Violence stalks this land. In past months Thai fishermen have raped, killed and robbed Vietnamese boat people and refugees from Cambodia. Tourists have been robbed, and sometimes murdered, in the streets of Bangkok and on the beach of Pattaya. And memories of Vietnamese troops smashing across the border to continue their killing ways are still fresh.
Feuds, quarrels and hatred resulted in the murder of 12,000 people in Thailand last year, the highest murder rate in Asia. In a land that produced the gentle people of "The King and I," the fabric of hospitality and warmth is being strained.
"If we don't do something about crime soon, we can say goodbye to tourism in this country." Dhamnoon Prachuabmoh, deputy of the government's Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT), said a few months ago.
Though tourists have not been prime objects for brutality, they also have begun to suffer. An Australian was killed by thugs in Bangkok, a tourist stabbed to death in a luxury hotel in the seaside resort of Pattaya and an entire busload of Japanese tourists robbed at gunpoint.
"We are very concerned about crime against tourists," said Virakiart Angkatavanich, assistant governor for publicity of TAT. "We plan to set up special courts to try criminals who have attacked tourists and we hope to form a special tourists police force to fight crime against tourists."
Murder. Crimes against tourists. Special tourist police forces. It all seems so foreign, so far away as one walk through the swirling mist, up, up, up 306 steps, past sweet-faced Buddhist novices in their saffron robes, accompanied by the rippling colors of two ornate mythological serpents, to the spectacular, almost magical, summit of Wat Prathat Doi Suthep -- the holiest of the holy temples, the place where relics of the Lord Buddha lie.
Here, high on a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, only the light touch of rain and the perfume of burning incense intrude on your senses. There is no fear here, no raucous shilling by the bar girls in Bangkok, no traffic jams, no tourist police. Here is peace, and serenity, and the old Thailand of grace and kindness. Perhaps they should declare Chiang Mai a national treasure, a true Shangri-La in the midst of the torment to the south.
Chaing Mai is one hour by airplane, seven hours by bus, 13 hours by train and about two centuries in time, from Bangkok. Here, the old values prevail, and the old graciousness prospers in contrast to the crazed mayhem that has rocked much of Southeast Asia for the past two decades. The city is capital of the northern region, the most beautiful region of this country, where roses and orchids grow side-by-side, mountains with thunderous waterfalls pounding down their flanks reach up to 8,400 feet, and elephants rumble through the brush pulling huge teak logs behind.
Because of its elevation, the Chiang Mai area is much cooler than the humid south. It is temperate enough for farmers to grow apples, grapes, roses (it is known as "the rose of the north") and watermelons, but not too cool to prevent bananas, pineapples and rice from flourishing. Great mists rise from the valleys to the mountain tops and the Thai royal family's cool summer residence, where Thailand's first family flees to escape the oppressive heat and noise of Bangkok. It is as though a wall has been built between Chiang Mai and the rest of Thailand.
Chiang Mai has had a wall around it since its founding in 1296. You can still see that original wall, said to have been build by King Mengrai in four days with 90,000 men working 24 hours a day. The remnants of the thick wall, and the moat, surround the center of Chiang Mai today and provide a barrier, more psychological than physical, to the outside world.
Not that Chiang Mai is a charming, country town. It isn't. It is Thailand's second largest city, with nearly 1 million residents, has a modern international airport, has its share of traffic and its share of vice. But even that vice, in the form of the ubiquitous massage parlors so popular in this country, is low-key and without the hustlings of sex procurers in Bangkok.
Chiang Mai's central area is small enough to explore on foot, or you can ride in a "samolar," a bicycle-mutant in which your driver peddles as you sit comfortably behind in a canvas-covered setee. It is a city worth exploring for it has more than 80 temples -- large, elaborate structures finely maintained by an army of monks; and small, almost shabby temples that often reveal hidden delights. Along one main shopping road there is just such a shabby structure. Walking in the gates, you may not be impressed, but if you continue to walk the temple grounds, you will eventually come to a crumbling stone building, its outer walls defaced by grafitti in many languages. If you go inside you will face one of the most magnificent buddhas in the country, its serene expression a reflection of this gentle city.
The shopping in Chiang Mai surpasses that in Bangkok, especially for anyone interested in the crafts of this nation and not expecting to buy a Japanese camera at a bargain. The center of handicrafts in Thailand, Chiang Mai is surrounded by small factories manufacturing goods by hand. Umbrellas, porcelain, lacquer boxes, silk and cotton fabrics, silver and gold jewelry -- all are produced in Chiang Mai. You can even tour most of the smaller factories and purchase the goods directly from the manufacturers. Because of its age, and its relative remoteness from the rest of the country, Chiang Mai is also a center of antiques. It is still possible to buy fine, old gems from private families, or ivory bracelets going back hundreds of years, or beautiful, hand-painted scrolls from the 17th century.
Every night, in the center of town, a night market burns brightly well into the darkest hours. Here, small-time merchants and hill people sell their magnificent hand-embroidered clothes, their silver opium pipes and their dolls to residents and the few tourists who are fortunate enough to participate. As in most of Thailand, bargaining is necessary to arrive at a fair price.
After the market, the hill people return to the surrounding mountains. You should follow. Six nomadic tribes thrive in the rugged mountains surrounding Chiang Mai. This is the "Golden Triangle," the home of the world's most fertile poppy-growing region. The place where most of the world's best opium is grown, and a place that was once a no-man's land to tourists and police alike. But things have changed, at least somewhat.
It is possible to go into the hills with a guide, visit an elephant working camp, and take a bone-crushing ride up a rutted, narrow, mud road to one of the villages. Here the wildly exotic people, Mongolian in appearance, will tolerate you as you walk amongest their modest huts, watch their children being taught by government instructors, and their old men smoking opium in their own dream world. You can also buy some exquisite silver goods, ancient ivory snuff bottles and handsome fabrics. Commercialism has come to the country.
A program by the government of Thailand to educate the nomads has had some success, and more of them are now living in permanent villages, but most still move freely from Thailand into Burma and Laos and continue to harvest the poppies that have been their livelihood for generations.
You can stay in the midst of the hill people, at Mae-Sa Valley resort. About an hour's drive from Chiang Mai, the resort provides comfortable -- if spartan -- living in individual cottages. Set on a hillside overlooking a waterfall, Mae-Sa is surrounded by a garland of roses and orchids. From the resort you can enter the hill country villages easily.
It is here, perhaps, that one experiences the Thailand of the "King and I." For, when twilight comes, and you sit on the steps of your cabin sipping a Thai beer, watching the final toiling of a water buffalo pulling a plow through the valley's rice field, and listening to the sloughing of the waterfall, the inhumanity of the world disappears as softly as the sun.