As you might have guessed, Northern Thailand is like an entirely different country when compared with the islands of the south. No beaches, for one thing. Right there we have a huge lifestyle adjustment. All of a sudden we get up in the morning, have breakfast, and then sort of look around and say, “Now what?”
Then we’re usually left with two choices: walking around, getting to know the area, maybe window-shopping (both of which are free); or “doing things” and “seeing sights”, (which always dent the pocketbook). The problem is, when you’re on a budget you really start to notice how many sights can be seen and things can be done in a day along with just how quickly it all adds up. On the other hand, though, window-shopping inevitably leads to buying some sort of crap that you didn’t really need. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. In the end, we decided to try to find a middle ground. Ya gotta see somethin’, right?
We started out simple. Wat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. A wat is a Buddhist temple. This temple in particular is an extremely popular one built way up on top of a hill. I don’t know if it was part of the original design or not, but there also turned out to be plenty of room for street vendors, souvenir stalls, and parking. Fancy the luck! Even the rather inconvenient 300-odd steps up to the wat weren’t enough to deter the hordes of amateur shutterbugs out for a little culture (unfortunately, we fall into that category, as well). In the end, well, it was nice and all, pretty impressive, really, but I just think that I was born, or maybe brought up (to shift some of the blame to the parents), to be culturally “challenged”. I try to keep in mind everything I’ve read or been told about these temples: how old they are, the work that went into them, the generations upon generations of loyal worshippers, their enduring spiritual significance, and all I come up with when it’s right there in front of me is, “Man, that’s a helluva lotta gold!” On second thought, I think I’d rather blame it all on TV. At any rate, I think my wat-wandering is in for a steady decline. From the truly sad facts file: given a choice between paying 100 baht to see a 2000-year old monument to worship, spirituality, and devotion and spending a couple hours on e-mail, I’ll end up staring at the screen like a zombie in no time.
What I do enjoy is buzzing around the countryside on motorbike, seeing lots of different places without all the restrictions of public transport. I won’t even bother mentioning the other, previously much discussed, disadvantages inherent to bus travel in this part of the world. Of course, trying to do twelve hours on a scooter would leave me permanently crouched in the volleyball “ready” position and I simply can’t afford to lose that much height.
Anyhow, Laynni and her parents spent the last few days shopping and soaking up the laid-back atmosphere in Pai, along with plenty of river water aboard “Ali the Elephant”, or so I’m told. In the meantime, I managed to eat up several hundred miles along the Thai-Burmese border perched on a shiny, red Honda Dream, super-fly front basket included.
The scenery was simply incredible. Rolling, tree-covered hills (on the verge of being mountains) broken up here and there by rocky ravines, lush valleys and rushing rivers. Every time I rounded one of the numerous hairpin corners or reached the top one of the countless 45-degree hills it would take my breath away. So the ride itself was the highlight for me, although I did make a lot of stops along the way; some pretty cool, others less so. The first was at Tham Plaa (Fish Cave). Very aptly named, it’s a hockey net-sized hole in the rock looking down into a river stream absolutely teeming with hundreds of big Soro Brook Carp. Man, that’s a lot of fish in a small area. Next. Actually, I should mention that the cave, because of the fish, has considerable spiritual significance for the Thai people. Not for me, however, so I just checked it out briefly, bought some rice & chicken that had steam coming out of my ears, and drove off with no feeling in my tongue.
A little further along I turned off to head for the Pha Sua Falls and Mae Aw, a Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) village right on the Burmese border. Well, before I made it to the falls I took a wrong turn (apparently) and ended up at a military outpost where a couple dozen soldiers were half-heartedly performing drills in the sweltering heat, all of which seemed to involve holding their rifles above their heads in one way or another. Since I had no overwhelming desire to capture their obviously waning attention I wasted no time in heading back the way I came. It ended up taking me nearly an hour but I eventually did find the falls. A very natural, secluded little area but unfortunately since it was the dry season the seven-tiered waterfall wasn’t exactly roaring. I can imagine it would be pretty impressive after a rain, though.
On the way to Mae Aw I nearly ran out of gas, not having realized just how far up it was. Later on, I read that it’s the highest reachable point of elevation on the Thai-Burmese border. You could almost watch the gauge sliding down towards, then past, “E”, as I chugged up the hills in first and second gear. I finally came across a little village nestled in the hills where I spent a long, frustrating hour canvassing people in an effort to find a gas station before finally reconciling myself to the fact that there was nothing resembling one nearby. Then, just when I was on the verge of heading back down out of the mountains in neutral, some old guy directed me to a run-down little shack where I was greeted with suspicion by a lady who reluctantly sold me about a litre of a gas-like liquid out of a bleach container that she dragged out from under her front step. I didn’t bother to ask if it was premium.
When I did finally reach Mae Aw I was suitably impressed, however. Isolated inside a tight ring of hills, it was built around a small lake, maybe 300m across. Completely different from the other villages I’d seen. The surrounding hills are blanketed with tea bushes and little ponies (as well as dogs, of course) wander all over the dusty streets (as opposed to dogs and chickens in most towns). I talked to a local guy for a while who was about my age. We were struggling with the language barrier, but I managed to ask him what the large group of people beside the lake were building with all the Thai flags atop giant flagpoles. His answer was to laugh loudly while tipping his head back and making the drinking motion. Evidently, community projects here are mainly just excuses for everyone to get drunk – just like at home.
That night I stayed in Mae Hong Son, a bigger place than Pai, and with a fair number of tourists. Apparently, there have been lots of movies filmed there but the only one I can remember at the moment is “Volunteers” with Tom Hanks. It was here that it finally occurred to me, at roughly 4:30 AM, that only maybe one in seven roosters really knows how to crow properly. Properly, meaning in the way we’ve been brainwashed to believe they should. I firmly believe that cartoons and children’s books have created expectations that are far too great for the average rooster to live up to. In reality, most sound as though someone’s started choking them in mid-crow. A distinct lack of finishing power.
Later that morning while checking my e-mails to receive my daily instructions from Laynni (who was probably taking just a short break from shopping for the folks back home, you know who you are) I was surprised to notice that the song playing in the background was “Rockin’ In The Free World”, by Neil Young. A strange place to hear that. Hmmm, I wonder if this is a CD, tape, or maybe an internet radio station? The next song, however, was a Thai ballad, obviously performed by someone with a genuine lack of talent. That confused things a bit. Next came an old Eagles song, I think, the one that kind of whines, “I can’t tell you why-hy………..”. Then a couple of Thai hip-hop songs followed, and I gradually began to lose interest in determining the origin of this strange musical mix until, suddenly, “Is that Dave Matthews?” I’m sure it was, but I didn’t recognize the song, and figured it must be new. Now I had to ask. Unfortunately, both for my peace of mind and the story, the guy running the place and I couldn’t seem to communicate well enough to solve the mystery. And he became rather agitated when I started trying to poke around in his stereo system. Eventually I was forced to give up, but I’m sure it’s going to haunt me forever, or at least for a week or so.
I spent all afternoon on Friday cruising the back roads, usually semi-lost, often having to turn back when it got too rough (the “Dream” is more of a nightmare once you leave the pavement). Eventually, after really getting very little accomplished, I ended up in a town called Soppong. After some pretty blah fried rice, I spent a very cold night in a thatch hut. I’m talking ball-shrivelling-even-with-six-blankets kind of cold. Literally. Yeah, I suppose I haven’t mentioned how surprisingly cold it gets up north, especially in the hills. Very near freezing, I’d guess, and it’s not like these places have furnaces, or even windows, for that matter. Anyway, I woke up severely disoriented, cocooned in blankets, listening to a musical clock chime coming from God-knows-where. It took me a minute to realize, but it finally came to me: Stone’s basement! The chime was absolutely identical to the one in Stone’s parents’ basement that would drive me insane every time I crashed there, pissed out of my gourd, listening to it go off every fifteen minutes while I valiantly attempted to fight off the inevitable hangover despite sticky eyes and a shit-filled mouth. The memory was also nicely complemented by the fact that the bed was too short and I was hemmed in by the mosquito net (like mosquitoes are a big concern at that temperature) which felt hauntingly similar to the fancy little loveseat that always forced me to sleep cramped up in a whiny, queasy ball .Of course, all these memories go back about ten years to when Greg still lived at home; I’ve outgrown all that stuff. Naturally, when I eventually got a grasp on the situation, I was thrilled to realize that I was actually alone and freezing in a 6×8 shack instead of waking up from some nasty bender on 4th Ave in Martensville. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty tough call.
On Saturday, I went to see Tham Lod, a massive labyrinth of caves buried under the mountains and split by an underground river. The first word that comes to mind is “wow”. They caves are huge, each one the size of a parking lot with a roof that towers in the darkness several stories above. Stalagmites, stalactites, cave drawings; the whole she-bang, baby! I hope my pictures turn out (I bought a disposable with no flash) because I can’t truly do it justice with words.
Last night I made it back to Pai and this morning I hopped on a bus back to Chiang Mai to meet up with Laynni again and see her parents off on a train back to Bangkok. From there they’ll be flying back home. I got to the “bus terminal” (really just a vacant lot with a bench) plenty early, just as Laynni had advised (they had done the exact same trip the day before). Once there, I staked a claim to a seat by leaving my little bag of travelling provisions (water, chocolate bar, banana), and wandered off to get some breakfast. Half an hour later, as I sauntered back to the bus, still ten minutes early, I noticed that there appeared to be too many heads in the window in the vicinity of “my” seat. Uh oh. Sure enough, two teenage Thai girls had decided that they’d like to sit together, rather than apart, to my apparent misfortune. Well, there was, shall we say…………an incident………..and, in the end, we all ended up sharing one seat, which was incredibly uncomfortable and probably worse than standing anyway. It was a matter of principle, though. Why is it that the word “principle” always seems to follow something shitty?
I did make it back to Chiang Mai eventually, though, and (as far as we know) Lyle and Nadine made the train to Bangkok. Now, tomorrow morning we’re heading to Nan, a rarely-visited province close to the Thai-Lao border. After that, Laos! Then……the great beyond! Which roughly translates to, “We have no frickin’ idea”. Steady as she goes.