After two months of life in communist, religion-restricted countries, we were THRILLED to once again attend church in Chiang Mai. A familiar building, traditional Christmas hymns, and a sea of friendly faces welcomed us at 9:00 am Sunday morning after our inauspicious entrance to the city the day before. We were handed headphones through which we could hear an English translation of the service, but needed them only periodically since about half of the attendees and speakers were English-speaking. In between meetings, a tall, elegant woman approached us and asked if we had any plans for Christmas Eve. Upon learning that we didn’t, she invited us to a party at her house. Transplants from the States, Ellen and her business partner, Rainy, own a factory in Chiang Mai that manufactures fly-fishing ties. Rainy has been designing and producing ties since 1971 and moved the business to Thailand in 1999. If you’re interested, check out their website. We gladly accepted, eager to spend the evening sipping cocoa, singing Christmas carols (well, some were more excited than others about the singing), and hanging out with a bunch of American expats.
After church, we returned to our guesthouse (it stunk), picked up our laundry from the stall down the street (it stunk too), gathered our bags (they don’t stink), hopped in the back of a pick-up taxi called a songtao (it didn’t stink either), and headed to our new home for the next week, the Viangbua Mansion (also odor free). Dax crashed, still exhausted from the bus ride, while the rest enjoyed the new, more comfortable surroundings. At 5:30, a lovely Thai woman from the church arrived to take us to the party. Fifteen minutes later we were in a large suburban home surrounded by festive partygoers–Thai, Australian, and American–wearing Santa hats and eating pot roast and mashed potatoes, delicacies we haven’t enjoyed since leaving home four months ago. Everyone had an interesting story to tell about how they had ended up in Thailand. Some are volunteering as English teachers, some are serving as missionaries, and one is running the big flower extravaganza I mentioned in the previous post.
We could have exchanged stories all night long, but there was caroling to be done. After a brief practice, we headed out into the neighborhood to serenade Ellen and Rainy’s Thai neighbors. Each house was gated and protected by a pack of barking dogs, but since all were miniature breeds, we weren’t intimidated. We were received warmly and rewarded with candies and praise by everyone we serenaded.
Just when we thought we couldn’t have any more fun, a few of the Thai guests whipped out the Khom Loi, giant floating fire lanterns. These incendiary wonders, which would undoubtedly be illegal at home, are traditionally lit during the Loy Kratong/Yi Pem festival, when Chiang Mai’s residents release thousands of these flaming rice paper contraptions into the night sky. Our first encounter with the lanterns had actually occurred the previous night when we noticed about 20 glowing orange dots rising in the sky on the outskirts of the city. At first glance we thought they were helicopters or military jets, but as they floated slowly into different geometric formations, we figured they must be UFOs. We videotaped the scene wondering if we’d be in Thailand for a War of the Worlds or at least make it onto a Discovery Channel documentary on UFO sightings. We learned at the party that while the lanterns are mystical, they are nothing out of the ordinary. The kids eagerly joined in the lighting process. After all, what child wouldn’t be thrilled to be handed a burning candle and told to set something ablaze? At home fire is a big no no for kids. Here it’s integral to celebrating. No fire, no party.
We inflated the lanterns by lighting a wax ring at the base and holding candles below. The kids were instructed to touch the edge of the lantern and make a wish as they raised their candles to the center. One of the Thai women joked that she was making the same wish she had made last year–to get married. Why hadn’t her lantern wish worked the year before? It must have been a faulty balloon Ellen joked. This year’s would work for sure.
Once a lantern seemed ready to ascend, the man in charge would give the word and his partner in merrymaking would attach and light a string of firecrackers. The burning, exploding craft would then make a dizzying ascent into the sky. The ringmaster released one of the four lanterns prematurely and it showered the rooftops and a few cars with sparks. Everyone laughed since brushfires are apparently not a concern here and seemed similarly unconcerned when he lit this spark-spewing cone of destruction.
We rounded off the evening with a White Elephant gift exchange. The kids were tickled with their prizes: Dax scored a Barbie watch, Kieran a wooden motorcycle and some plumeria-shaped candles, Asher a stuffed elephant and an airline toiletry kit, and Mac a bizarre bobblehead and an elephant-dung paper address book. Christmas just doesn’t get much better than this!
Once again we were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of complete strangers to our little traveling crew. Ellen, Rainy, and their many friends provided us with the perfect Christmas gift–love. Through their selflessness, we experienced the spirit of Christmas thousands of miles from home and worlds apart from our loved ones. What a blessing, what a trip!