Jan 142008

After a quick nibble at the Diamond RiverSide’s breakfast buffet, we made our way to the Chiang Mai airport in the most dilapidated van I have ever seen. The split upholstery revealed a broken-down foam cushion; I think my cheeks were clenched all the way to the terminal just holding the seat together. After a little tea tasting in one of the gift shops, and browsing the others, we eventually boarded. One trip member somehow managed to fit in a foot massage before boarding. The flight was uneventful, and we amused ourselves in our little row with some trip photos from the laptop.

Arriving at the new Suvarnabhumi airport in the light of day, it is apparent how long the terminal is. And yet we exited the plane to a staircase and loaded into a bus, which whisked us to baggage claim. During the process, we were shocked by the heat and humidity, which we had largely escaped in the North. After loading into our vans, we cranked up the A/C and headed to Aw Taw Kaw market. Unlike my previous trips where we nibbled our way through the aisles before sitting down to some noodles, we headed directly to the food section first and Kasma brought us some additional nibbles.

Realizing that it might be my last chance for a while, I chose a rice plate with decadently fatty pork belly, including the meat, fat, and crispy skin in every piece. Supplemental pig products included sour sausage balls and pork-on-a-stick (reminiscent of teriyaki). As we strolled around and snapped photos, I picked up a plate of jackfruit segments which had been stuffed with sticky rice (white, purple, and green). I had never seen these before, and the group sampled some as well. I also bought one large bag of freeze-dried jackfruit chips. I’m not sure how I will get it home; perhaps I will jettison something less tasty.

As we headed into the heart of Bangkok’s shopping district, traffic was bad. (It would only get worse on the way to the hotel and later, grind to a halt for 20 minutes on the way to dinner. It was not just bad, it was comically bad. At least we had time to closely study the local businesses and crack bitter jokes about the Subway and the Starbucks.)

At Narai Phand, the craft emporium, we spotted many examples of products we had seen in the North, including celadon dishes, wood carvings, silk garments of numerous types, and laquerware. Many were spectacular specimens, but being space constrained and budget minded, most people purchased small and/or less pricey items. I visited the “bargain basement” and learned that the building had changed hands and the tenants had to move out very soon; in fact, it was nearly their last day. I did my part to help with the inventory clearance by purchasing two t-shirts and an unusual wooden elephant: unlike the usual solo or mother-and-baby designs, this one featured a mahout riding the elephant, who is using his tusks to push a log. I’m not sure I really want this piece, but they wouldn’t let me leave the store without buying it, and it ended up being less than half the asking price.

After dropping bags at the Grand Tower, I checked email and learned that yes, my dive trip was confirmed. However, I had no hotel room, so I searched the web for an hour and put in a couple inquiries. Then it was time to dress festively in my finest batik shirt for our “feast.”

When we finally reached Isan House, we were seated at a very long table perpendicular to the stage. There, we spotted the musicians who always play at Kasma’s final feast, since the feast moves wherever the musicians are performing. Dinner began with two appetizers: miang kum and chicken satay. These were fairly significant servings, so with six dishes to go, I was a bit concerned. But the restaurant was quite busy, and thus there were long pauses between courses. {MORE DINNER DETAILS}

The three female dancers performed along with the music a few times, and then one of the men from the band came out to join them for the bamboo dance. Heavy poles of bamboo are alternately banged on wooden boards and slapped together while the dancers jump in and out. Needless to say, there is some risk to the ankles if there is a misstep. And there appeared to be several as the female dancers took their turns. And then it was our turn. Several diners were called up to take their turns, exhibiting various amounts of grace.

Dessert was a birthday cake, as we had a birthday in our group. The musicians and dancers played a procession and brought out a Happy Birthday banner and a cactus-like assembly of (I think) banana leaves draped with strings. We each tied one of the strings around the birthday girl’s wrist while the musicians played and the dancers posed. It was quite surreal.

Finally, when all the music and merriment was finished, and it was late enough that we were yawning, we gave the customary tip envelopes to our drivers, and I gave Kasma the fancy hill tribe New Year’s head dress I had bought so many days ago. Flash bulbs fired, we piled into our vans and soon I had passed out on the bed, lights blazing, alarm set.

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