Chiang Mai – Sunday, Feb. 23, 5:30 p.m. local time (5:30 a.m. EST in DC)
As the sun began to cast its enchanting evening shadows, Raven gazed up at the pagoda of Wat Chedi Luang. The temple was by all accounts one of the most impressive in Chiang Mai, no matter that it was a partial ruin. Steep steps led up a multi-storied square base. Oversized stone-carved elephants stood at attention facing outward, guarding the temple’s interior, and seven-headed Naga serpents curled up the staircases. Four Buddha statues faced each direction—north, south, east, west.
Out of the corner of her eye, Raven detected movement near her feet. A honey-colored dog about the size of a small retriever ambled over and began scratching at the raked dirt. Then he circled and plopped down. She wanted to pet him, but remembered a stick-figure sign at the compound’s entrance of a dog biting a person.
Instead she strolled over to an area under a tree, where sayings in Thai and English had been written on little placards and hung in the branches. She read, “Be deep in something,” “All kinds of liberty are bliss,” and “If you train your mind well, happiness will surely come.” But what was the meaning of “well”? The air was hot, and a breeze swept her hair. Three monks in burnt-orange robes walked down the lane. She wondered about their lives, and if they would ever come any closer to the truth than she would. What was their day like? Who did their laundry? Where did they sleep? She read another placard. “Loving kindness cements the people of the world.”
“Raven?” a man said.
She turned around.
“Raven,” he repeated, reaching out to her. “I’m Theo’s friend, Ice.”
He was taller than she had expected. Over six feet, for sure. He was also younger. In fact, Uncle Theo had never said how old Alex Ice was. She had assumed he was old. But this man was around 30, maybe 35, and muscular. He wore black leather bracelets on one wrist, a maroon T-shirt, jeans and fashionable sneakers. His high cheekbones and low ponytail accentuated a striking silhouette.
“Mr. Ice,” she replied, reaching out to shake his hand. “Thank you for meeting me.”
“Oh, please, no ‘Mr.,” he said, laughing and shaking back. “Just Ice.”
“Ice? What about Alex?”
“Alex, that’s what your uncle says. He doesn’t like calling me Ice, but Ice is what everyone else calls me. My father came up with it when I was born. It’s not my last name.”
“Excuse me,” she said, flustered.
“It’s OK. Westerners always wonder about Thai nicknames.”
“Oh. Awkward. Sorry.”
“Forget it. I hope you like the Old City,” he added, spreading his arms out wide.
“How could you not love it? The moat and ancient walls, enchanting cafés, all these tropical plants, the lights and lanterns—it’s like a dream.”
“Chedi Luang is the center of the universe—according to traditional thought. I always bring my visitors here.”
“Of all the temples here, this one is the most amazing.”
“Yes, it’s more than six hundred years old. The pagoda, or stupa, here at Wat Chedi Luang once housed the Emerald Buddha, the most important Buddhist relic in existence,” he said. “As you can see, it’s being restored.”
“I read in a travel guide that the reconstruction is controversial, though. Some argue there aren’t enough Lanna style elements.”
“Why are you laughing?”
“Thai people tend to err on the polite side, you know, avoid difficult topics. You, on the other hand, brought up the controversy inside of two minutes.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, gritting her teeth. “I guess I wanted to show I did my homework.”
“No worries. I got you. I studied Fine Arts here at Chiang Mai University, but I also studied in the States.”
“Iowa, the arts workshop. I earned an MFA in print-making there.”
“Uncle Theo didn’t tell me. That helps to explain your perfect English.”
“Thank you for the compliment. Now, let me ask, did you know this temple hosts ‘monk chats’?”
Raven shook her head.
“If you need guidance, or perspective, you can meet with a monk, ask anything you want and learn about Buddhism. They do it every day.”
“I probably could use some of that.”
He observed her but didn’t reply. He showed her the famous pavilion with the 30-foot reclining Buddha, and they roamed around the grounds. As they reached the exit, he pointed upward. “See this tree that towers over the entire complex?”
“It’s a dipterocarp. It protects us. If it ever falls, it will bode ill.”
Raven didn’t know what to say. Trees don’t last forever. How could the end of its life portend bad times? She noticed Ice watching her Western wheels spinning.
He did not try to explain.
The exit gate deposited them onto a packed sidewalk. Tourists milled about as vendors unpacked their trucks for the Sunday Walking Street market. Raven and Ice browsed for a while, and then Ice suggested dinner. She agreed, and he showed her to an unmarked door in a century-old building on Rachadamnoen Road, the main east-west artery in the Old City.
“My friend established this place,” Ice told her as they ascended a dark staircase. “Northern Thai cuisine. People called him crazy, because he refused to hang a sign, but now it’s very popular.”
A beautiful woman welcomed Ice as soon as they emerged into bright light on the second floor. The sister of the chef, she had known Ice since childhood. Ice introduced Raven to her, and she told them to make themselves at home.
“Let’s go to the veranda,” said Ice, guiding Raven to a table along the railing. “This is the best seat in the house. I would like you to have it. The staff will bring out each dish, as it becomes ready.”
“Thank you,” she said, pleased with her view onto the bustling pedestrian zone, now glowing in the setting sun. “That sounds wonderful.”
“Would you like some Thai beer?” he asked. “Or do you prefer wine?”
“Thai beer is great,” she said. “Thanks.”
“Good. I already ordered it,” he said, as a waiter placed a couple of bottles down on the table. Holding his bottle up and smiling at Raven, Ice added, “Cheers!”
She did the same, and they drank. “Great beer,” she said.
“Thanks.” He leaned back. “So, what do you want to know?”
“Well, my uncle sent me here to discuss some things…about your project.”
“It’s reassuring to hear he’s still interested.”
“What do you mean ‘still’?”
“Now that Nou has died, the project is in jeopardy. He was our biggest cheerleader.”
“You heard about Nou’s death?”
“How could I miss it? He was a giant around here.”
“Because of the Bank?”
“Oh no! The Bank doesn’t work here anymore. We are ‘developed enough’,” he said using air quotes. “And it’s true that in some ways things are looking up. Tourism is a big draw, exports are more diversified and higher value-added, the middle class is growing. But we need economic development that is environmentally sustainable and that ‘lifts all boats,’ as Nou used to say. The lives of the poor must be improved and the middle class expanded. Nou’s work here was entirely private. He funded cultural and environmental projects, and he leveraged his influence to draw in other players, you know, bring in more money.”
“Like my uncle?”
“He gave me a general sense of your work, but can you flesh it out for me?”
“By all means—I want to link the art museum to local community centers, boosting traditional crafts and tourism. Both of these things would generate income in rural areas. It’s not complicated. Many of these puzzle pieces exist already. The Thai government and other groups are helping now, but they aren’t linked in the way that I envision. My contribution would be to bring it all together, and spread it around.”
“My uncle and Nou were benefactors. Were there others?”
“They were among a group of 10. Some of the money is already in the pipeline, but we were about to launch a new initiative—and, you know, a new financial commitment. With Nou gone, I could cover the difference with a bit more from each of the others. I was hoping this meeting would help me with that.”
“We’re talking about this art project only? Nothing else?”
“Why? Do you have another idea?”
“No,” she said, embarrassed. “I wondered if there were any ideas besides the community art thing.”
“There are probably thousands of other ideas, but this is the only one I’m working on right now. Would you like another beer?”
Raven accepted, and as Ice signaled to the waiter to bring two more, she asked Ice for a rough history of the city and its extensive art scene. He gladly obliged.
When the waiter returned with the beer, he also brought an appetizer of chili relish and rice balls, while another waiter placed soup on the table.
“It’s khao soi,” Ice explained. “Creamy coconut noodle soup with chicken—a big Chiang Mai thing.”
“What a treat!” Raven exclaimed. “Authentic local food. You’ll have to try Cuban food some time.”
“Deal,” he said.
Soon after, more colorful platters were placed on the table: house-made naem, a fermented pork sausage wrapped in banana leaves, sai oua, a grilled sausage with lemongrass and galangal, as well as chicken in a yellow curry sauce, and a sampling of mushrooms, sliced vegetables, fresh herbs and chili dips.
Almost forgetting why she had come to Chiang Mai, Raven tried them all. She could easily tell why the region was so famous for its cuisine—all the delicious flavor combinations. When she couldn’t eat another bite, Ice insisted on paying and excused himself to settle up.
Content, Raven sat back and mulled over her host. He talked a good talk. He was polite and smart and fit. Why hadn’t she expected that? From the street below, she caught snippets of many different languages. The breeze seemed to blow words up like leaves—ausgezeichnet, harasho, merci, ka.
She gazed over the railing and marveled at the throng. The world’s curious shuffled along, taking in the atmosphere, eating street food and window shopping, all the while infusing rubles and yuan and yen and euros and dollars into the Thai economy. An endless rotation of humanity, so many different types of people, yet all on some sort of quest—everyone seeking something—pleasure, thrills, absolution, meaning. She wondered how effective their wanderings would be. How many of them would attend a monk chat?
Across the street from the restaurant, a foot massage parlor with lawn chairs in an alley was conducting a brisk business. Next door, people had formed a line outside a tour operator arranging elephant sanctuary visits, hiking and rafting trips, cave tours. The store after that sold jewelry.
Raven was contemplating buying an elephant pendant for her niece, when she saw a woman with platinum-blond hair—that natural, Nordic color—pass the shop. Her hair stuck out. But that wasn’t all. She looked familiar. As Raven asked herself where she had seen the woman before, Ice returned, and his athletic walk distracted her.
“What?” he said to her.
“What?” she said. Under those loose-fitting clothes, you’re hiding a pretty damn good physique, she said to herself.
“You were staring.”
“No, I wasn’t!” she protested. “But you know what?” she added, diverting the conversation. “I saw this woman outside—down on the street—who looks like someone I know in DC. It’s probably a coincidence, but I’d like to run and see if it’s her.”
“No problem. Let’s go,” he said. “We’re all set.”
“Thank you,” she said, as they descended the stairs. “The food was amazing.”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m glad you like it. My friend is a talented chef.”
Downstairs, Raven feared she’d lost the woman, but after a good scouring of the crowd, she glimpsed the hair a couple of blocks away. Raven signaled to Ice, and they bumped through the crowd. They left Rachadamnoen and went north away from the market. About to reach shouting distance, Raven’s halted. “Oh my God. Stay back.”
“What?” Ice asked. “You’re acting weird, even for an American.”
“It is her. See that woman with the white blond hair in the short red skirt? She’s with a guy, and I know him too. I wonder what they’re doing.”
“The same as everybody else? Enjoying an awesome, luxurious, inexpensive holiday. This is Chiang Mai.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“You want to keep following them?”
“Don’t you have something else to do tonight, Ice?”
“I could go to my studio,” he said, putting his palms up and down as if comparing the weight of two things. “But adventure is good for art.”
“For the sake of your art, then,” Raven said. “Let’s go.”
Copyright © by Wolf Bahren. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher with “permission requests” in the subject line at email@example.com. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.