I awoke in the hostel bed. It was on the ground enshrouded by a mosquito net. I walked downstairs to the kitchen and made coffee using one of those chrome Italian percolators. I scrambled four eggs in the wok and ate that with toast and some mushrooms and morning glory leftover from the night before. The Canadian girl appeared and made coffee for herself. The Coloradan had risen early and taken off. She was headed east to Chaing Rai. From there she would catch a boat that would take her over the Mekong River to Laos.
While I ate my eggs, I consulted my Lonely Planet, copying down some Thai phrases in my notebook. It was high time I expanded my vocabulary beyond “hello” (“sawasdee”) and “thank you” (“khaawp khun khrap”).
The Canadian and I both had one day in Chiang Dao so we decided to hit the village’s two major attractions: the temple and the caves. I suggested we take my scooter. She was nervous about riding on the back so I lent her my helmet. Suntan told us we could’ve walked to the temple but I paid for the scooter for the day so doggone it if I wasn’t going to ride the bloody thing. I did my best to drive smooth, slow and cautious. I didn’t have much experience with a rider on back and I saw the way cars maneuvered around scooter riders: too fast and too close for comfort.
In a flash we were there facing a 500-step staircase. We paid the donation and climbed to the top. All along the stairs were signs in Thai and English offering variations on the sentiment that there is meaning in struggle.
We were both in fine shape and reached the monastery with our breath and legs intact. The temple was built into a cave at the top of the mountain. Orange robes pinned on a clothesline moved lightly in the wind. It was an active monastery. I saw a monk bent over a grinder, blue sparks flying behind him. They seemed to be building something.
We went inside the temple. Front and center was a wax figure of a monk who must’ve been holier than the rest. Most of the pictures and paintings in the temple featured the same monk. There was a small glass case filled with all of his earthly possessions, including a razor for shaving his head. Monks, if nothing else, are dedicated to minimalism. I privately considered the contents of my travel pack, making a note to eradicate redundancies. Less is more.
As we descended, the Canadian and I discussed the pros and cons of traveling solo. We agreed that they are mostly pros. She struck me as positive and upbeat, her demeanor almost sunny. She was an agreeable companion for the day.
The next stop was the caves just down the way. We had to pay to enter, then pay again for a guide with a kerosene lantern. One of the toll collectors informed us that the cave guides are volunteers who work exclusively for tips. Ours was a sweaty gentleman who showed us stalactites/mites that evoked shapes like an elephant, a waterfall, a seal… Like constellations, these stalactites only approximated said forms. Buddhist statues were everywhere. So were bats, which flitted about indiscriminately during our 15-minute cave exploration. Though the tour was short, I understood why a guide was mandatory; chambers of the cave were linked by small tunnels that were so small we had to squat or crawl through them. By the end I was glad to see sunlight. The experience was touristy but seeing those natural phenomenons up close and personal was worthwhile.
Between myself and the Canadian girl we had hardly enough dough to pay for the caves, let alone tip the volunteer. We promised we would return to tip him but we never got around to it.
Again Suntan took us to the market where I bought Khao Soi for 20 baht. I followed that up with pancakes and fried bananas. I bought a dragon fruit too and had to consult YouTube how to cut it up.
When we returned to the hostel there were two guests: a woman in her early twenties from Chicago and a woman probably thirty something with a serious expression and an accent I thought was Russian. Turns out she is Israeli, with Ukrainian roots. We chatted and I learned that she is a rock climber and a massage therapist. She was about to do a Thai massage course in nearby village. I found her accent pleasant to listen to, especially the way she says river, “reever”.
The next day Suntan arranged a cycling adventure for me and the three girls. He led us in his truck like the pilot car in the Tour de France. Our tour began with a steep hill, where we all struggled to find the right gear on the unfamiliar bikes.
I was first up the hill, which crested and went around a bend. I waited at the end of the turn. The Israeli girl showed up a minute later. Quickly she decided she didn’t want to wait around for the other girls and turned around and pedaled away, heading for the “reever”.
Shortly thereafter, Suntan drove up.
“Where’d everyone go?”
I explained that the Israeli girl bailed and I hadn’t seen the other girls since the beginning of the big hill. He drove off in search of them.
Eventually the Canadian and American girls showed up and explained that they took a wrong turn. They thought it was rude that the Israeli had abandoned us so readily.
Soon we found ourselves riding on the shoulder of a highway. Suntan was still leading the way and would pull over periodically to let us catch up. The sun was blaring and I worried about burning in my tank top.
Eventually we arrived at some festival outside a temple. It was a fundraiser of sorts, complete with carnival games and trampolines. There was a band and a comic onstage who were clearly a hit with the audience but us clueless Westerners couldn’t do more than observe. From what I could tell we were the only tourists and were regarded with polite curiosity by the locals.
I approached one of the game tents and picked up an air rifle. I paid the man and took aim at the bottles. I hit one dead on but it didn’t fall. The Canadian girl tried next and managed to knock one down. She won a sugary orange drink that she didn’t really want.
We rode another few miles to some pizza place but it was closed. Our little group was sweaty and famished. Suntan helped us load our bikes in the bed of his pickup and drove us to a spectacular viewpoint. An enormous Buddha statue with painted nails adorned the top of the mountain. We could see out over the whole valley. Nothing but green jungle and late afternoon sunshine.
The evening saw us back at the market, where we bought bags of pre-mixed dinner. Together us tourists made a spread of food and shared everything. Suntan did a beer run for us. The food was spicy, which the girls struggled with. I found everything delicious.
After dinner Suntan took us to some natural hot springs where we soaked for an hour or so, taking breaks and dunking in the cool nearby river. I floated on my back, the cold water encompassing everything but my face which was turned up to the unpolluted night sky. It was a clear night and the stars were out, shrill and definite. I went cold to hot and back again until my skin couldn’t tell which was which. The sulfury springs seemed like a local spot; the other springs were taken up by groups of Thais, who all bathed with their clothes on. Suntan explained that their modesty was a cultural thing.
We traveled back to the hostel in the back of Suntan’s truck and with the warm wind I was in Hawaii again, hitchhiking.
Meanwhile, the Chicago girl was starting to annoy me. She kept saying things like “that’s so interesting” or “I can’t get over the stars”. She had quit her job back in the states to bum around SE Asia for a few months. Neither of the girls like Israeli girl. It was time for me to move on.
In bed I busted out my iPad and booked two nights in a treehouse outside Chiang Rai. It was time to really get off the beaten path.