When I left, I pictured having enough time and energy that I would be writing little blog posts every two days or so. To be honest, I still have the time; I could definitely set aside 20 minutes every couple days and blast something out, but my laptop is usually locked away which adds another hurdle to getting myself to do anything.
So! Lemme try and run through things pretty quickly. The day I left, my mom (hi mom, my lone reader!) really helpfully drove me to the train station at some ungodly hour like 5AM, where I got the MTA train to GCT. From there I had to get a bus (the “Airporter”) to JFK. Despite being “from New York”, just going like, 2 blocks over from GCT to the bus stop somehow confused me and made me realize how little I know NYC at this point.
Waiting for the plane kinda sucked. They gave half an hour of free, shitty wifi, before trying to charge me out the ass. I don’t get the lack of wifi in the airport. Somehow airports/airlines are immune to normal capitalist competition. Wouldn’t it at least make sense to charge everyone the average cost of wifi divided by all passengers, and make it way nicer?
I noticed that a lot of people line up to board pretty early, and end up standing for like 30 minutes (I did too, like a good little lemming). Is there some reason to do this I don’t get? I’m definitely not in any hurry to get in the plane, and it’s not like they’re gonna “get the good seats” or whatever…
When I was standing in line, I was kind of tired and out of it, but saw a few people around my age that looked like they would be fun to talk to, but didn’t approach. Instead, I was approached by some older-middle aged guy from… Beirut I think? who I proceeded to have a pretty uninteresting and unpleasant conversation with. He was vaguely sexist, didn’t take my lack of input to the conversation as a clue that I wasn’t interested, and towards the end essentially started boasting that in his country he’s a bigwig “who people say is a good man”. Anyway, I only bring this up because I consciously tried to take an important lesson from it: there were people I wanted to talk to, chickened out, and instead ended up in an unpleasant conversation. I hate the managerial buzzword “proactive” and its connotations, but sometimes you really have to be that way and get what you want, or don’t and probably be less happy.
Anyway, Qatar Airways was surprisingly nice (for my ticket costing only $400, I mean). My slightly overweight bag (probably around 9kg in the end) wasn’t a problem. They served us a surprising number of meals over the course of the two flights, and I dunno what to say to the 90s comedian trope, the food was pretty tasty (maybe I’ll just eat anything when I’m hungry?). Trying to sleep in a non-window seat is a special type of hell, though.
We had a layover in Doha, Qatar, which wasn’t long enough for me to see anything outside the airport, but was still neat to see. A ton of people there are wearing some sort of religious garb. It’s very clean, modern, and seems very wealthy.
We finally got into BKK kind of late at night. For some reason, despite having a PhD in a technical field, I’m still incapable of figuring out basic time, and I initially thought we’d be getting in at about 8AM, not 8PM… Either way, it wasn’t a big deal. I had looked at a few options for getting from the airport to the hostel, like taxis, a train, and other stuff. I had heard that taxis could be sketchy or try to rip you off, but I also didn’t want to try to figure out the trains and which stops to do (I think I would’ve needed to transfer), so I decided on taxis. It was actually really painless, with an automated ticket printing thing where it queued you up, then your number appeared on a screen and told you which spot to go to. The taxi had a meter (one of the things I had read to make sure of, so they can’t rip you off) and seemed pretty legit. I believe it cost 400 Thai Baht (THB) (~$13) for a ~40 minute solo ride in a very nice car to my hostel’s doorstep. Daaaang.
My first hostel was Lub D Silom. I didn’t exactly want a party hostel, but I also didn’t want one of those dead ones where no one talks to anyone, and this was a pretty solid middle ground. There were people outside when I got there (even a little late) and some in the lobby. The neighborhood was another choice I consciously made, after reading articles like this. My main takeaway was to stay off of Khao San Road, which is kind of known for being a backpacker hellhole full of gap year kids getting too rowdy. Silom was a nice neighborhood, basically dead at night but with some markets and stuff during the day. It was a little out of the way, so to go to things I had to take some sort of transport.
Ahhh, that brings me to transportation. Tuk-tuks: they’re these janky-ass cabs that can seat 2, maybe 3 if you’re bold (aside from the driver), as far as I can tell, built around something like a motorcycle. They’re noisy, create some foul fumes, and seem dangerous as hell. Traffic in Thailand is insane (as far as I can tell, there are either no rules or they’re not enforced), and tuk tuk drivers are half the problem. They squeeze through tiny openings in traffic, dodging and weaving. Red lights are viewed as… suggestions for them. They’ll start edging out into it, and just go if they think they can make it.
You’re also expected to haggle with them. If you ask for their price to a destination, there’s a good chance they’re asking for double what they’d actually do the ride for. It kind of makes sense on some level: if you don’t know or don’t care to haggle, they just doubled their profit. If you do, a short conversation gets them to a point they’d do anyway. On the other hand, it’s a little annoying and I’d probably choose a given driver if he charged a little more, if I just didn’t have to bother with the haggling. But I suspect a lot of backpackers actually enjoy the haggling, since it’s foreign anywhere I’ve ever lived, so it’s ~~exotic~~ to do it.
You’ll find a lot of reports online about tuk tuk scams (most famously, the “let’s make a quick stop by my friend’s suit shop” one). To be honest, I never really experienced any. I mean, a couple tried it when I was actually looking for a ride, but never any funny business once I was actually in the tuk tuk. My friend actually fell for it. They brought him a little out of the way to a suit shop (having offered a ride for like, 10 THB), but once there he was like, what? Why the fuck would I want a suit? and just left. Speaking of, they are constantly trying to sell guys suits, out on the street. This is another thing I don’t get: as a backpacker, there’s no way I have the space/want to carry the weight of a suit for the rest of my trip. Additionally, it’s boiling there, even in November. Who is buying a suit?? Clearly enough people to keep these places in business, I guess… Anyway, the main thing with tuk tuks is just their general noise, fumes, high cost, and haggling.
aaaaaaaaanyway, my first night a cool British guy in my dorm showed me around a little. He showed me how to get a tuk tuk ride and took me to Khao San Road just to see it. It’s definitely kind of a shithole, but fun enough to see. It gives you a pretty quick view of the “party” aspect of BKK, and it’s probably worth seeing, but not spending a lot of time in. Walking around, you’re constantly being offered suits, ping pong shows, and fried scorpions/bugs/etc.
The next day, I checked out a local market near the hostel to get breakfast and see stuff. Something I really like is seeing fruits, vegetables, and even some meats that I’ve just literally never seen or heard of before. It was fun grabbing like, 3 different fruits for breakfast and trying them. None of them were…particularly good, but still fun to try. Something I kind of don’t get is, in these markets they constantly leave raw meat out and exposed, with flies landing on it, and this is a tropical climate… isn’t that bad? Yet, even my gentle non-native stomach hasn’t really gotten sick yet. Hmm. Are we just soft pansies back home or something?
I stayed only a couple more days in BKK, in the same hostel. I actually didn’t check out any of the temples, which are some of the big attractions of the place. I figured that I’ll almost certainly be back there at some point (probably to fly out), and the temples will be there and the same forever, so I can check them out later. One of the next nights was one of the big nights of this festival, Loy Krathong, that usually involves little boats or lanterns on fire. Since BKK is a big city and you probably don’t want flaming lanterns all over the place, they only do the little lantern boats there. The hostel was hosting a thing where you paid something like 100THB, and they had all the materials to make the little boats and showed you how. It was made by folding banana leaves (which are massive) and using sewing pins to attach them to a cross section of a banana trunk. Then, you stick a candle and incense in the top, light it, and shove it off into the water. Unfortunately, it was slightly windy and almost all the candles blew out immediately. Womp womp.
However, I only stayed a couple nights in BKK because a friend mentioned that the same festival was happening in a city named Chiang Mai up north, but with actual lanterns in the sky. Since I planned on going to CM anyway at some point, I joined. Probably the most common way of getting to CM is to take a sleeper train, which takes around 14 hours from BKK to CM, overnight. I’ve heard pretty mixed reports on them. They’re way cheaper (~$20) than flying (~$90), and if you can sleep, you’re saving money on accommodation as well. I’ve also heard that as the sun rises in the morning, it’s really pretty over the region you’re going through. On the flip side, some people told me that they couldn’t get any sleep and it was pretty awful. ANYWAY, this is all beside the point because we had to fly to CM to make it in time for the festival.
We actually got there for the second night of the lantern releasing, but it was still amazing. They sell these pretty large paper hot air balloons on the street for ~40THB, and everyone goes to this one bridge in the town to light them off and release them. It was both awesome, beautiful, and… fucking terrifying. First of all, it was a little windy that day, and the bridge was an absolute mob. To be honest, that wouldn’t have been a big deal , but people were lighting them in the middle of the bridge and letting them go. So every 30 seconds or so, there would be screams as a flaming ball crashed into a mob of people trying to not get their hair caught on fire. A bunch of them also crashed into this wire for lights, which made me worried that it was going to start an electrical fire. There were basically flaming lanterns in every direction that had crashed, making it look like somewhat of a hellscape. But, at the same time, the (majority of) ones that made it off looked beautiful, fading into the night sky for as long as you can see.
I ended up staying in CM for several days. BKK was cool, but to be honest I was pretty glad to get to CM. BKK is noisy, smelly, super busy, and everyone is constantly trying to rip you off or sell you something (if you’re a foreigner, anyway). In contrast, most of CM is quiet. There are still some touristy parts, but overall it’s very peaceful, and in a much prettier area (a half hour ride outside the city puts you in the mountains). CM has an area known as the “Old City”, which is a perfect square which still has a moat and the crumbling walls of…the old city. It was built in something like 1300. The city has since expanded outside of that a ton, but the Old City itself is still really cool. It has a bunch of temples that are all cool, but to be honest they start to blend together after you’ve seen a few, if they don’t have special meaning to you. What I really liked about the Old City, though, was all these tiny alleyways networking throughout the city, often only something like 8′ wide. It was a total labyrinth and the alleyways would often be completely empty of other people. There were also a ton of stray dogs that were all really friendly, just sitting around (also, I probably have fleas now scratch scratch). A ton of the alleys also had pretty cool graffiti, so neat that I wonder if they were actually commissioned by the owners rather than done illegally.
I did a few pretty sweet things during my days in CM. The first big one was taking a Thai cooking class (I did it with Great Local Thai Kitchen), which my friend Nick suggested doing in Thailand. It cost 800THB (~$26), but it was definitely worth it. They picked us up from hostels and first took us to an actual Thai market (not one tourists go to, one where chefs and restaurant owners go), which was really fascinating to me (tons of mystery vegetables and horrific piles of cuts of meat I’ve never seen before). Then they brought us to the school, where we got to pick what we wanted to make for 5 courses (3 choices for each). The teacher was a sassy Thai lady, it was a good group, and lots of fun. We got to try a bit of every choice, even the ones we didn’t choose. We left totally stuffed and with a cookbook, and it took something like 6 hours total. Enjoy this picture of me looking like a slightly less douchey Guy Fieri.
The next day, I did an elephant day thing. You have to be careful in picking them, because apparently many of them are known for abusing the elephants. There’s a lot to say there, but apparently the ones that let you do stuff like ride them are bad ones. To be honest, I’d like to read a little more about this, because I heard a few things and I’m wondering which are true. One thing I heard is that their backs aren’t meant to be ridden, so we can actually hurt them. I know fuckall about elephants, so it could totally be true, but it also intuitively struck me as unlikely… an Asian elephant male can typically weigh 10,000 lbs, so it seems like another ~200 lbs on its back would be negligible. I’m wondering if maybe it’s one of those things that isn’t true, but supports the good cause, so people don’t question it too much. The thing I’ve heard that feels way more likely is that elephants don’t naturally want to be ridden, so they have to do pretty mean stuff to them to break their spirit (one thing I read said that it takes some insanely long time to train an elephant for work, like ~10 years). The main thing is to look for places that have a good name, are actual sanctuaries or rescues, and advertise “no riding” and “no hooks”. I guess they could be lying, but I hope the hostels advertising them have done a little research to check this.
aaaanyway, it was great. We did a half day thing, and it cost something like $40, but it was totally worth it. They picked us up around 7AM, drove us deep into the mountains to the elephant sanctuary, and pretty quickly we got to play with them. They had a few in a big pen (lots of space though), but a bunch more roaming around. I was actually surprised by how lax it was, by how little pomp and preparation they gave us. The elephants went where they wanted, but fortunately they wanted to be around us, because they gave us all a ton of small bananas to feed them (as well as dressing us in these ridiculous traditional Thai clothes, so we wouldn’t get ours dirty). Feeding the elephants was amazing. I never realized how dexterous their trunk are. They can manipulate stuff really well, but they also use suction to grab stuff. If you held out a banana, they would frustratedly wrestle it a little. There was a baby elephant that was hilarious, and kept ripping this water pipe out of the ground. His handler would go fix it, and he would go back and rip it out again, spraying water everywhere, driving the poor guy nuts. This repeated about 10 times; I’m pretty sure he knew exactly what he was doing. Their skin feels amazing, rough and thick. They actually have more hair that I expected, though it’s really coarse and sparse. After feeding them, we led them to this muddy area, and pour buckets of mud on them. To be honest, I don’t know if they loved it, but I guess friends who did it elsewhere said at their places, the elephants seemed really happy. What was next was great though, we led them to a river and washed the mud off of them, while they rolled around and frolicked a little. It was pretty surreal just being next to these insanely large things. You really had to be a little vigilant to make sure they didn’t back up and crush you. My friend actually did get his already bruised ankle crushed when the baby elephant rolled onto him and he didn’t move fast enough.
The next day, two friends from the elephant trip and I rented scooters and did a trip to a place that was suggested to me: the sticky waterfalls. It’s about an hour north of CM, but the ride there (once you get out of the city, which is hectic) is really pretty, going through a ton of farmland. You go fairly deep into the jungle, and then there’s these waterfalls that are made of some sort of weird rock that algae won’t grow on. So, they’re naturally reallyyy sticky, and you can just climb up pretty steep, wet falls with your hands and feet, which was lots of fun. It was also almost totally empty, since it was outside the city.
Encouraged by our great scooter trip, one of the guys (David) and I kept them the next day, and went to go to the highest point in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. However, we did…not plan things well. First of all, back in CM, it was hot enough that shorts/tank top were ideal. We didn’t consider the elevation, and as we got up there, it was freezing. In addition, we didn’t check the weather, and it was pouring rain at some points. Further, as we went up, the fog became the thickest I’ve ever seen. When we were only partly up, it was beautiful, but towards the end it was absurd. Luckily, there’s some sort of Thai military base at the top, and they had a guard station with hot soup and dumplings we could buy, which may have saved our lives. There are these two cool temples/gardens up there, overlooking all of Thailand, but we couldn’t see more than 40 feet from them up there, so… Well, they can’t all be the sticky waterfalls. That said, before the fog was too thicc, it made the whole ride up pretty beautiful.
Anyway, this had been several days in CM, where we had done the big things. We met a few people who were going up to Pai in time for this music festival in the jungle, so we went up too. Pai is…interesting. It’s even smaller than CM, and in an absolutely beautiful place in the mountains. However, while CM was only a little touristy, Pai is a lot moreso, especially with the hippie crowd. This blog post I found while reading about it sums it up pretty well IMO. That said, I’ve had a pretty good time here already. The first day, my scooter adventure pal and I went to the Pai canyon, which would totally fit in the US Southwest. It had some gnarly and steep paths to get up, which was fun. It also had some great views, but then again, it looks great in all directions in Pai. We also went to Pam Bok, a big waterfall with an area you can climb and dive into. It feels a lot less regulated than the US, where I’m guessing it would be roped off and stuff.
That night, we tried getting to the festival. Because it was fairly outside the city, trucks were supposed to pick people up at this bar and drive people there. This is one of those times that foreigners might take for granted the logistics we have in the places we come from. It was an absolute shitshow, with a truck that could carry maybe 12 people coming every half hour, and then 20 people piling in. There were hundreds waiting, and it was highly reminiscent of scenes like in Titanic, where everyone is desperately trying to get on a lifeboat. A few times, a random Thai person in a truck, having nothing to do with the festival, would drive through the street, and throngs of wasted gap year kids would pile on it, begging to be taken there. In the end, my friends and I waited until midnight, then got crepes and left, all agreeing that it was the best decision.
Almost to the present!
Yesterday was fairly low key. Another friend and I scootered to these lesser-known hot springs, kind of hoping to swim or bathe in them. When we got there, about an hour and a half away, they were insanely hot, and there was definitely no way we could even dip our toes in. It was cool, but to be honest probably not worth the long ride itself. But the thing with riding around here is, just the trip itself is in a really pretty place, so it wasn’t a waste itself. After that, we went to some guy’s birthday party at this cool bar, way outside the city, in the jungle. It’s an interesting place, that seems vaguely hippie-commune like. I talked to one girl who basically lives there now. The Thai guys who run it helped her build a hut, and now she just works/lives there. I met another girl who basically just bikes (bicycles, not motorbikes!) her whole life, stopping wherever she wants and camps. She randomly ended up there that night, and they put her up for the night. She said she bikes until she runs out of money, and then goes back to Austria (she’s not Austrian, but loves it there), and works for a couple months until she has money to do it again. On her current cycle (eh?), she had biked continuously from Austria, which is insane. I’m not saying I want that life, but it was definitely cool to hear how you really kind of aren’t constrained to any life.
Finally, today. I had been saying for a while now that, despite having lots of fun and doing really cool things, I needed a break and to just do nothing for a day. I could probably force myself to continue doing stuff every day, but I also don’t want to burn myself out or make doing stuff seem like a chore. That might seem easy (just do nothing? Uh, okay), but I (and I suspect lots of people) have the feeling that I need to be making the most of every minute while traveling. If this were only a two week trip, I might suck it up and drive a little harder, not taking an off day, but I have the time for the moment.
Well, that’s everything (er, more like 20%) I’ve done so far! I’ll try to do a post a week from now on, though my record is clearly not good. See you then!
(NB: I wrote most of this on 11.13.2017 but it took like a week to actually edit the photos. I might add more later.)