We arrived in Chiang Mai after the 17 hour northbound train from Bangkok. We had gotten space in the air conditioned sleeper car for this route, which for $30, was the way to go. Not only do overnight buses and trains save a night of accommodation in another location, it is amazing to watch the sun rise from the train in time to watch the passing countryside for a few hours of daylight before arriving at your destination. Hannah and I were absolutely stir crazy within the first hour of the train ride last night, pacing back and forth, pressing our faces against the glass to try to get glimpses outside, and trying to talk to other passengers. The seemingly more seasoned backpackers were not amused. By morning, we hung off the sides of the train and felt the breeze of the passing mountains of northern Thailand. Also, I have indescribable feelings about one aspect of the train ride–in other locations, my experience that night is called Montezuma’s Revenge or Delhi Belly. Running, I looked past the door of my destination and laughed. Inside it was two handrails in front of a hole in the floor, a floor that is bumping and grinding along rails at 40 miles an hour. C’est la vie.
And from there we tuk tukked to our hostel to drop our bags before immediately and fiendishly embarking in search of street food vendors. The Green Tulip House is run by a Thai woman named Stella, who resembles the Queen of Thailand and starts drinking Merlot just after noon every day. As for the food, we learned that the best street vendors in Chiang Mai gather nightly at the south gate where you can get anything from my coveted mango smoothies to a whole skewered duck to roasted crickets.
While staying at the Green Tulip House, we met three Brits from Newcastle on their first week of a year and half long trip. Together, we headed out to Doi Suthep National Park and to the golden temple upon the mount. From the pinnacle we then convinced a driver to take us to a nearby waterfall in his songthaew, a truck with a hooded flatbed. I had been having trouble finding sleep, and this was an interesting place to find it.
The next day, because of our limited time in the north, Hannah and I decided to go with an organized day-long trek through our guesthouse. Usually I would find this kind of thing overpriced and tacky, but in this case it was definitely worth it. The tour guide presented a challenge in that he spoke some variation of English I have yet to learn…I’m pretty sure he was speaking English tonally, mixing with Thai, and tossing in a few words with an Australian accent to throw us off his scent. In any case we all huddled around him as he spoke and watched his lips move in disbelief. Anyways, he had a good sense of humor about it and would shuffle his feet and laugh uncomfortably after saying anything. He also asked us to watch a family of red ants take bites out of him after he came out of a tree covered in them. No reaction. All of this was rescued by how he would continually run a few steps into the brush and return with branches of lychee for us. I think that each person was more horrified than the next at the experience with elephants…it was not necessarily a part of the package that I had been looking forward to and proved to be just as poorly digested as we were warned. During this time, one’s head was essentially beaten into a bloody pulpy mess. The hooks were a disturbing means of control, and an uncomfortable silence lay over all who watched the violence but could not say anything because of “cultural differences”. It just frustrates me that this activity exists now purely for tourism and not to encourage mutual survival in this day and age, as protected by a term so broad as culture. I think Hannah and I were secretly hoping to see an open elephant revolt.
I cannot stress how beautiful the natural landscape is just outside of Chiang Mai. We spent much of the day hiking, with our mouths agape and dragging on the dirt road from waterfall to village to river. Sporadically, in the lush variations of green that cover the countryside, are spots of orange blossoms. I love this. The sun is the strongest I have been in, and for the first time, I burned. And it burned the outline of my shirt onto my body.
The next morning we took a bus to Pai, a small escape closer to the border with Burma. It is a road famous for its 762 wide turns, which had a woman behind us vomiting violently. That aside, it was by far the most beautiful location of our trip. And the atmosphere was very relaxed—a backpacker’s haven. I had found out that a friend I had met in Spain was in Thailand, so we went to find him in the bungalows of the Tropical Pai Backpacker’s Resort.
Also, let me just say something about random run-ins that make the world feel small and accessible and blow your mind to star-shaped pieces. WTF UNIVERSE. This trip to Thailand was full of far too many coincidences for me to ignore. First, I learned that Jigar had met and befriended a German friend who had stayed at Seoul Base Camp and had suggested the Bangkok Hostel Nappark to me months earlier. Next, I learned that Tommy, one of my oldest friends, is moving to Chiang Mai to teach English the week after I leave. He’s been off the Facebook circuit, so he’s essentially always a wildcard. And then, when Jordan flew the coop for the resorts of Bali, he met Australians who proceeded to describe other Philadelphians they had met in Morocco cliff diving and smoking hookah on the Taghazout surf house roof. I am 1/5 of those Philadelphians?! Good to hear you’re still traveling, Alex. And finally, Jens told me that he had boarded a similar train to Chiang Mai and was passing some time in Pai. After meeting him there, we learned that Pai is a very good place to chill out and do nothing. The grounds of the resort were adorned with pillows and hammocks and even a puppy + angry dog companion. It was nice to ride scooters and feel the wind, chat with other travelers, and see a familiar face all while trying not to let our last day slip away too quickly. Also, one day: 129073492834 mangoes.
Jetlag. I am now recovering from a four hour bus ride, fifteen hour train ride, six hour plane, one gritty fight with Korean customs, a two hour bus ride into Seoul for kimchi chigae and goodbyes, a ten hour flight to Dallas—armpit of America, one long delay in Texas due to tornados, and a two hour flight into my hometown. Overall…so, so worth it.
For now, my travels are coming to a pause, but I already have more plans in the works…
I start a research internship at UPenn this week concerning think tanks, transparency, and good governance in the Middle East and North Africa while I wait to hear from the Fulbright-Brazil and auxiliares de conversación en España.
Jai Paul—Str8 Outta Mumbai