Life on a Bike: the Mae Hong Son Loop


The ultimate thrill-seekers honeymoon, motorbiking the Mae Hong Son loop will disappoint only in that you will undoubtedly wish you had more time to explore. Caves and waterfalls, hill tribes and mountain villages, locally grown coffee and tea and mountain vistas that leave you breathless await each of the 1,864 bends in the road. My personal experience with the loop began last week on Wednesday. I had hoped to depart Chiang Mai on Sunday, but just as I finished signing the rental form for my scooter the sky darkened and a few tentative rain drops began to fall. By the time my backpack was packed and I was ready to scoot away we were in the midst of a full-blown thunder storm. I decided to wait to leave until the next day, which turned into the next day as the rain continued to fall and temperatures dropped thirty degrees. On Wednesday morning, three days after I had hoped to begin my adventure but had been foiled by the weather, I made the decision to go. I put on every layer of clothing I had packed – three t-shirts and a rain jacket on top, three pairs of capris and rain pants on the bottom. I even put a pair of socks on before slipping into my sandals. I was as warm and waterproof as I was going to get. I took one terrified look at oncoming traffic, held my breath and twisted the throttle. There’s only one way to learn how to go with the flow of Thai traffic and live to tell the story: do it! It doesn’t help that there are quite a few other foreigners on the road, too, and many with little or no previous experience on two wheels. When I rented my 125cc scooter I had to show my passport and sign a paper that I couldn’t read which I assume said I’d do my best not to get into a crash and if I did I wouldn’t blame the scooter company. I didn’t have to show a driver’s license or an international driving permit, both of which I came prepared to use. As the man who rented me the scooter handed me the keys and walked away he cast a quick glance over his shoulder and said: “You know how to drive?” I assured him I did, although I’m curious as to what he would have done had I said I didn’t. It certainly wouldn’t have deterred him from renting me the scooter, as can be seen in the number of heavily-bandaged foreigners you see wandering the streets on their two feet after collisions or wipe outs on rented scooters.

I acclimated to Thailand’s traffic quickly. The key is to stay focused, do whatever it takes to get you to your destination as quickly as possible, and ignore anything that looks like a traffic light, stop sign or yellow line on the road. Those must just be there for decoration.

I only allotted myself four days to complete the Mae Hong Son loop, which circumnavigates Northwestern Thailand and skirts the Myanmar border for most of its 600 km. I chose it because I was in need of a solo adventure, having been overwhelmed by fellow backpackers in Chiang Mai. I also wanted to go somewhere that the tour buses wouldn’t; a place where I could feel “off the beaten track”. The loop was perfect for that.

Day 1: Chiang Mae to Mae Sariang 180 km

The first ten kilometers of my journey were the most thrilling. I felt completely free to move as I pleased, and most importantly: I could get out of Chiang Mai. Although I had many wonderful experiences there, the pollution was awful: incessant, noisy traffic and street lights everywhere. I felt like I hadn’t taken a deep breath in five days. The scooter changed that. Traffic was wild for a few kilometers outside of the city and then slowly tapered off as major roads branched off towards other cities and tourist destinations. I passed many scooters with three or four riders, sometimes students on their way to school, other times whole families with a toddler in front and a baby sandwiched between driver and parent on the back. I wasn’t brave enough to take my hand off the handlebars and wave, but all of my smiles were greeted with equally big smiles and I felt like I was a part of something bigger than just my little adventure – the thrill of life on two wheels. I rode for about an hour before the cool air made me shiver and my legs were sore from sitting. I saw a sign for Wat Doi Noi (a Bhuddist temple) and pulled off. It was a lovely temple! The 246 steps to the top were perfect for warming up my chilled body and stretching my legs.




From there I headed towards Chom Thong, where I found a bowl of pork and noodles; spicy and delicious. Fueled for the climb, I began my ascent up Thailand’s highest peak: Doi Inthanon. At the entrance to the National Park which encompasses the peak I experienced for the first time the difference in entry fees for Thai citizens and foreigners. The entrance fee for the park was 20 Baht (about 75 cents) for Thai citizens and 350 Baht (about $10) for foreigners. It reminded me of the conversation I’d had with a hostel receptionist earlier that day. She told me that she was saving up money to fly to the United States, and that it would take her five years to have enough money to pay for the plane ticket. It was a powerful reminder of how privileged I am to be healthy enough, wealthy enough and free enough to be able to make a trip like this.


As I neared the peak of the mountain the temperature dropped and fog rolled in. The fog was so thick I had to use my finger like a windshield wiper on my glasses. I saw a sign which showed sixteen more kilometers to the peak and I gave up. I was cold, low on gas, and even if I made it to the top I would be shrouded in fog so thick I might not be able to see more than a few feet in any direction. I hadn’t chosen the best day to visit Doi Inthanon. At least the descent was fun, with its winding s-curves and slowly increasing temperature. Each wave of warmth kept me going until I’d made it back down to Chom Thong.

It cost me 80 Baht to fill up with gas (that’s just under $3.00), and I was on the rode again, heading towards my destination at Mae Sariang. I knew sunset was around 6:15pm, and if I timed it just right I’d get there before dark. As I cruised through Ob Luang and Mae Tho National Parks I immediately began to regret my decision to only rent my scooter for four days. There was so much to see and do! The views were incredible, and the tiny villages I passed through held irresistible fruit and vegetable vendors with piles of squash, watermelons, bananas, papaya and coconuts. I couldn’t stop, not if I wanted to make it to Mae Sariang before dark. So I pushed on, and coasted down into the little valley that holds Mae Sariang just as the sun was setting. It was lovely, and I was so glad to be able to stand up and walk around after six hours on the scooter. I quickly found the “tourist” street in town, with a half a dozen hostels and guesthouses and a slew of restaurants overlooking the Mae Sariang River. For the first time since arriving in Thailand I found a hostel which provided a private room, with a private bathroom. It was luxurious, and cost me the same as a shared dorm in Chiang Mai. I tried to take a shower, but the power cut out every time I turned up the water temperature, so I washed the grime off my face with cold water and headed out the door to find a place to eat. I bumped into Ian along the way. This is what I mean about solo travel having nothing to do with being alone: solo travelers are like magnets for other solo travelers! Ian was sitting at a hostel working on his laptop. We made eye contact and within thirty seconds were making plans to have supper together at the restaurant across the street. The other thing about solo traveling is that you never know what you’re going to get when you befriend a backpacker. I was lucky with Ian. He had lived in the area previously while working for an NGO that supported schools in Karen villages throughout Thailand and Myanmar. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the surrounding area, and shared with me a great deal of information about the history of the struggle between Karen State and the Burmese military. I  was so glad to learn about the history of the struggle and also the current state of affairs. The only exposure I had had so far were the fliers advertising “Hill Tribe Treks” and “Longneck Karen Village Tours”. If there’s money to be made, someone’s going to be capitalizing on the opportunity, even if it means exploiting refugees. I hadn’t found a positive outlet for my interest in Karen hill tribes, but Ian encouraged me to hire a knowledgeable, local guide and embark on a trek.

It was an early night. I had discovered the feeling of “scooter butt” and was eager to rest before another big day on the road.

Day 2: Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son 163 km

I left Mae Sariang early, hoping to catch a few waterfalls on my way North to Mae Hong Son. Although the weather remained chilly, the journey was beautiful. There weren’t many vehicles on the road and the views were spectactular. I took my time, took some better photos, and had a memorable adventure. After visiting Mae Surin waterfall I noticed a possible shortcut on my map. The shortcut road was labelled “Dirt Road, Wet Season 4WD”. It was the dry season, so I figured a scooter might be able to make it. I was right, mostly. Getting lost on foot paths in the middle of a dense Thai forest was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. I was lucky enough to find a farm at the bottom of a valley where a young woman spoke English. I was crossing my fingers she’d tell me to continue down the road to get to town, and not that I had to turn around and go back up what was the steepest descent I’d encountered yet. I wasn’t so lucky. She pointed back up the mountain and said: “Go back up, take a left.” The road was so steep at times that the scooter wouldn’t carry me up and I had to simultaneously twist the throttle and run alongside to keep up. I was so happy when I found myself back on the main highway to Mae Hong Son. I arrived at dusk. The first hostel I asked for accommodation at informed that they were full, but that I was welcome to sleep on the floor of the kitchen for 100 Baht. Perfect. I met two fellow scooter-bound backpackers and we went out to supper together. Mae Hong Son was a lovely little town, with a beautiful lake at its center, a majestic temple-clad mountain to the East and a lively night market around it’s perimeter. I could see why there were a handful of long-term foreign visitors. I got a map of the area and realized just how much there was to see. It would be ideal to find a nice hostel and base out of Mae Hong Son for a few days, taking day trips to the many caves, villages, waterfalls and hot springs during the day and relaxing in Mae Hong Son at night. I only had one day, but I was determined to make the most of it.

















Day 3: Mae Hong Son to Pai 107 km

When I left Mae Hong Son I had a plan. I was determined to head North, visiting two villages along the Thai/Myanmar border that were well-known for their ethnic diversity and local coffee and tea production. The winding mountain roads to Ban Rak Thai and Ban Ruam Thai were the best yet. I stopped at a waterfall along the way to stretch my legs and arrived in Ban Rak Thai just in time for lunch. Ban Rak Thai is a Yunan village, with many Yunan restaurants and tea houses in town. I had one of the best meals of my trip there. I ordered a tea leaf salad and a bowl of noodles with season vegetables. It was so spicy and so delicious. While I was eating, the daughter of the owner of the restaurant sat with me and we shared tea together. The tea grown locally is all oolong, but there are many variations. I tried traditional oolong, oolong with ginseng, and sticky rice oolong. All were delicious, and had my pack been any bigger I would have boughten some to bring home. As it is, I’m appreciative for the experience and hope I can taste that tea again someday.

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Just a short jaunt down the road was the Shun village of Ban Ruam Thai, known for its coffee production. I stopped at Uncle Pa La’s Cafe and had an amazing cup of coffee with a brownie. It was my first taste of chocolate since arriving in Thailand, and well worth the wait. I learned at Uncle Pa La’s that the town had only recently been established, and that he and his wife’s dedication to shade-grown coffee is what originally brought tourists to the area. Without tourists, locals would have cut down much of the surrounding forest in order to grow crops for sale to survive. Uncle Pa La never advertised, but as word spread of his hard work and dedication to conversation the area began to thrive. There still isn’t an overwhelming number of tourists, but Uncle Pa La’s guesthouse remains full for much of the November – March tourist season.

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I was able to make one more stop on my journey before arriving in Pai. I had heard a great deal about Thom Lod Cave and made a last minute decision to stop as I was passing late in the day. For 450 Baht (about $13.50) I received a tour guide and bamboo raft for navigating the cave. It was beautiful. The best part was probably the lack of electricity. The only way to see the cave was by the light of my guide’s gas lamp. I wish I had proficiency in Thai, but as it is I was able to communicate with my guide only by her saying: “This one looks like a turtle. That one looks like Donald Trump.” My response was always: “Wow! Ri mak mak! (That’s very good!)” It’s been difficult getting used to not speaking the language here. Most of the time I feel completely removed from local Thai culture.

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I caught the sunset just as I was descending into Pai, a small mountain village turned hippie enclave in the 70’s and now one of the biggest destinations for foreigners interested in yoga, meditation, organic food, live music and a relaxed atmosphere.

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Day 4: Pai to Chiang Mai 149 km

I was only in Pai long enough to see that it was a place I could fall in love with – small yet full of possibilities for meeting like-minded people, delicious food, mountainous surroundings, and endless opportunities to explore your spiritual side. I left town early and headed to Pai Canyon for a morning retreat.

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On my way out of town I took a back road that passed the local collection of elephant-based tourist destinations. Some allow riding, others focus on caring for and learning about the elephants.

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The remainder of the journey to Chiang Mai was rough. Road construction littered the highway in the most unexpected places. Everyone was driving slow as tiny scooters skirted around massive trucks hauling rock on steep inclines.

I made it back to Chiang Mai in the afternoon and found myself a bit relieved to be back in a familiar area. I felt a fondness towards Chiang Mai as I zig-zagged through narrow streets to my favorite part of town and got a room at the Peppermaint Cafe and Hostel. I met a man named Thomas and we ventured out to a vegetarian cafe I’d become fond of. He was an inspiration, and readily acquiesced to my interview:

Thomas

“I’m a Dutch guy, 23 years old. I finished my studies in Innovation Management. I really like groovy music and I’m in love with adventure.”

Q: Why do you travel?

To experience more spontaneous things. To meet people from different cultures. Just to experience life on a higher and more adventurous level.

Q: When and how did you catch the travel bug?

After five weeks in Bali when I was fourteen when I went on holiday with my family. The people on that island, it was like a different world. So gentle and caring, and just so chilled out.

Q: What’s your biggest dream?

To share a lot of groovy music with a lot of people as a DJ. I’ve already done it once in Thailand on New Year’s Eve. I just love to raise the vibe in that way; inspiring people with that music to raise their vibration.

Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned on your travels that you’d like to share with the world?

To accept the world around me. Having less control over things that I’m constantly thinking about.

I wanted to take a picture of him to share as well, but when I awoke the next morning at 5:45am to catch the sunrise he was fast asleep.

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Meet Marie-Anne

I have met so many amazing, inspiring and unexpected people in my travels. What shocks me the most is how the only thing some of us have in common is our passion for travel, and how closely that can knit our little backpacker community together. I’ve decided to share the stories of some of these other travelers in hopes that you, too, might be inspired to grab a backpack, a passport, a pair of underwear and hop on the next flight to your dream destination.

I met Marie-Anne on the overnight train to Chiang Mae, and we stuck together exploring the city for a few days afterwards. From a Thai cooking class to chatting with a monk to learning the basics of Thai Kick-boxing (Muay Thai), we had some wonderful adventures together.

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“I’m a 25 year old French girl traveling for 6 months in SE Asia. I’m a bit clumsy but always smiley, enthusiastic and curious. I’d like to try anything once! Oh, and I’m a foodie (makes sense, I’m French), sugar and facebook addict. Nobody’s perfect.”

Q: Why do you travel?

My biggest fear is to be stuck in a routine where I would stop being amazed by the little things the world had to offer, so I travel to wake my inner child up through new, “first-time” experiences, and meet inspiring people who help me pushing my limits!

Q: What’s your biggest dream?

My biggest dream is to start my own business in South America with my best friend Nina. It would be a French tea house by day and a wine bar by night!

Q: When and how did you catch the travel bug?

I caught the travel bug 6 years ago on my Erasmus year studying in Scotland; the first time I lived abroad. I went to so many beautiful places and meet so many international friends that year, I wanted it to last forever!

Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your travels?

I’ve learnt that a comfort zone can be a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there.

Q: If you could be reincarnated as any animal, which would it be?

I wanna be a black panther cause it’s fierce, independant and elegant!

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Educate Your Palate: Thai Cooking Class

Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School is more than just a classroom. Founder Gayray prides herself on starting and running a business on her own. Her passion for traditional Thai food and education shows in all aspects of her cooking class. Marie-anne and I signed up to attend the class today and were picked up near the North gate of the city at 8:40am. We travelled about a half and hour outside of town with two instructors and seven other participants, representing Taiwan, Germany and the Netherlands. It seemed likely that our Dutch comrades had “Chaing-overs” (get it?), but it luckily didn’t dampen their spirits too much. We stopped at a local market where our instructor Su showed us all of the ingredients we would be using in the dishes we prepared that day, so that we could find them again if we went shopping on our own. The best part, however, is that we didn’t actually buy any ingredients at the market because Asian Scenic has their own garden in which they grow all of the vegetables and herbs that they use in their cooking classes.

We arrived at the Asian Scenic Farm and Cooking School mid-morning. We toured the grounds, picking some Butterfly Pea flowers, Thai Pea Eggplant and a variety of herbs. It’s Thailand’s “winter” right now, so some fruits are not in season. There was still plenty to harvest, and Su told us we’d try our luck on finding a decent mango.

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In Northern Thailand, which is drier than Southern Thailand, sticky rice thrives. Jasmine rice is more commonly grown in Southern Thailand. Brown and black rice are mixed at a ratio of 1:1 with Jasmine rice to add fiber and flavor.

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Red curry paste.
Red, green, panang, massaman and the local specialty of kao 
soi curry pastes are all available at local markets.

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Su and Marie-anne harvesting Butterfly Pea flowers. The intense blue of the flowers is easily captured by mashing the petals in water. We used the dye to color our sticky rice.

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Asian Scenic Farm’s oyster mushroom operation. We put the mushrooms in our Tom Yum soup.

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Have you ever seen a banana flower before? I hadn’t.

The class began with all participants choosing which dishes they would like to prepare from six different categories:

  1. Spring Rolls (we made these together as a group)
  2. Salad: I chose Papaya Salad.
  3. Soup: I chose Tom Yum.
  4. Curry: I chose Green Curry.
  5. Stir-Fry: I chose Pad Thai.
  6. Dessert: I chose Sticky Rice w/ Mango.

It was my best day in Thailand yet. Our instructor, Su, was friendly, fun and demanding. She did an excellent job demonstrating and orchestrating the preparation of each dish. We ate everything we made, and Su was quick to warn us against burning our food. It’s hard to capture a person’s character in a description, but here are just a few favorite quotes from Su that share some of her sass and playfulness:

“No rice, no power.” (on why rice is eaten three times a day in Thailand)

“More spicy, more sexy.” (which she followed up by saying: “I am the most sexy.” She then put fifteen hot chilis in her salad.)

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Thai Welcome Snack:
You fold the Betel Leaf and stuff it with roasted peanuts, roasted coconut, lime, chili’s, onion, ginger and a syrup made from palm sugar and ginger. It was delicious.

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Ready to eat.

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Pad Thai: stir-fried rice noodles w. chicken, sprouts, carrots and peanuts.

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One person, one wok.

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The mortar & pestle combo we used to mix-mash the salads.

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Papaya Salad made with young green papaya.

Amazing. My favorite!

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We took a break mid-day to digest our first half of class. There were hammocks scattered around the farm, which we gathered around as we met participants from other classes (there were three classes going on simultaneously). I continue to be fascinated by the number of solo female travelers I am meeting. It’s inspiring and encouraging to share stories and aspirations.

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Spring Rolls

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We made our own curry paste by hand. These are the spices that go into Massaman Curry. 

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Green, Red, Panang (red curry with peanuts) and Massaman Curry pastes.

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Green Curry and Tom Yum Soup

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Adding lime juice to the Butterly Pea dye to make it more purple than blue.

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Mango with Sticky Rice. The best!

With ridiculously full stomachs we wrapped up class and loaded back into the van for our ~one hour ride home. Everyone slept.

Help me practice my new skills in Thai cooking. Invite me over to cook you a Thai meal when I return!

 

 

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Meet Dreas

Dreas is a thirty-three year old digital nomad from Amsterdam. Don’t know what a digital nomad is? You know those people whose job can be completed anywhere there is internet access, so they can live wherever they like? Well, the ones who choose to live nomadically, traveling from place to place around the world as they work are digital nomads. Dreas’s specialty is web design.

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Q: When and how did you catch the travel bug?

“When I was three years old my mom and dad took me biking across the Netherlands. I was a really loud kid, but when I was on the back of that bike I was completely quiet. I guess I was just experiencing a moment of complete amazement.”

Q: What is your biggest dream?

“To build a mountain retreat for digital nomads in North America or Japan. I want to build it in some place that has pine trees.

Q: If you could be reincarnated as any animal, which would it be?

“A husky. I love snow and pine trees.”

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Meet Anika

Anika’s three months into a year-long world tour. She’s spending six months exploring Southeast Asia and Australia, and six months in Europe and Africa. She spent two years working full time in Seattle, WA to save up for this trip. I was lucky enough to meet her yesterday, when we bumped into each other while searching for a hostel in Chiang Mai.

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” I’m a twenty-five year old American girl who’s on her world tour. I’m easy going, and I like to have fun. 

I live by the “Why not?” rule. When you think of doing anything, if you can’t think of a justifiable reason to not do it, you just do it!”

Q: How and when did you catch the travel bug?

“Two years ago when I met my friend Michele. She inspired me to understand the importance of travel and the lessons you can learn.  Michele’s an avid traveler. She travels all the time. We became good friends, and hearing her stories inspired me. In the past I’ve been a domestic traveler; going places, doing things, and seeing culturally significant sites. But international travel takes it to a new level. Also, my grandma and grandpa owned a condo in Costa Rica when I was growing up. I’d basically been going there for Easter every year. It was such an experience. It’s pretty much the craziest thing my family ever did.”

Q: What’s your biggest dream?

“I would like to own my own company before the age of forty. I don’t know what or why, but I have an entrepreneurial mindset. I like the idea of starting something from scratch and building it up.”

Q: What’s your strangest travel story so far?

“I have blue hair because I decided to act upon a dream I had while at an eco-village yoga ayurveda retreat in Sri Lanka .

The dream: I went into a hair dresser’s shop and I didn’t really want to get my hair cut, but I felt bad not doing anything so I decided to color my hair. It was green and blue because the hair dresser didn’t have that many options.

And so, I woke up at 5:00am and thought: “Yes! OF COURSE I should color my hair.” It seemed like the best idea I’d ever had. So I thought about it all week and it became a better and better idea. I dyed it in Singapore one week later.”

Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned that you want to share with the world? 

“It would have to be A: that traveling is the shit, and B: advice about the best way to travel. Traveling is so subjective, right? So it’s all about customizing the experience to you. You learn so much about yourself because YOU have to choose what you want to do. What makes a good travel experience has less to do with what the place is. What you like in life is what you need to seek out. Don’t go to places that everyone says are great. Go to the best place for you, and that is where you will find happiness. Isn’t that what we all want at the end of the day?”

anika

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Good Bye, Bangkok!

Take the train to Chiang Mai. Do what you can to find yourself in a sleeper car, where you can sleep, undisturbed, with air conditioning overnight. You’ll save yourself a night in a hostel, and you’re halfway to Chiang Mai when you wake up. I got lucky this morning and woke up at 06:00 without an alarm clock. I quietly made my way to the restaurant car and found it empty. The windows were all down, with no screen or other physical barrier between the inside and outside of the train. The breeze felt deliciously cool after a day of sweating in Bangkok. It was dark outside when I first sat down, though the tell-tale blue-gray of daybreak was coloring the horizon when we passed through the mountains and found ourselves in an area covered in fields and rice terraces. Though the terrain we’re passing through is too mountainous to really see the sun rise, watching the forms of palm trees, bamboo huts and what look to me like matapalos trees gain definition as the sky slowly lightens is just as much of a pleasure. I’m surpsied at how familiar this landscape feels to me. The rice terraces, small fields of vegetables, bamboo huts with rusted steel roofing and densely forested mountainsides look just like rural Southern Japan. I almost feel as though I’m back riding the single car up the Gonogawa in Shimane.

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Breakfast on the train. Orange juice, coffee, banana and rice soup with mushrooms and shrimp. Not the fanciest, but very tasty. 90 Baht (~$2.50)

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Inside the sleeper car. I was prepared for a rough night of loud snorers, but was surprised to find the train cool and quiet. I got my first good night’s sleep in Thailand.

As the morning progressed more and more passengers entered the restaurant car. I waited to see who would sit with me, but it took a while before all of the other available tables were full. Eventually a tall middle-aged man wearing a sweater sat down across from me and introduced himself. Shawn turned out to be an Englishman, which I should have guessed when he referenced his sweater by using the word “jumper”. I told him that in my past travel experiences I’ve noticed that Englishmen tend to know how to have a good time. He asked me: “Is that a diplomatic way of saying we’re all drunkards?” It was destined to be an interesting morning.

Back to Bangkok, and the reason I was there for less than twelve hours:

When I first arrived in Bangkok I was wide-eyed and eager to explore the city. I spent the first hour of my time in Bangkok eating as many different types of fruit as I could get my hands on: mango, papaya, jack fruit, dragon fruit, bananas,  and watermelon. The heat and humidity brought me back to my childhood visits to the Omaha Zoo’s rainforest exhibit. As I walked through the city, simultaneously watching my step, eyeing fruit stands, and taking pictures I frequently was surprised by water dripping on me from above. It wasn’t raining… I could quite figure it out. I knew that my map was getting wet and becoming more and more difficult to read. To solve the mystery I climbed atop a bridge that had been the apparent “source” of my sudden soaking and found that the heat and humidity in the air were causing water to condense on all cool, metal surfaces, like the railing of the bridge. As the moisture continued to condense it forced droplets to lazily roll off the sides of the rail and fall, heavy and wet, on unsuspecting map-readers below. I changed my strategy, veered away from bridges, and stayed dry the rest of the morning.

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Dragon Fruit & Papaya

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Jack Fruit

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Water Chestnuts, Ginkgo and Chinese Plums in Syrup

It didn’t take long for Bangkok to wear me thin. I experienced a burst of disappointment when inquiring into buying a ticket for the train North to Chang Mai. I found that the majority of tourists purchase their train tickets online  three or more days in advance. The train was booked, it seemed, indefinitely. With very little sleep to calm my nerves and a bustling city of heat, humidity and traffic surrounding me I began to feel a bit trapped. The teller called me back over and gave me a second option: I could come back later that afternoon and see if, with any luck, one of the passengers had cancelled their reservation. I was mildly relieved, but felt even more like I needed to prepare to be in Bangkok for a few days. I left the train station, with a few hours on my hands, and wandered. I made it to Kao San Road, the famous tourist destination for shopping and all sorts of night-time revelry. I quickly left. A good spot to return on my way home in quest of Thai pants for souvenirers. I did pick up a pair for myself, which I immediately changed into and threw my heavy denim capris in the nearest bin. I’m hoping to do this with all of the clothing I brought before the end of my journey.

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My first meal: Pad Thai

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Stray dogs roam the streets of Bangkok.

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Poor things have a hard time beating the heat.

Jill had told me to take the public boats on the river in order to see Bangkok and I did just that. With little traffic on the river and boats costing only 13 baht to ride, it was a splendid idea. I took the boat three times up and down the river, stopping at the Grand Palace and exploring some of the markets there. The smells of this place are immediately unforgettable. I want to be able to place what they all are, but I fear it may be impossible. Spicy, sweet and a plethora of other sensations my nose has never been host to before are intriguing me anew with every turn I take. I’m trying as much as possible, but my stomach has it’s limitations. I enjoyed a delicious plate of pad thai in the afternoon with a Xinghe beer and felt myself relax completely. My feet were swollen from the heat and throbbed in my shoes as I sat in the shade massaging my aching shoulders. I was feeling less-than-optimistic on my first day of travel, wondering how long I’d be in Bangkok, barraged by heat, traffic, tourists and the temptaiton of consurmerism. I tentatively made my way back to the train station that afternoon, hopeful and yet prepared for disappointment at the same time. To cheer myself up I decided before going in that if the train to Chang Mai was still full I would request a ticket to another town, any town, really, where I could be re-invigorated to explore. I bumped into Rob (a wandering Southern Californian wannabe monk) in the ticket line. He told me he was heading to the small Northeastern town of Udantani in hopes of spending time at a wat (monastery) there to practice mediation and be immersed in bhuddist culture. I decided I would go to Udantani if Chang Mai was not an immediate option. But! How lucky I was. Not only was there a seat available, it was a sleeper in an air-conditioned car! My spirits soared, I bought the ticket for 785 baht (about $20.00) and bumped back into Rob. We both had a train ticket in our hands and adventure in our eyes. We spent the rest of the day together. It was wonderful. He hadn’t had a “travel buddy” in weeks, he said, and I hadn’t met someone yet who was such a non-traditional tourist. He carried only a few small items with him, all of which had been donated to him on his journey. He strolled casually yet intentionally, spoke little, and said a lot. We shared a coffee, then a beer, and then I left to catch my 22:00 train to Chang Mai, where I currently sit, only an hour away from my destination, playfully wondering what awaits.

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There are a variety of boats used for public transport in Bangkok.

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I rode the largest of the boats, holding probably somewhere around 100 people. For 13 Baht (~$0.36)it was a great way to see the city.

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Garlic, anyone?

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Good Morning, Bangkok!

My day began at 05:30. Jill grabbed her keys and ran out to her car, hoping to get it started early enough that it would be warm by the time we left for the airport around 06:00. I had everything packed in my small backpack, trail mix stuffed into it’s surprisingly generous side pockets, and my first set of clothes laid out on the couch. I slipped into my capris and thin t-shirt in silence as Jill scraped ice of the windshield of her slowly warming car. I gave my cross-country skis a last longing look before swinging the door to Jill’s house behind me and hopping into her car. Though the car had warmed up it was still frigid outside, and the short walk smarted my calves as they experienced weather well below 0°F for likely the last time this year. Jill dropped me off at the Thunder Bay, Ontario Airport with plenty of time to spare before my 07:05 flight. I took off my mukluks and winter coat to leave with her until my return in March.  We hugged briefly, knowing that the two months between then and when we’d meet again were bound to fly by. And so my journey began.

Thunder Bay – Toronto – Chicago – Tokyo – Bangkok

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The sunrise over Toronto.

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Toronto.

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Still amazed: Toronto.

I befriended two women from Quebec, a couple from Toronto, and a fellow solo traveller from New Jersey during an extended layover in Chicago. I couldn’t have imagined Canadians would become such an important part of this journey for me! When our plane required engine repair in Chicago we were taken to another gate to board a different plane. I had the odd feeling they were brushing the dust off of “Old Bessy” as they taxied the enormous plane over to our gate. B747-400’s are so incredibly large and seemingly uncoordinated that I felt for the first time a bit of trepidation as I stepped off the platform and into the plane. Eleven seats across, with a second story above, it felt more like a hotel than a plane. I had a window seat, and with a luck that beguiles me every time I fly, there were two open seats next to me. During take off I silently chanted “I think I can, I think I can…” to encourage our huge bird as she chugged along the runaway. I honestly didn’t think it would get off the ground. The ridiculously long wings bobbed at their tips as we picked up speed. It didn’t seem like enough speed. I waited and waited, and finally our nose came up, followed by the rest of the plane, and we were airborne. I held my breath for our first few seconds of flight, pretty convinced we’d come right back down, but alas!  that wasn’t the case. We made it to 32,000 feet without issues and leveled off at 550mph groundspeed, bound for Tokyo. I put the armrests up, unwrapped three pillows and three blankets, built a little nest for myself and slept for the next 10 hours.

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This was just the beginning of my recognizing how unbelievably many backpackers are heading to Southeast Asia right now.

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Leaving Chicago.

We’d missed our connecting flight to Bangkok and United had arranged for us to travel by bus to their smaller airport at Haneda. Our little family of five stuck together on the bus, marveling at Japanese courtesy and sharing some of our excitements for Thailand. At Haneda Airport we were blessed with an hour and half of “free time” during which we inhaled as much ramen, sushi and gyoza as we could. It was delightful. I didn’t want to leave. The familiarity of Japan after so many hours in transit felt like “coming home”. I wanted to put my feet up, sip a cup of tea and hang out for a few days before continuing on. Being with friends helped me onto the Thai Airways plane at 00:30. The stewards and stewardesses were dressed in beautiful , colorful silk suits and skirts. They held their hands together on their chest and greeted us with a cheery “Sawatdee!” as we entered the plane. I had been hoping to catch up on a few movies during the flight from Chicago to Tokyo, but that hadn’t been an option. Though I’d planned on trying to sleep a bit more on this flight, I quickly found myself marveling at all of the movie options available on my personal movie screen. Before I knew it we were in Bangkok: just before daybreak. It had taken thirty-four hours in transit, but all of my worries melted away as I stepped out of the airport with a hearty: “Good morning, Bangkok!”

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Even though our layover in Japan was brief, I had enough time to be reminded of the almost impossibly clean and orderly nature of the Japanese public toilet experience.

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Arriving in Bangkok: 5:05am

 

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