In an amazing display of procrastination, we’ve managed to be in Thailand for an entire month without writing a single word about it. This is due to several factors, including wanting to finish our story about Melie Snow Mountain before moving on to Thailand and a deep sense of apathy induced by too many Thai massages.
Thailand has been quite a change from China. Though practically neighbors, the countries are worlds apart in culture: where China is loud and in your face, Thailand is quiet and passive; in China ordering a simple meal can be a test of one’s merit, whereas Thailand is filled with english-speaking touts pushing smoothies, tailor-made suits, tuk-tuks, and more. In all honesty, we’ve had a hard time adjusting to Thailand. It’s a beautiful country filled with friendly people, and yet you can’t help but feel that the onslaught of tourists has overshadowed the Thai culture. Before coming to Thailand, a friend we met in China, who lived in Thailand for two years working as a teacher, told us that “Thailand isn’t real”. We thought this was a cynical way of looking at things, but now that we’ve been here for a while, we understand his point. Somehow, Thailand hasn’t yet felt genuine. You begin to feel like a commodity—a dollar sign with legs—and every Thai person you meet will invariably try to sell you a product or service. You become distrustful, and try to avoid engaging Thai people in conversation so you don’t have to repeatedly decline their offers. This is, of course, a gross over-generalization, and certainly more meaningful encounters can be had by simply leaving the heavily-touristed areas, of which there are many. The hard part, of course, is leaving behind the umbrella drinks and thai massages. Tired from eight months of near continual travel, we’ve barely managed to do so.
We’ve also picked up a new traveling companion: Julie’s Mom, Marty, who decided to fly out and see us. We arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kunming one day before the scheduled arrival of her mom from San Francisco. We settled into the Atlanta Hotel for a night, and the next day move to the Grande Majestic. As of recent, Marty has developed arthritis in her hips, so she had a few requests in a hotel room: elevator and a bathtub. We warned her that once we got out of Bangkok these would be tall orders, but she told us she wanted to ease into Asia. We weren’t complaining though: in addition to elevators and a bathtub, we had a big-screen television complete with cable TV (man watching CNN is an ugly experience), breakfast buffet (french toast, on the other hand, isn’t), and room service.
Once Marty recuperated from the long flight, we set off to explore Bangkok in the usual tourist manner. We started with the Grand Palace, which was built in 1782 both to mark the founding of Thailand’s new capital (Bangkok) and to house the revered Emerald Buddha, which is still kept their today (no pictures allowed). The palace is undoubtedly beautiful—a collection of buildings, each with a specific purpose (one houses a piece of the breastbone of the Buddha) and ornately decorated with cracked tile, glimmering glass, and gold-leaf. We also visited the house of Jim Thompson—the best remaining example of traditional Thai architecture. Jim Thompson was an American who came to Bangkok after the second World War as the head of the OSS—a predecessor to the mondern-day CIA. He is credited with having revived the dwindling Thai silk industry, and in doing so became something a celebrity in Thailand. When he was alive, you could address a letter to “Jim Thompson-Bangkok”, and it would find it’s way to him. Mysteriously, Jim Thompson disappeared on a trip south to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967, and has never been seen or heard from since. I find it ironic that the best example of traditional Thai architecture is exemplified in a house owned by an American.
The highlight of Bangkok for me was going to see a Muay Thai Kickboxing fight, something I’ve long wanted to do. As luck would have it, the night we decided to go see a fight, two champion kickboxers were scheduled to be in the ring. I was, however, disappointed to learn that foreigners (namely, white people) must pay three times that of locals for the same seats even—1000 baht for the nosebleed seats, or, close to $30US. Upon this realization, Julie and Marty decided to pass on the fight and treat themselves to Thai massages, which average a much more affordable 150 baht, or about $4US. Nevertheless, it was a great show, with much bloodshed and gallantry.
Truthfully, I couldn’t get out of Bangkok fast enough. Some places you have a strong, visceral reaction to; perhaps I was slave here in another life, perhaps not, but every atom in my body wanted to leave Bangkok the moment I stepped foot outside the airport.
Bangkok is a huge, sprawling city, a prime example of uncontrolled urban expansion. It has ten million residents, half of whom own cars, creating traffic and smog to match the western City of Angels: Los Angeles (it is no coincidence that three days is my max in L.A. before needing to leave, it is the same for me in Bangkok). Like so many Asian cities in pursuit of modernity, gigantic steel buildings have been erected in all parts of Bangkok, and concrete roads put in place of old canals that once were navigated by boats.
On my arrival in Bangkok, I happened to be reading a book called hiA Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East, a book by the journalist Tiziano Terzani wherein he decides to heed the advice of a fortune teller in Hong Kong and not fly for the duration of one year. In his overland travels through Asia, he finds himself in Bangkok, and describes it as such:
. ...dirty, chaotic, stinking, where the water is polluted and the air lead-poisoned, where one in five has no proper home, one in sixty, including newborns, is HIV positive, one woman in thirty works as a prostitute, and someone commits suicide every hour.
To me, nowhere is Bangkok better exemplified than in Khao San Rd, the fabled street known to all backpackers as a cheap place for beer, rooms, and sex. Khao San Road represents what I hate most about the current travel scene: young westerners looking for a cheap place to party. The street is lined with seedy hotels, myriad cafes, innumerable stalls hawking knock-off clothes and cheap jewelry, tattoo parlors, girlie-boys looking to confuse already confused men, and an overwhelming barrage of travel agents selling the same packages: OVERLAND TO CAMBODIA, ELEPHANT TOURS, LAOS, etc. The irony is that few who roam Khao San Rd. will ever venture further than Koh Pha Ngan for the next full moon party.
And so we turned our attention North, first to the infinitely more inviting Chiang Mai, once a stopping point on the old Hippie Trail coming out of India in the 1960s. Chiang Mai is Bangkok’s second largest city, yet has managed to retain the charm that Bangkok could not. There are few—if any—tall buildings in Chiang Mai. The city is really just a collection of neighborhoods that have grown into each other and been connected by roads as needed. The center of the city is still surrounded by an old moat and old wall, though the wall was heavily damaged from bombing during WWII. Inside the walls, at the heart of the city, lies a surprisingly quiet neigborhood comprised of narrow old streets and comfortable guesthouses to match nearly any budget. We settled on a place called C.M. Bluehouse.
Our first full day in Chiang Mai we hire a driver to take us outside the city to the outlying villages of Bo Sang and San Kamphaeng, famous for producing Thai silk, paper umbrellas, and more. These villages are well on the beaten path and extremely touristy, but it’s neat nonetheless taking a tour of the thai silk factories, where they show you how the silk is made, from silk worm to finished piece. Between the three of us, we manage to purchase more than a dozen umbrellas, and several pieces of Thai silk.
A highlight for Marty is visiting the hardware stores of Chiang Mai, and she purchases an on-demand hot water heater to go with her collection of umbrellas and Thai silk, which surely must be the oddest souvenir ever purchased in Thailand.
Back at our guesthouse we meet a man named Dennis who quickly becomes the fourth member of our traveling group. Dennis is from the Pacific Northwest, sixty years old, and most impressively a cancer survivor of five years. He moved to Thailand full-time a year ago, and now makes his home in a small town further north called Pai. He’s in Chiang Mai making purchases for the restaurant he is starting, which will be called American in Pai. He’s eager for us to join him when he returns to Pai so he can show us around.
First things first though, and namely my birthday. Even though time slows on the road, it doesn’t stop, and we celebrate my 28th birthday dining along the Ping River that runs along the eastern edge of the city. Marty wants to do something nice for my birthday, so, in addition to dinner, she treats me to a custom-tailored suit.
Tailors in Thailand are world-renowned, namely for their ability to recreate any suit for a fraction of the cost. We go to a place recommended by Dennis named Bruno’s, and settle in for a few hours browsing through catalogs, looking at fabric, and getting measured (I’m disappointed they don’t ask me which way I dress). We settle on a three-button suit made from a very slightly brown fabric. We also purchase some silk in the nearby market to have them make a few dress shirts: one raw silk, one light pink, and one seafoam green. All said, we order one suit, an extra pair of pants (pants typically wear out before the jacket), and three silk shirts with French cuffs. The grand total: $150US.
With the suit ordered, we join Dennis on a three hour bus ride further north to Pai.
Pai is that rarest of towns: a place that actually lives up to what is promised. It’s a quaint town nestled deep into a valley in the far north of Thailand, right near the border with Burma. As with most towns near borders, Pai has a healthy mix of cultures, including Lisu and Lahu hill tribes people, Muslims from Burma, Yunnanese from China, and Westerners looking for a quiet place to escape.
Despite it’s small size, Pai is a bustling little town. The bus from Chiang Mai drops us in the center of town, and Dennis walks us across the street to a bright green building, which is where his pending restaurant will open. He used to own three business in the green building including an all Apple internet shop, a cafe, and movie house. He sold the internet shop and movie house and kept the cafe, which he is now renovating into a breakfast only restaurant. He has come to Pai to retire and slow his life down, and wants nothing more than to cook some good old-fashioned American breakfast for a few hours each morning, before retiring in the afternoon to whatever catches his fancy.
Small villages lie all around Pai in the outlying hills, and the small country roads just beg to be explored. So, we rent some scooters to do just that. I haven’t ridden a scooter since being in Bali, and it feels wonderful to have transportation again without having deal with buses and cab drivers. Marty has never ridden a scooter before—and is convinced it’s a plan to kill her—so we give her some practice driving the side streets of Pai before setting off into the open country.
Dennis doesn’t drive, so I take him on the back of my scooter, and Julie and Marty follow on their respective scooters. There are many outlying villages around Pai, and we spend several afternoons driving the small country roads, stopping frequently to look at verdant landscapes, small villages, and the occasional elephant.
Pai has a healthy community of expats and, on our second to last night in Pai, Dennis organizes a small party for us at a guesthouse in the hills above Pai near his home. It’s a beautiful night, and we dine on barbecue pork ribs and potato salad (compliments of Dennis) on a blanket spread beneath a towering teak tree. The moon and stars are resplendent and occasionally accented by fireworks shot off from a distant hillside where locals are holding a cremation ceremony.
After four very peaceful days in Pai the three of us, along with Dennis who has more errands to run for his restaurant, decide to return to Chiang Mai. Julie is eager to get to the beach and go diving. For myself, I’ve been away from the ocean for over two months, by far the longest stretch of my life, and am just as eager. The journey back to Chiang Mai is a bit more eventful than the journey to. Only twenty kilometers outside of Pai, our van begins making a horrible noise out of the left wheel. I’m not much of a mechanic, but I’m pretty quickly able to tell that the van has a bad wheel bearing. We’re too far from Pai to walk back, and the journey ahead is a steep, winding road, and none of us want to risk it with a wheel bearing that could seize at any minute. The driver leaves us on the side of the road and goes for help.
We spread out on the side of the road and make ourselves as comfortable as possible in rising heat of the late morning. The van is parked on a slight incline, and for some reason (probably too many bus rides in China) I get the idea in my head that it might be a good idea to block the wheels with a rock so the vehicle can’t start rolling. I approach the vehicle to look in. As I lean in the vehicle it begins rolling. This is a bit of a problem as our entire group is spread out in front of the van, lying in various states of discomfort, the closest being Julie’s Mom who is fully reclined with her head head facing the van. I quickly turn the steering wheel and am able to direct the van off the the side of the road before it runs anyone over (except myself, as the van rolls over my Teva-clad foot). Unfortunately, the vehicle comes to a stop with two wheels stuck in wet grass on a steep shoulder. Now it’s not only broken down, but also stuck. I’m feeling pretty embarrassed by this point, thinking I’ve done something stupid. But then I poke my head inside the van and realize what happened: the driver had left the van in neutral and failed to put on the parking brake. Genius! Feeling fortunate no one was hurt, Marty jokes that since the scooters had failed, this had been Plan B to kill her off, which we all got a good laugh from.
Shortly thereafter, the driver returns and is absolutely flabbergasted to see his van lying in a ditch. He calls his boss, who arrives thirty minutes later fuming. He accuses all of us of tampering with the vehicle, and actually has the temerity to say that it would have been impossible for the vehicle to just roll of the side of the road all by itself. I point out the simple law of physics, namely gravity, I tell him had the vehicle started rolling and had I not been able to turn the wheel, the van would have ended up in far worse shape as I pointed down the road. I also tell him that had the van run over one of us, we’d be having a very different conversation. At about this point, a local bus pulls up and Julie, Marty, Dennis, and myself grab our bags and board it, looking back at the boss and driver scratching their heads staring at the van.
Back in Chiang Mai, we spend one more evening with Dennis at CM Bluehouse, and the next day board a flight bound for Phuket and then a two hour ferry Koh Phi Phi.
Khaolak Scuba Adventures
In Koh Phi Phi, we have one thing in mind: diving. After hanging around Phi Phi for a while, we decided the best diving for the money is available on the numerous liveaboard dive boats. After walking around and talking to all the diveshops, we settle on going with a company called Khaolak Scuba Adventures. The package is an all-inclusive 4 night/4 day trip to the Similan Islands aboard a 90 foot boat powered by twin Hino 350hp engines.
The basic itinerary is as thus: board a boat at 5pm, eat dinner, go to bed. The next morning, wake up, realize you are now three hours from the mainland in the Similan Islands, eat a light breakfast, go diving, come back and eat a full breakfast, nap, go diving, eat lunch, nap again, go diving, relax, go diving, eat dinner, go to bed. The next day, the same thing, and the next day, so forth. In total, you get fourteen dives over four days.
Marty, who used to scuba dive when she lived in Hawaii in the 1970s is amazed at how easy and catered everything is. Indeed, so are we. The staff do everything for you, right down to putting on your fins so you don’t have to bend over with your tank on. After every dive fresh fruit is waiting for you, and there is an endless supply of coffee, hot chocolate, and water. Nevertheless, Marty is content just hanging around on the boat—though she’s convinced since Plan A and B failed, this must be Plan C—and she spends a good deal of time on the sun deck listening to the first three books in the Harry Potter series on our iPod.
As for the diving, it’s excellent. I had hoped to see a whale shark, but it’s still early in the season and not quite enough plankton have entered the waters to draw them in. Still, the diving is first-class. The Similan Island are world-renowned dive destinations, and we have an excellent Ship Coordinator—a passionate diver named Gerardo from Mexico. The Similan’s consist of nine small islands, each commonly known by their number, and Gerardo makes sure we see all of the highlights on each. On the list of spotted creatures: multiple leopard sharks including a pregnant female, banded sea snakes, blue razor wrasse fish, octopus, scorpion fish, lion fish, cuddle fish, oriental sweetlips, ghost pipefish, many-banded pipefish, and the myriad types of reef fish that populate the waters.
Our third day is the best day of diving, as we wake in the morning to learn the ship has been driven further north to a dive location called Richelieu Rock, a splintered rock pinnacle in the middle of the Andaman Sea. The dive site is shaped like a horseshoe, with one primary rock that at low tide juts out of the water, and several smaller rocks around it’s edges. The rocks are covered with anemones, sea fans, barrel sponges and soft corals of all kinds. We get three dives in at Richelieu Rock, and highlights include a bright yellow pregnant sea horse as well as a clown frog fish.
Exhausted from fourteen dives and enough nitrogen in our bloodstream to pressurize many kegs of beer, we return to Phuket just in time to see Julie’s Mom off to Bangkok and for us to make a visa-run to Burma. We now have a fresh 30-day visa in Thailand, and not a clue as to what we’re going to do with ourselves. Julie is thinking of getting her Divemaster certification, but other than that we have no plans. We still plan on hitting Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, but want to settle down for a bit and recuperate from eight months of near continuous travel. So, if you had a month in Thailand, what would you want to do?
Note: We’ll be adding images related to this post to Flickr in the coming days once we get a decent internet connection. Please check back soon!