I spent the last 17 days travelling around Thailand during my 3 week break from school. I spent most of my time in the north (Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Pai) and a couple days around New Years on an island east of Bangkok called Koh Kood.
I was high-so and I decided to fly up to Chiang Rai on 12/18. It was the first stop on my trip to the north. I headed to my hotel, which was an awesome Bed and Breakfast that used to be a Kindergarten so it had a really unconventional layout and more importantly, lots of toys! I dropped off my stuff and, despite only getting 3 hours of sleep the night before, I had my hotel get me a taxi to take me to see the White Temple.
The guy that designed this thing is obviously very brilliant and totally deranged. It’s the work of a modern Thai artist and it really is one of the coolest things I’ve seen since I’ve been here. The whole thing is white and covered in tiny mirrors. He also created some pretty graphic sculptures of hands rising up out of hell and the faces and skulls of people who are there.
People who’ve done some travelling around SE Asia seem to say more often than not that once you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all and therefore they don’t need to see the White Temple. I say, those people are idiots. This place is more like a crazy person’s brain exploded and created a cross between Rivendell and a disco ball.
When I was done here, I was planning to head back to my hotel and chill. But my taxi driver had a different plan which he clearly explained to me… in Thai, and I agreed to… in Thai. All I know is that he must have called like 7 of his friends on the way to our next destination with frenzied excitement and the only words I understood were “white girl”.
Then we arrived at the Singha (as in the beer) farm. Um…ok? So we stood around for a little while with some other Thai people while my taxi driver kept talking at me in Thai until a guy driving what appeared to be a tour trolley filled with cheering Indian people came ripping around the corner and literally hit the brakes so hard that it screeched. This day kept getting better.
The Indian people filed off the trolley, sober, much to my disappointment because that meant that there was no free beer on this tour. The whole thing was in Thai. I understood one word, straW-berrEEEEE, because it is “the same” in English. We toured around the farm and saw flowers, tea, cabbages, and a bunch of other stuff that I had no idea what the hell it was.
After taking like 10 early millennium camera phone photos with my taxi driver, I paid him 300B (9 USD) and headed to the night market
for dinner to get some of the famed northern Thai food that I had heard so much about. Every stall had the same assortment of fried things, except for the guy selling bugs and the noodle shop. So bugs it was. Just kidding, I am too much of a wuss. I also decided to book a day tour for the next day, which normally I don’t do for a variety of reasons, but I only had a day so I wanted to see as much as possible.
I got up early for my trip the next day and saw my tour buddies: a mom and her 18 year old son. soooo….ok…. We took a cruise on a river boat to an elephant camp first.
First of all, my elephant pilot (I don’t know what else to call that guy) had the best moustache ever. Secondly, he could speak enough English to tell me my elephant’s name (Dee Dee, which translates to good good) and teach me some other words. And lastly, I didn’t get trampled at all. This was pretty cool, although slow going. We wandered around and crossed back and forth across the river for about 40 minutes. I suggested we caulk the wagons and float, but Dee Dee decided to ford the river.
Next we went to have lunch with a traditional hill tribe. AKA, ye olde hill tribe Pad Thai and Coca Cola restaurant. But this is where things started to go awry, and one of the reasons I try to stay away from group tours. People need to know their limits. If you are 50+ years old, overweight and not accustomed to hiking in the jungle, or anywhere for that matter, when the guide suggests that the trekking portion of the trip is too aggressive for you, gracefully bow out rather than trying to be some kind of hero.
The conversation basically went like this:
Kin (guide): I saw you try to walk up that hill and you were out of breath, the trek is going to be too challenging for you
Mom: I am fine, I will go slowly but I can do it.
Kin: We can just drive to the waterfall and do an easier walk. If we start the other hike, timing is very important because we can’t be there when the sun sets.
Me: (WTF. I am not here to go for a walk)
Mom: No, I don’t want her (referring to me) and my son to miss out because of me, I promise you I can do it, I will just go slowly at my own pace and be fine. Trust me, I can handle it.
Me: (awkward turtling my hands in my brain and staring at the thatching on the roof)
Son: Look, I know we’re American, but she can do it, I know she can.
And this is why I find American tourists to be particularly annoying on so many levels. So off we went into the jungle. And I am talking real jungle, not like a wide path with bridges over the streams and seeing other people kind of jungle. Real, compass referring, machete wielding, anti-venom carrying guide kind of jungle. Chiang Rai is also mountainous, hence why many people go here for trekking so the terrain is not exactly forgiving.
About 1 minute in, Mom tells the son and me to just go ahead and she’ll catch up with us. The son, being an American Hero, does as he’s told and goes off. Kin is trying to find some kind of branch to hack into a walking stick for the Mom and I am wondering what picture they are going to use of me on the evening news. Mom keeps telling me not to wait, but I am not an idiot and I know to stay near the guy with the knife which I finally tell her after I am finished being polite.
We got to a pretty big hill and when I got to the top, I waited about 10 minutes, and then Kin showed up. We basically had a what the fuck moment about the whole situation and I used my often recited “not all American’s are like this” speech. Mom showed up about 5 minutes later and says “Ok, you go on, I’ll head back” like it’s no big deal. We were 1/4 of the way into the hike and had just finished the easiest part. Son is nowhere to be found. Kin told her that we had to continue on because we were too far in. After a bunch of back and forth, I was literally like LOOK, Kin you take her back to the bottom, she can’t do this, I will wait here for the kid, Go now, I hate you lady and you are a fat, stubborn, old fool who put everyone in danger. The last part was actually more of a subconscious thing but probably should have been vocalized.
Kin and Dumb Dumb headed back. So there I was, alone somewhere in the Thai jungle wondering if and when Captain Idiot was going to find his way back and when I was going to get attacked by fire ants. The kid showed up first, about 30 minutes later. I gave that little mofo a talking to about how dangerous it is to separate. Kin busted through a wall of bamboo and Tarzan vines about 40 minutes after that. What is my life.
We continued on our hike and it was aggressive to say the least. But eventually we got to the hill tribe villages, which were cool to see. They are people who are traditionally nomadic and come from Burma and China. The Thai government barely even recognizes them and it’s a bit controversial. They’ve been forced to more or less settle and use slash and burn techniques for agriculture.
Next stop was a waterfall. It was pretty impressive, and very cold, which I discovered when I fell in. I’m always so graceful. We wandered around here for a little while and sure enough, when we got to the bottom of it, there was the Mom, waiting for us. In retrospect, I’m actually glad she stupidly went on the hike, because if she had backed out and we just did the walk around the waterfall, I would have missed out on a really amazing trip. So thanks stubborn American Mom for endangering all of us. It was worth it. Next “stop” according to the person at the tour office was a tea plantation. It was actually more of a drive-by.
And the final stop was a hot spring. It was nice to get in there after the hike, and even nicer to hear Mom and Son humble brag about all the hot springs they’d been to in other countries and how this one was OK in comparison. I had had about enough so I went to hang out with Kin. Someone who speaks 50% English is better than people who speak 100% English but you wish spoke 0.
And that was pretty much the end of Chiang Rai. I hopped a bus the next morning and headed to my next stop to meet Allison, Steve and Sarah: Chiang Mai
Upon arrival at the bus station, I got a tuk tuk into the city. As usual, my white skin means 2 things: that I am super rich and don’t speak a word of Thai. They started at a cool 800B. I told them to go fuck themselves and ultimately got it for an acceptable price, paet sip baht. 80.
I heard so much about this Khao Soy stuff before I got to the North. So my number one priority was to find it and eat it. I couldn’t find it in Chiang Rai, so I was on a mission. And I succeeded. It is one of the most delicious foods I have ever eaten, and it costs 60 cents. I think I ate this every day for the rest of my trip, sometimes twice.
Once we all got situated and I got my Khao Soy, we headed to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep which is a temple on top of a mountain outside of Chiang Mai. Apparently, 700 years ago a magical white elephant told them to build it there. It was an impressive campus with an awesome view of the city.
Unfortunately, my shorts were not long enough, so I wasn’t allowed to go into the golden chedi area and defile it with my knee caps. I wandered around outside while my friends checked it out and I found a basket of pants. So I just put a pair on and went in. I guess I was supposed to rent them for 10B, and the ones I grabbed were out of the “dirty” pile. But they were free, 31 cents saved, is….. 31 cents I can spend on beer later.
Talk about golden. This place was so bright and gold everywhere it nearly gilded my eyeballs out of my head. There were dragons everywhere and lots and lots and lots of gold. The photo to the left is the main chedi (Thai word for stupa). This is another one of those temples that is actually worth your time to check out.
We then headed back to town, went to a fairly disappointing dinner at a street food/night market area, and went to bed. The uneventfullness of day 1 was made up for on day 2.
We got up early the next morning for a day of elephants and white water rafting. We got picked up by a 12 passenger mini-bus/van and headed north. The other people in our group had also signed up to ride ATVs for an hour at the end of the day, but the four of us opted out of that portion because ATVs in Thialand have a reputation for being shit.
We got to the elephant place and I was lucky enough to get to ride on it’s head. Which, by the way, causes a fair amount of chafing if you aren’t wearing long pants. The kings used to ride on the elephants heads, so I felt pretty royal up there. I bet they had pants. As it turns out, riding an elephant’s head is really unstable. With every step, I felt like I was going to fall and get trampled to death.
After I didn’t fall off the elephant and die, we got to check out the baby. Apparently he is the most dangerous of all of them. It must be the same affliction as the baby vampires in Twilight. We said goodbye to the pachyderms, and headed to lunch where we got our “safety briefing” for rafting and got suited up with our one size fits all life jackets and helmets.
Rafting was pretty cool. We got to go through some pretty decent rapids and our raft was the only one competent enough not to flip over. Do we get a girl scout badge for that?
Post-rafting is when things started to get a little bit “Thai”. We drove to the ATV place and it was pretty late in the day. Allison and Steve got a good price to rent them on the spot, and Sarah and I decided to pass. Long story short , literally all of the ATVs were broken in some way, and when they finally got all of them working at the same time, everyone drove away into the sunset. Sarah and I took a nice stroll around the lake and went back to the rental place when the sun had completely set and it was dark.
Not surprisingly, 8 of the 10 people and 6 of the 10 ATV’s returned. Where were Allison and Steve? Good question. The guide had no idea, nor did they seem to care and since it was pitch black and there were no headlights on any of the ATVs, none of the other riders knew.
Alright so Allison and Steve are hopefully on the road but potentially in the Thai mountain jungle at night. Let’s get the van driver and go find them, then head back to town. Oh, he drank 3/4 of a bottle of Scotch in the last hour and closed the car door on his own head when he got in? (not a typo, head not hand). No big deal.
So P’Drunkface took us down the road, swearing the whole time he wasn’t drunk. It became abundantly clear about 1 turn into the trip that our driver was absolutely hammered. Luckily, Steve and Allison were on the road not far from the rental place and we didn’t run them over when we stopped to pick them up. It took a lot of convincing, and now the driver has no face, but we finally got him to agree to let Steve, our American friend who drives on the right side of the road, pilot the manual, 12 passenger minibus filled with tourists back to Chiang Mai… an hour away.
The driver said “NOW I DRIVE” about every 4 minutes the whole way back, and we explained every time that we know he isn’t drunk, but that Steve was going to take us back to Chiang Mai. Luckily, our evening didn’t get any more eventful than that. With the exception of turning the windshield wipers on every time we needed to turn, which he meant to do anyway…. he did an awesome job.
The next day we had to be up at an hour that, as of recently, has been when I go to bed, 5AM. Ziplining through the jungle was the plan for the day. It was pretty cool. We zipped on 20+ lines (one of which is the longest in the world), saw gibbons and got to spend a little time hiking around a waterfall. We had a pretty hilarious guide named Woody who taught me some useful words in Thai and didn’t kill any of us.
After ziplining, we ate more Khao Soy and just chilled out. That night, we headed to a Muay Thai fight. Only problem was that it was kids night so the fighters were like 40 kilos. So we watched some kids beat the piss out of each other at a Lady Boy bar for a little while. The show did get more entertaining when they blindfolded 3 guys and put them in the ring. There were a lot of windmill arms. The ref was also not off limits so when he was unlucky enough to get in the way of the “I’m just moving my fists like this, don’t walk in front of me or it’s your own fault” guy, he got a beat down as well. We checked out a place called The Warm Up after that, which is super Thai and a lot of fun. I got back on my normal 5AM bedtime schedule for a night.
The next day, my friends headed to their respective next destinations and the rest of the day was pretty uneventful for me. I spent an irresponsible amount of money at the night market, but got some cool stuff and ate more Khao Soy.
My last day in Chiang Mai, I took an awesome cooking class. It started at the food market where I learned the Thai word for pumpkin: fuck tong – and string beans: tu ah fuck yao. I’m also very mature. I don’t remember anything else I learned other than making curry paste with a mortar and pestal is a huge pain in the ass. Much to my surprise, pretty much all of the things I made had fish sauce in them. Who ever thought that leaving fish fermenting in a barrel was a good idea… I cooked 6 dishes without food poisoning myself: Coconut Soup, Glass Noodles and veggies, Mango Sticky Rice, Som Tam, KHAO SOY and stir fried veggies. I’m ready for food network.
Also, I carved a flower into a carrot.
I ended that day about 4 pounds heavier and ready to head to my next destination, the hippie woderland, Pai.
I got off to a good start on this trip by being hand selected by the driver to sit in the front seat of a 12 passenger mini bus. He said, “ok you alone, you sit front”. So my thought was that all the other passengers were travelling with someone and therefore it was better for me to sit in the front so that they didn’t have to split up. There were 6 other people in the van…. What a fun 3 hour drive this was about to be.
The driver’s English was at about 30% but, lucky me, all he wanted to do was talk, for the. whole. trip. He also kept reminding me that if I didn’t talk to him, he would fall asleep and “we die”. About 90 minutes into the trip, he started calling me darling and put his hand out and started shaking it around which apparently was a signal for me to hold it. I pretended not to notice and when that didn’t work, I pretended not to understand what he meant when he said “you hold my finger!”
About 2 hours in, we stopped at an army check point/pit stop. I was minding my own business, intently looking at bags of potato chips in the store so that he would leave me alone, and in he came with 4 of his army bros to present me with the rib of some kind of animal to eat. What a delicious treat. Aloy mak and thank’s life.
By the time we got to Pai at 10PM, I got out of that van at the first hotel I saw and lied and said I was staying there even though I didn’t have a room booked anywhere. I found a guesthouse with a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net for a whopping $9 USD, which was well out of my budget, and went to the night market to find some street food.
The first day, I hired a guy to take me around and show me stuff. His English was terrible. Like, so bad that we spoke Thai. Pai is unbelievably beautiful, just as everyone says it is. It is about a 3 hour drive from Chiang Mai into the mountains. The town itself is filled with more hippies than I have ever seen in my entire life. It has recently been “discovered” by tourists so it still retains a lot of it’s charm. And the scenery is breathtaking.
Day one was pretty uneventful, but it was Christmas. My Christmas feast was a pizza and a can of Coke Zero. The total cost was double what my new room at Mr. Jan’s guesthouse cost per night. It’s weird, when you aren’t being bombarded with Christmas ads every waking moment of your life for 2 months, and it’s not cold, and you aren’t with your friends/family, it’s really not Christmas, it’s just another day.
The thing that was so backwards about it all was that while I was walking around the night market, Santa was also there. He had a big sack filled with bags of candy and potato chips and all sorts of little food items. Whenever he saw a kid, he’d say “ho ho ho!”, call them over and little Mongkut and Samchai got treats. America won’t shut up about Santa, but can you imagine if someone did this in America? And actually did what Santa is supposed to do? He’d be in jail in 2 seconds. That’s some gingerbread for thought.
I decided that the next day, I was going to rent a moto and just see what kind of things I could find. When I went to get one the next day, bright and early at 11AM, they were all rented for the day, which I probably should have taken as a sign that I should not get a moto. Ever.
Instead, I decided that I would just go for a nice walk in the area around the town for a few hours and then head back and dick around there. Well prepared with my map (which I soon learned was not drawn to scale), camera and no water, I headed out for a 3 hour tour.
I admit, the first 5-7K of my loop was really nice. I was walking along a small road so there wasn’t much traffic at all. I put my iPhone on speaker and pumped some music for the walk and life was good. There were farms and nature and I only saw one hippie couple chanting in a field of wildflowers.
By the time I got to the elephant camp, I was pretty thirsty so I stopped and got some water. I asked the woman about how much further town was via the loop I had planned to go. She told me 18-20K. Oh well, she must have not understood my question, because my map clearly shows that it isn’t that far.
Well, it was.
I don’t know how far I had to walk on that road, at least 18K. I had like 4 people stop their motos and offer me a ride, but at that point, I was determined to finish that walk, even if it killed me, which it almost did when a truck narrowly missed hitting me. By about the 20thK of my “nice little walk”, I must have looked like death because an old man monk who was sitting on the side of the road looked dismayed and offered to give me his food and water. And strangely guessed that I was from Chicago on his first try. So wise.
I finally got back to my $6 a night guest house just before sunset. 3 hours turned into 8 hours and 25ish kilometers of climbing up and down mountains. Damn that map. Before scarfing down a bunch of street food, I treated myself to a 1 hour, $4USD massage. Since I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to use my legs at all the next day, I made a pact with myself (because when you travel alone, you go a little nuts) to get up early and get a moto.
So the next day, at 10:30 AM, I went to rent a moto. Luckily I only had to wait a half hour to get one. I spent the $1.30 on insurance, just in case, which proved to be the best gamble I have ever made in my life.
Ahhhh, 110 CC’s of pure mint green Honda scooter power. I pretty much spent the first 3 hours of the day driving to a waterfall and then freaking out on my way back toward town because the gas gauge was well past E. By some stroke of luck, my legs weren’t sore, so I knew that if I had to get out and walk, I was clearly capable.
Later in the day, I took that stallion “en brusse” as they would say in Cameroon or “into the bush”. I was riding it on hill tribe/farmer people roads (and I use that term loosely) and audibly smashing the undercarriage on rocks. I had to make sure to get my insurance money’s worth. When I crashed into a fence and almost road it off a wooden bridge for the second time, I decided that it would be better if I stayed near a road that someone might drive down once in the next 3 days in case I crashed.
So back toward town I went. On the way, there was a little turn off with a sign that just said “Land Split”. That sounds like something I might be able to jump my moto across, I should go. When I arrived at this little place, I was greeted by a Thai family and quickly ushered to a hammock in the shade. Then I was served bananas, tamarind, peanuts, roselle juice, roselle jam, and banana chips. Ok, so far so good. It turns out that the man’s family had farmed the land for decades, and in 2007, the hilly land that they farmed just started to split open and created 100 foot deep crevasses. It made the land basically un-farmable so now they tell their story to people passing by and make a living on donations and welcoming people with the fruits and juices they make from their garden. The whole thing was a really nice treat. One of my favorite experiences so far.
Onward to my next destination. Another waterfall, can you believe it? When I got to the waterfall, I met another American and we took our shoes off and walked up the river to try to find it, but apparently it didn’t exist. Instead we found some Thai guys who’d driven their pick-up on to a sandbar and were 4 bottles of Sang Som deep and playing cards.
We decided to see if we could find another waterfall that wasn’t far away. It was about 5PM at this point, so it was going to be the last stop of the day. It turns out that the last stop of the day for me was the ER at the Pai hospital.
I was just cruising down a straight, flat dirt road, and the next thing I remember, I was on the back of Koa’s moto heading to the hospital. I don’t know what happened, but I do remember swerving hard left, then hard right, and that’s it. Moto go smash. Apparently the whole right side was all messed up, I also don’t remember seeing that.
My brain started to function again at the hospital, which I think was about 20-30 minutes later. I was beat up pretty bad, but luckily, it was all road rash and nothing requiring stitches or a cast or a brain scan. I was being a pain in the ass about it all and just wanted to get outta there after they cleaned my wounds (which they did a good job of), but since I asked Koa the same question 3 times in about 5 minutes, he politely suggested that I stay and talk to the doctor.
The doctor informed me that I didn’t have a concussion, which is a complete impossibility. But I just said thank you and got outta there. It cost me $12. When I went to the ER in America, it cost me $12,000 and I came out with the same diagnosis: you’re fine, if you vomit or pass out, come back. ‘Murica, ‘Murica, ‘Murica! All in all, I was really lucky. I made it out of that crash with all my teeth and all my eyeballs. But I broke my good Nikon camera.
I happily woke up the next morning with a January 1st pain level hangover headache from smashing my face on the ground. I got my stuff together to get on a bus back to Chiang Mai and then continue on to BKK. Again, fairly uneventful except the bus to Bangkok was the second shittiest overnight bus experience I’ve ever had. Only surpassed by the African death bus in Cameroon. I finally got back to Bangkok at 4AM, got my bag off the bus and promptly rolled my left ankle and sprained it to the point where I couldn’t walk. So now my entire right side of my face and jaw line was swollen and cut up, I had bandages around every limb on my body except my left leg, and I was dragging my left foot behind me as I tried to find a taxi. But I made it.
North of Thailand: 0
I went back to my apartment to sleep and do laundry because that night, I had an 11 o’clock bus to Trat to go to Koh Kood (an island) for new years with my friends. Wouldn’t they be surprised when they saw me.
I met everyone at the bus station after my brief stop in at home. For the record, going to a beach when you can’t go in the water, can’t drink, can’t go in the sun and can’t get sand on most of your body due to open wounds is an interesting idea. If I wasn’t going with 11 friends, I would have bagged the trip, but this was definitely a trip more about the company.
Koh Kood was beautiful and totally chill. We got a bungalow and it reminded me of being at camp or something. I experienced my first sober New Years in nearly a decade, with the exception of 2006 when I was so sick I was hallucinating, so it was nice to start 2013 not barfing. We lit lanterns and at midnight there were fireworks. Very chill.
The real excitement of the trip came on the way home. I thought that I might have a totally “near death experience”-free trip, but alas, it would not be this one. We were about 3 hours away from Bangkok on our bus back from Trat. It was night and we were cruising along at about 60MPH (100K for you metric people). I was staring out the window probably thinking about something having to do with food.
All of a sudden, I saw a moto and another moto with a side car get out of control and smash into each other. The sidecar moto drove off the road, but the other one swerved toward the bus as the bus swerved to miss it. I heard a “thud, thud” and I was sure that we just decapitated someone. In my shock of watching that happen, I didn’t notice that our bus was swerving off the road. We ran over a tree and the wheels on the bus were not going round and round anymore. They were more going sideways. We almost flipped over. They let everyone off the bus and I was convinced that we had run over someone, but talk about lucky. That guy just ricocheted off the side of the bus and it appeared that he made it outta there with just a foot injury. Unbelievably, another bus showed up within an hour and took us back to Bangkok and I finally got to come home and sleep in my bed for the first time in 16 nights.
And I am alive to tell the tale! And if you’re this far, you are still alive after reading all of this. Despite my literally death defying two and a half weeks, I think my greatest challenge will come this Saturday: my birthday. Open bar.