Day 266, Fri, Jan. 26, 2001 – Today we took a day
off from sightseeing to write, upload the website, pack, have lunch with Helen,
shop, check out, and take a taxi to catch the overnight train to Chiang Mai.
Day 267, Sat. Jan 27, 2001 – We were gently rocked to sleep by the train until 6:00am when annoyingly loud tourists started chattering around us. As in India, the sleeper car berths are all just separated by curtains. Therefore, your body and belongings are always open to everyone and anyone who might walk down the aisle of the train that night. Those fancy Westerners have doors and locks on each berth so only those you know will be sleeping with you – what a prudish European novelty. We slept OK given the circumstances, above a local couple who were doing research in agriculture for an NGO. At the train station, we were met by the usual touts for hotels, but went to the quasi-official looking booth and got a free ride to one guesthouse, who ignored us, so we went to the Royal and checked into a room for $8 – perfect except for the huge spider web (with maker) in the corner. After figuring out the tiny electric water heater, we showered away the overnight train ride feeling and went for lunch at a great Italian place. Unlike Laos’ second city, Luang Prabang, Thailand’s second city allows tourists to rent mopeds - a decision praised correctly by the tourist industry, but condemned rightly by the health authorities. We rented a Honda Dream – newer than the Dream in Vientiane, but also more paperwork for insurance and warnings (uh-oh).
We decided to save nearer things for walking and headed out to the farthest main tourist attraction, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It was up a long flight of stairs guarded by fearsome naga beasts with sharp teeth and deadly horns. The wat was very busy with locals since it was Saturday, so we saw plenty of monks offering blessings, worshippers offering prayers, and some old white guys with young local girls. The wat is another combination Buddhist interior with Hindu gods presiding over the exterior, seemingly guarding those inside.
The wat was up an awesomely winding road to the top of a
mountain overlooking the city. We
got first hand proof of the country’s amazing agricultural output - first in
the world in rice, second in tapioca and fifth in coconuts.
They also have the second largest pickup truck market in the world after
the US – we should know because it seemed like thousands zoomed past us as we
ambled up the hill. Our poor little
100cc dream wheezed at the turns (due, I’m afraid, to our huge Italian lunch)
and we longed for the 1100cc toy we have back home.
This road was better than any 20 km stretch we’d seen in LA but we
couldn’t really take advantage of it. Somehow,
the half tank of gas went quicker than we imagined.
We also assumed there would be at least one petrol station on 25 km of
national highway, so we wound up coasting in neutral for 10 km of the return
trip back to town. For making it,
we had a celebratory ice cream sundae at Swenson’s and had a pretty good fight
with a parking attendant over a scratch they put on our moto.
Day 268, Sun, Jan. 28, 2001 – Had breakfast of corn flakes for the first time in ages and saw the devastation of the Indian earthquake on the BBC. Ironically falling during Kumbh Mela, it killed at least 15,000 – the worst in a long time. According to Conversations With God, which I finally finished on the trip, earthquakes are caused by the collective subconscious desires of all humans (that’s about where he lost me, too). We decided to keep the moto for another day and rode out to see some sights – Chang Mai is stuffed with more working temples, stupas and wats per km than anywhere else in Thailand, most inside a square moat representing the old walls of the medieval city. Unfortunately, they also have more illicit couples per capita than in Bangkok – very brazen as well – sidewalks, motos, restaurants, shopping, holding hands. A few high school students stopped us to practice English, so it was only fair that we interviewed them too:
We drove the moto outside the city walls to a secluded monastery in the woods with a turtle pond and chanting coming from the wat. This sect was very serious about denouncing worldly things, with a statue of a starving Buddha at the entrance and prophetic quotes in Thai script and English nailed to the trees.
Back inside the city walls, we researched
other tour companies so we could see some more of Northern Thailand.
is high tourist season, we had to roust a couple of tour operators out of their
naps in the offices/homes to get information.
It looks like, on balance, we’ll be taking the most expensive tour –
a 4WD Jeep through the north, stopping at Mae Hong San and surrounding villages
to visit the famous ethnic “Hill Tribes”.
We had a pretty good Middle Eastern dinner with kebab, falafel, pita,
hummus, etc. Ah, just like the old
days in Jerusalem. There was a guy at dinner
leaning into the face of his 24-year-old companion to see if she would smile –
sort of like you play with a baby to get it to laugh.
It was disgusting. We met up
with Helen, but she decided to go on another tour. I’m still debating
whether to wake up early (6:00) to watch the Super Bowl on satellite TV at the
hotel. I probably would if it was
any team I cared about, but it’s Baltimore, which is doing pretty good for
being a new team a few short years ago and the New York (really New Jersey)
Giants who haven’t seen a championship in years except in baseball with the
damn Yankees who can’t keep their mouth shut.
Day 269, Mon, Jan 29, 2001 – Well, I woke up early to watch the game after all, although I should have stayed in bed since it was such a blow-out. I did get to see the most exciting part – the back-to-back kickoff return touchdowns. Three turnovers later it was all over and Baltimore had whipped NY, which is great so New Yorkers won’t have another championship to gloat over. Unfortunately, Baltimore was the cockiest and least classy of the two. Anyway, we joined our group for the tour in time – it was just us and 6 Israelis in three 4WD Jeeps. Our guide, Pon, was no more than 24, and his assistant, Mickey, was a 20-year old version of Naomi’s cousin Joyce.
Our first stop was an Orchid Farm, with some beautiful flowers and plants native to this area. The variety of colors was amazing.
Next was a snake farm, which Naomi was really looking forward to. The handlers of the king cobras, pythons and other creatures were amazing – catching them with their bare hands (and teeth!). I kissed a python draped over my shoulders and Naomi actually touched a king cobra for the first time in her life. This is a huge step for her – we were one step away from acceptance of lizards, but then we happened upon the iguana cage. They had three specimens of the gnarliest, ugliest, creepiest type of lizard there is. Now we’re back to square one in our therapy. We got back in the jeeps and drove an hour to an Elephant Farm, where we rode in a basket for an hour, feeding them bananas and raw sugar cane every 50 meters. The treatment of the creatures is not much better than India, but our guide pretty much left ours alone to follow the others. Naomi rode the last 20 minutes on the elephant’s head with her feet behind his ears.
After lunch we rode 3 hours to a hot spring with steam geysers – the largest in Thailand. It reminded us of the sufitada in Naples and Lake Borogia in Kenya. The water was so hot we boiled some eggs in a couple minutes and ate with salt. One girl burned her foot in the water and now has a huge blister. Good thing this is a driving trek, not a walking trek. An hour later we were at our hotel and after dinner we took a soak in the cement pool with piped in mineral water from another hot spring. Floating on my back watching the stars come and go behind a haze of steam, I was waiting for something. Sensing its imminent arrival, I watched the steam clouds drift and bellow until suddenly, a crystal clear view of the vast blackness sparkling with thousands of diamond messengers.
Day 270, Tues, Jan. 30, 2001 – We woke to find one of the Israeli guys (fittingly the most obnoxious one) had cut his finger screwing around with a knife last night. Unfortunately we had to wait at the hospital while he was getting stitches. This and other selfish indulgences put us behind all day and Pon had to change the program. Then we stopped at the market to buy candy for the kids (unfortunately). We tried to explain to Pon and Mickey what we had heard and learned in other countries about giving treats to kids, but they said Thailand was different. Sure enough, as we pulled into the Lisu village the kids lined up single file as they had been trained to do whenever a jeep pulled up with foreigners. They looked poised to pounce whenever the jeep stopped, but they refrained. We disgorged and once they saw the bags of candy all hell broke loose. It didn’t help that two of the guys were playing keep-away, tossing a bag over the kids’ outstretched arms. Then they were surprised and angered when one “little animal” stole the whole bag from them. It was too depressing to watch, so we strolled on through the dirt hills of the village. It is small, with no electricity and just a couple TVs that run on batteries rather than generators. It was definitely an authentic village with women working, kids playing, laundry hanging, chickens scratching and bolting, and mangy dogs sleeping everywhere, but there were not many people. Most were out in the field working, and the people we saw were not necessarily dressed in traditional clothes. We did however see a pathetic monkey with a rope tied around his neck, and one sign of prosperity - a Honda Dream parked outside a bamboo shack.
We had a fried rice lunch before starting the real adventure portion of the trip – offroading in mud getting the most out of our four-wheel-drive. Somehow the Israelis negotiated driving privileges – just long enough to get stuck after almost rolling their jeep. We all had to get out and push, then went to a vista point overlooking the hilly views out past the “Golden Triangle” poppy fields feeding the world’s opium habit.
We went for a very peaceful stroll in a nature reserve with a famous cave full
of fish. A legend tells of a prince who died after eating fish from the cave, so
nobody has since. Now they’re so
big and plentiful, they scramble all over each other to get at food thrown by
tourists. In the park, there are
incredibly twisted trees and gentle water wheels that drive bamboo chimes.
We eventually made it to a temple at sunset, then checked into our hotel
in Mae Hong Son– the farthest good-sized town in the North and base for many
nature hikes and hill tribe excursions. Unfortunately,
it’s still close enough to civilization to have a 7-11 market.
Day 271, Wed. Jan. 31, 2001 – Impossible to believe a month is gone of this new year already. We slept lightly after asking the boys next door to keep it down. In the morning we headed to one of the highlights of this trek – a small village of the Padung hill tribe. The tribe is known as “longneck” due to the long brass rings worn by women. They give the appearance of stretching their necks, but actually push down their collarbones instead. It was a small but friendly little village of women and children. One woman spoke English she had learned from tourists – she was very sweet. She said it is a woman’s choice to wear the rings “if she likes”. This doesn’t exactly jive with what I’ve read that they start as young as 8. Pon gave a few different versions of how the tradition started, including to protect women from tigers getting to their jugular vein, to show respect to a dragon god that mated with the wind, or to make the women unattractive to the men of other tribes.
On the way out, Pon said tour guides have to pay 250 baht ($6) to bring tourists through and the village is very excited because they have a bus of 36 coming later – no wonder they were so happy. It was less depressing at the Hmong village we visited next because it was virtually deserted. Apparently, the men and most children were in the fields working. We saw just a handful of western-wearing kids and gave some candy. The Hmong have one of the most colorful histories of the tribal groups, as they were among the hill tribes trained by American CIA during the war. They are still suffering for that and centuries of other ethnic rivalries.
After the village we stopped at the local school and playground hoping to play some games, but we had no time and could only show the kids the videos of themselves, which created quite a stir.
We took a long, torturous drive to lunch at a
roadside shack with a thatched roof and light filtering in through the plywood
slats. Afterward, we enjoyed even
more dramatic offroading along dusty curves and trenches, kicking up a cloud of
dust. Pon stopped at a famous
he somehow convinced me to take a dip
in (although he wasn't willing to go in) It
was freezing cold – not that nice of a trade just to get the road dust off.
Back in Chang Mai, we met Helen and friends for dinner, followed by the
most amazing street dessert in the world. A
sweet little lady with a tiny hand cart was frying biscuit dough, with sliced
bananas inside, then covering the whole greasy mess with chocolate syrup and
sprinkled condensed milk. Simply
Day 272, Thur. Feb. 1, 2001 – We begin a new month
with just two months left in our trip. Unbelievable
the things we have seen and people we have met.
After a greasy breakfast, I finished downloading India (from two months
ago) as Naomi shopped and ran errands. I
got a little adventurous for lunch, just pointing to a dish behind the counter.
I found out later it was probably pig nuts. Oh well. After
that, we decided to go All-American for dinner, visiting McDonalds and Baskin
& Robbins, before taking in one of the famous bouts of Muay Thai – all out
boxing. We didn’t
want to spend a whole night at the stadium for the official bouts, so we just
went to a local bar with a ring in the center.
The small venue made it no less savage – we got close-up looks as they
beat the crap out of each other – using all means available – punches,
kicks, elbows, knees to the groin. Really
incredible stuff – the guys back home watching World Wrestling Federation
would be eating it up. After the
bout, the bloody winner walks around to all the customers asking for tips.
It’s a hell of a way to make a living.
Day 273, Fri, Feb. 2, 2001 – A day of errands and
enjoying the wats and people of Chang Mai.
We eat, shop, get a haircut, talk to some students, watch some working
girls, and visit an old folks home. An
old guy told Naomi he almost never gets any visitors – it was very sad.
We also had a chance to check email and found that AOL has decided to
finally pull the plug on the Warner Bros. Studio Stores – my former employer.
Apparently, I left just in time to avoid lay-offs.
Sounds like good planning, but my friends are laughing all the way to the
bank with a fairly generous severance package.
We’re really happy for them – as they say, timing is life.
The city was preparing for a major festival – a park full of flowers and festive atmosphere on the streets. We went to an Irish pub for fish and chips, where an eccentric cook was running the show:
"Work because work gives you life. If you don't work, God will not help you. If you don't move, god will not move you"
In the bar we found out that the festival was really just
an excuse for expats to get supremely drunk and go to a beauty pageant.
There was even a farang (foreigner) category for “Miss Chang Mai”.
We all rode out to the park in the back of a red pickup taxi, hanging on
to the outside. It was a great ride
out there, but unfortunately the pageant planners were a little behind and all
we could do was talk and drink. Not
Day 274, Sat, Feb. 3, 2001 – Today was the culminating parade of the flower festival. There were marching bands, dancers, kids, hill tribes in traditional costumes, and large colorful flower floats in intricate designs of elephants, dragons and horses. The winners of the beauty pageants were given prime treatment and got the most cheers and photographs, although the farang winners looked a bit hung over – wishing they were home in bed. After the parade, we went to the park where judges were awarding prizes to flower growers, kids were playing, and young couples lounged on mats in the sun.
the end of the day, the sunset cast a warm glow on the gold and red
brick of the wats. Afterward we
found a pretty good Italian dinner, and then took a tuk tuk to the bus station
for the overnight bus back to Bangkok. We
were pleasantly surprised by the comfort of the bus - reclining seat, legroom
and all - although we had to ask them to turn off the blaring Thai-language DVD
of Rules of Engagement since everyone was trying to sleep. None of the passengers spoke Thai anyway.
Naomi fell asleep right away and I actually got a few hours of sleep,
which was a few more than I expected.
If you would like to follow our adventure back to Bangkok, please click here: Photojournal February 4 -10, 2001
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