The morning fog descending on the city, the dawn peeking its head above the mountains, the start of the constant buzzing and unrecognizable chatter that every city keeps as its own. The promise of wonder that every new day can bring if you are aware of it.
Settled in a broad valley, below forested foothills in the second largest province in Thailand. Chiang Mai sits in the center of what was once known as the Land of a Million Rice Fields, a lush green lowland landscape stretching for miles revealing the surrounding waterfalls, elephant sanctuaries, swirling hot springs and swatches of preserved rainforest.
The Rose of the North; once the capital of the Lan Na kingdom and the largest and most culturally rich city in Northern Thailand. Bisected by the Ping River, Chiang Mai has been continuously inhabited for over 700 years, its fortunes pendulating at the onslaughts of invading armies from Laos, central Thailand and Burma.
Snaking alleys wind their way through the one square mile of the moat lined old city. Twisting and weaving around the myriad Wats and monastery complexes that are the heartbeat of this city center. Candy Cane striped in red and white; curbs define, or in all honesty, suggest parking. Pop up vendors, makeshift kitchens and about every other kind of shop you can imagine fill the sidewalks. The city has a layer of grime covering every surface; dirt and debris flow through the streets and paint peeled walls are filled with new and old, torn advertisements. Endless streams of artwork canvas open spaces and amazing graffiti seems to be tolerated if not encouraged. Sidewalks cover the sewers and the heat brings out the incredible stench in billowing waves. Towering billboards and spires of the golden temples fill the skyline and the power lines look like dense, black soba noodles filled with 240 volt current. Soi dogs bold in their ownership of space, sit in defiance in the middle of the roads. Birds, cats, rats and lizards roam freely with haphazard abandon.
I don’t know what i’m doing. I almost never do when i’m here. This city has its own particular brand of chaos and it’s addicting. 400 thousand people packed onto 200 thousand scooters, all in a hurry to go do things that i don’t understand.
I found a fifth floor walk up in santitham, a provincial, sleepy, working class neighborhood close to the old city. I call it a walk up because the elevator is so slow that you would be better off waiting for a ride from Amelia Earhart than to get into what is essentially a backwards-time-machine-death trap. Off white tile floors, white walls with built in dark wood cabinets, a cement counter with a built in desk frame the bed and side tables in the center of the room. A tiled bathroom is adjacent to the door leading to the balcony. The balcony also serves as a would be kitchen with a sink installed across from wall fastened, metal drying racks for clothing. A small fridge and computer monitor sized tv are what qualify this room as “luxury”. The television gets the news in Thai and that’s it. I need to buy a fan. From my perch on the balcony I watch the airplanes disappear behind the Chiang Mai Orchid Hotel. Further in the distance, sits Doi Soi Tep, shining like a beacon through the midst of the hills.
A short walk from outside the north-west corner of the Old City, santitham is a complex, woven pattern of streets and short, dead end alleys. Women squat in the doorways and fan the grilling meat and stewing concoctions endlessly to keep the flies away. Sidewalk stalls fan out in front of restaurants and retail shops nestled below residential buildings with small, rounded balconies. A peaceful kind of busy permeates the air here.
A last shaft of sun moves casually down the street, and the dogs slowly maneuver themselves to bath in it’s path. Displaced by motor bikes and cars with heavy squealing tires, dispersed dust sparkles in the peach tinged air. This is what my grandfather called “the real estate hour”. The fading light framing the living diorama in an aura of contentment.
A long day is coming to an end and I am tired. A slow walk back to my flat is filled with the Coltrane’s evocations of “A Love Supreme”. With one last yawn, I sleep for hours.
Tha Pae East.
Sister club to The North Gate. The Free East.
As you enter the courtyard you are immediately greeted by red iron beams ascending in lattice formation, climbing two and a half stories before ending in broken promise. What was one meant to be a mini-mall of sorts now encloses, in horseshoe configuration, a grassy area serving as a parking lot and a playground for feral cats and field mice.
From the courtyard, the two story house to the left serves as a bar and performance area, a small bi-level building made of brick and mortar with wooden frames encasing the windows and doors. Iron wrapped cement steps dotted with small, water filled bowls, illuminating candles floating inside, lead to the second floor rehearsal area. There is no glass in the windows, only open air. The dual hinged doors open to a concrete floor adorned with small wooden stools, benches and tables surrounded by exposed brick walls. Industrial floor fans push air through the small damp interior. The back wall runs parallel to a small wooden bar fashioned from the timber of an abandoned structure in the back alley. Beyond the patio, to the right of the courtyard, lies a small concrete building housing bathroom facilities. Its thatched ceramic roof is losing its battle with nature having become overrun with vines.
From the shadows of the iron beams, the performance began with simultaneous construction and deconstruction. Playing only the mouthpiece, producing sounds reminiscent of bird calls, Timothy O’Dwyer took small steps toward the performance space as he slowly put his saxophone back together, coaxing sounds out of every part before adding another. Short bursts of sound mimicking the warbles of the armless, long wails evoking chant, got closer and closer to the main room of the house before, seated, he began to produce, using circular breathing, broad, bubbling landscapes revealing with each passing cluster of notes a broad arching bridge back to a primal form. The human ear always searches for familiar patterns to be able to predict the next movement. It’s wired into our DNA, a survival technique. We were all lost in a new world and it felt amazing. Timothy was joined throughout the evening by two other saxophonists, Pharadon ‘Opor’ Phonamnuai and Ben Koen, also, for a short time, a drummer, Phantawat Nawig, and then Alan Ernst on flute and piano and for the last 30 minutes of the night, myself on bass.
This was one of my favorite musical moments of recent memory. Lines entangling themselves within one another and taking time to dance before slowly letting go to find another partner. All of the elements necessary to make improvisational music work were fully present; humility, grace and a true participatory nature.