experience, the smoke from which hangs in the air thickly. This makes the laser light show and disco balls more dramatic, but can get tough on the lung piece during extended periods of dance related hyperventilation.

The next morning we had just enough time to visit one of the more modern Thai temples in the region, this one still under construction, funded by the King, and sporting a decidedly modern theme.

The entire temple was made of a stark white stone-like material, adorned with hundreds of thousands of tiny mirrors. Quite a sight to behold.

Inside the temple, where no photos, hats, or shoes are allowed, we found a great mosaic, featuring items from modern pop culture, such as the 9-11 trade towers falling, Neo from the matrix, Darth Vader, characters from Anime, and even soft core pornographic images. Quite a religious site.


  1. Mark/Dad | April 24th, 2010 | 3:52 pm

    What was between the bacon and eggs and the honey toast? Looked like a tasty complement to the soup.

    And were the young fashionable calendar ladies included to represent reluctant dance partners or perhaps a Thai girl band?

  2. Woody | April 24th, 2010 | 8:14 pm

    @ Mark/Dad
    Ah, good question. That was a Burmese green curry with crispy rotis. Very tasty; should have mentioned it.

    Another good question. I think the answer would have to be both.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Diane Heditsian | April 25th, 2010 | 3:05 pm

    I think the lovely calendar ladies may be “ladyboys” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathoey

    Scott, what would Dante have thought of that modern temple?

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