January 2nd, 2014, writing from Chiang Mai.
When last year in my hometown a true Thai festival -under the patronage of the Thai ambassador- was organized, I was impressed and amazed by the entrepreneurial spirit and managerial skills exhibited by the Thai women present. If not surprised at the number of Thai currently living in my city, I found myself staring at the men-happily-married-to-thai-women club, all -passively if I may say so- centrally seated together at the center of the market square. In line with the mood at the festival, a Thai Airlines representative exuberantly told me I could get “special prices if married to Thai woman”. As a subject matter expert once confided to me, Thai women are “clean, nice company, good mothers and very nice cooks.” He also told me they are “low in maintenance cost” and considered all other women “out of their mind”. The conversation ended when I asked on how and when he fell in love with his current wife.
My travels through Thailand confirm more than ever that Thai women are indeed great cooks and efficient entrepreneurs alike. If in need of a good meal at a reasonable price, never doubt to venture out on the street and sit down before a food stall, where you’re certain to observe one or more female cooks making each dish in less than two minutes. Menus here are overrated, English is practically not spoken and the best food is obtained by pointing.
Delicious red curries with a good portion of Fried Rice and the complimentary glass of water, it is unheard of in many Chiang Mai “authentic” restaurants. It is however genuine Thai. In Chiang Mai however I found myself for the first time in Thailand staring at a Burger King full of tourists, flyers for Pizza Hut look-a-like restaurants and stumbled on billboards advertising the next premier league match.
“Spicy…?” might be a innocent question but is in reality for every Thai an unpronounced challenge. Having a foreigner over and have him ask for something spicy, is not unheard of to a cook, but should be compared with entering an oral exam and claiming to the professor you not only know this course, but are about to engage in a scientific critique of his entire repertoire. The chef took on my challenge and as my bowl with noodles was being served, staff and the casual Thai lookup up smiling and waiting for me to take the first bite.
Tears are running from my cheeks and my nose is completely cleared as I pay and stand up in awe to admire the sky. It’s New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai and the sky is gradually filled with moving orange dots high in the air. At first I think the stars were falling down, on the earth. White rectangular lanterns are being lightened and the air in the lanterns slowly heats up. The lantern starts its journey to eternity taking with it all your worries.
It’s past 10pm when I set out to find the Phae Gate buzzing with activity. A central stage is to host a popular Thai band, while in between songs prizes are being given away. The boulevard that sets the limits of the old city is full of people eating food from the local stands. I join them in ordering some bbq’d squid, Northern Thai Noodles and finish this peculiar dinner with a freshly made Ice Cream.
Just as I finish my meal and get up I see a dark appearance lighting up her own lantern. Contrary to the lanterns sold by the street vendors, this lantern is red and bigger than the ones available. Considering she is more experienced that I am, I ask her if she can help me with setting up and lighting my own lantern. Fizzy hair, curious eyes and an enthusiastic smile appear. A smile that makes me clear I should let go of all my worries. Strategically positioned to prevent my lantern to get stuck in a tree and burn half the city down, I observe how my worries flow away.
As 2014 sets in I wish you a year full of love, authentic experiences and positive challenges. Let it be a year where we can take on the future and grow together. Let it also be a year where we share our stories together, either good or bad ones, and create an atmosphere were friendship and love can blossom. Leaving all 2013’s worries behind -and I’ve had a few, I confess- I want to thank you for sharing a part of your life’s story with me. It is an honor.
The midnight festive mood gives way for the more brute night life experience and I decide to walk back to the hostel. As I turn onto Chiang Mai’s main boulevard, a young Frenchman, clearly having lost the last bit of inhibition and supported by a drink in his right hand, clings on to me in a firm way. Talking every pedestrian as a distinguished member of the public, he tells me bluntly and in French “you have to smile more”. “2014 will be a difficult year with challenges, but you will move on, grow positively and…”. He stops talking, grasps for a breath and gives me a long hug. His message delivered, he disappears in the crowd and is not seen again.
A prophet has been born.
Happy New Year!