After a three-year hiatus, Cindy and I traveled back to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, and Siem Reap, Cambodia. During this time I wrote a series of emails to the students. I’m posting them here as a series.
Coffee and Yoga at Chiang Mai
March 8, 2023
I went on that journey only with hand luggage and a great deal of enthusiasm. Now that I’m 68, just going away for a few weeks brings up all kinds of travel anxiety. I’m taking a large suitcase this time with a yoga mat and my very own pillow nestled inside.
Part of my apprehension was that I didn’t know what I would find in Chiang Mai. Frankly, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with this dusty town in northern Thailand. On the one hand it’s a Mecca of the healing arts, particularly Thai massage. On the other, because of its geographical location and the burning of crops to fertilize the soil, it can get quite polluted.
Today Cindy and I experience the unpredictable effects of jet lag. Both of us are wide awake at 3:30 AM. I try every yoga trick to fall back asleep, to no avail Finally, I take my yoga mat to the rooftop of the guesthouse and stretch. Long airplane rides create lingering stiffness! 😇
A bit later we went for a morning stroll, while the air was still pleasantly cool. We encountered barefoot orange robed monks, went to the temple and had an amazingly tasty Picollo on a street corner.
I still love this place… a lot!
Flying elephants, flesh eating fish and McDonald’s
March 12, 2023
We’ve settled into an easy routine in Chiang Mai, that will end tomorrow as we’re flying into Siem Reap, Cambodia. Walking a lot, especially early in the morning when the heat is not so stifling. Earlier today there was even a light breeze! The rain, recently present in California, would be a welcome relief. It has remained elusive so far. Thunderstorms are in the forecast today, so I remain hopeful.
“Brewginning” opens at 7 AM, outside on a street corner with a whicker store across. Undoubtedly the best coffee in Chiang Mai. Even though the street has a nondescript industrial feel, right around the corner we encounter a rather magical flying elephant. If there’s beauty to be found in this fairly polluted city, it’s in these unexpected surreal, sometimes even kitschy, images we encounter randomly.
Later on we pass a McDonald’s. With all the delicious inexpensive Thai food available, I’ve never understood the rise of fast food in Southeast Asia. Yet here he is: Ronald McDonald’s himself greeting us with a Wai, Thai style!!
That same evening, we stroll by beautifully lit temples and then a “fish spa“. Spa is a rather generous word however. Basically a series of fishtanks in an open storefront with hungry little critters ready to remove dead skin from your feet. Cindy is slightly disgusted by it all. I, on the other hand, look forward to the pedicure the little fish provide. The price for a 20 minute session: 100 baht, slightly less than three bucks. The lady running the stall gives me well over a half hour, then asks if I want a cold “spa beer”. It sounds rather tempting, the low temperature today will be 71°. It’s gonna be a while to get there. I decline as a passerby starts chatting me up, inquiring how it feels. Have I become the attraction or the fish, I wonder?
Coffee and yoga at Angkor Wat
March 16, 2023
It’s tempting to start this piece describing the awesome beauty of Angkor Wat. Before that, allow me to step back and take a wider view.
Maureen, one of the regular students in our group, wrote me recently: “So you wish for cooler weather and we are hopeful for a break in the rain and wind. No matter what we desire, our preferences are impossible to satisfy.” So for the time being we make the best of our situation.
Alas, it goes deeper than that. This part of the world is in it’s biggest drought in 70 years. As I mentioned previously, slash and burn agriculture produces a fire season across South East Asia, leaving it in a literal haze. The day we left Chiang Mai it actually rained, clearing some of the dust.
Arriving in Cambodia we didn’t know what to expect. Having read stories with references to “the wild West of Asia”, I am filled with excitement and also a bit of apprehension. So far we’re overwhelmed by the kindness of the people and the mellow “old world” atmosphere.
While the temperature readings are similar to Thailand, the sun feels decidedly different. Equatorial is perhaps the word I’m looking for. Life is bustling early in the morning and later at night. Better to stay still and sleep in the middle of the day, maybe in a hammock.
Then of course: Angkor Wat! We take off on a delightfully breezy tuk-tuk ride at 5 AM. Upon arrival it fills us with awe, becoming quiet and almost teary eyed. I had feared huge crowds. The temple territory is vast, leaving plenty of alone space. The fact that it’s off season and post Covid travel has not fully commenced, makes quite a difference.
Afterwards, we’re having a simple breakfast with coffee at a road side stall. A series of tin shacks would be a more apt description. In Siem Reap itself there is plenty of good coffee available, even expertly poured cappuccino’s. At the dusty stall the coffee is dark and bitter. They serve it with condensed milk on the side. Not exactly a gourmet experience, but the buzz is strong and will last for awhile.
Our incredibly friendly tuk-tuk driver, San, takes us the next day to Banteay Srei. This temple is further away and the ride lasts about an hour, driving by sleepy villages, farm land and forest. Cambodia is for about 85% a farm economy, a lot of it subsistence level. They grow plenty of rice, even for export.
The carvings at Banteay Srei are deep and detailed, while the intense sun has turned the stones into a pinkish hue. Arriving once more super early, we are almost by ourselves. Surrounded by bird sounds and cicada’s, I’m finally starting to let go.
On the way out, by the side of the road, is a little band playing traditional Cambodian music. It sounds a bit hypnotic and to our ears repetitive. Upon closer inspection I notice that all the band members have prosthetic limbs. Victims of landmines. They are friendly and sweet, trying to sell us a CD. We make a small donation instead, greeted with approving smiles.
Now let’s get back to our class schedule: First off, check out the pre-recorded sessions, if only to watch
the preceding slide show put together by “Kevin the techie”!
While it’s tempting to stay in Cambodia, with nice apartments (swimming pool included) in Siem Reap going for $200 a month, we will instead return on Friday, March 24. First live stream class from San Francisco: Sunday Yin at 11 AM on March 26. The following week “Coffee and yoga” also resumes in the live format.
Moving through the interzone
March 23, 2023
In the world of long distance travel, we have no choice but to spend a considerable amount of time in what I refer to as “the interzone”. Airports are weird and weirdly familiar all over the world. Suddenly you pay four times as much for food and drink, more to relieve stress and boredom than for the purpose of nourishment. Money has almost a monopoly quality to it. In case you run out, plastic is the reigning international currency.
Yesterday Cindy and I take two short flights: one from Siem Reap to Bangkok, then from Bangkok back to Chiang Mai. Basically spending an entire day in the interzone: coming and going through customs, shuffling in between two countries on small Air Asia planes. For reasons I don’t want to expand upon, hands down the worst airline ever. We are exposed alternately to stifling nauseating heat and ultra cold air conditioning. It’s producing flu like symptoms and a sore throat.
Fortunately today I teach a mini workshop at my favorite massage school in Chiang Mai, Sunshine Massage School. About thirty students show up. They are about half my age and full of enthusiasm. It makes me somewhat nostalgic as I reminisce about the many classes I’ve taken here over the years. The workshop is fun and well received.
Later that afternoon, I finally receive a massage from Chai. I waited over two weeks for this. I have known Chai for years and consider him a master at his craft. He works slowly and methodically, knowing how to pace himself.
Afterwards we sit for tea, talking about the craziness of the present day world and his mission to heal.
It’s a good way to end the day.