It has been a frustratingly busy several weeks. Among midterms, quizzes, and daily assignments, grading has been successfully punching me in the stomach. But, some of the work came from freelance copyediting for my uncle, which led to a pretty nice payday. Shwing.
Several weeks ago, on Thursday, 28 July, I got back from a fiveish-day trip to northern Thailand, namely Chiang Mai and Pai. If you watched the most recent season of The Bachelorette, they shot in Chiang Mai—or so I’m told. It’s where they, reportedly, filmed the human meat—er, contestants—riding elephants.
Leading up to my trip to Chiang Mai, I was super excited. I remember sitting on the beach in Koh Chang and buzzing about the upcoming trip north—even bragging to my friend about it. In fact, I think I bounced a little from anticipation at one point. Everything I heard about the city made me thing it was exactly what I was wanted out of a location: good, eclectic food; tons of music options; English-capable but not English-centric; and a slow, easygoing feel. Moreover, the city is situated near beautiful mountains and has a mix of old and new, as it was a central thoroughfare and trading post centuries ago. Inside the larger, new city is the remnants of the old city, complete with defensive walls. I even researched jobs at Chiang Mai University, which has an English program (presumably literature, my love, and not as a second language, my vehicle).
By the time I was on the van to Pai, I was pretty disappointed by Chiang Mai. I think it was more our fault than the city’s—my group and I tried to jam ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag while there—coupled with a collection of frustrating misfortunes. Nevertheless, I figure a warning is in order in case my ensuing tone isn’t ultra excited.
Pai, on the other hand, is in my top five favorite places on earth. But we need to get there first, don’t we?.
Get on. Read. iPod. Sleep. Get off.
The group—four people, including me—took an overnight bus on Saturday, 23 July, that left around 11:30 p.m. from Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus terminal and cost 615 baht. I read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin—a fucking excellent book that I recommend to everyone, ever—and vamped a forthcoming playlist, Because of Thailand, to perfection. Around 9 a.m., I woke up in Chiang Mai. Score one for my sleeping abilities.
Around 9:10 a.m., the frustrations began. I didn’t have enough money to cover breakfast, so I walked to an ATM associated with my bank. It was having “troubles communicating with bank. Try again later.” I walked to two more ATMS, one of which was another belonging to my bank. Both were having “troubles communicating with bank. Try again later.”
There must have been some problem all-around, since my friends and other people on whom I spied were having the same issue. The ATMs weren’t back online until sometime around noon. Thankfully.
But, also, bullshit.
We found a recommended guesthouse, Malak House, which was a ten-minute walk from of Thapet Gate at the eastern end of the old city. Split with a friend, we paid 200 baht a night for perfectly bare-bones accommodations: cold shower, squatter toilet, and a near mattress-less bed. Honestly, I’m not complaining. As far as simplicity goes, the Malak House was a great place to stay. The owners spoke fairly good English and were incredibly helpful without being obnoxious. More importantly, its location was great: cafes, restaurants, food carts, sites, and everything else were within a short walk of Malak House.
Settled-in and understandably exhausted, the lot of us still wanted to absorb Chiang Mai. We knew we wouldn’t be in the city for long, so we had little choice but to drain it dry if we didn’t want to return disappointed (wakka wakka wakka, indeed). We did an aimless walking tour of a few wats and their contents.
At one—I believe it was Wat Bupparam—was a woman selling birds-to-be-released for forty baht. As a hangover from my (missed) vegetarian days, I hated seeing these birds in cages. Also, could you say no to her smile? Of course I bought a cage and released the three birds therein. Later, a friend told me that these birds are trained to return to a trainer so that they may be caged and sold again. Paint me duped.
And we walked some more.
By this day, 24 July, 2011, I had been in Thailand for more than two months without a Thai massage. Aside from the eight-week long class I took in undergrad and any friendly gestures from friends, I had also been without a massage for my 24 years on this planet.
Things needed to change.
Near Malak House was the Muan Parlor, a massage parlor with really cheap rates and a really talented masseuse. I’m pretty sure they gave me the biggest girl in the place to contort and kick my ass, all of which were entirely necessary and welcomed. I opted for the one-hour massage for 170 baht, knowing I’m hard-pressed to focus on anything for more than thirty minutes. After dim lights, a pair of over-sized pajamas, and a big-boned woman trying to rip my legs out, I left the Muan Parlor feeling like a brand new, if not slightly bent, human being. While I don’t think they’re not the mythic gift from the gods some people tout them to be, Thai massages are a great break from the tourist-stroll.
Next on the agenda was the Sunday market. Lonely Planet makes a big deal of the weekend night markets in Chiang Mai. Taking their often not-totally-misleading advice, we grabbed some roadies at the 7-11 and walked to the Sunday night market, conveniently located just inside Thapet Gate.
In short, swing-and-a-miss, Lonely Planet. The market was chock-full of the same, ultra touristy, tchotchke nonsense and totally bereft of redemptive street food. I had no intentions of actually buying anything; I merely wanted to walk amid a sea of human beings who were bartering, buying, selling, and capitalisming. The Sunday night market ended up being a bunch of farangs paying whatever was pitched to them. The place had no character, despite the roadies’ best efforts.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not even sure Thailand has an expression to cover ‘open container laws’, so drinks are drank.
We came back to the Malak House sometime around 11 p.m. and, as for myself, somewhat deflated. After a final nightcap on the guesthouse’s rooftop bar, we went to bed. After all, we were getting picked up for an all-day trek at 8 a.m.
The all-day trek that would firmly plant its foot on our throats, press, and twist—somewhat to my pleasure.
Monday was our friend’s birthday. The day prior, we scheduled a hike through some of Chiang Mai’s jungle-y mountains. The birthday girl is admittedly not-outdoorsy and had never been on a hike. By 9 a.m., we were off on our trek, led by our 19-year-old, nimble, and somewhat crazed tour guide, Tom.
It’d be ridiculous to describe the whole hike to you in minute detail. Basically, we were mobile from 9 a.m. until 4:30 or 5 p.m., two hours of which were spent hanging out in and around a tiny waterfall. In fact, it’s probably more appropriate to call the site an elevated waterroll. The walk itself was grueling: a full day spent negotiating often-narrow footpaths wide enough to fit one and half humans across it—sometimes less—hoping you didn’t slip and eat shit down the side of a rocky mountain overlaid with jungle.
Actually, aforementioned shit eating almost happened about an hour into the hike. We were making our ways up and down a slippery fucking mud pit of slippery mud while holding onto a janky bamboo-handrail—a certifiable miracle in the middle of this jungle—when my friend lost her footing and almost fell down the side of the mountain, breaking every bone in her body and probably dying a couple times as well. If it weren’t for my ninja reflexes and paternal awareness of others’ safety, I’d have one fewer friend and one more memorial group on Facebook.
Unfortunately, my camera stayed necessarily buried during the entire walk because one hand on a camera was one fewer hand available to balance and save friends’ lives.
After three hours, we stopped at the waterroll: a chilly and welcomed respite from the trek. While we swam and shot the breeze, Tom foraged and cooked. We ended up eating instant noodles and cabbage out of bamboo cups with bamboo chopsticks: wild style. I think I ate two or three helpings simply because I could.
Tom’s foraging abilities didn’t end with noodles. Four times on the trip, he surprised us with fruit, both picked and found/maybe stolen. The fruit sucked most of the time—Tom had a difficult time distinguishing between ‘sweet’ and ‘bitter as a jockstrap’—but it was fun to have him pop out of nowhere with something to eat.
Tummies full, it was back to walking and not dying. After more jungle walking, we ended up navigating a wide expanse of rice fields. Here are the few remaining pictures I have from the trek. [pics of rice fields/ whole trek]
By the end of the hike, we were all exhausted. Most of us thought it was fun, however, despite the more treacherous aspects: Tom’s nimble and experienced self hauling ass like it was some kind of race; intermittent rain, especially at the end of the journey, making the already slippery fucking mud pits of slippery mud even worse. While I enjoyed the trek and appreciated the strain, our not-outdoorsy birthday girl didn’t mince words, “Fuck this fucking shit. I’m never going on a hike again.”
Remember when I said I didn’t think I could handle a two-hour massage? Times have changed, my friend; times have changed. After getting back to Chiang Mai proper and getting a little bit of food, I allowed Miss Big Bones at Muan Parlor to harass the shit out of me for two hours—and loved every second of it. Afterwards, the masseuses invited me outside to eat some fruit with them—not even kind of a euphemism—while my two friends finished their respective massages.
Motherfucking goddamn victory.
After some truly delicious Mexican food at Miguel’s, it was time for bed. Monday sucked the life out of me (also not a euphemism), but it was rewarding.
Tuesday began well enough. I found Nice Kitchen, a tremendous cafe place with delicious coffee and huge, reasonably priced breakfasts. Over a caffe americano, eggs, and a fruit place, I graded midterms and anticipated our 2 p.m. van to Pai. It was marvelous.
And then I lost my motherfucking ATM card.
While the others strolled around the old city, I frantically retraced my steps, looking for the debit card—with no success. I had just enough money to get back to my dorm, so I called my friends and told them I was heading back. To be honest, I wasn’t too bummed about the prospect of returning to Bang Na; Chiang Mai proved to be a letdown and truncating the trip was somewhat tempting. My good friend, however, told me she’d fund the rest of the vacation—an idea I hated for so many reasons, but one for which I owe her significantly more than baht. (The final tally was 2,923 baht, by the way.)
Pai, like I said, rocketed to my top-five list of favorite places. It’s tiny—the entire town can be walked in 20 – 30 minutes—but loaded with things I want. It was sleepy, full of food, and scenic. There were, lamentably, a few too many culturally irresponsible hippies—aren’t they all?—but Pai wouldn’t have been the same without this dirty presence. Actually, if I could somehow have the city extricated of its Haight-Ashbury tumor, I may return and never leave.
I had been warned by several people about the van to Pai: it’s impossibly winding; I’ll get sick; the drivers are nuts—so I was a little curious about what the journey had in store. Luckily, I didn’t vomit, but there were puke bags hooked on to the seat in front of me just in case.
Three hours later, we were at the bus station in Pai, where we waited for our escort. While in Chiang Mai, I booked an excursion at Thom’s Pai Elephant Camp. Elephants are thing to do in the North, but they tend to run about 2500 baht in Chiang Mai, which is way too rich for my blood. My good friend, however, loves elephants; she even has an elephant-shaped birthmark on her hip that she insists is a tattoo. (Liar.) So, not riding elephants wasn’t an option. After we sussed out the situation and discovered that elephant tours in Pai cost less than half of those in Chiang Mai, she and I agreed that Thom’s would be the best choice—and we were effing right (if one can audaciously announce a ‘best’ without experiencing any others).
Thom—a welcoming, friendly, and helpful woman—picked us up and drove us twenty minutes south to the camp, a beautiful collection of guesthouses and rooms tucked away in a tiny, residential area.
That night—about which I will describe more below—we hung out with the mahouts, or elephant trainers, who invited us to chill out at their table. These dudes were bat-shit crazy, but in the good way. One was obsessed with hair and white, blonde women. As soon as we walked over, he put on a country music TV station and drooled over Taylor Swift. Then he started to joke about his name with the others. One was hahm yai while another was hahm lek: hahm big and hahm small. The mahouts were dudes, so it didn’t much insight to glean that they were talking about their dicks.
Vocabulary word scored.
The antics were fun, but the serene intensity of that night will stick with me for a long time. Forgive the upcoming cliché, but that night was the clearest sky I have ever seen. The stars actually provided illumination. I wish I had pictures, but without a tripod such shots would have been a mere cock tease. So I left my cock unteased and kept my camera away from my face, enjoying what was above.
Wednesday morning, we were going to walk with the mahouts at 6 a.m. as they went to gather the elephants and bring them back to camp to be fed and bathed before we jumped on them for the paid portion of the tour. I stupidly set my alarm way too early—5:15 a.m.—and violently swung at my phone when it went off. It was a little too violently, however, as I rotated myself off of the bed and my face onto the edge of the metal shelf ten inches away. I had a welt on my face for two days—and chagrin in my soul for three.
This was my first time on an elephant and I was rather surprised by their texture. The top part of the elephants—especially mine, 52-year-old Phanom—is covered in coarse, thick hair, which, coupled with their abrasive hides, took a couple layers of skin off of my inner thighs. Riding them is pretty difficult too, especially if you have a pair of dangly man-bits, which I have been rocking since I was born.
The crazy, Taylor Swift-loving mahout saw my discomfort and asked me, “OK?”
“My balls. Ow!”
The mahout gave me a quizzical look.
“MY BALLS HURT.”
“Back?” he said while pointing to his lumbar.
“Hahm! Hahm yai!” I said while pointing to my dangly man-bits.
The mahouts loved the shit out of that and nearly fell off of their elephants. Dick jokes: transcend language.
The pain was well worth it, though. Our ride was bisected by a romp in the water with the elephants, which had been trained to spray their riders and buck them off by shaking their massive heads. Trying to hang on was futile, so it became a game of who could hang on the longest. I beat out my mahout, who ended up in the river while I hung on to the animal, screaming, “Farang!” with my fist in the air.
On the way back, when everyone was on an elephant high on an elephant, I looked back and saw my elephant-loving friend loving her elephant, Pom Paem: she was tucked up on its head and behind its ears, bent over and hugging the creature. It was pretty great to see her so gleeful, and that image is probably my favorite of the excursion.
The group checked out of Thom’s and went into town for well deserved falafel, which was as good as I’ve ever head. The four then split in half; two wanted to return back to the dorms while me and the elephant-hugger wanted to stay.
After renting a room at Charlie’s Guesthouse, a centrally located and cheap place to stay in the middle of Pai, I took a long nap while friend read. We then took to the road for food—thanks to which I had my favorite meal in Thailand.
Next? Beers and bed, of course.
As if Pai hadn’t been supplying enough superlatives, the best part of the entire trip was Thursday. We slept in—something I never do—and got breakfast before renting motorbikes. The first place from which we tried to rent denied us because we told them I had never driven one before: truth. The second place from which we tried to rent permitted us because we told them I had driven one before: lie.
I normally try to avoid lying, especially such gratuitous and silly ones, but how the hell am I ever supposed to ride a motorbike if each place requires me to have previously ridden one? I just needed to circumvent the law this one time.
Of course, I was a little reluctant hopping onto a two-wheeled motorized vehicle for the first time. And, of course, I almost crashed within my first ten minutes of being on the bike. But reluctance quickly turned to (somewhat responsible) comfort as my friend and I travelled farther away from town.
Again, I need to fall back on the trope of inexpressibility. I know motorbikes are hardly comparable to motorcycles, so spare me any patronization or condescension. Simply, it was amazing to get on something open to the world and with wheels, able to pull over at any moment to snap a photo or look at the horizon.
For two hours, we cruised around and explored some of the outer expanses of Pai, opening up a big-ass world of photo opportunities and memories. Thankfully, my friend enjoys interrupting the flow for photos more than I do.
I even found my dream bike, which was for sale, mockingly.
By 2:30 p.m., she and I were on our way back to Chiang Mai, giddier than children on Christmasbirthdayhalloweeneve.
I’m going back to Pai; you can bet your ass on that. Yesterday, I e-mailed a couple gyms there about training muay thai for a couple weeks in October when I have a break between semesters. I can’t imagine a better way to spend my time. Maybe I’ll even get some shots of the night sky.
Next: an overnight trip to Thailand’s former capital, Ayutthaya, and photos of things much, much, much older than myself.