North to Chiang Mai

It’s easy to get behind on my journal when I have someone to talk to each night. When I would normally be writing, I now have Sarah to chat with until the wee hours, so my updates have been lagging. It has been great to have some steady company though, so I’m afraid I have no regrets in getting behind.

At the same time, the relentless pace I typically assign myself in a given day has slowed. Sarah’s not exactly willing to trudge behind me for successive days of 12-hour photo excursions, so with only a couple of days as exceptions, I have treated my time in Thailand with her as my vacation from traveling. We wake up slowly and forsake the sunlight in favour of debating whether turning up the air con means to make the room colder or hotter. Once outside the room, we have often spent more time hunting down a good meal or the best fruit shakes in town than blasting from sight to sight and trying to cram as much travelling into the day as possible.

There have been, however, a couple of days that stand as exceptions. First, in Ayuthaya, a town not too far north of Bangkok where impressive temple ruins and modern wats rise above the modern city’s low lying architecture. Hopping on bicycles, we ignored the oppressive heat (for a while) and toured some gorgeous sights. I was pleased that even after seeing a place like Angkor Wat, the temples here still captured my imagination.

In the late afternoon, we took a boat ride around the island formed by the converging rivers and explored even more temples. When we arrived back at our hotel, the sun was just beginning to set, so Sarah exhorted me to bike off by myself to catch the last rays of day and then to take photos when the temples were lit up at night. I dodged the stares of security guards while I tried to get as close as I could to the illuminated temples. Similarly, I dodged the punches of Thailand’s brattiest kid who decided I would be his plaything while I was waiting for the temples to light up.

That long day was followed by a relatively peaceful days trip up to Sukothai where the bike riding and temple hopping was repeated. Another expansive collection of ruined temples coaxed us from the shade and we explored the former Thai capital’s ruins. Happily, both Ayuthaya and Sukkothai were not bustling with tourists like the now-overrun Angkor area and the days were peaceful and not spent waiting for a tour group stop crowding a narrow passageway.

Now in Chinag Mai, Sarah and I have had a lovely time chilling out, exploring the Sunday night market, going to Muay Thai boxing, and doing more chilling out.

Muay Thai was one of the highlights for me. The dim Thapae arena is a regular host to nights of fights heavily marketed to tourists. Though marketed in this way, the fights themselves seemed quite authentic. I spent most of my time at ringside trying to rise to the challenge of shooting a sport I had never even seen live before let along photograph while marveling at the spectacle and occasionally getting showered by a splatter of sweat from a recently-punched boxer.

Happily, Sarah ran into one of her best friends Hannah who is also traveling in Southeast Asia. They were planning to meet in Cambodia in a week, but managed to cross paths at the boxing match so now the two of them could chat and ignore the fact that grown men were surrounding them and yelling at young boys to kick each other in the neck.

When I say young boys, I mean it. One of the matches featured a couple of boys who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, but they may have been as young as 10. It was simultaneously disturbing and impressive. The crowd of gambling Thais at ringside were excitedly cheering them on and they shouted in unison whenever one of these kids made a strike. A chorus of yells went up each time a knee hit its target. And plenty knees did hit their targets. Each of these boys probably could have kicked my ass. They displayed remarkable skill for their age and seeing them duel was like watching them turn into men before your very eyes. But at the same time, they were just boys, and the crowd was furiously calling for each of them to pound the hell out of the other.

The other matches weren’t quite as disturbing since the combatants were mostly above the age of consent. As a photographer, it was a decidedly challenging sport to shoo, but it was good fun trying to rise to that challenge. Not surprisingly, the last bout of the night was easiest to shoot since it was just a demonstration match where each fighter took turns landing his most furious blows on the other. They sent each other flying in exaggerated arcs to the canvas after unleashing crushing kicks to the side. The best part was that Sarah and Hannah both thought it was real and was the best fight of the night. They were truly disappointed when I told them it was all fake.

So, from ancient, ruined cities to boys trying to knee each other in the face, Thailand has so far offered a diverse experience. Time to go see what else it has in store for us.

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