Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Chiang Mai II

Ahh, Chiang Mai. Capturing the hearts and minds of countless numbers of foreigners for who-knows how long. Apparently, we fell into that group, because there we were, once again in Chiang Mai, catching a rusty red songthaew to our hotel for the month. Yes, the plan was to stay for a whole month. Our previous stay had been filled with good times, so why not return for more? Plus, there was that whole Songkran thing, too. The Thai New Year. And it was especially famous in Chiang Mai, so we would be in a prime Songkran location. And our hotel, luckily for us, was very close to some of the Songkran hot spots. Speaking of our hotel - or perhaps I should call it an apartment – they had no record of our booking when we arrived. They did have a room available, though, and seemed happy to set us up for the month. It would cost us 6,000 baht ($185 US), plus 100 baht for water ($3) and a pricy charge of 7 baht per unit of electricity that we used. The building was pretty nice, but nothing fancy. The room was the size of a large bedroom and included a bathroom, a balcony, AC and a fridge. Not a bad place! Being back in Chiang Mai, we were also back in the vicinity of a McDonald's once again. We hadn't seen one of those since we left Bangkok for Laos, so we treated ourselves to a fat double Big Mac that night.

Chuck wandered down to Chiang Mai's electronics mall while I slept in. This became one of my favorite past-times in Chiang Mai: sleeping in. At some point during our stay we came to the conclusion that the best way to avoid the heat of day was to try and sleep through it. I ended up being better at this than Chuck, although I was always filled with the tiniest bit of guilt at waking up after noon each day. But I think it was worth it, given that the Chiang Mai heat was pretty incredible. Each time we stepped outside we found ourselves squinting through the sunshine for 5 minutes before our eyes could adjust, our skin crisping like a Thanksgiving turkey under the broiler. Luckily, the humidity wasn't quite as high as some of the other places we'd been, but that certainly didn't make the heat pleasant by any means. Being our first day back in Chiang Mai, we hadn't learned all this yet and braved the noon heat in order to explore our little section of the city and find some food. We ended up on the east side of the moat at a curry place that made us swoon. It was the kind of curry that makes you sad because you knew that you'd never find anything quite like it anywhere else in the world. They even had frozen chocolate covered bananas, one of which I had for dessert. That evening we met up with our local contact, Tom, for some Mexican food and drinks. Mexican food is just not the same outside of America (and possibly Mexico...), so I'm not sure why we even really bothered trying to satisfy the craving. By the end of the night we had consumed one (or more) too many drinks and were making our way to a place called the Monkey Club. It was crowded with trendy locals, all in a heightened state of sexual awareness, bumping awkwardly into each other like moths to a light bulb. After only 30 minutes I suddenly realized that I didn't actually want to be there. Chuck was in agreement, and before we knew it we were taking an expensive tuk-tuk back to our hotel, having completely forgotten to tell Tom of our change of plans. Tom's a big boy though - we came to the conclusion that he could handle our disappearance. We had just been tagging along with him to meet some of his friends at the club, so it's not as if our absence left him abandoned. Once back at our apartment Chuck and I were asleep before before we even hit the mattress.

After our night of completely miscalculating our alcoholic consumption, we were feeling pretty bad the morning of the 10th. Nothing like a big English breakfast to remedy that. Well, I suppose it's not so much a cure as it is a way to feel pampered. And outside of England, Chiang Mai just might be the best place to get an English breakfast. We nursed ourselves all day long, knowing that we had to build up strength for the evening. By 8:00 we were feeling just about our old selves again as we headed down our street and around the corner to one of our favorite little spots: Gecko's. We met Tom, Randy, Sai, and Ian there and greeted everyone with hugs and "How are you"s. The night consisted of burgers and conversation well past midnight. Not being content with going to bed at 1:00 AM, we all ended up at Tom's apartment playing Wii bowling and Mario Cart until 5:00 AM.

The 11th was another day of much needed rest, not only because of our late night on the 10th, but also because we needed to build up strength for the festivities to come: Songkran. The 12th was the official first day of Songkran and we had plans to enjoy it as much as we possibly could. Songkran, as I mentioned, is the Thai New Year and Thais and foreigners alike look forward to this three day holiday like it's Christmas. In the beginning, Songkran was a time to visit family and friends and pay respects to elders, etc. People would travel to see loved ones and eat lots of delicious food, and maybe even bring food to the temples as offerings for the monks. Over time it came to include a cleansing of the Buddha statues at the temples by gently pouring water over them. The now sacred water was collected and used to bless people by pouring it down their shoulder. Can you see where this is going? Today it consists of people tossing water at, well, everyone. The ferocity of this water party differs from place to place, with Chiang Mai being THE spot to experience the most intense Songkran activities. What it comes down to is that if you're foolish enough to be walking or even driving around during Songkran, you will be soaked. Along the more mellow back roads people might be more kind about it, but in the main foray you'd better be prepared for a serious onslaught of water. Water gun and bucket vendors could be found all over the place, and most bars had giant metal barrels of water sitting outside, free to use as a home base if we bought a drink. Some barrels included a huge chunk of ice making the resulting splash from said bucket shockingly cold in the intense April heat. We learned to hate those barrels and would do our best to avoid them - we'd cross the street, run past, or just get revenge by dousing those had attacked us with a bucketful of their own ice cold water. I was wetted by smiling older women who gently poured it down my shoulder, and I was soaked by crazed partiers who threw bucketfuls right into my face. I was gently sprinkled by giggling Thai children, and I was blasted by jet streams of freezing, pressurized water. I also tossed bucketfuls of water at everyone I possibly could manage: cars, tuk-tuks, motorcyclists, pedestrians, and of course, my friends. The general set-up was to pick a bar, get a beer and a bucket, and go about dousing every person in sight, and there were a lot of people in sight. The sidewalks were packed with people, all dodging, running, splashing, etc. Dry hair and clothing was a definite target. Traffic was not immune either. I tried to toss more gently at motorcyclists and tuk-tuk drivers, being sure to avoid their faces and eyes, but I think I was in the minority in that regard. Most motorcyclists were completely soaked by the time they passed by our camp, but there was still immense pleasure to be had from re-soaking them. Children were also not immune, but once again, I was more delicate with kids and would only gently soak an arm or something. I can imagine that although they must find the water fight to be great fun, it can probably also get kinda scary pretty quickly with all these strange, big people tossing water all over them. Sai's 3-4 year old daughter came along with us and was such a good sport! She joined in with squirting her little water gun until it was empty, then would have one of us refill it for her and get into the action again. She was shivering with cold half the time, but she stuck it out for a good few hours before literally falling asleep from exhaustion. Pick-up trucks roamed the city, a troop of people stationed in the bed and armed with a barrel of water and numerous squirt guns and buckets. They loved to sneak up on you from behind and take you by surprise, passing you by before you even have time to react, let alone exact your revenge. They were a great target when you could see them coming, though. As you might imagine, the barrels would quickly run dry and need refilling. Bars and restaurants located away from the moat had to refill using a hose, but those on the moat were refilled with moat water. There was no order to getting the task done - if you wanted more water then you'd better orchestrate the refill yourself. Seeing as lots of people wanted water, it usually happened pretty quickly. Chuck helped a few times, falling into the moat once in the process and banging himself up pretty good. Let me tell you, refilling one of those giant metal barrels via the moat is not easy. The water level was somewhat low, so he had to climb down the steeply sloping wall, and with the help of some other guy, dunk the barrel in, and then somehow get the now really heavy container back up and across the street. Another downside to the moat water is that it is nasty stuff. Lord knows what kind of crap gets dumped in there every day - very possibly it includes actual crap. Chuck ended up with the beginnings of an ear infection a few days later, due to his fall in the dirty water. We quickly took care of it with some ear drops though. There was also a lot of drunken revelry. This led to such entertaining sights as a Thai man making out with a ladyboy in the middle of the road, her (his...) legs wrapped around him and a tiny thong sticking out. Luckily, this was the only display of this sort that we witnessed (lest I mislead you, I say luckily not because of the ladyboy - cause I thought it was awesome that making out with ladyboys was apparently all right - but because watching drunk people makeout, although funny, wasn't really what Songkran was about). I realize my descriptions can hardly do the event justice, and the best I can do is to strongly encourage you to fly to Thailand and experience it for yourself. It is absolutely fantastic! One of the most memorable events of my life. There's something about a city-wide, condoned water fight that makes everyone come together and revert into a bunch of giddy teenagers. It cannot be adequately described in words. And this craziness and celebration went on for five days. Five days of water. I have to admit - and I was warned of this by the veteran Songkran-ers - I got tired of it after two days. I got tired of not being able to go down the road for lunch without getting halfway soaked. Every time we went out we either had to suck up the fact that we would get wet, or deftly maneuver around all the water camps, ducking into stores and shops when we saw one of the loaded pick-up trucks coming our way. It was still great fun though. And after it had all officially ended I realized just how cool all that water had been keeping me. Songkran is great for keeping the heat of the day from getting to you.

From the 12th to the 14th we did the Songkran thing. The festivities began on the 12th with Tom generously treating the lot of us (that would be about 10 people) to a breakfast feast of eggs, bacon, salmon, bagels, and a shot of Jaegermeister. For the next three days, from morning to dusk we were mostly soaking wet. After sunset we would eat and drink and play Wii bowling. Randy and Jon (Jon is another one of Tom's friends who had just recently come into town) were pretty good at it. They were able to roll nearly perfect games. Sleeping fit in there somewhere, too.

On the 15th Chuck and I rented a motorbike so we could go out to "the dam" with everyone else. The dam is just what it sounds - a dam. With a bunch of secluded floating houses available for nightly rental scattered across the huge expanse of calm dam water. Chuck drove the bike while I sat behind him, eyes squeezed shut and praying. We managed to arrive safely, with only one near death experience. We were on the highway for more than an hour and we only had one close call! Not bad, eh? Not to mention that we were also getting pelted by the occasional bucket of water because people were not yet done celebrating Songkran. That crap hurts. Being hit with water while going 80 km per hour is not exactly like being tickled with feathers. It was definitely something that we slowed down and swerved to avoid, but the persistent Songkran-ers would run right out into the middle of the road in order to make sure they hit us. It was always so satisfying when they missed. We also developed a technique where we tried to pass just after another motorcycle had been pelted, that way the water-throwers hadn't had time to refill their buckets, meaning that we were home free. We got to watch Tom, Jon, and Chris get thwacked pretty good a few times using this method. It was greatly entertaining. That's not to say that Chuck and I made the trip unscathed though - we got our fair share of buckets. Once at the dam we parked our bikes for the night and precariously made our way onto a narrow longboat. The water on the dam was smooth as glass. We chugged past various little floating houses and hotels, each anchored 30 meters from the shore of the hilly islands that dotted the dam. The water level looked to be three feet lower than it had been in the recent past, leaving a sudden change of color at the old water line that could be seen on the rocky islands. I wondered if it actually fills back up to that point during the rainy season, or it was the effect of a few years of drought. Our floating hotel was a pretty neat contraption. It consisted of a series of wooden platforms strapped to a network of hollow tubes, all lashed together and anchored to the bottom of the murky dam via thick ropes. I know for a fact that the ropes are thick because I narrowly avoided being split in half by one of them when I dove into the water from a height of, oh, 10 feet or so. On the deck of the floating guesthouse there was this awesome old, rickety diving platform that rose to about 10 feet. It didn't look so high when I was standing on the deck, contemplating making the jump. After climbing the rusty ladder and standing atop the shaky platform it suddenly looked twice the height. Nothing I couldn't handle, though. Besides, I didn't want to have to make the shameful climb back down the ladder, thereby admitting my weakness to anyone who might have been watching. So I gathered my courage into a tight little ball, took a breath, and gingerly leap out into a beautifully sloppy dive. I underestimated just how far down the water will suck you from that height and ended up entering the lake with such force that it ripped the contacts right out of my eyes (despite them being shut). I felt the brush of something coarse and taught against my arm as I sank under, then ran into it head first as I frantically swam back towards the surface. It was a big, nasty, algae covered rope. Once I had filled my lungs with air my mind processed the fact that it must have been one of the anchors keeping the floating house in place. I didn't do anymore dives from that platform. You know, cause the rope was in the way and all. Besides swimming, there wasn't much else to do. This was a good thing, as we occupied ourselves with eating (yes, there was, of course, a kitchen at the floating guesthouse), playing card games, and various other low-tech activities. This debauchery continued well into the night. Magic tricks were performed (some of which were actually really, really good), drinking games were played (in which hilarity ensued), swimming lessons were given (one girl didn't know how to swim, so at midnight she was given a very good first lesson by another of the group), and shoes were lost. Chuck and I were the first to go to bed and I remember waking up a few times during to night and still hearing music and conversations. I think the last to go to bed did so at around 5:00 AM. Chuck and I got up not long after that. It was a peaceful morning, as mornings inherently are. The still water was broken only by the occasional jump of a fish far out across the dam, and with everyone still asleep you could almost hear the resulting splash. The two of us sat and quietly talked with each other while we shared a bottle of water. One by one the others woke up and joined us, and by noon the magic of the morning had been replaced by headaches and coffee. Luckily for Chuck and me, we managed to avoid having that problem. For the next four hours there was more food, swimming, and card games, but with a little less gusto than the night before. There was also a continuous search for Randy's lost shoe. It was reported to have fallen in the water, between two attached platforms, the night before. They were certain it could float, and they were certain the area it had fallen into was contained. But they just couldn't find the shoe. We all helped search along the gap, peering down into the green water for any floating shoes, but it didn't seem to be there. I gave it up for lost after an hour, as did most other people, but Sai persistently took a look every once in a while, hopeful it would show up again. Randy was starting to worry that he'd have to drive home with only one shoe when Sai suddenly shouted, flopped down on her belly and fished around in the water. Up she came with Randy's missing shoe. I have to admit, it almost seemed like some sort of miracle. I guess it had just been floating around under the guesthouse all night and most of the day, waiting for someone to valiantly rescue it. At 4:00 PM we gathered our belongings, filed back into the narrow longboat, and motored back across the water. Even the Songkran celebrators, waiting to throw water on us all, seemed to have a bit less gusto than the day before. I must say, our first Songkran made for a tiring, but incredible week. Oh, lest I forget - that day we left the dam was mine and Chuck's 8 year anniversary. We chose to quietly celebrate with a nice meal from a street cart vendor near our apartment. We didn't do anything fancy and we were both quite fine with that.

The rest of the month was much less eventful. Although we really should have been going out to elephant shows and tiger reserves, we ended up enjoying our downtime and letting our stomachs explore the city. We frequently made it a point to try new places as often as we could. We ate not only at Thai places, but western restaurants as well. Chiang Mai Saloon became a favorite with me because of their awesome tuna sandwich, while Chuck took a liking to their cheeseburgers. When I had a hankering for an English meat pie I was able to find a joint nearby that served them. It wasn't very good, but it satisfied the craving. We discovered (via suggestions by some people we had met through Tom) an amazing Italian place that we ended up eating at a few times. The owner was Italian, so I think his food was practically straight out of Italy with homemade pasta that sort of melted in your mouth. It's my number one Italian restaurant, but unfortunately I'll have to travel quite a ways if I want to eat there again. We found a Korean BBQ place whose griddle made a great surface for the fat from our corpulent pork to pop and sizzle to such a degree that we had to scoot our chairs away from the table to avoid being burned. We thought this was great though - I'm willing to dodge thermonuclear fat if it means I can have some good BBQ. Granted, there are places to get Korean BBQ without injury, but where's the fun in that? We also ate a lot of Thai food. Finding a new street cart restaurant was always exciting because that's where the best food is usually to be found. We ate at carts from Chiang Mai Gate to Tapae Gate to the Pantip Electronics Mall. I realize that's quite a small portion of the city, but there were plenty of different places to eat at in just that area. And don't let me forget the Sunday Market. We were sure to go like clockwork, every Sunday evening. We tried different foods each time we went, but there was one particular stand that we did make a point to visit each time: the spicy noodle lady. I really wish I knew the name of the noodles she served, but after asking her on four separate occasions and not being able to decipher her answer, we gave up on ever knowing. It was really simple stuff - white rice noodles mixed with maybe a bit of oil, garlic, ginger, maybe some other flavorings, and topped with some chili peppers. She wrapped a bunch of individual sized portions in banana leaves held shut with a toothpick, and when she had run out of those she resorted to scooping portions into a styrofoam container. She began to recognizing us after our first few visits because and took to giving us discounts. When we bought two helpings of noodles, she'd throw an extra one in for free, or if we visited just as she was nearing the end of her supply she'd give us an extra large serving. Then she'd smile up at us with crinkly eyes and thank us in Thai while we did our best to do the same.

Our partying lifestyle settled down after the week of Songkran, mainly because Tom moved to Bangkok. Due to getting a job. It's a nasty affliction that I suggest you do your best to avoid. Just about everyone has it though... You'll be lucky if you can remain uninfected. Chuck and I (and we weren't alone in this) were disappointed to see him go, but you gotta do what you gotta do and all that. We hung out with Randy, Sai, and Jon a few times and had burgers at Gecko's or played Wii bowling (it's the only four person game that is halfway decent - that's why we always ended up playing it). We went over to Sai's place one night for dinner. Her daughter is so adorable. I'm sure she's can be a real handful, but to those of us who aren't "Mom" she's always fun. She liked to randomly and repeatedly hold up her glass of soda and says "Cheers!" So we were all constantly cheers-ing each other throughout dinner. And her facial expressions are particularly precious, especially when she's asking a question. We even ran into Chris and his wife a few times while we were our for dinner. They're great company, what with Chris's encyclopedia of every joke ever told that he carries around in his head. One of those nights we had a celebrity encounter. It was a long distance encounter, but an encounter none the less. And I guess if you want to be technical, it was less an encounter and more a celebrity sighting I suppose. Chuck and I (this was before we spotted Chris and his wife) were sitting at Chiang Mai Saloon eating dinner, having a drink, and generally just relaxing, when I looked out the front entrance and spotted a man wandering down the street. He seemed a tad agitated as he stopped and looked behind him, as if he's was waiting impatiently for someone. I nudged Chuck and asked him if the fellow didn't bear an uncanny resemblance to Gordon Ramsay, the verbally abusive chef from such hit shows as Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares. Chuck sat up and leaned forward, taking a good look at the guy, who was still standing there, looking over his shoulder. Chuck suggested I get a picture because the fellow really did look like Ramsay. Although I was in a bad position to do so, I took out the camera, zoomed in, and just happened to capture the guys face, centered between the heads of the two diners in front of us, just as he turned around and headed back in direction he had come. Looking at our photo we zoomed in for a closer look and by golly, it really, really looked liked Gordon Ramsay. So much so that I got up and wandered outside, looking down the road to see if he was still around. Of course, just my luck, he had disappeared. When the owner of the restaurant saw me looking a little confused as I stood out front he asked if I was looking for something. "I just... thought I saw a friend," I told him and sat back down. Later that night we did a little research and found some recent articles claiming that Gordon Ramsay was indeed in Thailand, and rumor had it that his schedule having been messed up due to the Red Shirt protests, he had headed to Chiang Mai. That cinched it in my book. We had totally seen Gordon Ramsay. Right there on Loi Kroh Street. I do believe that would be my only celebrity sighting.

On May 1st I decided it was high time that I got myself a haircut. I hadn't gotten one in over a year and my hair was getting rather icky in its old age. Chuck had gotten his hair cut at a place recommended to us by some of our local friends, and since he had no complaints I figured it would be best to just head to the same place. The shop was about 15x30 feet big with two barber's seats and two hair-washing stations. The young lady who was to be my hair-cutter spoke very little English and most communication was done through hand signals. She first washed my hair, which was a process that lasted about 30 minutes because she lathered me up three times, taking five minutes with each wash to work the lather in via a scalp massage. It was rather fantastic. I wondered if I should stop her because I didn't know how much a scalp massage would cost on top of the haircut, but it felt so nice that I decided I didn't care. Once I was washed and conditioned she sat me in the barber's seat and wrapped me one of those barber's ponchos. Then we had to figure out how I wanted my hair cut. We each motioned furiously at each other, neither of us quite understanding exactly what the other was saying. She kept saying "Oooo" to me, which I found very confusing. What the heck is an "ooo"? I felt something click inside my head after a few moments of incomprehension and I realized what she was saying: U. Like the letter 'U.' Did I want a 'U' shaped cut. It sounded good to me so I said "Oooo, ooo," and nodded vigorously. My desired length was understood much more easily – I just indicated how much to chop off by making snipping motions on my hair right below my shoulder - and then the got down to work. The way she combed my hair around my head and pinned bits up and checked where my preferred part-line was made me think that she really did know what she was doing. I know it's foolish to think that there are no good barbers in Eastern countries, but there was a tiny voice in the back of my head that was looking for an excuse to believe just that. She put that voice to rest though. She even blow dried my hair, taking the time to individually dry and straighten my hair in 3 inch sections. My hair looked so lovely when she had finished, all smooth and shiny with a nicely contoured straight edge. It was the prettiest I had felt in quite a while. I was flabbergasted when she told me the price. 300 baht. That's $9 US. For a half hour scalp massage and hair wash, a hair cut, and a meticulous blow dry. What an incredible deal. I was floating on a small cloud as I left the barber shop and headed back towards the apartment. As I crossed the small bridge an old, disheveled man said hello and asked me where I was from. Being in sych a good mood I decided I'd humor him. "America," I said. "America. I am from Burma. Far away," he told me. I thought to myself that Burma isn't all that far away. If we were in Phuket then I'd call it far. But in Chiang Mai, one could hardly claim Burma was all that distant. I didn't mention this to him though. He continued with a big smile. "When you young, I think you must be very beautiful." Uh, ok... I guess that's nice? "Oh, uh, thank you," I said, not sure exactly how to respond. He wasn't finished with his doting compliments though. "Very beautiful, I think, when young. Now you are medium." Wha?? Was this really his idea of a compliment? Maybe he was mocking me. "How old are you?" he asked. "Twenty-seven," I replied through slightly clenched teeth. He sounded a tad surprised as he told me "Oh. Twenty-seven, not so old." Great, so somehow I went from being a flower past it's prime to being a flower that was never all that lovely to begin with. Whatever high I'd gotten from my brand new haircut had completely disappeared. After a bit more annoyed conversation with him he finally asked the question I had been expecting all along. "I want to go back to Burma. The bus very expensive. I need more money." Hah! I knew it. I knew he would be after some money. As you might imagine, I very happily told him "I'm sorry, no. I don't give away money. Good luck though," and continued on my way. I wasn't mean about it or anything. Politely telling him "No" was enough to mollify me. Besides, let's face it, there were probably numerous language and cultural differences at work in our exchange that led to my taking offense. I suspect the guy was actually trying to pay me a compliment, as badly delivered as it was. Whatever the case, I was happy that back at the apartment Chuck seemed to like my new hair.

Our scheduled day to check out and head down south was the 8th of May. Tom was coming back for a visit that weekend though, so we decided to stay for just one more week so we could hang out with him and everyone else one last time. We (and by 'we' I mean Chuck) had been keeping tabs on the Red Shirt protests going on down in Bangkok since we had left for Laos two months earlier. The demonstrations had managed to remain relatively non-violent (with the exception of one bloody day in April) but things were looking rather tense by the 12th. Ultimatums had been given and leaders on both sides were claiming that, basically, the shit was going to be hitting the fan. We never expected what happened next. One of the most popular Red Shirt leaders, who went by the name Seh Daeng, was on stage at the Red Shirt camp, giving an interview with some news organization, when a shot rang out and he went down. He had been sniped in the head! Right there in the middle of his camp, in front of news cameras and all. There was no subtlety to the attack at all. I don't think the government ever owned up to the shooting, but most people make the assumption that it was their doing. Seh Daeng survived for a few days but eventually died in the hospital. His shooting was a major catalyst for the following few days of violence. Thai troops and Red Shirt protesters clashed in various places around the city leaving flaming tires and barbed wire barricades in their wake. It didn't take long for the mess to include dead bodies as well. Sections of the city had been designated free fire zones and the troops were freely shooting anyone they felt posed a threat. It sounds like things got pretty confusing as news reporters and paramedics were being shot along with Red Shirt protesters. Then word began to spread about a sect of Red Shirt supporters who called themselves the Black Shirts. I know, way too many "shirts" - there have also been Yellow Shirts, Blue Shirts, and Multi-colored Shirts, all having some out to protest the Red Shirts, or protest those who were protesting the Red Shirts, etc. Oh, and there were even some No Shirts - a collection of falangs (foreigners) who had gotten fed up with their beloved Bangkok being over-run with protests, so they ran through the streets naked to make their point. I think there may have been alcohol and frivolous revelry involved in that incident. The Black Shirts, however, were not such an innocent group. They were said to be made of the hard core Red Shirt supporters who were itching to use violence to get their way. The rumor was that the Black Shirts were sniping the reporters. That they were the ones responsible for shooting men who were trying to drag fallen comrades out of the streets to an ambulance. Why? The only reason people seemed to be able to reasonably come up with was that it was an attempt to force international intervention, which Thailand had been refusing thus far. I think the Red Shirts were certain the international community would condemn the government for their aggressive actions. Whatever the case was, it was not only dangerous for Red Shirt protesters, but also for reporters and paramedics (or those who were trying to move the injured to safety). However, all this violence was apparently very pocketed. Many areas of Bangkok were going about life as usual, or so we heard. Our friend, who was working in the city 20 blocks away from the main protest site, never experienced any of the violence first hand. He even kept going in to work every day, like usual. The only real difference he said he saw, was that when he went to the roof of his apartment building he could see the plumes of smoke rising from tire fires across the city. We talked to Dave, the owner of the Soi 1 Guesthouse hostel, who was literally one road east of one of the big barricaded check points (Phloen Chit). He said he never saw any violence or even heard gun shots. He saw the military presence that guarded the check point, of course, but as for seeing any clashes or violence, he never did. So it was very localized. Chuck and I watched all the news from facebook and twitter, where we subscribed to feeds that were devoted to keeping the world updated about the situation. It the most fantastic way to get information. We didn't have to wait for a news channel to decide it was time to talk about the protests again, and we didn't have to wonder if a reporter was withholding information for...whatever reason. From professional, unaffiliated reporters to Thai citizens to foreigners and tourists - updates came from people of all backgrounds. As soon as gun shots were heard on Soi 23, it was updated on twitter. A tire fire on Sukhumvit and Asok? We knew right away. Not all the information was accurate, but the beauty was that the false info would get weeded out pretty quickly. There was once instance where someone claimed barricades were being set up at a particular intersection, and before we knew it a stream of people were commenting that they lived there or passed by and hadn't seen anything. So Chuck and I watched all this unfold from Chiang Mai. We were supposed to leave for Bangkok on the 15th, but we decided it would be best to stay put for a bit. By the 19th the Thai troops seemed to have finally gotten an upper hand as many of the Red Shirt leaders surrendered to the government. Seeing the movement falling apart, some of the more violent protesters set fire to various buildings across Bangkok: the Thai Stock Exchange, numerous banks, and some high-end retail shops, including a very well-known mall called CenterWorld. Bangkok burned. CenterWorld was the worst. They couldn't control it. Eventually, after almost a day of burning, a large section of the building collapsed in on itself. I remember feeling very sad as I looked at the pictures streaming in via facebook and twitter. Chuck and I had walked the halls of CenterWorld back in January. We had been hoping to eat at one of the many Japanese restaurants that called CenterWorld their home. We had marveled at the long escalators and the huge movie theater on the top floor. And now half of it was completely destroyed. I guess that's the silver lining? That only half of it burned to bits? Not much silver in that lining if you ask me. Whoever had shops in the burned section lost everything. Whoever had jobs there are now without an income. It all made me quite sad.

The 19th also brought Red Shirt trouble to other cities across Thailand, including Chiang Mai. While city halls burned in some provinces, protesters in Chiang Mai attempted to set fire to the governors house and start trouble in the streets. Thanks to our facebook/twitter updates we saw news of the action pretty soon after it started. I was feeling very curious so I dragged Chuck with me towards Nawarat Bridge, where some tire fires had been reported. Chuck is obviously the much more sensible one in our relationship as he kept wanting to turn around, and I am apparently much more stupid than I thought, because I kept wanting to go towards the bridge. Luckily, once I was vaguely able to see a tiny bit of smoke in the distance I let Chuck talk me into turning around and going back to the hotel. We did stop into a temple on the way back, just to make me feel as if we had accomplished something while we were out. A while after the sun set that evening Chuck headed next door on his own to grab a snack from 7-11. He came back with the news that there was a tire fire across the moat, by Thapae Gate. I got very excited, grabbed the camera, and dashed outside, completely forgetting to put on my shoes. I didn't really care about that though. Chuck followed after me, with a roll of the eyes I suspect, and we hurried towards Thapae Gate. By the time I got there the fire had been extinguished and whoever had started it and put it out were gone. All that was left were two smoldering tires in the road. There wasn't even any excitement in the air - it was as if tire fires were common place. I was, once again, disappointed that I didn't get to see anything truly interesting. I got a photo of the tires anyways, though. That was about it for Red Shirt activity in Chiang Mai.

A curfew was imposed at some point during all the trouble. The first night it went into effect we didn't take it particularly seriously and ended up without dinner because of that. We thought for sure that 7-11 would stay open past 8:00 PM, but they diligently closed up right before curfew. The curfew led to a fun birthday invite, though. On the 21st we grabbed some take-away food from a restaurant across the moat and brought it back to our hotel. There was a gathering of 8 young Thais at another table - the only other people in the restaurant - with a bottle of whiskey and coke on their table, all laughing and talking boisterously. One of the girls came over to us as we ate silently in the corner and invited us to join them. Chuck is always more than happy to talk with strangers, whereas I hate having to go through that new-friend, awkward acquaintance period. I almost ended up leaving him to join them on his own while I went up to the room, but I'm glad I stayed. The celebration was for the 26th birthday of a girl named Tingtong (I think it was a nickname). They happily shared their whiskey and coke with us, and one of the girls even gave us a packet of smokeless tobacco. I'd never tried it before and I found that it made me dizzy, and that spitting out brown stuff just makes me feel like a disgusting person. So after five minutes I had to take it out. It was nice and sweet though - I kept wanting to just swallow the juices, but they told me not to. Only a few people in the group spoke English, so half the time we were wondering what they were talking and laughing about. Skin color was discussed and oddly enough, the bridges of our noses as well. Tingtong even asked if she could feel the bridge of Chuck's nose and then made a funny face when she did. I never did figure out if they liked our noses or not. We asked what they thought about the protests and were a bit surprised by their answers. One girl said that she had been in support of the Red Shirts, but with the violence they had been taking part in she wasn't happy with them anymore. Another said she was disappointed in the King because she thought he could be doing more to help stop the fighting. I was shocked to hear her admit this! I was under the impression that anything short of adoration for the King was left unspoken. Her opinion led me to think that she perhaps was able to think for herself and come to her own conclusions about the world, instead of regurgitating a blind acceptance of her country's leaders. I can definitely respect that. It wasn't until well after curfew that the group left, drunk and tired. Man, I hope they all got back to their beds safely.

We waited around in Chiang Mai until the 23rd watching our news feeds for any sign that the protests weren't actually finished yet. All was quite on the Red Shirt frontier (or at least was being adequately smothered by the Thai government). So we booked ourselves a bus, ate at the Italian restaurant one more time, and took off for Bangkok on Monday, May 24th. We had stayed in Chiang Mai for a good month-and-a-half, barely missing being in the middle of Bangkok's semi-war zone. We were ready to leave and happy to be getting back to Bangkok, if only to assess the damage with our own eyes.

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