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Tea and tears as the new year turns over Thailand

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CHIANGMAI--This province is "The Rose of the North," high up, far enough removed from the smog and the crippled, choking, meandering streets and the opaque skyscrapers of Bangkok. Chiangmai is heavy with the history of its moats, walled cities, and emerald wats, criss-crossed by mysterious rivers and elephant paths--the old kingdom-province finally sets you free with fancy and a ticklish distance from home. It is an exotic, intoxicating, magnificent amalgam of spiritualists and silversmiths, of nirvana and noodles, of monks and massage therapists.

They know something about this life that you can neither imitate nor steal.

The Ping River cuts through Chiangmai city; a hip town of international hostels, writers' cafés with wifi and booze, trendy restaurants of global delicacies and un-rushed service, and the noisy, open-air motorized press of tuk tuks. Though they work hard and intensely, the men and women who labor and keep the speak-easies, hotels, temples, mini-marts, tire stores, and all-night bazaars open and dazzling are uncommonly kind and gracious. They cup their hands and bow in oriental courtesy; they neither point their fingers nor raise their voices; they stringently avoid confrontation, and, though generally meager in means, they retain their smiles, their faith, and their smooth luscious skin.

Their eyes are deep alluring pools of dark stories and withheld intuitions. They are resigned to the underlying oppression of their lives, the unyielding steaming heat of their summers, and yet they retain their cheerful good spirits and their nimble resistance to cultural sellout. They know something about this life that you can neither imitate nor steal. They present us with their tea but deny us their tears.

They don't consume much cheese and milk, and they are basically indifferent to bread. They enjoy their curried bowls of chicken and fish stews, tofu and vegetables, and they don't gravitate towards formality. They bring alms to the orange-robed and barefoot Buddhist priests, they light sticks of incense and pair the smoking prayers with single orchids in their hands, they whisper to golden images of their Master, and they dream dreams in ornate Lanna sanctuaries. They are as old as the mountains and as new as today's condominium towers.

Yet the avaricious world from beyond their moss and ferns, their arches and pagodas, infringes now into their lush and verdant banana plantations, rice paddies, bamboo trees, floating markets, and opium fields. We travel north and find the woodcarvers, weavers, pottery spinners, potato growers, and witch doctors of the Hmong hill tribe.

Some shoeless and others prematurely riddled with age, many are destitute if determined, peddling everything from knockoff label handbags and watches to imitation headphones to tacky off-brand iPhone cases to worthless beads and unholy little elephant paperweights. Their muddy yards are riddled with garbage, crazed chickens, and ailing dogs. They are a collective tourist attraction whose starry-eyed children beg, even dance, for coins along manufactured little hillside brooks laced with artificial flowers.

The poppy and marijuana plants are dried up or officially monitored. And in the luscious winter sunshine, the graceful hills recede into piles of discarded Pepsi cans, rusted hub caps, crumpled Starbucks cups, and greasy KFC wrapping. The West has infiltrated with its intermittent bursts of transferred opportunities, its unsightly satellite dishes, its culture-killing Broadband; Japan has blasted over the suffocating armada of Toyotas and Hondas, along with the orchard-murdering pollutions of impossible traffic and merciless din. Even the roses that dot the vistas struggle to breathe.

We return to Bangkok: again, the industrial electricity and the demographic despondency. The Grand Palace is very grand; the poor people are very poor. The royals smile at their omnipresent and high billboard posters; the squid vendors, cab drivers, and street walkers choke in the low smog and accede to their own squalor. The King is happy; Buddha looks down and sees his people wearing masks against the poisonous bubble.

And yet: I am touched by a kind of karma and spirituality that I've never imagined. I can still hear the lilt in their sweet voices and how not a single one of them made me afraid.



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