It’s one of the busiest weeks of the year here in Chiang Mai. Not only is the weather the most enjoyable and temperate of the year, but thousands of Chinese tourists and Thais of Chinese heritage arrive here in droves to celebrate New Year, with 2016 being #4713 on the Chinese calendar! Interestingly, Thailand has the largest number of Chinese descendants in the world, followed by Malaysia and the U.S. “Overseas Chinese”, as they are sometimes called, number close to 50,000,000 people, among the greatest group of migrants in history.
It’s is the year of the monkey, which counts none other than performer Miley Cyrus as a member of this sign of the Chinese Zodiac. Attributes of the sign include being, “smart, clever and intelligent, especially in their career and wealth; lively, flexible, quick-witted and versatile”. Those aren’t necessarily the first descriptions that come to mind when one thinks of Ms. Cyrus, but one has to agree that at least a few of those adjectives and characteristics might apply. It makes it more palatable, however, knowing that both Charles Dickens and Eleanor Roosevelt are also included in this esteemed group.
This year, the holiday is officially celebrated on Monday, February 8th, although the festivities can extend over a period of weeks. Millions of Chinese will travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to join families in centuries-old celebrations and traditions that often include gifts of money-filled red envelopes for the young and retired, and the much dreaded parental questioning of single children about their plans to marry! For many, it can be a stressful time, but the tradition is an ancient one that continues to evolve and thrive. Firecrackers are a huge part of the holiday, as are colorful lanterns and dragon dances. In fact, the loud popping has already begun here in Chiang Mai, and will no doubt continue for the coming 48 hours. Happy Chinese New Year, everyone!
For four decades, Chiang Mai has hosted a three-day flower festival, ending up at Nong Buak Haad Park on the southwest corner of the old city. The event features a parade, beauty pageant (“Miss Flower and Miss International Flower Blooming”), floral displays, trade and agricultural exhibits, food stalls, live entertainment and Lanna-inspired arts and craft demonstrations and sales. To us “farang” (nee falang), or Westerners, it has all the familiar elements of a county fair, albeit incorporating a uniquely Thai and Chinese design spin of presentation and color. The three-day event is a must-see for locals and visitors alike and showcases the abundance of flora that thrives amongst the rice paddies and mountainous regions of lush Northern Thailand.
Here’s a sampling of the floats which, for me, are reminiscent of both the Rose and Daffodil Parades held annually in the western states of California and Washington:
The park itself is one of Chiang Mai’s loveliest and is highly decorated with both freestanding displays and abundant floral coverings of existing park statuary, water features and walkways:
As an avid orchid lover of many years standing, I am stunned by this region’s abundance and variety of this preternaturally beautiful plant. At this festival, there were thousands of them displayed in endless rows of species, colors, sizes and hybrids, all breathtaking.
The artisans of Northern Thailand are renowned for their products, including hand carved woodworking, silversmithing, pottery (their celadon ceramics are considered some the world’s best) and fabric weaving, among many others. It was great fun to see so many of them plying their craft among the plethora of displays, stalls and demonstrations:
As with any festival and fair worldwide, food choices were plentiful and abundant. On any day here in Asia, the air is sodden with the scent of local foods simmering, grilling or being prepared. It is not surprising to smell everything from seasoned meats, fish and poultry, freshly cut papaya and pineapple, or sweet and exotic spices as one is stolling alongside the stalls that line the streets and sidewalks. This festival proved to have an intoxicating abundance of each.
Vendors and sellers of every kind were abundant, both inside the park and along the streets outside. Music was performed live from a floral-themed and decorated stage. Some of the wall displays were especially lush and lovely. Fruits, vegetables and flowers often were mixed together into the displays, showcasing the area’s abundance.
As I’ve mentioned before, public transportation, as we know it, is non-existent in Chiang Mai. The venerable and ubiquitous tuk-tuk’s are readily available, as are the reliable and efficient songthaews. They gathered near the entrance to the festival along the wall of the old city and were a welcome site to guests anxious to return, with sore feet and bulky purchases, to their hotel or home.
Thailand is often called “The Land of Smiles” and Chiang Mai referred to as the “Rose of the North”. I have found both to be true. Thai people are highly animated, expressive and quick to pose as they share their warmth, humor and pride with visitors. It’s refreshingly innocent, yet infused with centuries old cultural and religious influences that make this country so unique and beautiful.
Today is the beginning of my last week here in Thailand. It has been a six month journey of discovery, self-evaluation, introspection and personal growth – and the first phase of a whole new life – redefined and undiscovered. The flower festival served as an emotional farewell to my time here and encapsulated all the elements and special flavors of this particular part of Asia. The people, food, colors, religion, traditions, artistry, warmth, challenges and surprises all came together and added to the months of collected memories and experiences. I so “get” the allure of this nation and understand completely those from around the world who vacation here annually, or chose to make it their home.
I’ve written extensively about some of the locales, both within the Kingdom of Thailand and other Asian countries, that I’ve visited with great honor and fondness these last several months. Chiang Mai was my first international home. Although that may be special in itself, it’s the memory of living here that will continue to inspire me – as I visit other “new nations” – and continue the next stage of my own deeply personal, yet profoundly fulfilling, expat experience.