Long live the King
Let me backtrack. We booked our accommodation months in advance, only to find out a week before departure that the BP Chiang Mai had ‘lost’ our reservation and were now completely booked out. This, even after they had taken our (minimal) deposit.
After some frantic internet searching, we ended up booking a bungalow at the Secret Garden Chiang Mai, ranked #1 on TripAdvisor.
Bliss. Peter, an expat Bavarian, picked me, Jared, and Megan, my sister, from the airport and delivered us straight to the open air dining area of the Secret Garden. His Thai wife, Pai had cooked a jaw-dropping buffet dinner for the guests, and we were just in time. The smell of chicken coconut soup will never leave my memory, also because I accidentally dipped the drawstring of my hoodie in the soup and only just got around to washing it.
After a few Singha beers on the balcony, we slept hard and fast, waking to a cool, sunny mountain morning breakfast. Herb-infused fried eggs, a selection of breads and meats, crepes, jam, freshly-squeezed Thai orange juice, tea, coffee – the whole spread was laid out in front of us, inviting multiple visits to the buffet table.
The three of us caught a minibus into town that afternoon, planning to attend the weekly Walking Market, held on Sunday nights and frequented by locals and tourists alike. Peter told us that it was the best place to get a fair price, and bargaining was unnecessary. We had a meal of various curries, spicy cashew salad and spring rolls, then roamed the endless streets of market.
The stalls held handmade crafts like lanterns, pillows, bath mats, t-shirts, dresses, blank books, handbags – everything you expect to see in a market but with a distinct Asian flavour. Megan stopped for a thirty minute foot massage and I continued on down the alley.
At the stroke of six p.m., everything stopped. Even the breeze seemed to cease as music piped through the speakers, singing a song to honor the King. Some people mouthed the words, others stood with a vacant gaze. Tourists stood frozen, only their eyes rotating around, taking everything in, afraid to move for fear of breaking some sort of local code.
As soon as the song ended, it was as if someone had pressed ‘play’ on an invisible remote, and activity resumed as regular.
“That’s normal,” Megan said, shrugging it off. “Every day at six o’clock, everyone stops, no matter where they are in the city, and listens to the King song.”
She went on to tell us of conspiracy theories about how the king is actually dead, but the government has kept it hushed up because the people couldn’t bear to hear the news. Larger-than-life billboards, banners, and statues of this 83-year-old man adorn the province of Chiang Mai, just as ubiquitous in the rural areas as in the urban.
Fortunately for us, these landmarks did exist, as we would come to be familiar with them in the days to come, when we decided to rent motorbikes and cruise around the region independently.
Smart move or knocking at death’s door? Only time would tell.