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January 7, 2004

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From Bangkok we headed north and searched for the roots of the first Thai Kingdoms. Northern Thais claim that their ways preserve the 'original' traditions and customs. Thailand's hill tribes also make their homes in the surrounding highlands and add their own brand of ethnicity. We arrived in Chiang Mai, the center of northern Thailand, after an easy overnight ride on Thailand's ultramodern highway system. Unlike Bangkok, this city has clearly delineated the old quarter with a moat and wall. Behind these fortifications the Thais developed their own cultural identity and independence from the 13th century onwards. Of course Thais existed long before that time. In the soup of Southeast Asian peoples, written records about the Thais appear in the middle of the first millenium. By the 12th century Khmer archives call the Thais "Syam" meaning "golden" or "swarthy." An English trader named James Lancaster gave the name "Siam" to the western world in 1592.
Chiang Mai, a city small enough to navigate by bicycle, has 120 temples within municipal limits. A monk for every corner applies here. Many monks study English and ask questions like, "What's a Big Mac?"
After a long meditation session nothing fulfills enlightenment better than a pancake.