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Chiang Mai

I spent ten days in Chiang Mai. The old city is the heart of Chiang Mai and is about two miles square looped by a road. It’s surrounded by an incomplete moat and there remains some of the old wall between the moat and the left lane of traffic (they drive on the left side). The city proper only has a population of 150,000, but city and urban sprawl now make a surrounding population of over a million.

My first night, I found a decent room with a bathroom for a bit more than $5; $4 cheaper than my first 5 inquiries. I think the French couple hired to manage wanted to rent out the last room so they could put up the “no vacancy” sign and go to sleep. Maybe my room was a bit cheaper because it was on the first floor, but it was a perk with the summer heat. I wasn’t couchsurfing until my third night/second day because I was working around the schedule of my hosts.

After a long sleep, I spent the first day wandering through the temples. Maybe the last time I would make a serious effort to see temples. I’ve seen plenty more since, but the opportunities are always presented to see another so I feel no need to make much effort. Like Buddha art, temples rarely seem to offer much in the way of originality. The structures seem to hew to the same mold with the biggest differences a matter of money rather than artistic inspiration. Gold colors feature prominently and as Davide remarked “it would be nice to see a little silver” or any other sort of variety. I wandered to the ancient palace ruins and did a circuit of the attractions. On my way to the next attraction a monk sitting among his peers asked me to sit down. I thanked him and moved on. I have a habit of assuming that offers made by strangers have a monetary purpose. Not the worst assumption when traveling in Southeast Asia, but sometimes a limiting decision. I catch sight of one of his fellow monks chatting with a tourist and after walking a little farther decide to turn around and sit with them. I end up chatting with the monk already speaking. Friendly, quick to laugh, and quite “loquacious” (self-identified). To my untrained ears that he spoke German quite well. In Thailand a monkhood is often the best education available to all but the richest. Being a monk is also viewed as something bestowing honor. Young men of rich upbringing will often spend a couple of weeks or even a few days as a monk for the honor it brings them and their parents. After a few minutes of chatting I noticed a fellow watching us from the other side of a railing and asked him over to join. He had just read the sign I had walked past the backside of; it asked tourists to sit and chat about “monk’s life, thai culture, and any things. Don’t just stand from afar and walk away.” Good advice to travelers and anyone who wants to feel more connected to life. Davide happily joins our conversation which becomes animated. The monk was one of the more adept conversationalists I have met, asking gently probing questions to learn about our views, and then noting the differences and sometimes catching small logical flaws in one of our stated views. Davide questioned the celibacy of monks (including masturbation). Our interlocuter seemed pretty honest in his assertion of celibacy and did a fairly good job of dancing around making the assertion that all monks are celibate while implying that they are. With his honest open expressions, I could believe that he might be celibate monk. Perhaps that ascetism explains the dourness of many of the older monks I saw in Thailand.

After chatting for a bit I ask if Davide would like to join me. Quick to smile and easygoing, I had the impression he’d be good company and was right. We wander around the old quarter together enjoying the sites and good conversation. After wandering for a bit we grab a drink and then part ways to clean up and meet for dinner with his mother. Davide has been traveling for a few months and has had his mother join him for most of his last few weeks. He is in his late 30’s and his mother is in her early 70’s. I hope I’ll be as footloose as them 10 and 40 years from now. Davide’s constitution has him sleeping 5-6 hours a night which would probably be a bit much for me and was definitely taxing his mother.

My second morning I grab brunch, check out, and rent a scooter for $5/day. My couchsufing host, Martina, lives a few miles from the city center and motorbike is by far the easiest way to get around in the city. I memorize the map and head a few miles out of the city center to the nearest 7-ll to her place. I find it on the first try. Three minutes late, but a minute before she arrives — perfect timing. We exchange greetings and converse a touch awkwardly. Meeting a host/surfer is a bit like a first date. I want to make a good impression while hoping the other person is friendly and agreeable even if we don’t connect  or converse well. Martina has a friendly smile that puts me at ease. She says she’s not far away so I make to push the scooter there. She points out that it’s a bit far for that, takes my bag, and hops on the back. Just a few hundred meters away, but it would have been quite hard to find with the maps at my disposal (google maps). Especially as street signs are rare and the naming system was at that point a mystery to me. There are major thoroughfares with unique names; a side street is called a ’soi’ and they are numbered sequentially from the beginning of a main road – odd sois on one side, even on the other. I unpack my back in a small pile next to the living room couch. Martina and I chat easily, quickly progressing from background and travel to sincere and familiar while we play and work on our respective computers. That afternoon we meet a few of Martina’s friends at the pool. I’m thrilled to be swimming outdoors, especially in such hot and humid weather.

That evening we grab dinner and then go out with her friends. Chiang Mai has a lively night life and a very large expat population (40,000). The young expat population primarily teaches English as well as doing research, studying, and a fair number of older expats running businesses. Martina is German but her friends are all English speaking expats – few Americans, but most westerners who travel can speak English. Most of her friends teach, some are career teachers in private schools and the rest are itinerant English teachers. I spend the next few days enjoying the city: lazy morning brunches, afternoons wandering around on foot and motorbike, great meals, socializing with Martina’s friends and random travelers, and a lively night life. Most nights there are a couple of bars with live music provided by talented local and expat musicians. Thai’s are experts at mimicking lyrics, while often not singing the the words – it makes for very interesting live covers and karaoke. In Thailand the culture among locals and expats is to hop on their scooters to go between late night activities and to get home. I’ve had, at most, half a drink (an hour) before getting on my motorcycle in the states, but that was out the window in Chiang Mai. The danger is mitigated a bit by the fact that scooters don’t go that fast, but it’s undoubtedly stupid. The road is filled with drunk drivers at night and there are serious repercussions if one is caught drunk driving. I met an expat of 8 years who spent 10 days in jail for drunk driving his scooter. I didn’t get the full story, but I got the impression he got off lightly because he could speak Thai fluently. One evening after dinner Martina, a few of her friends and I went see a Muay Thai fight. The stadium was quiet so we ended up having a drink with a few Thais who had just closed up their stall. After stilted chatting in Thai (Martina) and English, one of our Thai drinking buddies headed to work. . . as an ambulance driver.

The next few days I spent my daylight hours doing tourist activities in and around Chiang Mai. Riding and feeding elephants was interesting, but felt like an intrusion on the lives of the elephants. A trip to some hot springs two hours outside of Chiang Mai sounded like a good idea until we realized there was only hot water; nothing to cool off in on a 36C (97F) day. This was more of a local activity than a tourist activity which involved a picnic centered around chicken and quail eggs boiled in the hot springs as well as dipping a tiny portion of one’s toe or heel in the water for the alleged health value. I spent another afternoon driving up to Doi Suthep temple on the mountain. The temple was nice, but not particularly unique or compelling. The drive and the cooler temperature were both appreciated. I planned on taking a scooter trip to Pai midweek, a meandering drive to a relaxed mountain town full of expat and Thai hippies. That was not to be as I spent two days stuck indoors with a nasty case of food poisoning. I consoled myself with the facts that the river was rather low and the view was probably hazy due to the slash and burn smog of the dry season. My favorite package activity was definitely a Thai cooking class with Siam Rice Thai Cookery (post food poisoning recovery). The school took nine of us to visit a market where we could see all the fresh ingredients while the owner did the purchasing. We were separated into a group of six who just made a curry dish and then myself and a honeymoon couple who were doing the six-course meal. The instructions were very easy to follow; the novice cook next to me was having as much luck as I, a frequent and able cook. Luckily we didn’t eat or cook it all at once, but I’d still recommend skipping breakfast – and eating a light dinner. The food was fantastic, freshly made and even better without the proscribed 1-2 tablespoons of sugar in each savory dish.

I finally got my first massage in Chiang Mai. Martina and I went for $5 massages (going rate) at a place her friend recommended. Two middle aged ladies chatted away while they gave us vigorous Thai massages. A mostly enjoyable massage that left me feeling relaxed and limber. After the massages we grabbed a few beers and sneaked onto the roof of a hotel that towered over most of the city. Relaxed conversation and a wonderful view eased my mind and body back into the world of regular sensory experiences.

Chiang Mai Rooftop

An hour from midnight, a friend of Martina called to let us know there was a punk show going on downtown. Martina was unrestrained excitement as we made our way to the address. Martina had remarked that Thais make very good hippies: friendly, easygoing, and loving. What was a Thai punk going to be like. Sartorially the punks were quite convincing, but they acted like hippies in disguise. Martina moshed with the Thais who jumped in concerted directions rather than into each other. When the punks bumped into Martina who was easily taller and heavier, they would bow with hands together and apologize profusely in English. We made friends with a young Thai who could speak a little broken English to match Martina’s beginner Thai. He knocks over a table of bottles and cans. He rights the table, picks up my half finished soda and gives me an apologetic hug in his studded punk coat. I tell him no worries and then demonstrate western punk behavior by knocking my nasty soda down the street and flipping the table. This demonstration is rewarded with another hug. Moderately anti-establishment and loving is much nicer than disaffected and violent.

Thai Punk

After seven days of surfing at Martina’s I moved across town to Lauren’s place. I had meant to stay with Martina for 4 or 5 days and maybe the same with Lauren if I liked Chiang Mai. Martina was effusive in her invitation to stay as long as I wanted but, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome with her or her flatmate. In retrospect I was being a bit oversensitive about the issue, but I ended up having a great time at Lauren’s while going out with Martina and friends in the evenings. Lauren may as well be running a hostel. She was regularly hosting 1-7 people on various couches, beds, and floors. When I arrived, there was a German lady, a Canadian/Swedish couple, and two Americans. The weekend was spent lazing around by a local pool, doing mundane tasks like shopping, and cooking at home as well as partying in the city. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard and often with such a large group of strangers/new friends.

On Monday I took a nightbus to the Laos border.

More Pictures of Chiang Mai

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Ayutthaya & Sukhothai

The bus ride from Bangkok to Ayutthaya meanders North through endless Thai suburbs. Suburbs may be too generous; the homes are roughly permanent, but they are jammed together and sometimes seem squalid.  I work up a moderate sweat while trying to read. The AC of the old bus being no match for the 95F weather. When I look over and see a Thai sweating more than me, I feel a twinge of pride. The bus makes frequent stops to pick up passengers and drop off boxes and packages to people waiting on the road sides. The buses are categorized as VIP, 1st class, and 2nd. The quality of the buses vary by operator of which there are many, so check the bus if you can. But good luck, the buses are generally in a station for a few hours at most which isn’t much help if tickets already sold out. Buses are leaving a few times of day to most anywhere you would want to travel, but  the VIP buses generally sell out a day ahead of time. The extra few dollars is worth the comfort: proper AC (bring a sweater), roomier reclining seats, and a generally working toilet. Prices can be exorbitant if a phalang tries to buy a ticket on the bus. Phalang (fuh-long) is the southeast Asian equivalent of gringo. I’ve been told the root word is francais, since the french were one of the first to try to colonize the area. I can’t explain all of the morphology, but most Asians have difficulty with the R sound, pronouncing it as an L. It’s one of the few words I know and the only word I have overheard in both Thailand and Laos.

The bus drops a couple of Thais, three tourists, and me on the outskirt of the small town of Ayutthaya. I walk a few hundred yards towards the center until I see a hostel. The price is a little high at 400 baht ($12), but the room is clean and I don’t see any hostels nearby. I probably paid too much, but I wasn’t in the mood to look around. I often see backpackers consulting guidebooks as they walk into a hostel, but that’s probably the worst way to find a place. A guidebook listing guarantees a steady stream of potential customers which affects price and quality. If a guidebook covers a city, likelihood is that there are at least twice as many unlisted guesthouses as listed. Generally, I walk around for 30 to 60 minutes looking for guesthouses when I arrive in a city. I walk in and ask about the price, and then ask to see the room if the quote is reasonable. In short, I comparison shop. It’s usually fairly easy to do since most guesthouses are clustered together. Often, you can bargain to knock off 5-15%.

I unload my bags and rent a bike. I wander around with the photocopied hand drawn map and my compass. I bought a watch with an e-compass and would highly recommend that anyone traveling bring some sort of compass. Maps are often poorly drawn and street signs are quite rare; I don’t want to have to find two street signs in order to figure out which way I’m going.

The modern city and ancient Ayutthaya are one entity. Houses and modern temples sit next to ruins.


The nicer temples of Ayutthaya charge, with phalangs paying more than twice as much. After about 5 hours of wandering I’ve covered most of the temples on my map. I was initially planning on spending two days in both Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, but Luciana’s advice that I’d only need one day is sound. So I go ahead and book a ticket to Sukhothai for the next day.

While waiting at the bus station I start chatting with a German couple after they ask me about the timetable for the Sukhothai bus. Frauke and Philippe speak very good English like most Germans I’ve met. From the time I spent in Berlin a few years ago, I’d come to think of German’s as reserved with strangers. Frauke and Philippe were the first of many German friends I would make on this trip. Although there is some truth to my stereotype, it was too broad. Especially when it comes to travelers. In Sukhothai we split a tuk-tuk to a guesthouse in the new city. The new city wasn’t much to speak of: dirty and uninteresting.

The next morning we took a songthaew to the old city. A songthaew is a Southeast Asian local bus; a truck with benches on each side. The guesthouses around the restaurant looked nicer, if I were to return I would stay around the ruins. The ruins of Sukhothai were much nicer than Ayutthaya. The ruins were mostly contained within gated grounds of a few square miles, thus there was only one ticket to pay for and modern houses were nowhere to be seen. Once again, it turned out that a day in the ruins was all I needed. So the three of us headed on to Chiang Mai the next morning.

More pictures of the ruins and Buddhas

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Bangkok is the largest city in Thailand and has about 9 million people. The city sprawls and merges with suburbs for what seems to be a fifty kilometers in every direction. Bangkok is more dirty, crowded, and busy than any American city. With the blacktop and tropical climate, the city is sweltering during summer (overlaps American Spring). Traffic is a mess and the smog is awful. Public transportation is okay if you can take the few subways or a water boat, but mostly it’s buses in traffic. The sidewalks are narrow or nonexistent. They are often crowded with mobile food stalls, tents selling tchotchkes, and small stores that spill onto the street when open.

I spent nine days in Bangkok. Probably too much time, but I thought I would have to be there 5 business days to get a Vietnam visa. The whole process is a serious hassle. Vietnam now allows visa on arrival at the three international airports, but I was planning on crossing by bus through Cambodia. I learned from another hosteler that it’s cheaper and easier to get the visa in Laos so I decided to change my route to go through Northern Thailand and Laos first.

My first day in Bangkok I used the canal boats for transportation to head towards the center city and then I just wandered for a bit. I ordered food at one of the busier stalls and then sat in the hot shade eating my first authentic Thai meal. It was so spicy that I had to save the rice for last to clean my tongue which had me a little worried about the food. Three weeks later it’s still the hottest meal I’ve had. Most of my first few days I spent wandering. Sometimes I ended up nowhere notable in terms of landmarks. Other days I’d have an itinerary.

Traveling alone makes it very easy to meet people, especially in Southeast Asia where most non-asians are tourists or expats. “Do you speak English” is often all it takes to start a conversation. After my first day of wandering, I took a canal boat home. A white lady sat next to me so I started chatting with her. Liz, was an Austrian working in Thailand for a few months. She invited me out with her friends that evening so after a dinner at a street vendor I went and picked up a second hand cell phone for 650 Baht ($19.60) and a SIM card for 50 Baht. I joined her friends for a night of clubbing in RCA, the acronym is a mystery but the area was mostly college and 20-something Thais with a fair number of tourists. Thais would order drinks and have their own little drink stand to dance around on the club floor. Next door there was spectator karaoke with English and Thai pop. The English karaoke sounds decent until I listened to the lyrics — gibberish resembling familiar lyrics.

I spent a long afternoon in Lumphini park to enjoy the evening weather and watch people: two hundred people jazzercizing (200 brightly clothed bodies moving in synch), 5 foot water lizards, breakdancing kids, and a few games of Sepak Takraw. I happened on the Takraw in a corner of the park. Working class players with an audience of friends, other players, and bettors. Working class players with an audience of friends, other players, and bettors. It’s played with a grapefruit sized wicker ball and a five foot volleyball net, three non-hand touches to a side, block with the body, and scoring much the same as volleyball. The game comes down to a soft touch to slow the ball, a second to knock it high and into position and then a third touch that is either a bicycle or roundhouse kick over the net. I was amazed by the coordination involved in hitting a small wicker ball falling from twenty feet at the apex of a jump kick. I’d definitely pay to watch a professional game.

On my way to the National Palace I overheard an Argentine asking the hostelier about the palace. I politely invited myself along. Luciana and I spent an afternoon in the Palace and then early evening on Golden Mount, a temple in the city center. The following evening I met my first couchsurfing host, Brian, near Victory Monument. I’ve hosted a couple of times in Chicago, but this was the first time I’d enjoyed the hospitality of a complete stranger. Brian is Philippine and has been living in Bangkok for six years. Luciana and I met Brian outside of a McDonalds after he got off of work. We went straight to dinner at Thai Buffet. Thai buffet is a giant open air hall with rows of long communal tables and a buffet of raw meats, vegetables, and other random foods. The cooking is done on a charcoal-heated contraption that looks a little like a bunt cake pan. The middle is a half sphere to cook the meat on, the juices drip into a moat of boiling water filled with vegetables and prawns or other  meats/sausages. Everyone manages the cooking of the food with their chopsticks and then ladles soup out when the vegetables are done. After a round of meat and soup has been served, the water is topped off and new meat is placed  on the sphere. After a few rounds we were full and went for some dessert that I’d be hard pressed to describe. It seemed pretty popular, but I much prefer the mango sticky rice. After dinner, we went to Saxophone, a fantastic jazz club with a better atmosphere than most of the clubs in Chicago. Most Chicago clubs are crowded with tourists and the shows often feel staid. This place felt warm and the show was great. The next night we went out to dinner and spent the evening chatting on his porch with a few beers. With Brian, Bangkok felt more vibrant and engaging than it had in the past five days.

After staying with Brian for a couple of days, I stayed with Pete for a few more days. I wandered a little more and spent some time planning my trip, e-mailing hosts in Chiang Mai, and setting up my blog.

Monday morning, I took a 2nd class bus north to Ayutthaya.

Luciana on the Golden Mount

More Pictures of Bangkok

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One-Way Ticket to Bangkok

A couple of months ago I was laid off. My first thought was: do I want to go to Southeast Asia or South America. Those areas of the world  had been calling to me for years: foreign culture, friendly people, good food, pretty women, and beautiful places. I eventually settled on SE Asia, because it seemed more foreign and the length of travel precludes it from being someplace I can visit on a two week vacation. My most current itinerary begins in Bangkok for a week before I head through Northern Thailand, then on through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and then back through southern Thailand. After that I could go South through Malaysia and Indonesia, then see friends in Sydney and my brother in Canberra, with a final stop in New Zealand OR I could go to Rajasthan in northeast India, Turkey to visit a friend, then Barcelona to see Ashley and Thom.

I’ve been up for 22 hours and plan on being up for another 8. This way I’ll be able to sleep during part of the first and longest leg (13 hours) of my of my trip to Bangkok. Hopefully this will get me most of the way to a Thai circadian rhythm. I’m loading programs on my laptop and thinking about my trip. The sleep deprivation gives a morose tinge to my thoughts. I am trepidatious and not feeling the least bit excited to be traveling. Three months with just my backpack. Will I be robbed – of everything? Will I spend too much? Will I be miserable, sick, lost? Did I pack too much?
* * * * *

36 Hours Later, I’m sitting on the sunny porch of my hostel. The flight was more bearable than I had hoped. Three months of Chicago winter has turned this weather into a drug; I’m on a vitamin D high and my insomnia worries have melted away. If I’m robbed, capital one will rush me a new credit card, the embassy will help me get a new passport, and I can afford a few shorts and some sandals. I’ve been saving for years and I know how to budget. If I’m miserable I can buy a ticket home; It’s obviously in my budget. As for packing, maybe I did pack too much but I can afford to mail a package home or buy something I forgot. I’ll share the contents of my bag and critique my choices in a few weeks.

Meeting new people, making friends, seeing new places, experiencing new cultures, and expanding my perspective is fulfilling. My trips have been welcome breaks from the rush of everyday life. They afford me the chance to examine myself as I wander through raucous foreign cities, poor villages, and beautiful locations. I love travel, much as a mid-twenties man would love his long distance belle. A commitment of many years full of lovely moments for a few weeks every year. Is this a youthful fling or will Travel integral to the fabric of my life. I will definitely be hot and sweaty most days, I’ll probably get sick, my things may get stolen, and I might get hurt in an endless number of unexpected situations. This long meandering trip is something I’ve been dreaming of doing for years. It is a choice that I would have regretted not making.

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