On an evening in early December, Liz and I had been celebrating the Shan New Year with our “Team Chiang Mai” friends at the Thai Freedom House. Arriving separately, I biked back to our guesthouse, and Liz’s walk home took her past a man and his dog grabbing some dinner at a streetside noodle stall. Liz was friends with Lucy by the time she found out that her owner was an adventure sport and tour leading expert. After a quick flurry of late night emails, it was settled — I’d be picked up early in the morning to join Crank Adventures for a 2-day mountain biking tour.
Blearily waking up at 7:40a, I took a quick shower and grabbed breakfast to go from the nearest 7-11. I ate my pork bao, yogurt, and pandan cake as the van carried us north into hills, an hour past Mae Rim. I spent the time getting to know the owner. Damian is a jovial and knowledgeable Australian, fluent in Thai and familiar with just about every trail in Northern Thailand. Finally we were deposited on a hilltop where we unloaded the bikes, donned our gear, took the requisite ‘before’ photos, and charged down the mostly paved hill.
The valley scenery was stunning. We rode past rice paddies and hill tribe villages, and up and down a number of small hills, of which I walked up many of the climbs, out of breath but determined. On or off-road, bicycling is one of the best ways to see a country. Senses of sight and smell are heightened, and you attain an intimate connection with your environment. A rutted dirt track took us through a field, thick smoke rising from slash-and-burn farming. We crossed the Mae Taeng at the river village of Ban Sop Kai, where we stopped for lunch at a noodle shop and were accosted by Hmong women selling cheap bracelets, smiling with betel-blackened teeth.
Back on our bikes, we headed downstream, taking our leave from the road to explore the hills. This was my first time, so I was unaware that the holy grails of mountain biking are “single track” trails, and Damian’s passion is seeking them out. Whereas such trails at home might be created ad-hoc by bikers, these paths were clearly used for inter-village travel – for some villages, a small trail might be the only way in or out. Many of the villages are sustained by the King’s Royal Project to turn opium fields into rice, teak, lychee, longan, corn, banana, cabbage, and passionfruit. Lulled into the peaceful scenery, I was unprepared for the grueling mid-afternoon climb, wherein I pushed the bike and my backpack up a rock-strewn rutted mountain trail.
Bikes and bikers strewn across the forested hilltop, we enjoyed a short rest. Then, as if we were getting off a ski lift, it was time to launch ourselves nearly straight down the mountain. Exhilarating doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of barreling downhill, on track that was maybe 9 inches wide, with a precipitous dropoff to the side. I quickly learned new skills of gauging paths, speed, and break control. Sliding on dirt and rubble is not only unavoidable, it’s part of the skillset.
We finally arrived at a village along the Mae Taeng, used by several tour groups as an overnight stop. A bouncy bamboo bridge spanned the river next to a much bigger, yet broken, concrete one. The first thing I did was strip down to my underwear and jump in the river, letting the fast-flowing cool water carry the day’s sweat away. After rinsing my clothes just as the locals do, I wandered up the hill to relax on the deck with a beer before dinner – green curry with chicken and pumpkin. A long day behind us, and another ahead of us, it was early to bed. We slept dorm-style, in a big multi-room building, and I was unlucky enough to be between snorers, earplugs useless against the reverberating of floorboards throughout the night.
In the morning, after a breakfast of leftovers, we loaded bikes onto the roof of a truck, and took an e-ticket ride up the mountain, bouncing around the back of the truck. After what felt like forever, we reached the top, where we once again unloaded the bikes, and took off down a twisty mountain road. We went through a gate into a nature park of completely overgrown forest, often with no visible trail. We crossed little streams on foot, or over “bridges” of lumber.
We rejoined civilization next to the rapids of the Mae Taeng, riding past white water rafting outfits and negotiating around elephants. I waved to a man making a thatched roof, and passed by a woman doing laundry. The dirt road led to the place we’d had lunch the day before, and the same Hmong women were peddling trinkets. Across the river again and down the other side, up a long hill, then we shot off towards Lisu Lodge, biking down same road I last went down on ox-cart seven months earlier.
Looking back, it was a blur of concentration – extremely technical riding, but thru scenic valley vistas and rice fields, forests, and past villages where kids waved and laughed as we passed by. A decade of serious road cycling was barely adequate training for the sorts of skills that one must quickly learn in mountain biking. Our adventure ended at Wat Tung Luang. We stopped in Mae Rim for lunch, and I savored my last khao soi. Finally back home, I enjoyed a 2 hour massage for 240 Baht ($8).
I still haven’t met Lucy, but I look forward to thanking her when we return to Chiang Mai.
Mid-afternoon on November 13th, we arrived in Chiang Mai intending to stay for just a week, ostensibly so that Liz could take a massage class and we could be in town for the Loi Krathong festival. In fact, we had already purchased train tickets to Bangkok for the 22nd and plane tickets to Hanoi for the 23rd with plans to explore Vietnam. Five weeks later, we are still here, having received a 50% refund for the train tickets, and our airline seats left without us.
Needing a break from harrowing adventures and moving around every few days, we quickly found ourselves at home in Chiang Mai. It’s a very easy city, offering great food and lodging at all price points. There is a plethora of activities to choose from, such as massage and cooking classes, yoga, elephant riding and training, interacting with tigers, and both on- and off-road cycling. Street food costs less than $3 for two people, and an hour-long Thai massage can be had for only $4. The city is relatively small and easily navigable, and transport across town costs between $1 and $5. Its central location makes a great home base for exploring all of mainland Southeast Asia. Despite a large population of both transient and long-term foreigners, it retains its character, a modern Thai city with deep Lanna roots. It’s no surprise why it has moved up to the #2 spot in Travel & Leisure’s “Top 10 Cities” list (behind Bangkok).
We have met some exceptional people during our stay here. We’ve met ITM students from South Africa, Russia, Bulgaria, Italy, and Japan. Our home-away-from-home, WaLai House, has its own community, expanding outwards from the two proprietresses. We had a Thanksgiving party, and several nighttime outings spent dancing the night away to reggae and hip-hop. We’ve been blessed to become a part of Team Chiang Mai, a group of folks living in or just passing through the area. I’ve met two more Vagabonding Case Studies in person; Bessie & Kyle, and Inderjeet. We had dinner with the extraordinary archivist, Victoria Vorreiter, whom I had the pleasure of meeting earlier this summer.
Not surprisingly, food has been a highlight of our stay here. Noodle dishes such as Pad Thai are light years beyond what we’ve had in the U.S., and a new favorite is Pad Si Ew. Chiang Mai has its signature soup, Khao Soi. Of course there is also fried chicken, fried spring rolls, and pork balls. Fruit shakes (cantaloupe or honeydew and coconut being the best) and fresh guava, jackfruit, and mangosteen. And I could not forget my rotee addiction.
As you can see, there’s a lot to love about Chiang Mai. We already look forward to returning.
In half an hour, our first RTW will come to an end. A taxi will arrive to take us to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. Then we have a flight to New York, via Korea. Flying east across the dateline, we gain back the day we lost three months ago, and we arrive at JFK twenty minutes before we leave Seoul tomorrow morning. Tonight will be a very. long. night.
Failing to arrange a 60-day Thai visa in either Malaysia or Laos, opting to save money by taking buses from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai instead of flying (which would have provided us with extendable 30-day visas), and intending to stay in Thailand for several weeks meant that our visas would run out before we planned to leave the country.
With one day left on our visas, this meant that we needed to make what is affectionately called a “visa run“, or risk overstaying our visa and paying fines of $34/day. A straightforward process, it simply means traveling to a nearby country for a very short time in order to officially leave and then re-enter the desired country, resetting the visa clock. We traveled almost 15 hours in order to spend less than 15 minutes in Burma.
Rather than take the bus, we joined a tour by minivan that just happened to include a stop at Mae Sai, the Thai town across the river from Tachileik, Burma. Theoretically, for minimal additional expense, we would be picked up, travel in a more comfortable ride, with A/C, lunch, and a few tourist sights along the way. What we also found was confirmation that we really aren’t the packaged tour types of travelers, to no surprise.
Our first stop was the underwhelming Mae Kha Chan, a hot spring in the middle of a truck stop, surrounded by shops. Whether the geyser – constantly erupting – was natural or not is unclear, but the attraction are a couple of small pools where you can hard boil eggs. Buses and minivans arrived by the score, unloading tourists, which would set the theme for the day.
An hour later, we rolled into Wat Rong Khun, one of the most beautiful and creepy temples I’ve ever seen. Construction began in 1997, and while the structures are finished, the intricately hand-carved detailwork is ongoing. The entrance to the temple complex is guarded by red demons denouncing the earthly vices of smoking and drinking. The outside of the main assembly hall is blindingly white and covered in mirrors which are all cut and placed individually by hand in the nearby workshop, and the inside walls are covered in paintings. One enters the back wall through the mouth of a demon with flaming red eyes, the image of George Bush in the right, and Osama bin Laden in the left. The demon is surrounded by a crazy mix of modernity like spaceships, digital watches, and false idols such as Spiderman, Batman, Superman, and Keanu Reaves. The side walls have people fleeing on clouds towards the front wall of Buddha and enlightenment.
Our next attraction was Sop Ruak, where “the thousands of square miles of the opium growing region [the Golden Triangle] has been distilled down to a single point.” Once again, this was simply another stop on the tour and mini bus circuit, offering some semblance of interest wrapped in a neat little package. The highlights are getting one’s picture taken in front of a sign, and taking a longtail boat to the Laotian island of Don Sao, which doesn’t require a visa and offers duty free shopping.
Lunch was at a roadside buffet offering “international cuisine” such as chicken ala king, sweet & sour fish, pork & “sauerkraut”, and Burmese chicken & rice. We talked with our vanmates, including two Americans from Las Vegas who say they never eat street food.
Finally, we reached Mae Sai, yet another tourist shopping mecca. However, our goal was to cross over into Burma. Our tour guide escorted us through immigration control, as we were stamped out of thailand, walked across the bridge, and then stamped into Burma. Our passports held at the border, we spent 10 minutes walking down through the Burmese market, being offered cases of cigarettes, Saddam Hussein playing cards, knockoff phones, and copied DVDs. We turned around, retrieved our passports, walked back across the bridge, and got another 15-days in Thailand.
Our return trip to Chiang Mai had just one stop, an “Akha hill tribe village“. Once again, a parade of minivans pulled in to give tourists the chance to .. yes, you guessed it, shop. A half dozen stalls with women in traditional dress selling hats, bags, and jewelry. Sure, these were Akha women, living in a village, and they were selling handmade gifts. However, the village itself was across a small footbridge, blocked to outsiders. One can’t blame them for not wanting random farang walking through their homestead, but I’d hardly call the experience worthwhile.
We arrived back at our guest house three harrowing hours later, as the driver went very fast over twisty roads, in our minivan with crap suspension. We got what we had wanted out of the trip – our visas extended for another 15 days – as well as a glimpse into the life of a package tourist. This was both confusing and enlightening, wondering what our vanmates got out of the experience, and what kind of a cultural introduction such a tour really offers. It served as confirmation that we prefer to explore the world on our own. We might miss some sights – we would never have seen the creepy temple otherwise – but what we do see, and who we meet along the way, feels much more organic and natural.
What are your experiences of guided tours? Do you find them worthwhile? Disappointing? Enriching? Did you find a hidden gem, or just pitstops on the tourist circuit?
Imagine yourself sitting in a field in northern Thailand, your eyes closed, mesmerized by the chanting of Buddhist monks, followed by the calm contemplation of a guided meditation, effective even in a language you do not understand. You open your eyes to find you are surrounded by other celebrants as three thousand waist-high torches are lit. You unfurl a bell-shaped paper lantern, about 3 feet wide by 5 feet high, and hold it above the torch nearest you to light a waxed ring of wick. The lantern fills with hot air, expanding as it fills with dark grey smoke, becoming lighter in your hands. A gong sounds, everyone lets go, and thousands of lanterns rise into the night sky at once.
This is what you would have experienced if you were at the Tu Dong Ka Sathaan Lanna Buddhist meditation center this past Saturday night. About 15km north of Chiang Mai, next to Mae Jo University, this is the most spiritual and awe-inspiring event of the yearly Loi Krathong festival that is typically observed around the full moon in November. When we first started planning our Southeast Asian Adventure, this was one of only two “must-dos” on my list. Culminating in this past full moon weekend, lanterns in the sky and the sounds of fireworks have been a nightly presence since we arrived a week ago. The gates and the moat around the Old City have had displays of hanging lanterns, dragons, and elephants all month. The Thais take their 700 year old festival seriously. Seriously crazy perhaps, but serious nonetheless.
Somewhat confusingly, there are actually two festivals that just happen to be celebrated at the same time. “Yi Peng” is a Lanna festival that is held on the 2nd month of the Lanna calendar (and in fact translates as such), and the khom loi, (“floating lanterns”) are technically part of that tradition. Floating on water rather than in the air, a “krathong“ is made from a section of banana tree trunk, or bread, and is decorated with elaborately-folded banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks, which is then set adrift in a river or pond. Legend has it that the festival was adapted by Buddhists in Thailand as a ceremony to honour the original Buddha with light during the growing darkness of winter. It is also said that Noppamas, a consort of the Sukothai king Loethai in the 14th century, was the first to decorate the floating raft.
We made ours on Sunday, the night of the full moon, when Chiang Mai was at the peak of its celebratory craziness. We parked our rented motorbike next to the Nakorn Bridge, on the Mae Ping river, conveniently in front of a sidewalk krathong-making workshop hosted by Lanna Commercial College. We then walked down some nearby steps to the riverbank where hundreds of people were spread out, launching krathongs, khom loi, and otherwise sitting and taking in the sights and sounds of the festival. We joined them, watching a steady stream of krathongs in the water, some very ornate, and others very simple – just a single flower and a candle in a curve of banana stalk. A man stood waist-deep in the river, shepherding the floats along, pushing them into the current if they got stuck at shore, or relighting extinguished candles. We launched a couple of sky lanterns into the night sky to join the migration overhead, and then we released our krathongs into the river with a thought and a prayer.
We moved on, walking down the closed street next to the Warowot Market, towards Tha Pae Road. When we reached the Nawarat Bridge, we found ourselves in the middle of the action as fireworks and khom loi leapt into the sky all around us, and the police were clearing the center of the streets for the oncoming parade. We watched the slow procession of floats and marchers for a time, and then grabbed some street food and settled down in a small park to eat and rest. I laid my head in Liz’ lap and watched the constant stream of golden lanterns arching into the night like spirits, revealing wind patterns as they rose, first moving south until reaching a higher altitude and switching directions to the north. The khom loi were ever-changing constellations, replacing the stars obscured by an overcast sky. Darkened lanterns tumbled downwards, their fuel spent, littering the city with the remnants of released wishes.
Ironically, the festival is believed to originate in an ancient practice of paying respect to the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha. Between dead lanterns, krathongs held together with nails, and the multitude of fireworks set off along the banks and bridges of the Mae Ping, one wonders what the goddess would think of these respects. One thing is for sure, a festival of this sort would never happen in the United States. Open flames in paper lanterns being released all over a city and fireworks being set off in and over large crowds would be a municipal fire department’s worst nightmare.
On Monday, the last night of the festival, we got a late start due to a miscommunication. After 11p, we caught a tuk-tuk down to the Tha Pae gate and walked towards the bridge, the streets already reopened to traffic. The party was clearly winding down, but people were still lighting lanterns and fireworks. One of the symbolic acts of floating away the lit candles of krathongs and khom loi is letting go of all one’s grudges, anger and baggage. I bought a sky lantern, and embracing that spirit, launched it with the following vow, “I hereby release all of the shit that isn’t mine anymore.” The other symbolic act is one of wishing for good luck and a positive future, for which Liz took care of with a second lantern.
With that sense of completion, we went home, looking forward to returning to Chiang Mai again during a future full moon in November.
If you’ve been following along my Facebook and Twitter updates, you’ll know that we are now in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We arrived on Saturday afternoon, having taken 20 hours of buses from Luang Prabang in Laos. Initially planning on a week, we’ll be here for at least two while Liz takes Thai Massage classes at ITM, just around the corner from our guesthouse, WaLai House.
Showing up last minute, the cheaper fan-only rooms are booked until tomorrow, so we’ve been in a slightly more luxurious AC-room. While we haven’t used the under-powered air conditioning much, another feature of the room is a TV and DVD player which we’ve taken advantage of a few times in order to relax and watch movies. The last movie we watched was Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp. Somehow avoiding this Sondheim musical until now, the story, while somewhat predictable, was new to both of us. Unsurprisingly, this Tim Burton version is particularly dark and gruesome.
Despite that fact (or perhaps in some twisted way because of it) I decided it might be an interesting experience to find a capable barber in order to get my own close shave. Part of yesterday’s afternoon involved not only a one hour back massage for 130 Baht ($4.33), but walking into half a dozen shops in the area asking if any of them did shaves. Obviously, this is a separate skillset than the cutting and trimming of the hair atop one’s head. I was finally pointed down a street to the one guy who does. Today I paid him a visit.
A small shop with sliding glass doors, the barber was resting on a couch, wearing a colorful Tibetan shirt. He was quick to stand up, and upon me making a shaving motion with a questioning look, he waved me to the chair. I sat down as he covered me in a sheet and adjusted the head rest. I watched as he opened a fresh blade, broke it in half, and slid it into his razor. Then he lowered the head rest. As I kept my eyes closed for most of the procedure, I have only sound and sensation to recount. At first, I felt the cool wipe of an alcohol-based cleaning of my face, followed by the tender application of the barest minimum of shaving cream, massaged into my beard. I opened my eyes to see the hinged razor moving towards me.
He started with my sideburns and cheeks, and the first thing I noticed was how rough it felt, and how scratchy it sounded, as if it were a completely dry shave. I breathed calmly. He worked efficiently, moving around my face, to my lips and chin. I felt a pulling sensation, and what seemed like the hard edge of the razor, but trusted in his experience. Then he brought the blade to my throat.
With the same efficiency of motion, he worked across my neck, pulling the skin slightly taut as needed. I remained as still and calm as possible, taking care not to swallow when he was working around my Adam’s apple. With short order, he finished the longer initial strokes and moved on to touch-up work, his tender fingers caressing my skin finding missed spots. He laid down his blade, and trimmed my nose hairs with a pair of fine scissors before laying a cool washcloth over my face. Preparing for the experience to be over, I was then surprised as he gave me a head and shoulder massage.
I opened my eyes and looked in the mirror, and a new me stared back. The man with the knife had been gentle and efficient, carving away my goatee and weeks of stubble, complete with a relaxing release of stress. All for less than $1.