When I last wrote here, I was on my way to the island of Koh Phi Phi for Christmas festivities. Eager, but apprehensive, I boarded the ferry in Phuket that was nearly entirely filled with young partiers. I napped below deck and occasionally went outside the boat to watch the islands drift by. The island of Phi Phi is about what you would expect from a small island filled with tourists. Streets were too small and crowded for anything but foot traffic, so walking or boating were your transportation options. Buildings were tightly packed, usually either a hostel, restaurant, bar, or tatoo parlor. My hostel was a cheap and crowded 20 person dorm with terrible bathrooms and hardly functioning doors. Thankfully misery loves company and I quickly made friends with Jordan, Lil Mike, and Big Mike. Two brits and a German, these fine gentleman showed me the true meaning of Christmas. The true meaning apparently being strawberry daiquiri buckets, pool parties, and late night fire shows. I even got to see Jordan enter the thai boxing ring at the Regae Bar, known for its’ (agreed upon) drunken fights between tourists. Both participants get a free bucket, the crowd gets to watch the fight, and the winner gets a shiny medal. Jordan tied, which counted as a win too I suppose. These antics took up a couple days. Thankfully I also enjoyed some cheap non-drinking related activities too, and climbed to the popular Phi Phi viewpoint with a friend. The view is gorgeous, but also a reminder of the tsunami that hit the region in 2004. You don’t really get an idea of how small and cozy Phi Phi used to be until you look at comparison photos of before and after the tsunami. After the island was wiped away once, it was ripe for new construction and thus the extremely touristy modern Phi Phi was born. Afterward the viewpoint, we wandered down into the quieter beach area that holds many of the luxury resorts and then walked the edges of the island back to the main part of town. The secluded beaches were a nice change from the trashy, mucky main beach near town. You can almost feel the human waste between your toes as you walk there and never quite know if you’ll hit a beer bottle buried in the sand. To end the island trip, I met up with Alex (from Krabi Town) and lost at some beer pong with him. We probably only lost because there were no free drinks at stake.
After Koh Phi Phi, I felt exhausted with partying and wanted to have a quieter New Year’s, so I decided to work my way north to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai had an extremely good reputation among my fellow travelers, everyone always talked of how relaxing and chill the area was. I find myself often guided by the word of mouth from other travelers. After leaving the island, my first stop was back to Krabi Town where I ended up running into some friends from Phi Phi. Market food and river walks passed the night away, and in the morning I set out early to wander Krabi Town for a specific purchase. Hot weather and bad directions ended up with me sweating to death in the wrong part of town, but a nice local man gave me a ride right to where I needed to go. Two thousand baht and one difficult decision later, I had myself a brand new ukulele. Why on Earth would I buy a ukulele? The idea first crossed my mind while planning for my travels over college. Who wouldn’t want to be a traveling musician? The dream, of course, is to earn money while you travel by serenading the tourists and locals alike. In reality, its just a good use of some of the free time I have. I have some experience with guitar and always wished I played more. And when you double the amount of bags you carry just to bring one instrument, you make sure you use it. So far I’ve played every day with about 90% success, I’ve learned my chords, and I’m working on learning one song and writing two. I do, however, greatly fear being a walking cliche. Like the student that plays guitar at the center of campus for attention, I’d hate to be the stereotype of a traveler whipping out his instrument in the hostel lobby and playing Wonderwall for the ladies. So far, I’ve spent a lot of time alone on roofs crooning the clouds and the stars. Anyways, after finally getting my uke I left southern Thailand by night bus, the same way I arrived.
Have you ever arrived in Bangkok at 3 a.m. to a busy bus station and a crowd of predatory tuktuk drivers? I wouldn’t recommend the bus, but I would recommend walking to Chatuchak Park like I did for sunrise. Before sunrise, many local Bangkok residents use the park for a morning jog. I took a seat in a quiet part of the park near the water and ended up sitting in on a morning thai chi session. Groggy and tired, I walked to the nearby metro station and thanked God for Bangkok’s excellent public transportation system. I finally got the the train station where I planned to book a night train to Chiang Mai, but couldn’t catch a break (or a train) and the entire ride was already booked. I bought one for the day after, but that meant that I would arrive on New Year’s Eve, which worried me a bit. I walked across the street to the @Hua Lamphong Hostel (where I also spent the first night of my travels) and got a room for the night, but it was still early and a room wouldn’t be ready for a couple hours. I strolled through the nearby China Town area and found food, a strange shopping mall/art gallery, and was thinking of crossing the river but was suddenly hit with a wave of exhaustion that dragged me back to my hostel. Thankfully my room was now ready and I napped a solid five hours. With few hours left in the day I merely ate dinner and played with my new ukulele. In the morning I set off across the river using the very cheap taxi boat system and found myself in part of the Bangkok Medical University campus. Lets just say there’s a reason they ship you to Thailand if you are really sick in South East Asia. My purpose at the university? Why, the Siriraj Medical and Forensic Science Museum of course. Really a collection of several different museums, the first I stopped at was tucked into a corner of a lecture area and contained a complete cross section of a human being and a very large amount of deformed fetuses, both skeletal and fully preserved. The main theme appeared to be forms of conjoined twins. Spooky. The next museum was more of a history museum. Some parts were the history of Thailand, others the history of the university, and others the history of medicine in general in Thailand. The only memorable section was the area dedicated to traditional medicine. One of the core principles in traditional Thai medicine is the balance of the four elements: earth, wind, water, and fire. It may sound like the beginning to a great cartoon, but it plays an important role throughout Thai spirituality and health. It actually made more sense to me if I imagined the elements as representations of phase state changes. Earth represents solids, water represents liquids, air represents gasses, and fire energy. Balance between these systems keeps you healthy. Perhaps I’m butchering the idea though. After the history museum I went to the main attraction, the Forensic Science Museum. Murder, disaster, sickness, death! Immediately to the left of the main entrance is a very new exhibit dedicated the 2004 tsunami. It outlines the different steps of the disaster relief process. We usually just hear about the different rescue operations for the living, but what of the dead? Almost 5,000 bodies (half of which were foreigners) needed to be identified. How did they do it? Personal items, dental records, and even tattoos. Maybe that ugly tattoo you hate will come in handy some day. After that section I came upon the area dedicated to different acts of murder around Thailand. It mostly exhibited different murder tools. Screwdrivers barely an inch long, hubcaps used as blunt weapons, shoelaces used as a garrote. Guns help, but the clever will find a way to murder with anything. The next section showed different bones and organs that had been shot, stabbed, or affected by some disease. After that, a large section on parasites, insects, and snakes. These museums were a great time to contemplate death and the dangers of travel. Who lurks behind the next alleyway with a one inch screwdriver? Which foothold on the hill has a venomous snake in it? When will the next tsunami happen? Malaria? Brain aneurysm?!?! It makes even the bravest wish for a nice heart attack at the age of 75 as you sit on your couch eating a burger. It mostly just made me feel lucky, perhaps blessed. I know death lurks around every corner, but I’m mostly just amused that he hasn’t found me yet. I always was good at hide and seek. After the museums I returned to the train station and boarded a beautiful train that would even make a certain friend of mine blush. The beds folded out and were fairly comfortable, but I didn’t sleep well. The horrors of the museum? No. The A/C was too high.
In Chiang Mai I had one simple, clear goal: Find something to do for New Year’s. I headed to my hostel, a very cheap one on the north side of town. I had hoped to simply meet people at my hostel, as I usually do for socialization, but I only found an older Chinese man who spoke poor English. I killed some time walking around town looking at the many, many, many temples in the area. When I returned to my hostel, nothing had changed. I started switching over to plan b, meet people at a bar or club, when another backpacker came in and we started chatting. His name was Audrey, and although younger than me, he had traveled for much, much longer. We ended up hanging out for New Year’s, which mostly consisted of enjoying the very large weekend market and heading to Tha Phae Gate where a floating lantern festival was taking place. Although not as big as other parts of the year, it was still beautiful. We each let one off as well, letting our lanterns carry our wishes into the new year, or so they say. Some people nearby would sometimes get their lanterns stuck in the trees. The lanterns had to be put out by firemen, who playfully sprayed the crowd as well. I don’t know what happened to the wishes. We sat near the moat surrounding the Old City and counted down to New Year’s with crowds of other travelers. Afterwards we hit up the bars the backpackers go to, but they close at midnight in Chiang Mai (1 a.m. on New Years thankfully). I had heard of areas open later secretly, but never found the right spot. Still a very beautiful New Years.
The next day I relaxed and moved over to an even cheaper hostel, At Ban Khun Hostel, which turned out to be much funner as well. A lovely Thai lady worked there that could only be described as spunky. Helpful, yet sassy, she did everything possible to keep her guests happy with their stay. Someone had their baggage accidentally stolen, and she paid to have it shipped back for him. He said he’d pay her. He didn’t. She methodically watched over security camera footage when a guest thought he had his wallet stolen. He found it in his bag. He lost it again later, she hid it from him for a bit. After an easy New Year’s Day, I joined some people from my hostel to visit the Grand Canyon. Yes, THE Grand Canyon. Wait, no, A Grand Canyon. Well, really more of just an old quarry that’s been filled with water and fashioned into a tourist swimming hole. There was some cool cliff jumping though. I landed on my kidneys in an attempt to get revenge for the kidney stones they gave me almost a year earlier. I think they learned their lesson. The water was very cold, most likely all from rainwater and groundwater. We swam for a bit and even got someone that didn’t know how to swim with us to go out with a life jacket. She fared well while hovering over the bottomless pit below her. We had fun and I didn’t spend very much. That night I joined a couple of them to see a real Thai kickboxing fight. It seemed like something I had to do while I’m here. There were five matches, the first ended with what looked like a brutal kick to the groin. The boxers looked too young. The later fights were more exciting, but never ended in a knock out. My fellow backpackers got tired and left me before the final fight. It turned out to by far be the best one, with a slow and drawn out final knockout. Watching men fight for money and glory made me uncomfortable, but I watched all the same.
The next day I knew I needed to get some hiking in. The nearby Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a large temple complex that attracts many tourists and lies atop the small mountain nearby. With a bit of research, I discovered a trail that you can take all the way from the bottom to the top of the mountain. Named the Monk’s Trail, it was lined with trees that had strips of the characteristic orange cloth that monks wear for their robes. It used to be the only way to get to Doi Suthep as a pilgrim before the road was built, but is today only used by monks and hikers. The hike was amazing and half way up you meet a sort of midway temple complex that I honestly found much more beautiful then Doi Suthep. The second half of the hike was more difficult, but that made finally reaching the top all the more exciting. Doi Suthep itself is very crowded and not particularly interesting, but the view from it is amazing. When I spent enough time here I started walking to the taxis expecting a cheap ride down, but every single taxi demanded the same price and had no care for haggling. There were so many tourists they didn’t need to bother with me. So I walked back down, on the road this time. While walking, my thoughts drifted back to conversations with Audrey who is an avid hitchhiker throughout his travels. When he told me some of his stories, I honestly had a huge wave of jealousy hit me. I knew it was something I wanted to experience, so while walking down the mountain I figured now is as good a time as ever. I stuck my thumb out and walked. Nobody stopped. I walked some more. I sat on a rail for a while. Cars zoomed by. Trucks zoomed by. Scooters zoomed by. One stopped. One’s all you need. His name was Jimmy, he spoke a bit of English, he was on a scooter road trip with his friends, and he loved to ride. He took me down the mountain and showed me just how fast scooters can go. We got to the bottom and I wasn’t sure if he would take me towards town where my hostel was or just drop me off at the bottom. He ended up inviting me to join him and his friends for the night as they toured more of town. Who am I to refuse such a kind gesture? We looked at some more temples outside of town and visited a lovely flower park that only had Thai visitors. At the temples they showed me how to participate in some of the Buddhist rituals that you’ll often see locals performing but are too afraid to do as a tourist. In the night we went back to town and went to Tha Phae Gate where we say, drank whiskey, and ate some market food. They were very good at finding the good food, but also had the weird habit of drinking their whiskey watered down. I preferred mine in shot form. After an hour they had to leave and I said goodbye to Jimmy and his friends. Perhaps I’ll visit them again soon.
I was having tons of fun in Chiang Mai, but the days were counting down until my visa ran out and I would have to leave the country. Too much time to just spend in Chiang Mai. I had two plans for longer activities to do in the area. One was to travel Northern Thailand by motorbike and make my way to Chiang Rai, home of the White Temple. The other was to do a four day meditation retreat. Upon further investigation, the meditation retreats were full, so my decision was made for me. I rented a motorbike and made a rough plan of where to go, a dissection of the longer Golden Triangle motorbike route. I set off mid day with my pack on my back and my uke on my front. I had some experience with scooters from my time in Koh Lanta, but things were completely different in the second biggest city in Thailand. I stopped patiently in line with traffic as I waited for the long Thai stoplights. Every other scooter weaved through traffic to get to the front of the pack for when the light changed. I had a schedule to keep, so I joined them. I quickly learned how to flow through traffic, how to pass other scooters, where to ride and when. My mind was busy keeping track of all the chaos of the traffic. A traffic stop was up ahead. I wasn’t speeding, but they still waved me down. The officer in the orange vest asked me for my international drivers license. I told him I didn’t need one. He said I did. I handed him my USA drivers license and said that this was enough. He said I was driving illegally and had to go to the police station if I wanted my license back. I found this preposterous and demanded my license back. He said I could have it back for 500 baht. Ah, I can see clearly now. His vest was orange, but had no indication that he was a police officer. All the local drivers just drove through the “police stop”. I felt silly. And angry. He refused to give me back my license, so I threatened to call the police department and see what they thought. He tensed up. I threatened to call the tourist police (a specific branch of the police dedicated to helping tourists and preventing scams). I got my license back. He said he’ll let me off with a ticket and scribbled on a notepad. I drove away. For some reason, I thanked him. Damn you Minnesota. I rode north and it was beautiful. The mountains began to form, as hills, and the roads curved with them. I was so captivated I almost didn’t turn enough on a bend and nearly hit a small pole. I kicked the ground and was able to turn enough. My shoe was worse off, but I was fine. I got to Chiang Dao and found a random “hostel” that ended up just being a guest house with a bunch of beds in it. I was the only guest.
The next day I got up at sunrise and went to Wat Tham Pha Plong. There were 510 steps to get to the top, but it was nothing compared to the other climbs I had done. There were lovely little words of wisdom hung up throughout the climb, talking about enlightenment, death, and Buddhism in general. I love when they do that. At the top, I waited near the kitchen complex where several locals had gathered. The women in the kitchen were abuzz making all kinds of dishes. At one point, some of the gathered started working their way to the kitchen and I joined them. I picked up some kind of vegetable dish and followed the others ahead of me to the top of the temple complex. There was a building built partly into the mountain where worship was usually conducted. A dozen monks sat uniformly to the side and I walked up to the main monk and handed him my dish. I bowed slightly when he received it. All merely mimicry of those before me. I went and got another dish to bring up. This time however, it was several soup bowls on a platter. The climb up the steps was nerve wracking, as was taking off my shoes before entering the temple, but I succeeded. The monk received my gift with another bow. After all the food was delivered, we sat for a prayer with the monks. Then were waited and watched them gather what food they wanted and pass it along via rolling cart to the next monk. At the end of the line we gathered the left overs and brought it back to the kitchen. When all was finished, we met back in the kitchen area and ate the left overs, which there were plenty. The food was delicious, but I was a tad nervous of taking too much food or not finishing something. I barely spoke and it was magical. Every morning the townspeople carry food up the mountain to give to the monks. In general, all your needs as a monk are completely taken care of by the people of your town. This allows them to concentrate fully on their meditations and the teachings of the Buddha. I walked down and rode on, working my way north to the mountains that border Thailand and Myanmar. Along the way, I tried to find a waterfall I heard about that juts out of a cliff side. A fascinating hydrogeologic phenomena, I never did locate it. I found a hot spring instead and dipped my feet for a bit. I reached some beautiful hilly countryside, sometimes smudged with the ugly of deforestation, and finally started climbing the mountains I was looking for. My bike proved to be strong enough for the job and I climbed up beautifully twisty roads. I cruised the mountains for a bit until I realized I was getting dangerously low on gas. Thankfully, I saw a gas sign pretty quickly. When I stopped and asked, he handed me a liter water bottle filled with gasoline. I took it happily, and the tea he offered too. A nice Thai family on a little holiday stopped and talked with me too. They seemed impressed that I could ride up the mountain by motorbike alone, and I was flattered. We ended up passing each other routinely throughout the day. When I got deeper into the mountains, the mist started to roll in. It quickly became so thick you could only see a few meters ahead of yourself. I loved it. The mist and the wind teamed up, one dampening your clothes, the other slicing through them. It was freezing, but the beauty of the area kept me going. I rode past a lot of camping areas. They seemed so close to the road and clumped together, but different countries camp in different ways. The sites were packed. I eventually started heading downhill to Doi Ang Khang where I had a lovely lunch that warmed me up right proper. After, I went to the Royal Agricultural Station, a huge botanical area created by the late queen to help ween northern tribes off of opium and onto cash crops. It was a cute little walk, but I don’t really care for flowers. It was more interesting watching all the other people. They were all Thai tourists. The gardens are of no interest to international travelers but are extremely beloved by Thai citizens. I suppose you can find similar sites in every country. Who would go to The Quarry when visiting in Minnesota? After the gardens, I knew I needed to keep riding. My map showed a road to the north that eventually turns towards Fang, a much larger town that I could spend the night. It rode near the Myanmar border. I rode north and drove through cute little towns on the tops of mountains. Eventually I saw a half raised gate in the road that was easily enough for me to ride through. The armed military personnel didn’t think it was a good idea though. All they could say was “No Enter Myanmar!”. Apparently the road on my map that runs next to Myanmar needs updating, as it actually goes into it. I had to turn around and go a different way and it was already getting dark. It was night as I rode down the mountain, but the roads were empty and the views amazing. I made it to Fang in time for dinner and got my own personal motel room for the price of many hostels. It was the first time I had a mini-fridge and a TV before. I used neither.
On the third day of riding I drove hard for Mae Salong. The ride strolled through serene farmlands that took my breath away. I went back up the mountains again before I got to Mae Salong. A small village on the mountains, it was another Thai tourist spot, this time renowned for being an area many Chinese fled to after the red menace struck China. The food was great and the ride wonderful, but besides that seemed rather lacking. I rode on. I eventually got back to the main roads and rode hard north to Ban Pong where I went to Wat Tham Pla. This temple was known for its caves, fish pond, and monkeys. The caves were rather nice, the fish were beautiful and numerous, and the monkeys especially murderous. I saw one adult male monkey throw a baby monkey out of a 10 meter high tree. He made a sickening thud like beaten meat and then ran off to his mother. He seemed uninjured, but that was probably just his adrenaline kicking in. After that I rode south finally for Chiang Rai. The traffic was absolutely crazy, but I found my way. In the night, I found my way to the Festival of Flowers that I happened to be visiting during. The flowers were pretty but I still didn’t fancy them. The food was great though. I even tried barbecued crickets. Yum!
My final day I rode north of town to the Black House. The Black House, more properly known as Baan Dam, is the art compound of Thawan Duchanee, world renowned Thai artist. Everything here was an art piece. The buildings, the furniture, the paths. He is an excellent architect, wood worker, and painter. As the name suggests, he uses black primarily, but also uses a lot of animal skeletons, hides, and knives. His work spoke a lot to me and always had some sort of deeper meaning. It made me want to work on similar art pieces. It gave me dreams of a beautiful compound of my own hand crafted by myself every step of way. Maybe someday. After the Black House I went to the White Temple. It was much more crowded but there was a nice art exhibit attached that I also enjoyed. The artist is Chalermchai Kositpipat and he is also trying to make a sort of compound, this time to represent different aspects of life and Buddhism. I found the temple to be very gorgeous, but I felt it lacked the same deeper meaning that I found in the art at Baan Dam. The entrance had a nice representation of rising out of hell with the hands of the tormented reaching out to you, but besides that it just screamed “this is a big beautiful white temple and that represents heaven”. I ran into some friends from Chiang Mai randomly here too who were hitch hiking around. Sadly I had no room for them. I rode back to Chiang Mai and got to enjoy a beautiful hilly national forest. I again started running out of gas though and seriously began planning how I would get to town when my bike broke down. But with only one bar left on my gauge, I left the forest and found a gas station. Afterwards I rode a hard ride home and got back in the afternoon. My rear hurt like never before but a nice stay at Ban Khun again helped me heal. That night I ended up randomly walking into Alex again (from Krabi Town…and Phi Phi) and we hit the bars again. This time we said we’d take it easy and just got beers and played pool. We were eventually wasted again and dancing at the clubs. It was a blast, again, but I paid for it the next day, again. I think Alex felt the same way.
Hung over, I boarded a bus to start heading to the Myanmar-Thailand border. Apparently the border closes at 6 so I had to quickly find a place to stay for the night, but the locals were very helpful and I made some friends to cross the border with too. In the morning we hitched our way to the border crossing, where we all had to pay for late fees for overstaying our visas. Whoops. I thought the bridge would be more exciting to cross between countries, but it was just a dirty bridge with beggars. As for what happens in Myanmar, I’ll have to tell later. Stay tuned.
5 thoughts on “One Month and Counting”
I love hearing about your trip. You are an excellent writer and and really make a clear description of your travels. Best of luck. Love you, Grandma Nancy
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It is so great to hear about your experiences on your travels. It all sounds so amazing! Keep safe! Keep having fun! Keep us informed! I love you!
Thank you so much for the updates, Shane! Your writing is amazing — so descriptive, I almost feel like I’m there with you. Wish I was! What an AWESOME adventure you’re having. Thank you for sharing it with us. Keep the updates coming whenever you can, I so look forward to them. Be safe and have a blast!
I left a comment on Jan. 23rd but apparently it did not get sent so I will try again. I too am amazed at how well you write – you have a real talent there. It appears you are having a very interesting and educational trip. I look so forward to hearing from you. Take care. Love you, Grandma Nancy
Fun to follow your adventure.
Never had a doubt that you will enjoy the time of your life .
Linda keeps me up-to-date with your phone calls will be getting a new phone soon and set up a connection to talk .
Your grandfather loves to follow your blog just keeps saying good for him- good for him . He’s proud as much as myself that you took on such a adventure! He’s a lot sharper now then when you last visited him.
Till we talk again my favorite son