The Life of Pai

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

So. I just arrived in Bangkok, flying out of Krabi like Dengue fever was in a Spitfire hot on my tail. Aside from distancing myself, I had two other exigencies. Firstly, my Thai visa was quickly running out; I had to cross a border in nine days. Secondly, I was now two weeks behind my unscheduled schedule. I had time to make up. I was toying with the idea of going to Myanmar to experience something entirely different and get off the well-trodden Thai tourist trail, but I was still not feeling 100% and my adventure bone was a soft, gummy mess. Besides which if I added Myanmar, what was I going to take off my to-see list? Thus, Bangkok, a decision that would prove fortunate, as two days after I arrived in Yangoon I would’ve been caught in the middle of one of nature’s fury once again in the guise of a tempestuous fellow named cyclone Nargis. While I would love to see nature in all her fury (from somewhere safe), and while I think it would’ve been very rewarding (and probably traumatizing) to lend a hand to rescue and help people, I would probably have been a victim like everyone else there to dirty water, no aid, and who knows what else. Plus, I felt like Dengue was enough of a show of nature’s fury. So. Bangkok. Khao San Road. May the first.

Off the plane and onto the shuttle bus, wandering around, dodging touts and transport offers, I found a place not far from Khao San. Cheap as chips at 150 baht, and life everywhere. It was so vital and so different from how I’d spent the last two weeks and so different from the company I’d kept. Fighting for life and living it are so different. Myself, most of my fighting was done, but apparently I was not finished recovering. I wound up sleeping most of the afternoon in my room with no energy to get up at all. When I woke up I, for the first time in a long time, felt the very faint pangs of hunger, and oh how excited I was. Off to sample local food in food carts. Off to explore. Night did not quiet the street, quite the opposite. It did affect the disappearance of all the suit tailors, and believe me, there are many, but in their place, food carts, DVDs, watches, the black market laid bare for all to see. Want a fake ID? Press badge? Drivers’ license? No problem! They’re all set up and ready for you. While I didn’t procure any fake ID, even for old-times-sake, I did stop at the DVD market where I bought 27 DVDs for about 2000 baht or about $60. New movies and old, some TV episodes, you name it. And then I sat and did what a single traveler does best. People talking, flirting, walking by, watching the watchers, trying not to show too much interest in the market stalls while still taking it all in. I watched them all over a crisp Thai beer (Singha), the first I’d had since hanging out with Carrie and Lori, and took it all in.

There is more to Bangkok than markets of illicit goods, however, and I intended to peel back the cultural veneer a little before leaving. For you see, it was now May 2, leaving me one week to get to Chiang Mai, do a cooking course, the three day trek, go to Pai, and cross the border to Laos. That’s 1, 1, 3, 2, and 1 days respectively, totaling one more day than I had to spend already, not to mention looking around Chiang Mai. So I had booked another plane to Chiang Mai to shave one of those days off and cover the ground I needed, giving me one more day to explore Bangkok. This second day I could not get up, I guess I overexerted myself the day prior, so when I finally did get going and make my way to the golden palace, it was closed for the day (3:30). I met a couple Dutch people on the street and we split a tuk-tuk to see some of the Buddhas around the city, only 10 baht (33 cents) each. First the giant Buddha, probably about three stories high. He was thin and I was impressed to see something so large so unattended. Only some locals selling birds in a cage that you could set free for good luck (and a fee), no doubt only to have them ensnared again. If it’s good luck to set a bird free, and I can see reason why it might be, surely it’s bad luck to trap them in a cage for profit? I pondered this as I walked away; certainly I was not about to risk misfortune by financing such activities. I think I’m pretty lucky overall anyway, no sense being greedy.

The next stop was the sleeping Buddha, which was yet another Buddha statue in a different pose – there are apparently 80 such poses all with different significance. Sleeping Buddha would be sleeping, you might think, but no, he was reclining on his side with both eyes wide open. I guess that’s less poetic. What was great about this temple was not Buddha but the monk tended him. He was just about to lock up for the day and when we arrived he reopened a few doors and brought us on a personal tour. He gave us incense – three sticks each – and had us light it, on our knees, clasped in our hands which we then pressed to our foreheads. Buddha may not have closed his eyes, but we did, and we were to wish for what we wanted. I guess this is something like prayer, I felt pretty uncomfortable basically praying to something/one that’s not God, but I suppose if it’s not my belief then it’s kind of like throwing coins in a well, drop it in and hope that it somehow works but with no real faith attached. Not to take anything away from Buddhists of course.

Well, I couldn’t leave Bangkok without a stop at the Grand Palace that I have unconsciously and irrevocably decided to dub the Golden Palace. I believe this is the first time I’ve gotten it right. Marking the second miracle in a young paragraph, I managed to wake up extra early and make my way there. It took a solid hour to weave through the palace and innumerable people and that was rushing it. The palace itself beautiful with so much to see in terms of buildings, art, and religious iconography. And did I mention people employed solely to get in between you and all of these things? So my hour there and getting back and forth from Khao San Road meant I was cutting it quite close. My flight to Chiang Mai was at 12:50, which meant check-in finished at 11:50, which meant I should aim for being there at 10:50, which then meant leaving around 10:00. If security gets much worse, it will soon be faster to rollerskate to distant locales. By the time I got back to my guesthouse and sorted everything out and was on the road with my backpack, it was 11:00. Forget the shuttle bus, forget the trains, I took a taxi for 300 baht, which he promised me would take less than 40 minutes. I’d be cutting it close but away we went. And then, for the price I negotiated, he was going to take the slow way. I didn’t let on during the negotiations that I was in a hurry, of course, and I didn’t want to let on now, but I wanted him on that expressway. Oh, for that 400 baht. Riiight. I managed to convince him to get on and moving and I’d pay the toll, which was only 20 baht and so at 11:35 and I was at the Air Asia terminal only to find boarding was delayed until 1:35. I still don’t know if I should have been relieved or angry.

Our puddle hopper bumped and wobbled its way to Chiang Mai (a city of the north in which the old town is entirely surrounded by a moat) without incident and the tiny airport had one thing worth noting. A Dairy Queen. I had found one at the MBK shopping centre my first night in Bangkok in the cinema on the fifth floor (so I grabbed an oreo blizzard and went to see Ironman), but I hadn’t gotten my fill. For some reason I’d been craving blizzards all the way back in Australia. This does not bode well for my food craze when I return home. So much to eat, so much I’ve been missing, which is no commentary on local food, just of extended periods away from home. Even here, I feel like I’m at the fair half the time, just eating and sampling and it’s all so good and interesting and different. But DQ is not. There’s something to be said for the devil you know, and I got an extra large helping served upside down with a pitchfork in it to pass the time en route to Banana Guesthouse, a place that had been recommended highly. I don’t recommend it so highly. While it’s only 120/night ($4), there was nothing going on there. Were I to go again, I’d recommend Julie’s Guesthouse. That place was wafting atmosphere several streets away.

After I ditched the cab and checked in I realized that I had energy. Not just the beginning ebbs, but a full store of antsy, eager energy. I found that I was excited and wanted to get out. It was May 3, 13 days after first being struck down by an insect smaller than my pinky fingernail, and I felt good! I went out, I got lost in the sidestreets, I stumbled on the Sunday markets which just kept going and going in all directions. I ate BBQ Honey chicken (yum!) fresh off the grill, I took a ticket for one food cart that had a 20 minute line… fresh spring rolls, not deep fried with a beautiful sauce. I grabbed a crab claw or two, and some fishy concoctions, watched one man BBQ omelettes in banana leaves fashioned into boats, and soaked in the culture. Hill tribe folk wandering around selling the wares they’d spent last week producing with their unique traditional clothes, and people pretending to be hill tribe people trying to avoid them. Clothes, carvings, jewels and bracelets everywhere. Bangkok had whetted my appetite for travel again slightly, and my first day in Chiang Mai had me starving for it. I’m back, baby! It was so great to be here in northern Thailand.

I somehow found my way home accidentally in the maze of streets – I was genuinely surprised to see the big peace sign that marks my home when I turned a corner – and spent the next day wandering that same maze. I tried going out that night and found a place finally, but it was not easy. All the bars were full of Thai girls – or at least, most of them appeared to be girls, one can never be too sure here – trying to get you in. Some work there and that’s their job. And some want to take you home to work their job. They don’t announce this up front, however, though I feel it’s generally pretty obvious when they want SOMEthing from you… you just don’t know what. But they’re not above death-gripping your arm and blocking the sidewalk to slow your progress. I had dinner somewhere much more tourist populated, quite the opposite of what I try to do ordinarily, and then decided to brave one of these bars for a drink. Sure enough, I had a 36 year old woman sitting across from me within minutes of getting my beer, telling me she was my age (ha!) and so on. Whether she worked for the bar or herself I never did stick around to find out but we had a bit of a chat before I took off. At least I’m pretty sure she wasn’t a ladyboy.

The days in Chiang Mai were a blur. I believe it was the next day, May 5, that I took a cooking course. We started at 7 AM in the local markets and got a crash course in Thai ingredients, what to look for, and what was what, including a small dissertation on rice. From there, we drove out of town to the headquarters of Master Thai Cooking Course, a place with a few assistances, lots of woks and gas burners and ingredients waiting for us. The course was great, we made Phad Thai, rolled our own spring rolls, made Green/Massuman curry from scratch, fried up some thai veggies, and stirred up some tom yam soup. We also discussed and watched mango sticky rice being made. And then we ate and it was delicious. For 600 baht, the meal was worth it alone. Fresh, delicious, and we all had a great time making it. That said, I feel like we should’ve been doing more in that we got a lot of help with what I felt were the mission-critical aspects like the mixing of the oyster sauce, fish oil, coconut milk, and sugar. Only the curry was all us, and that was the highlight for me. As well, I discovered that Massuman curry is my favourite. As soon as I saw them grinding cinnamon (while those of us making green curry were working our basil in) I knew I’d chosen the wrong curry. But both are delicious and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find the ingredients to make some at home. I’m almost tempted to try to find a mortar and pestel here, go to the markets, get the ingredients, get some jars, and send a bunch of paste home. It apparently keeps forever in a fridge, even months sitting out in the open.

So that was another day and now I had three days left in Thailand. It soon became obvious that I was going to have to sacrifice Pai or my trek to do it all and either way I’d be rushing around. Walking around after the cooking class (we finished around 3), I saw signs for trips up to the Golden Triangle, the meeting place of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, so named because it forms a triangle in which opium trading, once huge here, made everyone except the users a lot of money. Thailand no longer allows poppy growing (in fact, police have permission to shoot drug dealers). I don’t know about the other countries. But anyway, it was a trip up to the border and I thought, great, I can do this trip, see some hill tribes and the golden triangle, and get another 30 days for Thailand. So I did. It was a lot of driving, stopping at a ‘hot spring’. Now, it was hot, and I presume it came from the earth, but it was more of a single fountain surrounded by markets on all sides. But it broke the trip up a bit. We stopped at a temple which was a much better way to stretch our bums, and then got on a boat and cruised along the Myanmar border. You could see the mountains of China in the distance as we turned back and docked in Laos for yet another market full of snake and scorpion whiskies. The boat ride is not recommended. Lunch, then we crossed the Myanmar border. Literally, we made it as far as the passport office on their side of the river, I did a little jig on Myanmar soil, and then back, but time pressures were off.

Seeing the hill tribes was, aside from the visa run, what I was there for. It was the bonus to extending my stay in Thailand. And it was our final stop on the way home. We stopped at a place with three tribes, all Karen tribes I believe. The first is distinguishable by their clothes and particularly their hats, studded with all sorts of things, generally black clothes with colourful stitching and, well, look at the gallery. From there we passed down into a village of people whose tradition it is to stretch their ear lobes. You’ve probably seen a few people doing this today, putting in ever bigger things into their ears to make a large hole. One of the ladies took her earring out for me to examine and I hope I didn’t make my revulsion to apparent. She seemed happy enough to have a photo taken of her. Then, finally, the long neck tribe. They are refugees of Burma and the Thai government is letting them live in the hills; they have no Thai ID or ID of any kind, so aren’t allowed to leave except by applying for special passes. The ones that have been here roughly twenty years or more have generally been given a special ID – they don’t pay tax or get the schooling, but they can move freely in Thailand. And yes, they have long necks, stretched from age 4 with a slowly increasing number of rings. They sleep with them on and do not remove them except to add another ring, which is a big celebration – after all, the longer the neck, the more attractive the woman. The current record in this village is 26 rings. To dispel a myth that I myself was unsure about, their necks are not perilously weak when they remove the rings and don’t snap. It was fascinating to meet people living this way.

It was late when we got back, well after dark, and so I took the next day to relax and wander Chiang Mai some more. The day after, May 8, I took an elephant trek for two days into the hills. Everyone went in twos on the elephants but because we had an uneven number of people, I actually got to ride alone – alone with the guide, that is. But he was very laidback and apparently my Australian hat inspired confidence in him that I could rustle animals like a pro; so it was that within five minutes of departing, I alone was sitting on the elephants neck. It is a strange place to sit on an animal, and of course there’s no saddle. You just keep one leg on either side and watch your balance, leaning on its mushy head if needed. I loved it! We all bought some bananas to feed the elephants, and as soon as one of the others started feeding it, I had a trunk probing me. We passed through some mud, which the elephant sprayed to cool itself, and then that muddy trunk left elephant tracks all over my clothes and I decided it was time to give him some food. Far too soon, we were back at base and off to lunch before our trek.

Then, we went into the hills, along a stream, through some farms and villages, to one village where we had dinner and stayed the night. There was little interaction with the villagers, which was disappointing, but I suppose what did I expect? They get tourists every day, it’s probably better that they go about their day to day life and ignore us rather than putting on a show. We stopped in some waterfalls on the way back and then grabbed a bamboo raft, really just maybe ten bamboo logs roped together at either end. That’s it. No real structure besides that and we were making our way down the river. Because I sat at the back, I got to captain our raft (well, assistant captain) for a while before I passed on my duties. What this means is I had a long bamboo rod that I pushed off the bottom, rocks, and so on to keep the raft straight and on track. Again, it was fun however touristy it may be. But overall, I think that perhaps I would trek next time somewhere less touristed, especially now that I’ve done the elephant/bamboo raft. Just in case anyone is reading for ideas. But I had fun and met some nice people, so if you have your heart set, I wouldn’t change my mind.

May 9 and back in Chiang Mai. I don’t know where the time went aside from a bit too much in Betrayal at Krondor, a trip to the nightmarkets, and another to a shopping centre for some supplies. Then May 11 found me on a three hour (read: one hour late and one hour extra to make five hours) minibus trip to Pai. My instant reaction, in spite of the degrading weather, was delight. It was set in a beautiful valley, along a river, it was quiet, and the minibus company lends out a scooter for an hour to let people suss out accommodation. I got to drive again! I took a scooter and went into the hills after looking at some bungalows on the river which I’d pretty much decided on. Bamboo hut, attached bathroom, 100 baht ($3), sold! But I did go look at the places in the hills, nice, but a bit more expensive for the view and scooter you’d inevitably need, and got some sunset photos of the countryside. I went to one place quite out of the way and my scooter died there and would not start. We had three Thai people gathered around for 20 minutes trying to start it, looking at gas and oil levels, kick-starting, etc. It seemed like something had just switched off the electrical system, and, after a phone call to the scooter people, I discovered something did… the kickstand! Oops. We all had a good laugh, I put up the kickstand, and brought the machine to life then sped back to town (after dropping my daypack at the bungalows) and dropped it off.

I ran into a really nice French girl I’d spent some time with in Chiang Mai on the street (Naima), and an Israeli guy (Michael) who had been on the trek with me. The three of us actually closed out several bars before going our separate ways only a few nights before. And I met several other very friendly people here. Everyone is friendly, and it’s extremely easy to meet people. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much chance to do this aside from the first night, as my website was hacked and I spent two days on the internet getting things fixed and working properly again (and, hopefully, hacker-proof for the moment). Though that was a definite downside, it feels good to have things back in order. And it’s not like I didn’t get out for dinner and chat with people over a drink at night, or a fruit shake in the morning. Even the locals are really pleasant. I really enjoyed just wandering over to a stall and eating and visiting with the owner(s). It’s a very laid-back, slow lifestyle here, and though I’m far from burnt out, it is enjoyable just for the atmosphere that this lends the town. I had been warned it was just a drug hangout, and indeed I’ve seen my share of hippies (and my bungalow neighbour passed by me eating on the street and told me a story about how her friends were just arrested for possession of marijuana leaving the waterfall one night as I was eating) but I have not seen much of it. So again, fellow adventurers, put Pai on your map.

As I said, the first day was just running into people and getting to know the place. I went out that night to Ting Tong, one of the local clubs, but was too early, so I wound up having a beer with Mao, Pao, and Chewie who worked there. Then I went back up the street to a pub with live music and met a bunch of people there. The second day I met some people trying to organize the Gibbon Experience, a pretty highly recommended thing to do in Laos. I’d tried twice to contact them with no response, and indeed they are pretty unprofessional. I tried a third time with the email he gave me but still nothing. So I’m not going and am more than a little unimpressed. The third day, I grabbed a shake in the morning and chatted with the woman who made my mango-banana-pineapple-licious shake for about half an hour. I had another beer that night and watched somebody tear it up on the harmonica and someone get a special birthday song. And an Australian-turned-Canadian girl gave me her scooter to use that day as she was leaving to Chiang Mai, so I zipped all over the hills, villages, and countryside. It really is beautiful up here. And between that comfortable feeling that you’re among friends, the beauty, and the more cool climate, it’s no wonder there are so many ex-pats here. So many that came and never left. My ticket out of here to Laos leaves tomorrow, May 16 (already!) to the Laos border. And then two days on a slow boat south into Luang Prabang in the heart of a new land with a new language, new foods, and new experiences. This is the Life of I, after all, and neither a Yann Martel novel nor a story of settling down in small-town Thailand. The Life of I shall resume in Laos shortly.

Bangkok Photos
Northern Thailand Photos

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