Thursday, January 9, 2014

Thailand Journal IV: Massage and Elephants

Massage, not necessarily prostitution or erotic, is one of Thailand’s calling cards. You might call it one of the exports and also one of its greatest natural resources since practically every other storefront in a city like Chiang Mai is a massage studio and that can make for a lot of studios in an urban center with a population over 1 million—massage that is, and elephants. Here in Northern Thailand there are statues of elephants everywhere. The elephant has a kind of sacred status and almost functioning as a deity, though not quite. The Hindu god Ganesha which some Thais have adopted was depicted with the head of an elephant and Thailand itself is shaped like one, with the trunk representing its southern most portions. There are as many statues of elephants as there are statues of the Buddha. But as you leave Chiang Mai and head into the mountains, you feel you are entering sacred territory, a land of temples and ancient tribal civilizations like that of the Lanna kingdom and the Hill Tribe peoples. Buddhist monks with their shaved heads and yellow robes are as ubiquitous in Chiang Mai as are streimels worn by the Hasidic Jews in Jerusalem. Parenthetically Chiang Mai has its own little Jewish quarter replete with chabad, right along one of the major thoroughfares, Chang Klan Road. Despite the discos and karaoke’s filled with bar girls, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and other cities of the North are religious territory in which the sacred and the spiritual coexist uneasily with the profane. Right outside of Chiang Rai is the Doi Tung Royal Villa, which was built by the mother of the current king. It’s gardens are a Thai Giverny and inside are exhibits of sacred Buddhist objects. In the Buddhist conception the feet are low on the food chain with the brain and head at top. Perhaps traditional Thai massage which starts with the feet and ends with the head is a way uniting the high and the low.

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