Eating Ice Cream in Thailand
I had made the decision to travel to Thailand only a few weeks before. I had nothing to lose and the cost was cheap. With roundtrip airfare running at $600, the Thai baht having an exchange rate of 40 baht per one US dollar, and Bruce and Tom offering their hospitality, I couldn’t afford not to go. And Bruce wouldn’t let me say no. I had the time. I’d only found one freelance job for the summer; it was wrapping up and my quest for temporary agency work had been fruitless thus far. My 17 year-old daughter was safely ensconced as a Counselor-in-Training at summer camp until the end of August. My husband and I had separated (he moving into the same apartment complex he had lived in when we first met 19 years earlier; me staying put in the rental house – rundown and in need of a paint job – we had moved into 18 months before our breakup). The SARS warning for Taiwan (my stopover on the flight from SFO to Bangkok) had been lifted weeks before. I had nothing to hold me and every reason to go. Despite this freedom to come and go as I pleased, I felt heavy, weighted-down, used-up. And older than I had felt in a long time; older than I should have felt. It was time to shake things up, time to cast off my weariness, disappointment, cynicism; time to look at the world with fresh, new eyes, or at least look at what would be to me a fresh, new world.
So here I am in Chiang Mai, once the capital of the Lanna kingdom centuries ago and Thailand’s “second city” as my guide book calls it. It is a charming place – quaint in some ways, with the remains of its moat and city walls still a visible and vibrant part of the landscape. Although Chiang Mai has city elements (noise and traffic in some parts), it seems more a town to me than a city. It’s certainly a far-cry from the bustle and noise, dirt and confusion of Bangkok. I haven’t visited any of its temples or museums yet. But today we have driven up the mountain west of town to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, or as I call it, the Temple of the White Elephant. The Wat enjoys a 180 degree view of Chiang Mai.
Story has it that sometime in the mid-1300s, King Kuena of Thailand sent his white elephant laded with holy relics to Wat Suan Dok, the Flower Garden Temple. It was a long journey; the white elephant traveled far but collapsed here on this mountain overlooking Chiang Mai before reaching his final destination. The King had the wat built here in honor of the white elephant, whose statue greets visitors after they climb the 306 steps to the temple entrance.
I have fallen in love with temples: The shiny gold surfaces of the statuary – often reflecting the seven stages of the Buddha; the detailed and exquisite murals depicting the life of Buddha – his story unfolded in hues of blue, green, yellow and red; the delicate temple bells hanging from the roof eaves, their clangors in the form of the heart-shaped leaves of the boa tree – that tree under which Buddha sat, meditating, waiting in a quiet way for wisdom and enlightenment to reach him; the strong-scented smoke of burning incense wafting slowly through the hot air mingling with the smell of lotus garlands and terrestial orchids – offerings placed at the feet of Buddha statues. The combined scent of flowers and incense is heavy, sweet, pervasive, sometimes so strong in the sharp heat it makes me want to close my eyes and lean against a temple column for support.
We stop at the small concession stand off to one side of the temple grounds to buy ice cream – two drumsticks and a fudgesicle – three bars for about 40 baht – that’s less than one US dollar. We sit in the shade of a boa tree, eating our ice cream bars in the heat. At home, I eat expensive, brand-name ice cream: Hagen-Das, Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s. These Thailand bars are like the ice cream bars of my childhood – cheap, generic bars that Carol, the ice-cream lady, sold from her yellow ice cream truck to us neighborhood kids every Wednesday afternoon after school. Back then, they cost as little as they do here in Thailand, now.
I lick the smooth, creamy, soft ice cream of my drumstick. I am tired, still a bit jetlagged, and in a constant state of amazement at this beautiful, green, gracious country I am visiting. I stare at my surroundings with a relaxed jaw – I must look like a madwoman. But everything is so different…the heat, the boa leaves, even the brazen, young Western tourists who should have an air of familiarity to me look different – they have covered up their spaghetti strap tops with shirts (no bare shoulders allowed on Temple grounds). My ice cream is melting, dripping down my hand. I lick it off my hot, sweaty, salty skin and grin at my companions. They smile back. We are comfortable in the heat, content as we sit watching other tourists walk by, watching the flies buzz lazily over some child’s fallen and forgotten glob of ice cream, watching and feeling the tiniest of air currents drift through the boa leaves, drifting among those boa-shaped clangors on the temple bells too – we just barely hear the high-pitched, delicate sound – just for a moment, for then the small breeze is gone. But it’s done its job: I feel refreshed, unwearied, ready to continue. We have not sat very long under this boa tree, yet somehow I feel enlightened, as though the sweet sound of temple bells has traveled through my memory and brought some forgotten, intangible piece of wisdom back to me.
I suck up the very last drops of melted ice cream soaking the remainder of my drumstick cone. This ice cream tastes better than Ben & Jerry’s, better than those bars from my childhood too. I am unencumbered here, unladed from my burdens, eating ice cream in Thailand in the Temple of the White Elephant, somehow younger than I’ve been in a long time.
This is a timewarp posting - a piece of writing from my July, 2003 trip to Thailand.