Friday, February 16, 2007

Sinkhole Pioneers: Chiang Mai

I missed an opportunity to watch Super Bowl XLI at 6 AM in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We arrived in town later that morning. Had the game been more exciting, my watching it at 6 AM in a faraway place would have survived as an anecdote of the sort that I use to prove my pioneer worldliness. For instance, I once bought valium at a poorly regulated pharmacy in Timbuktu. I found out about 9/11 on the morning of the 13th, perhaps one of the last few Americans to know. I am the first white person a nine-year-old Fulani goatherd ever saw.

Chiang Mai is no remote outpost, of course. My girlfriend and I stayed at a pleasant B&B and paid to travel north toward Chiang Dao to see a hill tribe out in the bush. We were accompanied in our van by our Thai guide; our Thai driver; an older Dutchman; a pederast from Oakland, CA; and a mumbling Englishman, Rowan Atkinson with gray tumbleweed eyebrows. As a young sailor the Dutchman had taken shore leave in Bangkok so exquisite that this time he’d only changed planes there on his way to Chiang Mai. He didn’t want to spoil the memory. He bullied Rowan out of a stop at the cobra farm; he and the pederast wanted to press on to the hills.

The hill tribe, the Karen, is advertised on the posters of Chiang Mai tour agencies as “Long Neck Big Ear People.” Some of the women wear gold rings around their necks, adding a ring each year. This does not stretch their neck, exactly; rather, it lowers their shoulders. Other women wear large earrings that stretch their lobes. The village was composed of a dozen wooden huts set into the side of a single hill and a string of small shady enclosures that served as souvenir shops. The long-neck and big-ear women wove on looms and were photographed by us. Their scarves and opium pipes (known as “San-Tana Dunn Dong”), as well as souvenirs found everywhere in Thailand, were on display, and when a visitor touched an item a small girl with rings around her neck recited the price. The Karen are refugees from Burma put here by the Thai Department of Tourism, and they were repaid in trinkets, which they then sold to us. There were also chickens and a puppy with a frightening growth on its back. A low day for my pioneer heart.

On the drive back, the Dutchman and the pederast remarked on how nice the people were, which was true. The Thais ate peanuts and chatted about television shows. Rowan fell asleep in the back, dreaming of the venom-milking portion of the cobra show. I donned my imitation Ray-Bans and thought about the Sentinelese, 1000 km SSW of us on North Sentinel Island, hunter-gatherers who live naked, without the knowledge of making fire, shooting arrows at approaching vessels.

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