One thing that hit me about traveling around Thailand was how developed it was. This was the first but not the last fact that challenged my expectations of South-East Asia. Thailand is also set up for tourists, and it was mind numbingly easy to get transport to anyplace in the country. I was expecting to take local torn up, smelly packed buses, that took 20 hours to get anywhere, like in Uganda. When Scott told me the bus ride to Chiang Mai took 12 hours my heart sank, as I had flashbacks to 16 hours of bumpy hot, smelly rides with my feet on a sack of potatoes in Africa. But I knew we had to get there, so I sucked it up, and tried to mentally prepare myself.
The reality of the situation could not have been further from my fears. We walked up to a travel agent shop, walked in, payed about $10 for the bus, got a ticket, and waited for a few hours for the bus in a nice air conditioned cafe. We were talking the night bus, leaving around 6 p.m., and due to arrive at 6 a.m. Its a great set up, travel all night so you don’t waste a day, and get a nights accommodation. Still I knew how bad the bus could be, and wasn’t stoked to be crammed in a metal, bouncy box for that long.
When the bus showed up I was floored. It was a double-decker, modern road machine. The AC was cranking, the seats where comfy and reclined to almost lay down position. We had plenty of leg room, and there where no chickens, or produce or really anything smelly laying around. The bus was filled with just tourists, so I cannot say it was an authentic Thai experience, but at this point, when it comes to travel, comfort is king. We watched a movie on my lap top, popped an Ambien, and lights out.
I awoke to a dusty, dry, hot bus station at 6:30 am, someplace in the heart of northern Thailand. We stumbled off the bus, collected our bags from the hold, and where herded onto a jumbo (like a tuk tuk, but larger). We where taken to a guest house, where a little speech was given about Chiang Mai, and then tried to be sold a room. I’m still not sure what this was all about.
Scott had been recommended a good hostel here called Julie House, and we decided to go check it out before we made any decisions.
Julie House turned out to be a really good place, with a great social atmosphere, and we made this place our base while in the city.
Chiang Mai is an interesting place. The city is laid out as a big square and has an ancient moat built around it. In modern times the city has spilled out far past the old moat, but it still plays a large roll in the city’s decor and marks the inner core. In April it is hot here….I mean HOT! The few days we where in the city the temperature was topping out around 42 Celsius (107 F). It was painful, and the city only amplified the heat with dust and smog.
We met a Canadian guy at the hostel, and we all decided to rent motorbikes (scooters) for the day, and tear out to a lake we had heard about. With the heat, nothing sounded better than a cool dip in water. The bikes cost us $1.50 for 24 hours, and I quickly tried to get used to riding one up and down the alley way that Julie House was on. Once feeling semi stable, we head out into the city.
Watching the traffic in Thailand, and for that matter anywhere in Asia is a humbling experience. It looks to be complete chaos. No “rules of the road” seem to be observed. Traffic merges and turns off in a slow sporadic ant like procession. However, once you are in it, you can see that the chaos is not random, and that, as it has been described to me, traffic flows like a river. Everyone is looking out, and aware of what is around them. Every movement is slow and deliberate, and it is actually quite comfortable to drive in with a little practice.
We headed out of the city and drove for about 5 minutes to a turn off. Once around we swung onto another road and headed towards the single mountain to the east of the city. the road snaked around and emptied to a ring around a lovely lake surrounded by open walled bungalows and strung up plastic water bottle marked swimming areas.
There was a small park with a Buddhist monument, and past that, what looked like a music festival set up. We continued around the loop of the lake, and saw parched, dusty rice patty fields and what we think where irrigation towers.
After completing the ring around the lake, we picked a restaurant that had one of the open air bungalows on the lake, and sat down for a late lunch. I ate the spiciest dish I have ever had, in the form of a papaya salad, and a few cold Changs. We all went for a swim and watched the sun set.
We could see the music festival get going and decided to head over to check it out. Later in the evening the festival packed out, and I had some conflicting thoughts of what it was, what Thailand was, and how whacked out it seemed that many travelers come here and are catered to. The thought ran across my mind, “why would one come all this was just to be around other travelers and listen to and experience what the Thai’s thought a westerner would want?”
In the upcoming weeks these thoughts would be challenged, and in some ways supported. It is an interesting phenomena, but one that I am slowly coming to understand for what it is.
The next day, since we still had half a day left on the motorbike rentals, we drove up to a mountain top temple overlooking the city. The road was windy and pitched and curved up to a very touristy little spot at the base of the staircase to the temple. We headed up and, this being the first temple I visited a bit of a surprise. the sculpting and architecture is incredible. The statues and creatures all depicting Buddhist mythology where surreal and the entire temple grounds where packed with great little things to be discovered.
Unfortunately it has not rained for months in this area, and with farmers burning the ground brush and old crops away the air was think with smoke and the visibility was limited to only a few hundred feet, so no amazing views of the city.
Next stop Scotty and I traveled by clutched motorcycle about 3 hours over a mountain pass to the small village of Pai, very north in the highlands of Thailand. This is my first experience on a motorcycle with a clutch, so it was interesting to say the least. Stay tuned!