Leaving Las Mainland

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Right around the time I wanted to get from Chiang Mai to the islands is pretty much when I realized I should never listen to anyone. Chiang Mai – while still an incredible experience – wasn’t this mecca of Thai culture like it was talked up to be, and worse, the regional flights from the area to the beaches were outrageously priced – where are all these “cheap” regional flights everyone is talking about? I wasn’t particularly in a rush to arrive anywhere, so a long journey I took via train… back to Bangkok. Oye.

I’m not good at math but I’m pretty sure no matter how I add it up, the length of the journey from Chiang Mai to Koh Tao is still a complete joke. I stayed in one country the whole time and it still took longer than my flight from New York to Singapore. Something like 40 hours? Seriously. Now I know why people will pay so much for the flight.

On the train span headed towards Bangkok I met an ageless woman named Renee. I say ageless because she was cool as hell, but actually probably in her early 50’s. Renee was a hippie older sister type, had a zillion stories to tell about Thailand in the 80’s, life raising kids in Africa, and pretty much anything you could imagine to make you feel like you hadn’t lived yet. Where she was leaving and where she was headed hardly mattered. We both were looking to kill a few hours in Bangkok (it was 8am my next train wasn’t until 6 at night) so she took me to the famous Sunday market, a market so big they hand out maps at every entrance. As the market became too hot to bear we bought some coconuts and a mat and sipped the water from under the palm trees by a pond in the park. The things that happen when you travel alone are weird. I don’t even know this woman, and we just created a postcard moment together. Why would anyone bother with that budget airplane after all?
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My second sleeper train arrived in Chumphon at 5am, followed by the most immaculate sunrise ferry ride to Koh Tao. At this point, who knows what day it is? Who cares how long it’s taken? Who cares that I paid like, 70 baht to shower in a train station bathroom yesterday? The other passengers and I sprawled out across the deck of the boat on our backs, heads on our luggage, closed our eyes, and soaked all of the rising sun in. Koh Tao, we’re finally almost here.

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“Lost” in Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai looked lovely from the minute I stepped foot there. I was thrilled to be in this mountainous country gem after Bangkok, but my pace didn’t seem to be on par with other backpackers this time.

Chiang Mai was lonely.
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Northern Thailand is an excellent place to do hired tours – trekking for days, all kinds of elephant nonsense, hill tribe experiences, you name it – all expensive things that I had no intention of doing. These hired tours are an issue when you aren’t going on them – every tour group is it’s own clique, and if you’re just biding time in the same hostel not doing one, you’re invisible. Aside from talking to my bunkmates and a friendly Brit I kept bumping into on the street, I met no one in Chiang Mai. Snore.
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I was especially determined to make the most of my time in the area despite my shoestring budget, but it wasn’t coming as easily as I’d hoped. Even to hire a short ride to some areas outside of the city limits had a high price tag which made me sad. I missed Cambodia and my cheapo tuk tuk drivers. I don’t even know where to begin here.

I won’t bother boring myself by telling anyone how far out of the way I walked trying to get to Doi Suthep (the nearby mountain with a buddhist temple and panoramic views of Chiang Mai) but it was awful. I wasted an entire morning, then eventually arrived there on the back of a songthaew for a bogus 500 baht. The hassle was worth it fortunately – even the ride up the mountain gave me chills. Perhaps here it was a better place to be alone.
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Later in the evening I walked to the Tham Boon Khan Dok festival at Wat Chedi Luang. If this was the only thing I got out of Chiang Mai, it was still worth it. The festival is uniquely Chiang Mai as it’s a blessing for the city pillar. As I approached the area, the hum of the monks praying was loud, there were stalls everywhere for locals to buy flowers as their offering. The entire experience was very surreal and I walked the whole area feeling completely unnoticed, like a fly on the wall peering into a day in the life of these Thai people. The 14th-century temple was the center of the festival and thr most impressive I’d seen, with its illuminated animal statues surrounding the complete perimeter.
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Chiang Mai seemed to have many hidden wonders but I wasn’t too sure where to find them. After two days I couldn’t put any more time into this city and I really wanted to get to the islands. Thailand has felt so touristy that I didn’t mind continuing the trend but instead on the relaxing tip. Time to even out this tourist tan with some real beach rays. 20130630-173817.jpg

Memoirs of a glutton

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The thing I’ll miss most is picking absolutely any restaurant I want and having a sit down meal alone for like, $5.

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What I won’t miss?

SE Asia food service.

Struggling to get a menu (hello?), hovering while looking at said menu (can we have a minute?), dishes coming out in all sorts of orders (go ahead and eat without me, guys), no free tap water (large Chang please!), Nescafé as coffee (here is some hot water and an instant coffee packet, enjoy!), completely inconsistent food from the same restaurant (fresh baguette today, white toast tomorrow) and finally, being unable to ask a server any question about a menu (“does the curry have a lot of potatoes in it?” “potatoes.”)

Oh, so many things.

The food makes up for it though. I really can’t complain.

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…but different

To Chiang Mai from Bangkok I took an overnight bus. It’s not the greatest option at a 9 hour ride, but also not the worst. The train system in Thailand is nice but it has a few downfalls: one being that tickets must be bought at the train station, another that tickets often should be bought far in advance. I couldn’t be bothered to navigate myself to the station in Bangkok and my hostel sold bus tickets at the front desk, so whatever they sold me is what I took.

A 9 hour ride sounds long but before I knew it there I was at half five in the morning, completely disoriented, in Chiang Mai and not totally convinced of it.

I noticed a lot of backpackers in SE Asia just rock up in a city with no arranged accommodation and find something when they arrive. That’s completely bold – the last thing I want to do in 90F 90% humidity is wander with a 40 pound sack on my back looking for a cheap room. I applaud those more adventurous than I. That method is not for me. It’s enough that I’m standing here in Chiang Mai with no clue where the bus has dropped me and all the other passengers scattered like ants. I asked a few local people if they could show me where we were on a map I had, but the English this morning was non-existant, so like a bumbling idiot I stood instead until a tuk tuk driver appeared to take me to my destination. For the entire trip I had been seeing tourist shirts with the text “same same” written on them, but it had been completely lost on me until this moment:

“How much for a ride to Deejai’s Hostel?”
“100 baht.”
“Can you do it for less?”
Same same. But lucky morning. 80 baht.”

I got “Same Same-d” at 5 in the fucking morning. I almost fell over before climbing in the back of his tuk tuk. It’s all same same, but different. Lucky morning indeed.

One [too many] night[s] in Bangkok

I really didn’t want to go to Bangkok at all. Big foreign cities annoy me unless I plan to immerse myself in them for a number of days to really figure things out, but Bangkok didn’t have enough to offer to make me want to do that. Nevertheless, it was my gateway to Thailand and the ghettobus there from Siem Reap was only $10, so to Bangkok I had to go.
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As with other places I’ve traveled to in SE Asia I had no idea where I was when I arrived off the bus, so haggling with a taxi driver to get me to my hostel was partially useless. I had a slight idea of prices to know that the 1,000 baht ($30) he asked for was outrageous, but I was pushing for 300 baht and couldn’t get him below 350. After the journey from Cambodia I had little patience for the chaos and couldn’t find another driver to even give me a price so I got stuck with the first guy, and in addition to feeling a little ripped off to the tune of only a few dollars, the driver didn’t even drop me off in front of my hostel and I couldn’t find it. I showed some Thais the address and eventually one was polite enough to walk me in the right direction – that’s all she could do since I can’t understand the language and the correct building was actually several blocks away. Not the best intro to Bangkok, guys.

I received the hostel recommendation from a girl who had been in my room in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and upon arriving there it was positively the cleanest place I’d ever stayed in. Although it really didn’t change my mind about Bangkok, I decided to add a second night there so I wasn’t racing to my next destination without ever unpacking, and I desperately wanted to use the opportunity to organize the next few days and get laundry done. Other than that, it was hot and incredibly humid. I did not want to be in Bangkok.

The first night I met two English girls on their way home after a year doing working holiday in Australia. They asked if I’d like to go to Khoasan Road (the Westernized backpacker district) with them, and since my plans looked more like going to sleep at 9 (god, I’m boring) I accepted – but sadly it’s really nothing worth seeing. Top 40 music blares in the streets, flimsy print t-shirts are for sale, and creepy old men advertise a “ping pong show” (that whole concept had to be explained to me later. Ew.)

The following day felt more promising: I met two lovely ladies named Robia and Rebecca who were from North America but studying abroad in Hong Kong. I asked them what there was to do in Bangkok anyway, “Shopping!” they replied, and shopping with them I went.
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Although we wandered through a few ritzy malls, they were looking for the bargains and we headed to a multilevel center called Platinum. The prices were clearance and clothes decent, but the stores don’t offer changing rooms so everything is a bit of guesswork and then praying it looks flattering when you arrive home. I already know I’m not the size of an Asian, but it was fun to look.

In the late afternoon during shopping I began to feel increasingly off. My muscles ached and my eyes felt like they were staring through things. I had absolutely no appetite and the curry I ate for a late lunch felt like dead weight in my stomach. I did get some mosquito bites a few days ago, Oh my lanta, do I have dengue? Convinced I was dying in the truest form, I ran home from the malls alone in all the rush hour congestion and holed up in my bed for the night, feeling horribly feverish and bracing myself for the onset of something bad that was about to come. I looked up hospital addresses in case anything really started to go wrong. I hate you, Bangkok. I don’t even want to be here.
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I tossed and turned most of the night, but in the morning nothing had progressed into anything worse, so I dragged myself out of bed to get out and see some things with Robia and Rebecca. The ferry ride we took made me super queasy, but at least I made it out of bed, at least I don’t have dengue fever after all. Later that night I caught the bus to Chiang Mai, laundry clean and completely relieved… Finally out of Bangkok. boatbangkok

A wrap on Cambodia

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My last day in Siem Reap I spent being sufficiently lazy – a good thing since reception messed up my reservation and I spent several hours fighting with them about it in the middle of the day. All I really wanted was to walk to the night market and have Cambodian curry, which I eventually did and it was by far the best meal of the whole trip. By the time I returned back to the hostel it was witching hour at the sandy upstairs bar, so despite my plan to have one beer I got dragged out to Pub Street with these young guys anyway – Phil I had already met in Phnom Penh, along with two Danish travelers and a muscly English guy.

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Here’s a clip of a pack of Cambodian kids attacking the guys on a walk to Pub Street. Kids can’t take us down, just take our wallets.

 

Trip midpoint: glass half empty or half full?

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I’ve been away for over 2 weeks now. I feel like I’ve not wanted to write because I’ve spent so much time trying to figure out where to go after Thailand. Wait and figure out later? Perhaps an option if I had more than a 15 day visa and trains and planes weren’t all booked. I guess if I have to crawl to Malaysia I will.
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After Chiang Mai I was excited to get to the islands – Thailand has been a challenge for me. Obviously not everyone speaks English, but this is the first time I really had to interact with so many people I couldn’t understand. Most of the problems are trivial and I’m fine, but it’s incredibly frustrating trying to get somewhere and spending hours to do it unsuccessfully. In Cambodia I felt that although people were pushy, they were honest. The tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap wasn’t trying to rip me off – he was forcefully trying to find work. In Thailand, prices are jacked up because you’re foreign and sometimes it feels like no amount of bartering is going to get you the price that is fair. I try to make up for it in other ways – huge rice meals at the guesthouse for 40 baht (about $1.30), large bottles of water at 7-11 for 13 baht (45¢) and walking absolutely anywhere possible. I haven’t so much as had a beer in days as I felt like shit in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai I felt like I’d be chasing after some sort of uncertain amount of fun that may or may not actually occur. Hopefully I’ll feel more alive on the islands – for most of these two weeks, I’ve had absolutely no guilt about going to bed before 11.

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