Mr. Phol jumped into the driver's seat of his spit-shined Toyota compact, leaned forward and twisted the knob on the radio, unleashing a jumble of loud Thai pop music.
We knew his name was Mr. Phol because it said so right there on the rear window, spelled out in stick-on letters next to the Rambo decal. The dash was covered with shag carpeting and a menagerie of stuffed animals. The smell of the deodorized interior smacked us in the face like a bushel of mixed fruit doused in English Leather. The horn beeped a jaunty rhythm."OK?" Mr. Phol asked, indicating the radio and grinning.
We leaned back into the appliqued denim cushions carefully arranged in the back seat and grinned back. How could we argue with a man who takes such obvious pride in a 10-year-old taxi? More to the point, why would anyone want to argue in a place as agreeable as Chiang Mai?
After experiencing the gritty bump and grind of Bangkok, a visit to this northern Thai city is a sweet balm for the senses. Though Chiang Mai is Thailand's second-largest city, it is slow and manageable, aexpecially compared to the sprawling capital 500 miles south.
Set in a valley 1,000 feet high, the "rose of the north" as it is known, has a climate that is cool enough for strawberries and tropical enough for bananas. Chiang Mai is a city of centuries-old temples, crumbling walls, orchids and incense. Of monks in robes so brilliantly golden they make you squint. Of exotic hill-tribe people who set up shop on the streets to sell their rich, colorful weavings.
It is city of digestible size, where the road dubbed the "Superhighway" on local maps is a two-lane street. (The traffic may be less frenetic than Bangkok's, but crossing the street still requires studied foot-eye coordination.) As in other thai cities, food stands line the sidewalks--Thais are always eating, it seems, and they don't have to stray far from their path to find food. Street vendors grills fat white sausages and sell locally grown mangoes, litchis and strawberries.
A few miles outside of the city are villages where artisans churn out celadon vases, silver jewelry, teakwood tables, lacquerware bowls and silk fabric from small factories lined along the road.
Tourism has blossomed here in the last four years, as it has all over Thailand. In 1988, 2.2 million visitors, about 70 percent of them Thais, make their way to this northern city. And while rates at first-class hotels have risen about 16 percent int he past year, they haven't increased as drastically as in some other popular Thai tourist haunts, said Suppakit Apasi, director of the local Tourism Authority of Thailand office.
Enterprises like the German Beer Garden and the Country Cowboy Bar are evidence that Western influences have hit Chiang Mai. Still, while the city bustles, the tourist hustle is not overwhelming, yet. About as aggressive as anyone gets are the tuk-tuk drivers who station themselves outside the hotels and major attractions, pursuing tourists with offers of "Tuk-tuk, madame?"
Tuk-tuks, by the way, are tiny, three-wheeled vehicles, so named because of the incessant `tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk" chug of their engines. They are the cheapest and easiest way to take short hops around the city--about $1 per ride, depending on your gargaining skills. for longer trips, hire a cab. They're faster and mroe comfortable.
Many tourists come to Chiang Mai with a notion to walk. They city is a major starting point for treks into the hill-tribe villages of northern Thailand.
Seven major hill tribes occupy the region, and treks ranging from two to seven days are offered by at least 20 different companies based here. If you're planning a trek (and even if you're not), a visit to the Tribal Research Institute at chiang Mai university is informative. The institute has displays on all the tribes, and information on their customs and social structures. A library next door has a good selection of English-language books on the tribes.
Chiang Mai was founded in the late 13th centurey as the capital of Lan Na Thai (Kingdom of One Million Rice Fields), an independent Thai kingdom in the golden Triangle (where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet). The gate and the now-crumbling walls that surrounded the original city are still visible. And the architectural influences of Burma and Sri Landa are apparent in the Buddhist temples here.
Buddhist temples, or "wats," are everywhere. Walk down almost any street, sniff the air for the scent of flowers and incense, and there's likely to be a temple on the other side of the wall. There are about 300 temples, which are social, as well as religious, centers. They have an informal atmosphere that is sometimes difficult to comprehend for those raised on Western religion.
Wander behoind the walls for a glimpse of temple life. At Wat Bupparam, a dozen young novices, their saffron robes tucked up between their legs, were busy whitewashing the structure. Another monk applied clay filigree to a stairway and chatted amiably with English-speaking foreigners.
At the 700-year-old Wat Phra Sing, which houses one of the most renowned images of Buddha, caged sparrows are sold on the steps outside. Thai Buddhists believe that freeing captured animals is a way of "Making merit" and helps them achieve nirvana.
The most spectacular and important temple in the area is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, perched more than 5,500 feet atop a mountain 10 miles from the city. Legend has it that the site was chosen in typical Thai fahsion in the late 14th century by a royal elephant that was let free to wander. The elephant climbed the mountain and stopped (or dropped dead, according to one version) at the sport where the temple how stands. A series of hairpin turns leads to Wat Phrathat and, once there, you climb 306 steps flanked by two giant ceramic snakes to the temple. (A cable car transports those who are not up to the climb.)
On the grounds below, sellers market lotus blossoms, roses, sweet corn and coconut. At the temple itself, where the hypnotic chanting of the monks fills the air, the atmosphere is more solemn. A sign warns, "Dress Impolite, Can't Enter This Temple." And they mean it. Visitors--male and female--wearing shorts or anything else deemed inappropriate must slip on a long, polka-dot skirt before they're allowed in.
Chiang Mai is known as Thailand's handicrafts center. Besides native ceramics, teakwood, silver and silk creations, there are hill-tribe weavings and Burmese antiques for sale. The major in-town shopping areas lies in and around teh Night Bazaar, a three-story conglomeration of permanent shops and stalls offering everything from intricately embroidered clothing and leather purses to Thai tapestries and antique brass weights used for weighing opium.
The commerce spills out onto the streets, where vendors preside over tables heaped with counterfeit designer watches and clothing, and bootleg recordings. An outdoor stage in a small plaza next door is the scene of classical Thai dances on sultry nights.
If you're in the market for more, or want to learn about local handicrafts, hire a a cab or catch a bus to San Kamphaeng and Bo Sang, two craft villages about 10 miles from Chiang Mai. Both villages and the road that stretches between them are lined with workshops, where craftsmen turn out everything from handpainted umbrellas to massive teakwood dining sets. The factories are open to the public and most have employees eager to show you around--=even if you don't buy anything. At different workshops you can watch workers glazing celadon ceramics, finishing teakwood furniture, painting lacquerware and weaving silk.
After our tr4ip to the crafts villages, we discovered that cab drivers get a premium from certain workshops for delivering customers to their doors. The drivers also earn a percentage of the amount those tourists spend at the shops.
No wonder Mr. Phol has been so insistent on taking us to particular shops. And no wonder we had to be insistent that he take us to the places we wanted to go.
But the man with the spiffy Toyota remained pleasant to the end. And so did we. After all, who would want to argue in a place so agreeable?