I took a public bus from the airport to the city center, which was crawling with tourists, many of whom were backpackers. I was famished and stopped at a street side food market and ordered pad thai. I ate it with chopsticks while observing all the other travelers as they did what I was doing: walking around looking at shit, buying things, eating. They served as a mirror for my own little adventure. I didn’t like the reflection. I felt unoriginal and very much on the beaten path.
After the meal I went into an electronics store and bought a plastic gold case for my (outdated) iPhone 5. My attempts to haggle were waved away by the man behind the counter; this was a true brick and mortar store, not a street stall, and prices were firm.
The traffic here was a scaled down version of Bangkok’s madness. The driving culture was still a bonafide free for all, but the smaller population (~130,000, versus Bangkok’s 8+ million) made crossing the street much less intimidating.
Even with the smaller crowds, I was still itching to get to the rural, pastoral part of Thailand. I’d heard a lot from friends who had been to Thailand about Pai, which was a four-hour van ride away from Chiang Mai. It was to the north, in the mountains, and the van ride is notoriously curvy, featuring 732 turns.
After walking for forever on busy roads with infrequent sidewalks, I caught a red pickup truck taxi (known as a songthaew) and rode it to the bus station, where the vans departed north for Pai. However, the last van of the day was full. The next one left the following morning. I sat on a bench and rested and pondered over my situation, wiping sweat from my forehead.
I went back to the busy thoroughfare and hailed another songthaew heading in the direction of downtown and told the driver to take me to an area with hostels. The songthaew dropped me at a brightly lit alley and assured me I would find plenty of hostels here.
I waved goodbye and then walked a short while, browsing hostels, before choosing a rather elaborate looking guesthouse with a pool for 800 Baht a night. I hadn’t yet internalized the exchange rate between Baht and USD, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have picked such an extravagant place. It had a pool and seemed sharply attended to. But, unconsciously or not, I chose not to look at how much 800 Baht exactly amounted to, so I was able to stay the night with minimal guilt. Also it was early in my trip and I felt comfortable spending my dough.
Once I got in my room I rinsed off the day’s accumulation of sweat and exhaust from my journey to the bus station. I reflected upon how I had just taken a flight that morning. Yet I was surprised to find that I wasn’t that tired, and was game to explore.
I set off in no particular direction, my flip-flops slapping away at the pavement. I got a beer at an open air bar. I had chosen it at random after walking through a cluster of bars all catering to tourists. They were all crowded together in the square, each with a sign redundantly stating that it was a bar: Havana Bar, Space Van Bar, Full Moon Bar… you get the idea. I was in Babyloon Bar. It was mellow at a tender 8:00pm. I watched sauntering tourists mosey past tailors, massage parlors, hotels, and curbside food vendors. These tourists seemed to be either: couples (typically young) or boys dressed nearly identically. I heard some American voices, and some French. I was amused to discover that the two French lads were standing at a crepe stand.
I’d read about a night market in my SE Asia guide, and, following a route on Google Maps, I found my way to it. I bartered rather demurely and got a small discount on a pair of blue linen pants (200 to 180 baht). A few days into my trip and I’m already filling up my half-empty pack with souvenirs.
Back at my hotel, I asked the concierge which of the many shops I passed gives reputable Thai massages. He explained there was a good one few blocks from the hotel.
I found the place and was led into a room lined with beds and curtains. The masseuse handed me a pair of blue cotton scrubs, which hung off me loosely. Next she proceeded to rub and crank on my body for an hour, which, other than surprising my spine with a series of backbends, felt amazing after my travel marathon. As she kneaded my back and my legs I was reminded of all of the miles in the hot sun with my heavy pack.
On the way back to the hotel I passed that square of bars, which was now all full of people dancing and drinking. Despite their close proximity, each bar blared its own music. Reggae, EDM and rap came from all angles, creating a layered wall of noise which, rather than draw me into the scene, gave me a migraine and a quickened pace out of there.
There were several more massage places on this active street, only these weren’t inconspicuous like parlor I’d just left. Here the masseuses sat outside in bright red or blue uniforms and called out “massage?” and giggled as I walked past.
It was midnight when I got back to my room. My OCD insisted on reorganizing my backpack. Once my clothes were folded and tucked away in their packing cubes and every object found its home in the various compartments, I was able to lay down and sleep.
The next day I rose around nine feeling refreshed. The SE Asia guide recommended a café on the west side of town. I walked for 20 minutes through the bright morning. I stopped at a street side stall for some grilled pork. I gave the woman 15 baht and she speared a few chunks of meat and handed me the skewer, with the pointy side directed at me. When she realized the mildly threatening way she was brandishing the skewer and she laughed and rotated it and passed it to me and I laughed too.
I had a strong cup of coffee at this very hip little café and caught up writing in my journal. I watched loads of other tourists filing in and out with their coffees. Here was one conversation between two American girls:
“It’s so weird I’ve never met your sister.”
“Really? Like, never? That’s weird.”
On my way back to the hotel I passed more street stalls and couldn’t resist buying a coconut. The coconut man took a machete and hacked the top of it four times. He removed the top square and scraped from it some slimy white flesh, which he presented to me on the machete blade. It tasted great. He put a straw in the coconut and handed it to me. I sipped the sweet water and strolled along.
Back at the hotel I consolidated my pack and then checked out but stuck around to take advantage of the pool. I dove in repeatedly, drying quickly in the hot sun. I tried to read a book my sister had recommended but found the language overwrought and flowery.
Before long I was off again in pursuit of the bus station, but I took a detour to a curry spot that had impressed me the night before.
The sun was hot on my skin so I paused on the sidewalk to apply sunscreen. I found myself weaving through Chaing Mai’s Chinatown, which was a bustling mess of markets with clothes, fabric, and street food. Red lanterns hung above the streets, which were swarmed with people. I got dim sum in a bag and picked at it with a toothpick. Again, it was the old routine of flagging down a songthaew and hopping in the back. I arrived nearly two hours early, having bought my van ticket the night before. I popped in some headphones and listened to some music and watched the day progress.
As 5:30pm neared, I approached the van. I hoisted my backpack overhead and passed it up to the driver, who was piling the bags on the roof. He held them all down with a giant net. There were nine passengers. I sat by a woman from San Francisco who had been here for a month. This surprised me because I had helped her with her luggage, which was a rolly bag. A rolly bag! For a month-long jaunt around Asia. She was kind, and nerdy (a trait I’ve come to expect from rolly bag owners). Regardless, it was nice to talk to someone for a change.
I really didn’t expect to get carsick during the journey, since I don’t usually (unless I’m reading in a car). But this was an unusually wily road and I got uncomfortably nauseous. I concentrated hard on the front windshield and anticipated the turns as they happened and managed to keep my curry down.
I expected the driver to be flying around the turns, which he must know so well, but, fortunately, he took his time. Sometime after dark a cat ran in the road and he ran it right over without making even the slightest attempt to avoid it. Everyone in the van experienced a moderate bump. The driver pressed on as if nothing had happened; he didn’t even turn to the other employee in the passenger seat to acknowledge that he had just inadvertently murdered a cat.