Chiang Dao (Part I)

I stayed up too late so when the birds started chirping outside my hotel room window at 8 A.M.  I knew it was going to be a day. And yet I was filled with excitement and nervousness about my upcoming scooter ride.

I took a long shower and set off in search of my hotel’s breakfast buffet. The hotel owner, an impossibly friendly Thai man named Alec, was there at breakfast to tell me that it was Chinese New Year. Consequently, a special breakfast had been prepared. In addition to the usual toast and tea options were orange-yolked fried eggs, sliced tomatoes, sausage, pork, and a pot of soup. I made some strong and unusually good instant coffee and ate my fill of the spread, grateful to begin my journey with a full belly.

I showed Alec two possible routes to Chiang Dao: one would take me further north, a more direct shot to my destination, the other a looping journey south. He advised me to go south.

“Dirt roads up north,” he explained. “No one to help if flat tire. If you had motocross, ok. But scooter…”

Driving south meant taking the infamously twisty and treacherous 732 turn road that separated Pai from the majority of Thailand. But it was better than taking my chances with rural roads up north.

I unpacked a portion of my backpack and shoved the things in the storage compartment under the scooter’s seat. I was going to wear my big pack while I rode. Alec appeared and offered me three tangerines for my voyage. I stowed them in the drink pockets of my pack, thanked him, and we said our goodbyes. I pointed my scooter south and was off!

The first part of my drive was down the steep, windy road. I was careful with my lines, remembering lessons from Mario Kart: start wide, be patient, then cut in. On hairpin turns I slowed down as much as necessary and stuck my foot out for balance and extra security. On straightaways I gunned it, pushing the little 120cc machine to its insignificant top speed, trying to make up for time that had been lost managing the constant hairpin turns. I got stuck behind spewing trucks which long ago would have failed their emissions tests. The wind was loud and matched only by the reliable whine of the Japanese-made scooter that carried me forth. On either side of the road was thick green jungle, providing a charming backdrop to my challenges on the road.

After the hectic twists and turns subsided, signaling the end of the worst of it, I parked at the first major road stop. It was a place for people to prepare for or decompress from the infamous climb or descent. After surveying the food stalls and carts scattered around the building, I bought three bananas and a sausage.

I navigated using the road signs, checking Google maps periodically to make sure I was going the right way. After a couple of hours riding, I was passing through a town and spotted a busy outdoor market. I was hungry and curious and needed to stretch my legs so I parked and wandered through. Fish lay on ice beds, still alive and gasping. Pig heads, too, sat on display, looking rubbery and strange to my Western eyes. I appeared to be the only tourist. I got lots of looks. For security reasons I wore my large backpack as I roamed the bazaar, no doubt increasing my conspicuousness. Weaving my way through the thin market alleys, I bought myself a snack of fried bananas and pork skins. I also bought a tall green can of Chiang beer but rushed through it because I was eager to arrive at my hostel and be done scootering for the day.

The beer buzz, rather potent since I’d hastily guzzled it in the hot sun, made my last hour of travel much less arduous than it might have been. When at last I arrived at the charming hostel, which sat nestled in the shadow of a dense jungly mountain, only one Thai woman was there. In broken English she communicated that her husband Suntan had gone hiking with one of the other guests, a girl from Canada. The other hostel guest, a girl from the U.S., was executing a nearby motorcycle loop to survey the immediate region.

I decided to take a stroll through the small town, essentially one strip of road with a handful of bars and restaurants. Everywhere was quiet. I stopped and surveyed a place that had signs indicating they sold food. A woman appeared with a small boy of about 6 by her side. I asked her for Pad Thai and she proceeded to heat up the stove just for me. The noodles cost about the equivalent of 1.50 USD. I sat at one of the plastic tables and ate my meal with my journal as my companion. The kid approached me and said hello. He sat opposite and stared at me curiously while I tried to write. I gave him a few small smiles to let him know that I appreciated his company. That was maybe as much as we could communicate.

With the rest of my walk I learned that there are caves in the town and an amazing temple, but I was exhausted from staying up late and then riding all day. Back at the hostel I was directed by Suntan’s wife to the sleeping quarters: eight beds in neat rows, four on each side, each shrouded by its own mosquito net. I unpacked my rucksack on my bed (a simple, thin mattress on top of which sat a towel folded intricately into a flower) and lay down. I rested my eyes for only a few minutes when someone came into the room. It was a strapping blonde woman with masculine features. She was From Florida, but now lives in Colorado. She offered me some dried mango and I took it. She’d been traveling three months after beginning her adventure in Nepal.

Loud concise English words announced the return of Suntan, whose limited English resulted in extremely direct communication: “Ten minutes we go to the market!”

His skin was indeed, tanned. Me and the girl from Florida, plus one blonde Canadian girl piled into his big red pickup. He drove quickly on the one lane road through town, threading the needle to avoid the odd scooterer.

The market was covered by a roof but had no walls; a light breeze moved through the stalls. We three tourists were unsure where to begin but Suntan came to our rescue and helped us pick out ingredients for a stir-fry. Curious, I wandered over to a stall selling quail eggs. The woman behind the counter offered me one to try and I broke it open. It was hard-boiled. I peeled the small egg neatly and efficiently considering the pressure of having her watch me. I pulled the egg out of its tiny shell and ate it. It was rich, with all the flavor from a chicken egg condensed into one bite. I bought a score of them and took them with me in a little plastic bag. The girls and I consulted and we bought a dried fish that looked a lot like a piranha. Lastly I got a bag of fried bugs that I assumed were crickets but couldn’t be sure.

We stopped at a 7-11 (abundant in Thailand) for refreshments. I got a two-pack of large Leo beers. The Canadian got two small green Chiangs, while the Coloradoan got two stouts tall boys with black dragon decals because “they’re the only Thai beers with any flavor.”

Back at the hostel the girls showered while Suntan and I prepped the stir-fry ingredients. He showed me how to cut mushrooms properly into big wedges, cutting one as an example before passing me the knife. I watched him heat the wok, add oil, then the mushrooms, green onions, and finally morning glory. We boiled a pot of rice and tore the fish into chunks to eat on the side.

The three of us hostel guests chowed down. Suntan had gotten his own separate meal at the market for himself and his wife. He had just helped us cook to be a pal. They retired to their living area in the main house. The girls and I sat outside and drank our beers. We shared where we’ve been and where we were going. The girl from Colorado had taken a two-day boat ride from Laos to northern Thailand. She admitted it was touristy, but more peaceful and scenic than a bus ride.

I told them about my bad shroom trip in Pai. This prompted a conversation about drugs generally. The Colorado girl confessed she hadn’t taken LSD since she took a half-tab on a motorboat outing a few years prior. There was a big group of them aboard multiple boats. They zoomed up the Colorado river and congregated at a set of cliffs and took turns jumping into the water. One boy attempted a gainer backflip off a 60-foot cliff but couldn’t complete his rotation and landed awkwardly, head-first into the river. When he didn’t resurface, a few people jumped in and searched his landing zone. The police were called. Only one girl in the party really knew him. Days later, divers found his body. For my new friend, this took the innocent fun out of psychedelics. What really struck me about her story was the fact that bodies sink in cold water.

Around everyone’s second beer the Colorado girl mentioned her sister, the middle child, ardently religious, virginal, and still living in Florida. She wanted to write her an email admitting she’s worried she’s going to end up like their bitter, racist grandmother. She hoped this would open the door for her to ask questions about religion and, with any luck, expose her to her own close-mindedness, including such impenetrable atheist-logic as, “what about people who’ve never been exposed to Christianity? Are they destined for Hell?”

I felt like the Canadian and I proved a judicious council. We advised her not to fight religion with logic. Religion reaches deep into people’s emotions and it’s not right to tell people what they feel is wrong. We told her to make the email about reaching out, casually, and depending on how that is received, then gently share your honest fears about her turning into Grandma. But be sure it doesn’t read as an attack on her mentality, religious views, and lifestyle. Err instead on the side of offering help and concern. “I want to help you, if you’re in pain. Maybe help you get a man.”

The Coloradan seemed to have given this a lot of thought. It was hard for her to see a sibling so closed-minded when she wasn’t at all. Like many people bumming around SE Asia, she struck me as open and adventurous. She felt as though her sister was missing out on the best of life.

It was her last night in Thailand. She wanted to go to the local bar, known as “Cave Bar”. It was a short walk away. Inside we found mostly white couples and a few Thai, maybe a dozen patrons total. There was a pool table and a dart board, both occupied. A laptop was playing music through YouTube on the far side of the bar. We each got ourselves a beer. The Canadian went over to the pool table to inquire about its availability and got pulled into a game of doubles. The Coloradan and I had a nail-biting game of Jenga that I won.

The bartender, a Thai woman with cutoff shorts over leggings came around with a tray of short glasses filled halfway with red herb whiskey. “Herbs from the jungle,” she said, cryptically. I sipped it and immediately sipped again. It was delightful, the best whiskey ever. The sweetness of the herbs cut the hot bite of the alcohol. The Coloradan doesn’t like whiskey so I got hers as well.

The doubles pool game finished so she and I tagged in to play against the Canadian and a big friendly young American man who was there with his girlfriend. The Coloradan and I were winning soundly when light above the table switched off. The table is free, but you have to put money in to keep the light on. I wanted to keep playing but everyone seemed to be over it so we said our goodbyes and walked for two minutes to our hostel.

Before we crawled into our mosquito nets, the Coloradan repeated her recommendations based on all of the places she had been, ranging from Laos to Vietnam and Southern Thailand. I wrote them all down, for the best way to conduct improvisational, seat-of-your-pants travel is to solicit fellow tourists for suggestions.