Forced Recap: Chiang Mai 2014


Instead of being reminded by my regrets, I should be reminding myself by the way I wish to remember. It has been over two months since myself and the rest of my clan returned from our two month stint in Thailand. When we were there and after we returned we were sure that it was perhaps the best time we have spent together as a family. We gained a lot of confidence in ourselves as parents, learned a lot about our young daughter, and at the same time had a great time constantly exploring Chiang Mai. Up until the past week or two it has been almost a distant figment of my memory, and on most days it barely registers as something that we believe has marked our lives forever.

Granted when we left we knew that we had stayed our welcome and had to depart to the normality of home, work, bills, and of course Yeongtong. We did probably spend too much money, and believe it or not two months of sitting around not working can in fact get a little boring, even when you’re in Thailand. Of course we occupied ourselves but after Herself’s friend who came to visit during the month of February we saw the last few weeks as a wind down period before we headed back to Korea. And then disaster kicked in.

This is Chiang Mai

It was a disaster averted I can confidently assert now, but at the time it was my biggest challenge travelling anywhere. +1, our little angel, broke out in a really high fever. We treated her as best we knew, firstly with some paracetamol based medicine, then when a warm bath, and she seemed to be ok. However, later in the day her temperature sky-rocketed again, so we did the same but this time as we bathed her she turned blue and started shivering so much that she was practically shaking from left to right. We quickly threw some things in a bag and went to the Chiang Mai Ram hospital, which was fortunately nearby. +1 was diagnosed with pneumonia and was quickly admitted and then treated. Thanfully after a few days she was discharged along with a big box full of antibiotics to ensure the infection stayed away, and in case in her temperature rose again. It is probably this which shook us so much that allowed us to want to return home to Korea as quickly as we hoped. It was a scary moment, no doubt, but the fortunate no brainer of investing in travel insurance beforehand allowed us in the end to only worry about our child’s health, and not on the further widening of our travel purse strings.

Yet for that moment, which we all recovered from, we still turn to each other and kind of ask ourselves, ‘what about Thailand?’

The Three Amigos

Staying in Chiang Mai together for a long period was something that myself and Herself had promised ourselves for years. Ever since we first were seeing each other and rendezvoused with a charge and jump into each others arms after the last flight from Bangkok touched down in Chiang Mai on day in mid-September, 2006. Herself knew Chiang Mai well and looks back on it fondly. She spent three months learning traditional Thai massage there the winter before. Her memories were still fresh and her enthusiasm to show her stomping grounds was fervent. We came back to Chiang Mai in 2012 briefly on a quick visit to Thailand and again had a blast (read about those adventures-ish here), although we skipped up to Pai and then down to Koh Chang as well to give out trip some needed variety. This time we spent the entire two months in Chiang Mai.

Perhaps though we are doing the reflecting thing wrong. We came back with huge suitcases after one of those awful night time flights which give you about four hours sleep and an early morning arrival in Seoul. This would possibly be easier if we weren’t hauling around our toddler who, as is always the case in these situations, is on a much different sleep pattern to the encumbered parents. We dumped our bags on arrival, pulled a few needed things out, then shoved the suitcases into the spare room and didn’t look back at them for another month at least. I went back to work the following Monday, while Herself struggled to fall back into the routine. Yes, routine, the death song of any wild aspiration. It was cold, the air was crappy, we needed to go to Homeplus, and we really looked forward to getting out to the east coast as soon as possible. At least we had a car though.

Change

Many people use their holiday pictures to refresh their memories, and I suppose we could have done this. I can’t really, as I’ve uploaded them all to my ageing laptop which is now in my office in work. Constantly shutting down as it over-heats, I can’t even contemplate how or when I’ll get the chance to comb through the 30 or 40 gigabytes currently stored on it. I want to. I need to. In fact, we need to. It’s a classic case of information overload, taking so many pictures that you completely forget them. It’s not enough to say that I really enjoyed learning how I could use my camera, it’s time I actually pulled out all those images and did something special with them, other than plaster my flickr page with albums from markets, which is about the height of what I’ve done so far.

On my bookshelf next to my computer which I write from now there are six photographs of myself and Herself. Always these pictures look at us, and always they are smiling. There is one from our wedding party at home in Dunboyne, two from our actual wedding day, a picture from my masters graduation  (a qualification I earned with her welded tightly to my side it must be said), and three pictures from our forever memorable honeymoon in Turkey. This is how we should celebrate our events, not by posting albums and updates on the internet, but in front of the places we pass the most each day. I always try to print some photographs but rarely find a suitable place to see them. Perhaps what I should really be looking to do is not find better things to photograph, but to find more wall space, without which I might end up with no memories to really to celebrate.

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Some previously uploaded photo albums from my two months in Thailand can be found here:

Chiang Mai streets Part 1

MAYA

CMU Art Museum

Chiang Mai Sunday Market, January 5 2014

Night Bazaar, February 2014

And if you click this link you can see all my albums from Korea, Thailand, Ireland, and more…

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Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사


The nearest Buddhist temple to our place is just across the road. In fact I pass it every time I go to work. It’s small and hidden up a small hill behind ample tree cover. In fact you’d miss it completely if it were for the multicoloured lanterns which line the street from early April, lanterns which are of course in anticipation of today, Buddha’s Birthday.

I’m inclined to think that Buddha’s Birthday is one of the nicer holidays in Korea, where the majority are made up of celebrations for independence and the constitution and such like. Granted that they are all important, but they are in some respects new holidays. Celebrating the Buddha has been going on in Korea for a long time, and maybe something of the history has rubbed off on folks.

Buddhism has been practised in Korea since around the fourth century, and was welcomed in both the Three Kingdoms period and the Unified Silla period. During the Chosun dynasty, while not entirely ostracised, much Buddhism was forced to the side and practice was reserved in secluded mountain areas. Today this could be why many Buddhist temples can be found on hills and mountainsides – or it could be that they are just nice places to have temples.

We’ve been coming the 반야사 for a few years, and it is a different place to the usual mean and impersonal streets of Yeongtong. I don’t want to say that people change when they step on to the green grass looking out over the many high-rise apartments across the horizon, but there seems to be a different attitude. Courtesy is one thing that is in abundance, and smiles, and conversation with strangers. The chanting from the loudspeakers and the moktoks steady hollow tapping has a positive influence on even the sourest citizen it would seem.

To add to this, the sun was shining down warming the small tree protected garden of dry grass and multicoloured lanterns. The colours were lined in neat straight rows, each lantern recognising a donor and that a prayer would be said in their honour. To the side lines of white lanterns were representative of those who have passed away.

The stone pathway which dissected the garden, halfing the garden, with the temple to one side and the a large open area filled with mats for sitting on the other. Here people had gathered in family groups and were sitting and chatting while enjoying the temple food. This was a simple mountain or san-chae bibimbap  – essentially, fresh greens, some bean sprouts, mushrooms, a kimchi, and of course red pepper paste known to everyone else who isn’t a fresh off the boat tourist as go-chu-chang.

We have been celebrating Buddha’s Birthday in Korea for as long as myself and Herself have been a couple. It’s kind of a thing we like to do. Before we would go to Gangwon-do and visit a small temple Herself’s mother used to go to. Again, it was a similar set up without the nice grass, but admittedly the food was better (it is Gangwon-do of course). After that we’d usually go for a walk through Odaesan National Park, for more food and of course the beautiful Seogumgang Valley.

But none of that this year. Lovely Yeongtong was on the cards, and in fairness it didn’t disappoint.

 

For more photographs from Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사 please take a look at my set on Flickr

 

Did you celebrate Buddha’s Birthday? What did you do?

Is there any local festival specific to your home you’d like to share?

 

An Old Fisherman’s Advice


We were walking around Jumunjin Harbour on an early April morning. The sun was warm and the docks were busy with tourists and workers. Underneath the carpark the wharf was busier than usual. Long gone were the fish sellers, moved to another less in the way location of the port, so to see so much coming and going was unusual. While not regulars in Jumunjin port, we would be more regular that most and seeing a flurry activity as such was something reserved for the height of the squid season, and it was not that time of year yet.

We edged closer, hopping over river sized puddles and landing on tiny atolls of uneven concrete, until we came to what was of so much anxiety and interest to the workers and curious visitors. On the concrete were nets and nets full of fish. They were litterally exploding with them. To see nets this full in a small port like Jumunjin, where even in their tourist markets they mostly sell farmed fish, was a delight. There were wheelbarrows full to bursting being shoved past, and nets being stretched long for cleaning and recasting. Of greatest interest though was the a stocky greying man, sitting on a plastic chair pulling the fish from the nets.

Herself began to talk to him, as I tried to take a few photographs of the action. He was very garrulous and you could tell that the catch had enlivened him. He cracked jokes and offered advice. We put in an order for some fish and a much used plastic shopping bag returned full to near bursting with oily, unscaled and still to be gutted fish. I think they said there was twenty in it, but later we found that there had to be even more. They charged us a mere 10,000 won.

20140405-_DSC0511

As we stood around chatting with and I continued to take photographs, he made a suggestion.

“Why don’t you sit down here and pull the fish out, and I’ll take a photograph of you while you do it? You can even wear my oilskins and hat”. He laughed out loud at the idea and gave my wife one of those looks, while nodding in my direction. Needless to say, me being no fun and afraid of actual work I declined the offer, shirking away in the process. The man didn’t seemed bothered and continued to laugh and crack jokes with Herself.

Later that day as I was looking back over my photos I could not help but think about this suggestion. He didn’t seemed bothered by any stretch of the imagination, and was certainly only having a good laugh at my expense, and probably rightly so. What I could not stop thinking of was that this was worthwhile advice for anyone who is a  tourist, or a photographer, or just whoever is nosey and wants to inspect as you go about your work. If you think that something is so fantastic you feel enticed to point and stare, or photograph, or watch with intense critical interest, perhaps you should don those oilskins yourself and really see how interesting an experience it is.

Whenever we travel we take so much time to find authentic experiences, but rarely do we take into account that what is an authentic experience to someone is a life and way of living to another. Yes it’s interesting, but isn’t it more important to have a little personal respect for people who are going about their lives? It’s not as if they would choose to be so interesting to the point of fascinating.

Korea in Chiang Mai


You spend enough time in Asia as an Irishman and you give up expecting to find Irish stuff. You know you’ll stumble across something here or there, but at the best of times all you can find is a can of Guinness and a Westlife song. Chiang Mai, despite its large expat population and even larger tourist numbers was no better than Korea, or anywhere else I’ve been. I had hoped for half a day or so, but any hopes I had were soon dashed by the obvious.

Not so much of a disappointment was the preponderance of Korean influences. In fact it wasn’t really anything close to a disappointment. Obviously you can make that Asian connection, which in many respects is a loose connection. More significant to this is the economic connection, the good old supply and demand of goods and services. Despite these two, where Korea shined through the most was in its culture – that being its food and its music.

I could be in Suwon

Herself is better at spotting Korean music (do you spot with your ears?), and by Korean music I mean K-Pop of course, than I would be. It’s not essentially because she can hear the Korean, which would stand out, but I think because she has a better idea of what songs are out there at the moment. All I could hear was the confounding ‘jumping, jumping, everybody’ song by Crayon Pop. There were other instances too but for the most part when out and about you’d hear a K-Pop tune or two, and seeing as this wasn’t in Yeongtong where everywhere was playing the same K-Pop tune I was not prone to writhing in misery at all stages throughout the day.

My experience of Koreaness in Chiang Mai was by all accounts primarily visual. There was a fair amount around, but this popularity is clearly surmounted by the plethora of Japanese ramen and sushi places, and the unmissable presence of car after car of Japanese manufacture. The big pick-up Toyotas and Izzuzus rumbling up and down filled gangs of workmen are hard to ignore, and while this is notable in my two months there I only saw one Korean car, and a ten year old one at that. You can shun this but don’t forget that Hyundai-Kia are the fourth largest auto manufacturers in the world.

In the supermarkets though, Koreans could hold their own. There was no lack of ramyeon or indeed gochujang or your usual list of regular supermarket supplies. To add to this Korean cosmetics were to the forefront of most major supermarkets, equipped with a Korean flag and pristine models face; you’d almost think you were in E Mart at times.

Around town as well there was a decent number of Korean restaurants, of which we never bothered to eat in, although I think we promised ourselves often enough. Mostly they were barbecue places, but there was a dakgalbi place, and oh yes now I remember we tried a place called K-Pop Ddeokbokki which was, to be honest, awful. Not just for the name, but because the food was really bad, and not because it was Korean food in Thailand, because it was bad. I think the kimbap we had was passable, but maybe not.

There were a few other peculiarities about, like a Magic water purifier manufacturer store which was proud of its Koreaness, and there was a Tom and Toms coffee shop near where we were staying that seemed to be perpetually waiting to be opened. As much as a novelty as this was, I was happy we missed this grand affair. More random than all of this had to be the woman we ran into who was wearing a Lee Myung Bak election hoodie – yeah like the ones you see the electioneering dancers at the corner wear. She had no idea what it was about.

           

There were no shortage of Koreans out and about either. The familiar sounds of their voices followed us around, and it has to be said, I could spot them well in advance. There were the young university aged independent travelers over protected from the warm sun who wandered up and down Nimmanhaemin in the afternoon, and then there were the golf groups of men and women who stayed in the condo where we stayed. They mostly stuck to themselves, I suppose, and rarely came to the pool which I couldn’t understand.

I met one Korean man who actually lived in Ulan Bator in Mongolia – and to think Myself and Herself complained about the Korean winter – who was baffled by many of his fellow Koreans who just came to play golf all the time. While he played a little, he was mesmerised by the wonders of Chiang Mai and that there was in fact a lot to do. The guy was having a good time it has to be said, and was heartbroken when he got called back to Mongolia for work. He did however leave me a bottle of whiskey which he had yet to get around to putting a serious dent into.

For the most part though, Chiang Mai was comfortable place for many Koreans who lived there all the time. I’m not sure what they did but there is a decent core population who send their kids to the international schools, and they work and live in safety and comfort, although nowhere near on the same scale as the number of Japanese in the city. I suppose it’s always reassuring from our perspective to find a Korean community, even if we don’t necessarily interact with them for whatever reasons.

So this was Korea in Chiang Mai, or at least the Korean stuff which I experieced. I was pretty happy to see this all round, and hope that next time I visit there’ll be a better representation of my adopted home.

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In conclusion I should add that while Chiang Mai did appear Irishless, it did triumph in two particular areas – Tayto (once but once can sometimes be enough!) and cans of Bulmers!

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For those not in the know I spent two months in Chiang Mai from late December 2013 until the end of February 2014. It was a good time.

All photos taken with my aging iPhone 4

Religious Tourism


I recall after university I was on a month long bender carousing through Spain when we happened upon Valencia. A fairly big city by any accounts, we were wandering around not knowing anything of the place or what we could do. There was a big church on a corner, and as part time tourists on our trip we decided an idea would be to take a look inside, because you know, churches are what tourists looked at.

At that time it made a pleasant change from the bars and street corners we’d been frequenting.

Inside its cool and dark stainglass lit air we took a moment to ourselves as we looked around. The place was empty, but you could feel the history. The mustiness of the place seemed to tickle some imaginative sixth sense in each of us. Perhaps some kind of proclamation by a priest at the pulpit, or who had sat at the knee worn pews in dreary early modern garb.

Phra Sing Eave on flickr

I won’t lie though, I think we’d left after five minutes and I won’t even bother to imagine what the name of this church may have been. It was though, and this may have been because of the circumstances, a memorable moment among many at the time.

It strikes me now, while I’m in Thailand, that tourism and religious buildings go hand in hand across the globe. Where is the connection between our interest in culture, which is what arguably is the main influence on the tourism I’m talking of here, and this universal fascination with old religious structures, some functioning, some not?

Early Morning Prayer on flickr

There are a few reasons.

Religious buildings are generally speaking awe inspiring. Not every building pars in comparison with European Gothic cathedrals of course, but take my small village in Ireland, Dunboyne. Without a doubt the most impressive structure is the Catholic church which flights to Dublin regularly use as a marker for lining up for their landing at the airport. Less dramatic but certainly steeped in more history is the Prodestant church and graveyard which has a history stretching back several hundreds of years. It is not large, but its quaint location nestled at the back of town and surrounded by trees is worth a wander around.

More importantly, religious structures are awe inspiring because they have absorbed so much wealth and concentration (not to mention lives, materials, and sacrifice) in their construction that they’re deservedly more impressive. Add to this the tests and twists of time which have worn many down to rustic impressions of their former glory.

Another thing to consider is that religion across the planet is a beacon of cultural identity. It is the outstanding feature, undoubtedly, of a people’s background and in many ways it offers an understanding of how society could possibly operate. After years of living in Korea, one of the first questions I still get asked about Korea (after confirming that it is indeed South Korea and not North Korea that I’ve lived in) is what is the main religion there. The answer is not necessarily important to this piece, but the asking is. It shows that people’s curiousity begins from the most obvious point, both from a spiritual (and indeed social) perspective, and a physical one in the shapes of the dominant buildings to be found in a town or city, which are invariably religious.

Waiting for a Prayer on flickr

You can tie these two points in with people’s own natural inquisitiveness to find similarities or differences with their own homes. When we travel we look for things which are different, or how things are done differently. The phenomenon of a corner shop or an alley is an international one, so you do well to find one which is truly unique, but with particular buildings it is easy to notice either the similarities or the differences. Religious buildings, with their central location, wealth, ease of access, and the fact that the main ones are on every tourist map you are bound to find tend to receive more visitors than pagans like myself would prefer.

Of course the real fun about travel, for me at least, is finding the unusual in the usual. What I mean by this is that I prefer to explore the alleys and lanes which surround religious buildings, rather than the buildings themselves. Invariably I end up in these buildings, but there is as much to see surrounding places of worship, escpecially those which have been around for hundreds of years. Many have established markets, government buildings, public squares, and many more curiosities. These may not necessarily be pretty places, but then most of the world where people inhabit is not pretty.

Despite this, what I’ve called religious tourism isn’t necessarily an interest in faith or devotion, it is essentially satisfying our innate human curiousity. Curiousity is what drives us outside in the first place, it spurs our emotions, makes us think, act, respond, and learn. Even if you are not religious, you have to give to religion providing us with these opportunities for self development.

New Year Votives on flickr

All photographs taken in Chiang Mai, January and February 2014. Words and photography © Conor O’Reilly 2014