Tourists are visiting Thailand in increasing numbers, but some communities remain stuck in a time long passed. In pursuit of the “old Thailand”, Alex Robinson shuns the tour buses and takes local’s route, the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
We’re waiting on the road, huddled together with locals who’ve risen in the pre-dawn dark. “Kneel,” whispers my guide Poj, “and press your palms together”. I do so and wince as a piece of gravel digs into my kneecap. In the distance, hundreds of saffron-robed monks spill out of the monasteries that surround Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep temple and down the snaking staircase that cuts through the thick forests shrouding the mountain.
I try to stay quiet as the monks approach, holding out their big stainless steel alms bowls. Poj drops bags of warm, sticky Thai rice, wafer biscuits and fruit into the bowls and the monks begin to chant. But not in Thai – they speak the Pali language, a dead dialect that was once used in many of the earliest Buddhist scriptures.
To me it sounds as ancient as church Latin, rich, rolling and redolent with the sacred. It’s mesmerising. Meditative. I’m trance-like for five minutes and it’s only after they’ve moved on that I remember the pain in my knee and the pins and needles in my legs.
Tourist Thailand seems far behind. I’ve entered an older country, where monks speak a bygone language and collect alms in the dawn light – as they have done two-and-a-half thousand years. This Chiang Mai isn’t a travel stop for hill tribe handicrafts and elephant camps, but the old capital of the Northern kingdom of Lanna. At least for the next hour. Until the tour buses arrive.