Yes, the drink specials in Thailand are cheap and generous—how else would I have agreed to the picture of me in Natalie’s last post (not to mention allowing her to post it)? I get my humble revenge at the end of this post…
So we paid for our Doi Suthep inadvertent adventure. We paid hard. Our conservative guess at the total distance we walked on Day 1 was around twelve miles. And Thai miles are longer than their American equivalent due to homicidal traffic, uncertain sidewalks, and random sois to nowhere. The resulting mix of dehydration and overexertion (and yes, hangover) left us in no condition for our planned Day 2, a trip into hill country.
The tour involved an hour trek through the forest, whitewater rafting, and bamboo rafting, among other things. Yes, it was a very touristy way to go about things. And, it should be said, we felt no shame in doing as the tourists do. There’s something liberating in simply giving into that tourist urge of donning sneakers, backpacks, baseball caps, and digital cameras and going along oft-trodden trails. The author Alex Garland once asked about Bangkok, “What’s so lonely about Khao San Road?” referring to the city’s famous headquarters for backpackers and wayfarers before it came into its heyday. The truth is—and we’re finding this out the more traveling we do—there aren’t any lonely places anymore. Best to go with it and enjoy the company.
We were set to depart at 8:30. 8:30 is usually no problem for us. But, as we sat trying to eat breakfast at our hotel’s restaurant, agonizing over toast and eggs, wondering at how the coffee was turning our stomachs into the gastrointestinal equivalent of a prison riot, we realized that it might be too premature for us to set out on another hike so soon after Chiang Mai University’s hazing. Besides, we were sore, battered, and bruised. It’s a bit challenging to hike when your walk bears a striking similarity to that of Lurch from The Addams Family. So we punted. We worked with our hotel to move our trip to Monday, confident that we could go on the trip then and still be back before our flight back to Bangkok Monday evening.
And, after much-needed rest, we had a great day. We haven’t had too many R&R days while being here, and this one was doubly appreciated for giving our bodies a break. We got to enjoy even more of the quaint streets of Chiang Mai. Whereas Bangkok, by far Thailand’s largest city, holds 6-7 million people, Chiang Mai doesn’t even break 200,000. Though the streets are still choked with traffic, they are much more navigable and—what a concept—there are sidewalks along all major roads. Chiang Mai is also a big trekking and backpacking hub; the prints of tourists, expats, and gap-year students are everywhere, from the American style bistros to the ubiquitous tour company storefronts. Restaurants have taken to keeping bookshelves of the guidebooks travelers leave behind in booths and nearly everyone understands English or French.
As Sunday was market day, we threw ourselves into throngs of bargain-hunting Europeans and Australians. Haggling is expected if not demanded, and everywhere we heard shoppers negotiating prices with vendors over art, silk, jewelry, clothing, and trinkets. Whereas Natalie prefers not to do it, I have gotten better at it, but it’s difficult to rationalize arguing over what amounts to a couple of bucks when the vendor lives on little more than that per day.
On Monday, we finally set out on our excursion. We were still sore. Thigh muscles, foreleg muscles, butt muscles, side butt muscles, finger muscles, shoulder muscles, armpit muscles—all aching and uncooperative and rebellious. But gone was the heatstroke and the illness which, comparatively, made us feel primed for a trek, a trip, something. We were picked up at 8:30 and, after picking up the rest of our group, we set out of Chiang Mai in one of the city’s iconic red “buses.” The buses are really little more than pick-up trucks (some of which came into service the day Jimmy Carter was inaugurated). Over their flatbeds are covers whose interiors are flanked by benches for passengers. The tour was off to an unremarkable start when we stopped on the side of the highway for a butterfly center…or farm…or outpost. Really, any word you chose to describe it grossly overstated the place. Inside a caged butterfly area the size of a bedroom, we struggled to find more than a couple of the dull-brown insects flapping about. Past the caged area were rows of orchids, moistening under misters. Natalie enjoyed the orchids, but we came away from our first stop fairly disappointed.
And the disappointment continued: Stop 2, which I was actually looking forward to, was a “long neck” village. The “long necks” are actually a tribe called the Kayan, which is a subgroup of the Karen. I was excited to see and meet members of the Karen, as some of what I do at work concerns them. The Karen predominantly reside in Burma with a fair number of subgroups (including the Kayan) living across the border in Thailand, often in refugee camps. In Burma, the Karen, along with most of Burma’s ethnic minorities, are greatly disenfranchised, disallowed from participation in government and coerced into unfavorable agreements as part of a longstanding “divide and conquer” strategy of the Burmese government. Protracted and brutal civil wars continue to rage between the Burmese army and several minority groups, of which the Karen remain one. Despite all the positive news coming out of Burma these days, reconciliation between the central government in Naypyidaw and the minority groups and militias on the country’s periphery remain one of the largest remaining concerns. The Kayan, thankfully, have avoided most of the fighting but now live in small, impoverished villages on the Thai side of the border. Although we got to see authentic Kayan, the village was no more than a hundred meters off the highway and felt more a tourist market than anything else. Kayan long-necked women smiled then began plying us with their wares. Much of it was overpriced and was probably inauthentic. We had seen the same merchandise in Chiang Mai. But, again, you can’t abide haggling with someone living out of a plywood hut, so the higher costs were, in that sense, more than fair.
The excursion up to this point was not living up to its cost, however. One of the Frenchmen in our group quipped, “Two hours and we drive around a lot, see couple of same butterflies, look at flowers, stop for pee pee, and have stuff sold to us.” As if sensing the low morale of our group, our guides finally got to the good stuff. We went further into the hills, parked, and then set off on the trek. Over rope bridges, river stones, and narrow cliff shelves wide enough for half a person, we hiked through the rain forest, trailing a mountain creek. An hour later, we arrived at a captivating, twenty-foot waterfall. Everyone took a dip and, feeling rejuvenated, we returned to the trucks.
Next on the trip were elephants. Natalie and I had already ridden one in Ayutthaya, but this was even more a treat for the superior care the owners showed the animals. The elephant drivers, known as “mahouts”—or, more specific to Thailand, “kwan”—didn’t ride, allowing us to sit atop the elephant’s neck and shoulders all by ourselves. Natalie and I rode with one of our group’s Irishwomen, who took to it about as well as we did our first time. On top of our elephant, we marveled as the creature picked her spots going down a rocky hill, never faltering despite her lumbering gait. Unlike Ayutthaya, our elephant didn’t have a cold, and she truly seemed like one of the most docile creatures we’ve ever seen…except for her penchant for speed racing. Our elephant began fifth in a pack of six and within minutes, we were first, bypassing even the baby elephant who was allowed to walk the route with her parents.
We finished out the day with two kinds of rafting. First, we whitewater rafted down a nearby river. This was Natalie’s first time, and she was all pro. The middle-aged Frenchwoman from Normandy named Mimi who was in our boat—not so much. She and her husband Pascal, a police officer in Paris who at the waterfall had been way too comfortable with himself in his Speedo, bickered through most of the rapids, which never really went above a Class 3. Nonetheless, there were some crashes and some near spills, but we made it to a quiet oxbow in the river thrilled and entirely soaked through. Then we transferred to bamboo rafts, long, wobbly platforms of bamboo lashed together with leather. Our raft guide played the part of Thai gondolier, pushing us down the more tranquil stretch of the river until we reached our disembarkation point.
Ecstatic, exhausted, and smelling to high heaven of sweat, mud, river water, and pachyderm, we made it to our flight in time. The man sitting next to us was not so thrilled.
And for some small revenge on Natalie, pictures of her dancing at the lady boy show: