Thailand

Taking the Long Way Home

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A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our door step once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable. ― Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus

I’m struggling a bit for words with this post - what is likely my last post from this journey. (Whether I keep writing, we’ll see, but I have enjoyed the process more that I ever expected.) I started planning this trip in January, but I know that it will shape the way I see and do things for much longer. It has been many things - adventure, challenge, inspiration, frustration, relaxation, an education and full of many, many serendipitous surprises.

I was reminded that true travel can be hard. The kind of travel where you are ignorant of everything, the spoken and written language, how the most basic things work - even crossing the street seemed daunting at first. Every step was a guess (some more educated than others). Sometimes it was just a hope…”I hope this works…I hope this driver knows where he’s going…I hope I read the map right…I hope I didn’t offend him/her.”

I have some amazing memories, some (I think) have been worth sharing and some were my own challenges, mistakes and achievements. I got to stand in, but still outside another culture. I was witness to other people’s days and lives. I have been awed by the devotion and austerity of the religious monks. I have watched people “make merit” and provide food for the monks. I have also seen these same monks stroll the markets, talk on their cell phones, and sit have a smoke. I have seen poverty. Shacks with corrugated metal roofs and old street banners for walls, but also families sitting in the shade of these metal roofs sharing a meal together in a society where family matters. I have stood at the base of temples and city walls that are over 1000 years old; and stood a top peaks that take your breath away. I have been blessed with nothing but the kindness of strangers. Those who took the time to share with me a story or a meal, point me in the right direction, or were just fair when I was negotiating for ride. I have eaten some incredible food prepared in the most unlikely of circumstances.

I learned to listen to that inner voice that told me when to keep going and when to ask for help, or in some cases, call it day. I loved the challenge, the guess work, the opportunity each day held. I asked myself in the first post “Am I still a traveller?” The answer is a resounding “yes.” But it is time to put away my passport and backpack (for a while). Because each and everyday I was on this journey, something reminded me of home and those things that had seemed painstakingly familiar are the ones I missed the most. So on that note…

All journeys eventually end in the same place, home. ― Chris Geiger

Getting From Here to There

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Since being in Thailand, I have ridden on a bus, a train, a tuktuk (a three-wheeled moped taxi), an actual taxi, a boat, a songthaew (a pick up with passenger seating on the bed of the truck), a mini van, the back of a motorbike, and my own two feet, but I haven’t driven myself anywhere in almost three weeks.

I decided that was going to change. I would never have have considered it in Bangkok or Chiang Mai - the traffic is insane, the drivers potentially more so, and the kicker, they drive on the left side of the road. Yesterday I rented a “motorbike,” looked like a moped to me, but it was my ticket to freedom, all for $8 a day - less than a songthaew one way.

I started the motorbike, tried to adjust in my mind what a right and left hand turn might look like, and set out for the beaches on the eastern side of the island. I have to admit to being a little scared with the trucks, tons of other motorbikes, and my demonstrated lack of direction, but I made it. The beach, Chaweng, was a beautiful stretch of white sand. The crowds…less beautiful. Music pumped out onto the beach, euro-partiers everywhere…it was a quite a show and in a way, fun to observe on the sidelines.

I brought the motorbike home before dark. I decided I wasn’t brave enough to drive at night. This morning, after a quiet breakfast in my little fishing village, I thought maybe I could venture even further. I set our for the waterfalls in the center of the island.

After 40 minutes, I turned on the road towards the waterfall. There were some very touristy options, including a 4-wheeler ride to the base of the falls. I turned it down and started hiking up a dirt road, then over a bamboo bridge and once again followed a rope trail up the rocks. I’ve decided ropes lead to good places. The upper falls were deserted. It was quiet and cool. I sat in pool under the falls, until I was ready to try the beach again.

I drove to Lamai Beach on the southeast coast, and paid for a day pass to a resort on a secluded stretch of beach. Lounge chairs, pools, quiet, drinks delivered… a huge contrast to the life I have been lucky enough to have had the last few weeks, but it was the perfect end to my stay on the island.

When I got back to Bophut, I turned in the keys to my motorbike and tomorrow I head back to Bangkok (minivan, ferry, bus, train….).

To Tour or Not to Tour

I was looking back at my first post from this trip and had asked myself the question “Would I like traveling alone?” First, I think I would rephrase the question to “Do I like traveling solo?” I have learned that solo does not mean alone, and the answer is “mostly yes.”

I think when you are traveling solo, there are lots of obvious perks, like getting to do what you want, when you want; seeking solitude when you want it, but also, it’s relatively easy to make connections with people when you want.

When you are traveling solo, especially as a solo female traveler, you are approachable to other like-minded travelers and locals. Local people want to know your story and are willing to share theirs. Other travelers tend to gravitate to people doing the same things. You also are forced to ask directions (a lot) which naturally starts a conversation.

Northern Thailand was definitely a place for travelers - not necessarily a tourist destination. There were many more like-minded travelers and we were easy to spot. As I have spent the last couple of days in Koh Samui - which is beautiful, I have learned it is definitely more a tourist destination. People (mostly Europeans) come in groups (friends, couples, families) and the solo traveler is more of anomaly.

I realized I would have to work harder if I wanted to meet people (and not start talking to myself). I signed up for boat tour today to Angthrong National Marine Park. As I’ve said before, I’m usually not much for organized tours, but it was the best decision I could have made, not only was it an amazing experience, but I met some great people.

We left the main dock on the island at 8am, and headed 1.5 hours out into the gulf of Thailand, until we reached the park - an archipelago of 40+ small islands. I had my first sea kayaking experience and it was ton of fun seeing the island and caves from the water - despite having to stand in line for a kayak and say twice, “yes, single.” I should also note, it appeared much easier when there were two people paddling the kayak.

We paddled to a small beach, and then hiked up to a beautiful salt water lagoon. We paddled back to the boat and had lunch, while we cruised to another island. We took a long boat ashore, and I opted to make the hike to 500m peak, up a steep and rocky trail for what they promised was a view of the entire chain of islands. Steep and rocky does not begin to describe this climb in the middle of a 100+ degree day - mountain goats would have been challenged. I hung onto a rope and at some points literally pulled myself from rock to rock. But as promised, the view was inspiring - the climb down, not so much.

On the way back, some of my fellow climbers and I rode on the top sun deck and watched the sun begin to set over the islands as we headed back home.

So while I tend to shy away from an organized tour, it was definitely what I needed today.

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Changing Gears

I left Chiang Dao yesterday around noon after a last hike along a mountain side trail, then began the long trip south. First a pickup truck/taxi, then a bus, then a tuktuk from the bus station to the airport, then a plane to Bangkok, another plane to the island of Koh Samui and then finally a minivan to my hotel. It only took 10.5 hours, but my backpack and I finally made it.

I woke up this morning, stood out on my balcony and looked out over the Gulf of Thailand. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore or northern Thailand for that matter. I walked out on to the main street in Bo Phut - my first look in the daylight. Cafes and restaurants lined the streets - no shouting in Thai, but lots of French and German. I felt a little culture shock if that is possible.

I wandered in search of coffee. There are few if any street vendors, sandwich boards in front of restaurants had menus in English, French and some Thai. I found my coffee, settled in and watched the town come to life.

I knew I wanted to end this trip with some time at the beach, but in a strange way, I was already missing the challenge of the previous days. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, no list of sights to see, no travel plans to figure out - just drink my coffee and go to the beach. It was harder than I thought to change gears.

Eventually, I packed a bag and headed towards Mae Nam on the north end of the island. I had heard it was quiet and more remote than the eastern side of the island. It was. I rented a chair on the beach, and tried to sit still. I got up, walked the beach, came back, read my guidebook (there must be something I should be doing), but slowly I started to relax. I went for swim, read and ate pineapple from a beach vendor. By 3pm, I thought, “I could get used to this.”

But in reality, my time in Thailand is running out, so tomorrow I will go in search of waterfalls on the interior of the island and have booked a sea kayaking/snorkeling trip. I’ll still fit in some beach time though.

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Chiang Dao From Top to Bottom

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The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see. ― G.K. Chesterton

Each day I have woken up planning, thinking, and scheduling my time to get done the things I want to do, or least get to the places I want to get to. More often than not, it has required some serious map reading (sometimes more successfully than others) and depending on other people or modes of transportation to get me from here to there. Not today. Today was just a photocopy of a hand-drawn map of the area, given to me by the woman who owns the place I’m staying (a few marked roads and sights), and a bike.

I got on the bike and headed uphill to a small temple perched on the side of the mountain. Once at the entrance, it was “only” 510 steps to the top. At places like this there are often signs, both in English and Thai with Buddhist sayings. Now it may sound new agey or even kitschy, but after 400 steps, they have worn you down and you start to really take these things more seriously. At about step number 412 (to be exact) there was a sign that said, “Do not grumble, just persevere.” Ok, point taken.

I persevered and made it to the top. On my ascent, I saw only two other people, besides the resident monks. The temple was quiet and cool. The view from the chedi on the mountain was one of “those moments.” I felt small as looked out across the valley, a bit alone - not in a bad way; and fortunate - I realize not many people get to do what I am doing. I was not thinking about the climb down and what was next, I was here.

I biked down the mountain a ways, turned down a dirt road and headed past a monastery. There was nothing special about this place from the outside, no well-known statues of the Buddha or other landmarks, just small huts along the mountain side for the monks and the monk’s laundry - the orange robes they wear - strung between the buildings, but it was beautiful - the view and the absolute stillness of the place.

Finally Myrtle (at this point I had named my bike - she was a bit old and decrepit) and I made it down to the Chiang Dao cave, where Buddhist hermits once lived. There is a temple complex at the entrance, along with sellers of medicinal herbs, and few food stalls. Everywhere I looked there were monks, coming and going, and few tourists. Ignoring my own claustrophobia - and the bats, I climbed down into the cave. There are several miles of tunnels created by the water flowing under the mountain. With the help of a local guide, you can see a small portion. While, I appreciate the solitude that living in a cave underground may provide, I think I will choose the hut with a view.

Myrtle and I eventually biked back up the mountain road to my own bamboo hut and sat on the porch, listening to the birds sing, watching the sun set behind the mountain and trying hard not to think about what’s next.

First There Was Plan A...

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Today was my last day in Chiang Mai. I spent the morning at the oldest market in town, the Warrot market, getting lost and wandering the stalls. I took a break in the shade - it was over 100 degrees in town - at a beautiful old temple and then it was time to head out of the city to the town of Chiang Dao near the largest mountain in Thailand, appropriately named, Chiang Dao Mountain.

I consulted my guidebook and decided a bus would get me where I was going. The guidebook also said, the “town” wasn’t much more than an intersection of two roads, with dusty buildings on either side, but I could get a ride/taxi from the bus stop to where I was staying, 9-10 miles up to the base of the mountain. So there was Plan A.

I took a took a tuktuk (three-wheeled moped taxi) to the bus station outside the north city gate and boarded the bus, which given the fact that I was the only non-Thai, seems to be a rarity for foreigners. I had about 6 inches on the edge of a bench seat with two other people, my backpack between my legs as we drove - in a very hot bus - the hour and half up the winding roads to Chiang Dao. I got out at my stop and the guidebook was correct, not much there. Also not there, any type of taxi or other vehicle for hire. So much for Plan A.

I looked around and saw across the street a (relatively) busy open air restaurant that advertised coffee. Hoping someone would speak English, I took a chance and went inside. No English speakers. I tried to sign that I was looking for a ride, but no luck. As long as I was there, I ordered an iced coffee, and tried to figure out Plan B.

I was looking around to see if I could see a pay phone and maybe call the place I was staying, when a Thai woman came in with a backpack. She smiled and I immediately asked, “English?” She responded “a little.” A little was all I needed. I explained I wanted a ride up the mountain, but didn’t have a phone to call anyone. She stood up, picked up my backpack and said, “ok, for motorbike.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, but she got on her phone, dialed a magic number, and turned and said, “motor bike here in 10 minutes, 60 bhat ($2)”. We waited together, drinking coffee. She had been in the area for one week and was heading back to Bangkok on a bus. When the motorbike hadn’t arrived, she called again and I think, told them in no uncertain terms I was still waiting for a ride. Eventually, the motorbike arrived.

I put on my backpack, the driver took my smaller bag in his lap and I climbed on the back. The next thing I knew we were on our way up the mountain. Every once in while he would point at something he thought I should see as we wove our way up the narrow road. I have to say Plan B was a lot more interesting than Plan A.

We arrived at my hotel - that may not be the right word for the series of bamboo huts that face the mountain - but so far it was definitely worth the ride.

The Dark Side of Tourism

Today I took a bus with about 12 other people to visit the Elephant Nature Preserve about an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai. I’m not usually much of a “tour” person, but this is the only way to visit this special place.

When I first began planning my trip, I thought about going to one of the many tourist elephant camps advertised, but the more I read and the more I learned, the more I realized that these places, in general are not about the animals, but about the tourists. The Elephant Nature Preserve is different.

In Thailand, there are two kinds of elephants, wild elephants and domestic (not domesticated). The domestic elephants have been broken to work for people. Until the late 1980’s they were used in the logging industry, but when logging was banned these elephants were either abandoned, because the owners couldn’t afford to feed them, or put to work in the tourist industry (rides, circuses, etc) or even used to panhandle in the streets of Bangkok.

The elephants at the Elephant Nature Preserve have been rescued from many horrific situations, many were abused, hit by cars in Bankkok, some stepped on land mines on the Thai border with Myanmar, and other stories too sad to tell. At the preserve, they are rehabilitated, paired with a Mahout (handler) who is with them all day, every day. They are incredibly docile, smart and sweet creatures.

At the preserve, I was able to feed, walk with them, bath them and be with them in the closest many of them will ever know to a natural environment.

The money used from visitors like me is used to provide food, shelter and medical care. In 1900 there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand, today there are fewer than 3,000. It was a sobering, gratifying and amazing day.

More information at savetheelephants.org.

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The Language of Food

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I lurched away from the table after a few hours feeling like Elvis in Vegas - fat, drugged, and completely out of it. ― Anthony Bourdain, Chef

Chiang Mai is nothing if not the food capital of Thailand, especially street food - from every type of meat or sausage on a stick, to noodles to something that resembles a fried doughnut with black sesame seeds. Everywhere you look, there is someone cooking something. By all accounts, everyone here should weigh 600lbs. They are eating or taking away noodles and soup in plastic bags to eat later, popping dumplings like candy and frying up everything in sight. And I am right there with them, at least that is what it felt like today.

I took a full day cooking class today, with a well-known Thai chef. We got an introduction to Thai ingredients, watched the chef prepare seven different dishes and then we replicated (as best we could) our versions of them. Of course, we had to sample and eat our way through the day too.

I thought I knew something about Thai food, but the complexity of the food and the list of ingredients was amazing. They have 10, count ‘em 10, different soy sauces, 4 types of basil, I don’t know how many types of chilies and list goes on. I took notes like I was in school again and left with a recipe book, so we’ll see what I can do when I get home.

When I got back to my hotel, I fell into a deep food coma. When I came to, I thought I only have a two more nights here and there were places I still wanted to try, so I put on my walking shoes (no tuktuks or taxi tonight) and headed out of town, through the old city gate (1400 years old to be exact) and across the river to a restaurant that I had heard about. It is situated overlooking the Ping river. There was a guy playing crazy good jazz guitar (who knew?) and a mix of locals and expats all trying to get in. There was a wait for a table so I sat at the bar. An Australian, now living in Thailand, and his Thai wife sat down next to me. We started talking and when their table came up they asked me to join them. Initially I refused, because I didn’t want to intrude, but eventually I agreed.

We sat down and the woman started reading the menu and asking the waitress, in Thai of course, which dishes were local and where the ingredients came from. I asked her to order for me too. It was one of the best meals I have had - green mango salad, fresh fish with chili and vegetables, rice…

We talked, ate and drank. I forgot all about trying to figure out how they made the food or what was in my food, and just enjoyed it. So while, I’m glad for the opportunity to have learned what I learned today, I’m more grateful for good company and the prospect of sharing a meal with friends when I get home.

The Art of Conversation

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. – Freya Stark

Last night I left Bangkok on an overnight train to Chiang Mai. Honestly, I was looking forward to leaving the insanity of Bangkok behind - the traffic, smog, street vendors, the noise…it was a lot for my jet lagged brain to absorb, not to mention my small town sensibilities.

The central train station in Bangkok is a rather dismal place - overrun with feral cats, stray dogs, some unpleasant bathrooms and the requisite homeless outside. Needless to say, I wasn’t holding out much hope for the actual train.

I was booked in second class cabin with four sleeping berths. Somewhat to my surprise, it was clean, the porter was making up the beds and there were no animals in sight. I looked around and realized that trains seem to be the preferred mode of transportation for the 20-something backpacker set and native Thai. My cabin mates were no different, a french couple, barely 20, on a three month trip through Southeast Asia and Australia.

As they climbed into their upper bunks, talking together, it made me think about how different it is to travel alone. When you travel with someone or a group, the experience binds you together, but when you travel alone, it is a little like “when a tree falls in the woods…” You are the keeper of that experience and the only person it can or might change is you.

By nature, I’m a talker and tend to process what is happening by talking about it (and sometimes to) the people I am with. I think that is why I started writing - to have some place to put my thoughts, even when I didn’t have someone to say them out loud to.

When I woke up on the train and pulled back the curtain in my bunk, the landscape had completely changed. I was in rural Thailand - cows, rice fields, dirt roads, mountains…I looked across from me and somewhere in the middle of the night, a middle aged Thai woman had gotten on board and was now in the bunk across from me. She gave me a huge smile. She looked out the window with the same awe on her face I’m sure I had on mine. When our breakfast arrived, she cleared the small table and pointed at me to put my plate on the table with hers. We sat across from each other, alternating nodding at one another and staring out the window. A while later we arrived in Chiang Mai, as she left the cabin, she turned, put her hands together and bowed. I did the same.

I know we never said a word, but I think it was one of the nicest breakfast conversations I have ever had.

Am I Still A Traveller?

“Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else.”
― Tennessee Williams, Camino Real

I had always considered myself a “traveller.” I had a valid passport, could pack in 20 minutes and seemingly my bucket list of places to visit was never ending. But in truth, it has been a long time since I truly travelled. I went on vacation, visited friends, went back often to familiar cities, and enjoyed the requisite beach, books and booze trips. I hadn’t pushed myself out of my comfort zone, gone someplace where I didn’t speak a word of the language, or didn’t know a soul for years.

I decided in January to get back on the horse, so to speak. When I told my friends and family that I had booked a plane ticket to Thailand alone, it was met with mixed emotions. I heard, “don’t you have anyone to travel with?, “why?”, or “are you sure?” These comments were generally followed by “be safe” or a horror story of a lone female traveller who met with disaster. I was excited about the trip, so I put on a brave face and said I was fine, looking forward to it, I knew what I was doing, etc…

Honestly though over the next two months, I started to hear those voices in my head. I had doubts. Could I still travel alone? Did I still want to? Was this really who I was? Am I a traveller?

Then of course there is that pesky age thing. It’s ok in your 20’s to disconnect, to take risks, and besides there are always lots of 20 somethings with a bad case of wanderlust roaming the world’s “must see” destinations, but what about in your 40’s. Most of my friends are raising families, so the idea of setting off alone for three weeks, isn’t possible. Travel for most, seems to go from backpacks, to disneyland vacations, to tour busses. I’m not sure what solo travel in my 40’s looks like.

So with a very light backpack, a healthy dose of doubt and trepidation, I set off for Thailand.

I arrived late last night. When I awoke this morning in a hotel in Bangkok. It hit me. I’m really doing this. Over breakfast, I poured over my guidebooks, maps and travel blogs one last time. I knew eventually I had to step outside the front door of the hotel.

Was this first day everything I had imagined. Yes and no. I leaped off a moving river taxi onto a rickety pier, I got lost in old Bangkok trying to find a noodle stand I had read about (never did find it and ended up eating a granola bar for lunch), was befriended by a monk and got an impromptu guided tour of the Buddhist university, saw the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha, forgot to drink enough water (its 95 degrees) and had to give myself a timeout in the only shade I could find under a scraggly tree on a street corner, wandered the amulet market, and took myself out to dinner.

I’m hoping as the days go by, I will find the answers to my questions, but in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the adventure of getting up each day in unfamiliar territory.

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