Over 700 years ago, King Mangrai ruled the unified Tai city states in northern Lanna, an area of SE Asia that covers the northern provinces of modern Thailand and Laos. An ambitious fellow, King Mangrai successfully
conquered united the various cities and provinces which surrounded him. King Ngam Muang of Phayao and King Ram Khamhaeng of Sukhothai, so impressed by the unification skills of King Mangrai willingly entered into an alliance with him, forming a ‘strong pact of friendship’. Together, these three kings planned and built the city of Chiang Mai, a beautiful walled city in what is now northern Thailand. Today, if you travel past the still standing walls into the centre of old town you will find a large square in front of the arts and culture centre. Serenely watching the tourists and Thai locals is a monument to the three kings, hands together in a symbol of eternal friendship.
Except today things are a little different. Wander into the Three Kings monument at night and you are greeted with a strange sight. Scores of people quietly roaming the square, faces illuminated by the blue glow of smart-phones. The square is silent except for the occasional drone of a distant scooter and every few seconds, a chirp-like ringing noise from one of the many phones. I can only wonder what King Mangrai would think as he bemusedly watches his subject’s descendants silently wander below him.
Wait what, Thailand! What happened to Laos? Well, earlier that day Rachel and I boarded a Lao Airlines flight from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai. The mission:
- obtain a visa renewal (which requires exiting and re-entering the country)
- watch a movie at a western style cinema
- eat some delicious Thai food
- eat some good sushi
- eat my favourite food – a stewed pork dish found at a street food cart near the North Gate
- do some shopping for those items a bit tricky to find in Laos
The flight is short, over in less than an hour. But the differences between extremely poor Laos and almost first-world Thailand are profound from the air. Rugged mountains, sharp valleys and dirt roads morph into paddy fields and fruit plantations to the horizon. Scattered between are suburban developments, university campuses, railways and expressways that would not look out of place in Brisbane or Sydney.
Signs at the airport proclaimed the birthday of the crown princess was to be celebrated this month. Pink posters were scattered everywhere proclaiming ‘special privileges’ available for those of a female persuasion, including priority immigration lines. Unfortunately, tonight there was only one desk available, which the well-meaning security guard herded all women towards. The other three ‘normal’ lines catered for the men and I was instantly served whilst Rachel waited 10 minutes to get through. Good intentions though!
After checking into our hotel we walked the city, noting the depth of history, scattered ruins and beautiful quiet back streets. We also noticed a large air-conditioned shopping centre and proceeded to quickly tick off some important items on our checklist. Unfortunately, the new Star Trek movie was not playing so we had to watch Suicide Squad. It wasn’t terrible, 2.5 stars. More entertaining were some of the shop names.
After the late afternoon movie, my rumbling stomach reminded me it was time to seek out the stewed pork dish. In recent years, the ‘lady with a cowboy hat’ has become somewhat of an institution and is very popular. Since my last visit she has expanded production and now has a large covered area for tables and multiple staff taking orders and ferrying plates to the hungry patrons. The food was delicious, but not as good as the last few times I visited. Maybe something has been lost in the effort to scale up production?
Digestion was assisted by a night-time walk through the streets of old-town where we eventually stumbled upon the shambling pokemon go players and the three kings. It was all very surreal, and quite profitable for the many street vendors who had set up shop in front of the now very popular monument.
The next day we found time for more excellent meals and even a spot of shopping before heading back to Laos. Buried in our now bulging bags were toasted sandwiches and cheap chocolate from 7-11 (don’t judge me, the Thailand 7-11 toasties are great with a beer!). Mission Accomplished.