My first sights Christmas morning were of banana trees, rice paddies and teak huts with thatched roofs on stilts, all floating by the window of our sleeper compartment on the overnight train from Bangkok to the northern capital of Chiang Mai.
By David G. Allan
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Dec. 25, 2001 on the website TheDharmaBums.com. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject
CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — Woke at dawn. The Hindus call the hour of dawn “brahmamuhurta” and consider it the most propitious one for meditation. My first sights Christmas morning were of banana trees, then rice paddies, teak huts with thatched roofs on stilts, palm trees, and forested mountains under a red-streaked sky — all floating by the window of our sleeper compartment on the overnight train from Bangkok to the northern capital of Chiang Mai.
Kate’s family arrived days before the holiday, and on Christmas Eve I cooked my soon-to-be-famous Eggnog French toast (patent pending) while we listened to Christmas music. Later we opened our gifts around a decorated houseplant that normally resides on our balcony. In the evening we walked down our soi (street) with carry-ons in tow to the Sky Train (in Thai, Sky Train is rot fai faa and translates to “fire car in the air”) and then on tuk-tuks (the golf cart-sized vehicles named after the sound their engines make) to the train station.
As we lurched away from the platform we popped open a bottle of champagne and quietly sang “We Three Kings” (Kate’s father alone knew all the words) followed by a telling of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” During dinner we played Trivial Pursuit and then lowered our sleeper beds for nestling and those promised visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads while we slept. Too excited and cramped to sleep, I kept Kate up until midnight to so we could wish each other our first official “Merry Christmas.” Kate fell asleep at 12:04 and I stayed awake and read, as Santa Claus can attest.
Christmas morning after enjoying the view at brahmamuhurta, we ate our breakfast (despite the consistent level of mediocrity I love meals on planes, trains and boats!), folded up our beds and sleepily got off the train in cool (relative to Bangkok) Chiang Mai. I whistled Christmas songs as we made our way down the platform and for the first time I thought about America, about sweater weather and skiing and hot chocolate with candycanes melted inside, and about my family and friends on the other side of the world, and about the warm yuletide genuineness that prevails in America this time of year despite the over-advertising of the holiday (Merry Starbucks Christmas Blend and a Harry Potter New Year to you!). I continued to think of these things as I looked out the back of a song taew (the primary mode of transportation up north, a pick-up truck with an enclosed bed with two benches; song thaew translates in Thai as “two rows”) and watched through my sunglasses as the old city walls, the town moat, and shop signs without English translation, blurred on by.
Later that morning we visited a forest wat featuring a large collection of headless Buddhas and quotes from his teachings pinned to trees. My favorite: “Give education to an unreligious man, you will make him a clever devil.” And then we went to a ceramics factory and store where Kate’s brother Robert and I played chess while the others shopped, and then on to a paper making shop fronting a backyard of colorful homemade paper drying in the sun.
We went to a Kan Tok restaurant where the Thai version of dinner theater hilariously entertained us while we ate a delicious Christmas supper of naam phrik ong (hot chili sauce with pork and tomato), northern fried chicken, corn fries, pork rinds, vegetable tempura, sticky rice and fried bananas. (I, the odd lone vegetarian, had my own bottomless bowls of the yummy meatless versions of these.) It’s too bad I didn’t bring the camera to this meal because it concluded with Kate, me and several other brave guests dancing on stage with the cast. I’m sure my height and unprofessional laughing was a site deserving documentation. After dancing we were treated to a Thai Christmas carol of “Jinger benz, jinger benz. Jinger all the way.”
The next morning we headed up Doi Suthep, a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, to a huge and gilded wat full of tourists, shopping stalls, and Buddha statues. Kate’s parents, both teachers, picked up multiple versions of gifts for their students while Kate bargained for them in her excellent Thai and her brother and I waited, wishing we were still playing chess. Then we headed to a hilltribe Hmong village where there was more shopping, but not for me as I took off downhill to see the real hilltribe village and came across friendly school children, a farm, a recently-planted orchard and the town water supply. Back in the song taew we went to a park full of waterfalls and hiking, a virtual jungle gym for adults. And our final stop before heading back into town was a sad snake “farm,” featuring what I’m convinced was an equal number of dead snakes as alive ones, a house cat in a cage, and that most exotic of all caged birds: the crow.
The next morning, before heading to the airport for our next site, we went to an elephant camp and saw the big and beautiful beasts taking a bath in a stream — a lovely site that devolved into a hokey performance featuring elephants playing harmonicas, painting pictures and kicking soccer balls. With the feral Asian elephant population down to a couple thousand in Thailand and many still used for logging in Burma (logging is now banned here), the elephant farm, sadly, is about as good as it gets for the Thai elephant.
There’s no better way to get on a plane than walking up those portable stairs from the tarmac. I call it “rock star boarding” and I flashed peace signs and smiles to my screaming, adoring and imaginary fans behind crowd control fences as I made my way up the stairs. Our flight was less than an hour. No sooner had the plane reached cruising altitude we descended to the beautiful, manicured and private airport at Sukothai, the ancient capital of Thailand.
The next two days were chock-o-block with ancient Buddhist and Hindu ruins in all degrees of decay, splendor, reconstruction and beauty. The manicured lawns, lotus-filled moats, Buddhas “subduing mara,” wats, and stupas stretched for two days, most of it seen by bicycle and centering mainly around Sukothai and Si Satchanalai, both national parks containing some of the oldest and most impressive sites in the country. The one night we spent in Sukothai we rented a teakhouse on stilts over a pond which was as rustic as it gets and I slept little as my head and feet stretched over the small bed into the hole-dotted protection of the mosquito netting.
Shopped out, ruin-ed, fully watted, stuppa-fied, plane tired and having soaked up more religious history than any of us will remember, we flew back to Bangkok, our Christmas adventure into the northern mountain region of Thailand behind us and the New Year just about to begin!