Hippyland, Thailand

If you’re wondering where all the hippies went after Jerry Garcia died, I found them here in Pai, Thailand.

Well, that’s a little unfair. Marjan (the Dutch woman I met in Chiang Mai) and I did, after all, *just* get here after a hot, cramped, torturous, and lovely 4-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai. So before I blurt out any more ill-informed opinions about Pai, why don’t I recount what I’ve been up to.

When I last left you, I was in Chiang Mai at the beginning of 3 straight days of being soaking wet whilst celebrating Songkran, which is the Thai new year. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s “other” city – they say that while it has a slightly more northern Thai feel (in terms of architecture, food, and ethnic groups), its smaller population and more laid-back attitude allows visitors to experience to real Thailand without the struggle that characterizes doing so in Bangkok. All that said, I still don’t really know what Chiang Mai is like, because the city was shut down and turned into Water World for Songkran.

My first night in CM (Saturday) I had stayed at The Royal Guest House, which is outside the old city. Sure, it had a small pool and internet on the premises. And for a mere 300 baht (around $9.75) I was given the privilege of walking up 5 flights of stairs to a run-down room with no air-con, no hot water, no towel and no toilet paper. Gah.

In the morning (Sunday) I tried to avoid the water wars by visiting various Wats (Buddhist temples) around town. Wat Phra Singh, the main temple in the old city, was surrounded by people selling food and drink to worshipers (or followers?) who spent the day picnicking, listening to talks by monks, and watching what appeared to be hilarious, aggressively amplified amateur theater played on a makeshift stage. I escaped the shrill actors’ voices by returning to the streets, where I was greeted with buckets of Songkran cheer. I wove down side streets back to my guest house to drop off my bag (so my stuff wouldn’t get soaked) and joined in the fun.

That night I switched guest houses to Eagle House 2, where for 200 baht ($6.50) I got similar conditions but without the 5 flights or the attitude. I chose it because it’s friendly, centrally located in the old city, and it has a good reputation for organized treks to visit hill tribes in the surrounding area. I neglected to realize that in this case “centrally located” meant “sounds like the crappy cover band at the bar next door is actually playing in your bathroom.” So I was serenaded by some Thai dude’s renditions of hits by The Grateful Dead, Oasis, Nirvana, The Allman Brothers, etc. until around 1:30 am. At least the music distracted me from the sagging bed frame.

So while I haven’t been tremendously successful in getting sleep, I have been having fun. On Monday I joined a 2-day, 1-night trek organized through Eagle House to visit some villages of the Karen tribe. There were 11 of us: our guide, named Doh (heh heh); Boom (really!), the schlepper/sherpa-like guy who carried our food; Allison, a Canadian living in Bangkok and teaching Thai children at an international school; Roberta and Greg, Allison’s parents visiting from Montreal; Sam and Lisa, a lovely couple from York, England, who were on month 10 of their year-long trip around the world (again, I feel like a travel-schmuck); Cami (from Texas) and Sara (from Ohio), friends who had just finished their TOEFL teaching certification in Phuket; and then Matt, an Aussie with a British passport (or Brit with an Aussie accent?) who was in the midst of an existential crisis. He regaled us (so to speak) with conspiracy-like theories about pharma companies and the Aussie government, his hatred of capitalism and greed, the true secrets of life (there are many) and many, many, many other things.

There’s a ton to write about the trek, but right now I’m starving so I’m off to grab a bite. Also, this internet cafe lets you upload photos, so I’m hoping to add a few thousand words’ worth later today.

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Waterworld

Greetings from Chiang Mai, where I spent the last 10 hours soaking, dripping wet.

When they said that people were crazy about Songkran here, they weren’t kidding. I arrived on the overnight train from Bangkok at around 8 am. I checked into a guest house and went for a wander. People were out in droves, setting up booths along one of the two main streets here – parallel to the eastern rim of the moat that surrounds the old town here. Everywhere you went, there were enormous water machine guns…or simple plastic buckets on sale. At around 10:30, it started – people lined up all along the moat, filling their soaking machines of choice with filthy water from the moat and spraying/pouring/throwing it at each other and anyone who passed by. By mid-afternoon the festival had reached a fever pitch. Cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, bicycles, and anything else on wheels cruised the roads along the moat, with everyone but the driver armed with some water-spewing device. They and the people who lined the streets proceeded to soak each other, nonstop, for the next 10 hours. I’ve never seen anything like it. Businesses shut down so that everyone could partake in the Great Soak. If you wandered away from the main festivities, the streets were practically deserted. Every single person in town was at Songkran.

I managed to take a few photos, though approaching the street with anything as fragile as a camera was at your own risk – I barely saved my camera from a giant bucket of water (I turned and took it on my back instead).

Despite the madness of the day (or because of it?) I met a Dutch woman who’s traveling through SE Asia for a *year*. Makes me feel like a chump. Anyway, I’m off to meet her for some delicious spicy Thai dinner. More l8r.

Bangkok is hot, loud and dirty

I arrived at the Suk 11 (heh heh) hostel in Bangkok at 2:30 am…early Thursday, I guess it was. It’s a quiet, teak, traditional-looking place tucked away down an alley next to a 7-11. The sleepy security guard had me register, wordlessly handed me a bottle of water, and pointed up a steep staircase. In the delirious state I was in after 24 hours of nonstop travel, I’m shocked I managed to find my room.

Sleeping in a real bed was pure luxury, but I had to get up fairly early to go get my visa to Myanmar. Despite what I thought were careful preparations, the process of applying took a lot longer than I thought – evidently the forms had changed somewhat, so I had to fill them all out again. Interestingly, the new forms required far less than the old ones – the old forms included a CV-like work history (to weed out the journalists, I suppose) and full travel details. I was extremely surprised at how polite, friendly, and helpful the officials were. They happily photocopied my passport for free (I was supposed to have brought a copy) and even provided paste to glue my passport photos onto the new forms. The whole experience, which took place in the usual bland, dreary bureaucratic setting, was a great contrast to my experiences in, say, Eastern Europe, where officials seemed to take malicious glee in torturing the form-filling challenged. But I’ll hold off on final impressions until I actually have my passport back with a visa attached. 3 pm today.

After applying for my visa, I went to the Hua Lamphong train station to buy a ticket on an overnight sleeper to Chiang Mai for tonight (Friday). Mid-April in Chiang Mai is a “dangerous” time – not only does the forecast say 105 degrees, but April 12 is the beginning of Songkran (Thai new year) festival, celebrated most vigorously in Chiang Mai and the highlight of which is The Pouring of Water Festival. Evidently, for the four days of Songkran youths patrol the streets with water guns (or just big vats of water) and soak anyone in their path. I guess if I go out I’ll have to leave my camera behind, or at least store everything in plastic bags.

After getting my train ticket I decided to wander around in nearby Chinatown, which is much like Chinatowns anyplace else: businesses selling cheap knock-offs and strange dried and fresh food spilling out onto narrow streets, forcing pedestrians off the sidewalks to dodge motorbikes, etc.

I normally have a great sense of direction, but it simply is out of order here in Bangkok. I can’t tell you how many times I had to stop, whip out a map or my guidebook, squint at the road signs, and try to figure out where I was and which direction I was going in. And every time I stopped, a tuk-tuk driver would come up to me to offer his services….usually leading to a conversation about wherever he could get a commission. One guy even tried to tell me that Chinatown was “all closed because holiday” so that he could take me to a shopping strip he knew.

After wandering about in Chinatown for a few hours I was very overheated – I’ve never needed a/c so bad. So I found my way back to the train station and hopped on the fairly new metro, which links to the awesome Skytrain – all with a/c, and all of which avoid the nightmare of Bangkok traffic – back to the Suk 11 for a cool shower and a nap. (I’m not quite over the jet lag.)

All told, I’m excited to get the hell out of Bangkok. Maybe under different circumstances I’d enjoy it more, but right now I want some peace!