Neither of us had ever been to Asia before, and although we'd watched ten seasons of The Amazing Race, we weren't really sure what we were getting ourselves into.
After clearing customs, we found ourselves amid a swarm of potential new friends ("Hello! Where are you from? Need taxi?"). We pushed past them and found our way to the official taxi stand.
We got our first dose of culture shock when we tried to load our bags into the trunk: there was already something in it, something huge and cylindrical and rusty, taking up almost the entire space. There were pipes running out of it and down into the bowels of the car, so I think it was probably an auxiliary fuel tank. By my estimate, it came off an 18-wheeler.
The cabdriver motioned for us to stuff our bags on top of it, which I reluctantly did. My understanding of the laws of spatial geometry told me that there was no way the trunk would come close to shutting, so I gave him a puzzled look and waited for his next move.
Rummaging beneath the giant canister, he pulled out an old bungee cord. One end of it he hooked to the bumper. The other went through a hole that had apparently been drilled in the trunk door for just this purpose. Short of options (it was 11:30 PM), we shrugged and climbed inside.
We spent the first few minutes of the drive trying to dig our seatbelts out from the depths of the car. Eventually we realized that there were no passenger seatbelts. The driver had one, but perhaps as a gesture of solidarity, he chose not to wear it.
This was a more or less representative introduction to transportation in Southeast Asia.
As long as you manage not to get yourself killed, Bangkok is a pretty easy city to navigate. Only the major roads have names, and any minor street branching off is called a "soi" of that road. For example, our hotel was on the 15th little street branching off from Sukhumvit Road, and so it was called Sukhumvit Soi 15. Cabdrivers mostly seemed to know the English numbers up to ten, so we could just ask for "Sukhumvit one-five" and be on our way.
As for mass transit, Bangkok has both underground and elevated train lines. Both are new, clean, and English-friendly — even the station announcements are bilingual. Buses had fewer signs in English, but since they mostly travel in straight lines along the major roads, we were able to ride without incident. (We and the ticket-taker lady had to use our fingers to figure out the fare, though.)
Oddly, walking turned out to be the most difficult form of transport. On the main roads, traffic is so heavy and the streets so wide that it's hard to cross on foot. Bangkok's solution to this problem is strategically placed pedestrian overcrossings. Most intersections don't even have crosswalks — if you want to get to the other side, you have to find the nearest stairway.
In areas with elevated trains, these pedestrian skyways can run for blocks, right below the tracks. You can walk on the wide, raised paths from station to station without descending to the crowded streets below.
The best reason to travel Bangkok on foot is to make your feet tired. Then you get to have them massaged! But more on that later.
In other ways, though, navigating Bangkok can be a challenge. The street signs all have romanizations printed beneath the Thai script, but the transliteration isn't standardized. Sometimes it even varies from sign to sign along the same street. And then there's Wireless Avenue, which is anything but.
The sois are particularly difficult to negotiate. These back streets are all connected by little alleyways, but not in any regular way and never included on a map. One day we were trying to get from Soi 15 to Soi 21 via a shortcut our taxi driver had used the night before. We got all turned around and couldn't find our way out.
Happily, we ran into a group of students from the nearby international school who were ordering breakfast from a street vendor. The food smelled good, and we realized how hungry we were. We struck up a conversation, they helped us order some noodles and fried rice, and before heading back to class they directed us to one of Bangkok's many canals, which had a walkway on the bank. This was also a fun surprise, as we enjoyed watching the little boats go by. And yes, it did connect us to Soi 21.
Here are a few more miscellaneous photos from around Bangkok. You can see the rest in our Flickr album.
Sam's an old friend of ours who's spent much of the last eight years living in India, visiting all of the country's 28 states in the process (an accomplishment to which few Indians can lay claim). By now, and I say this with great respect for India, he knows everything there is to know about sketchy lodging, dilapidated and dangerous modes of transportation, and places so remote their people haven't even seen the Hamster Dance.
Photography is Sam's passion (and, whenever possible, his profession), and he's made quite a few excursions from his Indian home base, posting pictures and stories from around the hemisphere over on his web site. As luck would have it, he too had been planning a tour of Southeast Asia, and we juggled our respective schedules so we could travel together for a bit.
We were to meet at the Grand Palace, a lily-gilded temple that's been called the Vatican of Thailand. Since none of us had a cell phone or any foreknowledge of the site, we set "the entrance" as our rendezvous point without even knowing where that was.
The Palace is in such an old part of the city that the subway doesn't go there. We were wary of trusting such a long journey to a public bus, so we instead tried out Bangkok's original method of public transportation: the riverboat.
After riding the elevated train to the river, we walked out onto a rickety wooden dock crowded with people and bought two scraps of paper from a woman who we hoped was an official ticket vendor, then boarded a rickety wooden boat crowded with people that we hoped was going to the Grand Palace.
Despite the cramped quarters and occasional splash of water, we really enjoyed the ride. We shared the river with old-fashioned boats and modern steel ones and quite a few that were being paddled. The riverside buildings were interesting too: fancy hotels, government buildings with dozens of flags, and more than a few slums. Hilary even saw someone dump two bags of garbage into the river from the comfort of his back porch. How convenient that must be!
We got to see a lot of "the real Bangkok" from the boat, and it got us to the Grand Palace just in time.
Being grand, the palace has more than one entrance. We didn't realize this until we arrived, but after a few nervous minutes, we found the main one and spotted Sam. He was hard to miss, being just about the only bearded person in the country. We greeted each other excitedly and went inside the palace gates.
The Palace complex is both the seat of Thailand's royal family and the center of Thai Buddhism. On our way inside, we were stopped at what appeared to be a security checkpoint, but was in fact just a modesty inspection. Visitors with uncovered knees or shoulders were forced to rent ugly Hawaiian-print shirts and pants. My shirt was borderline, and a supervisor was called over for a second opinion. Fortunately I was let off with just a warning, and we proceeded out to the main courtyard.
The area is packed with dozens of buildings: museums, temples, and ceremonial halls. All are brightly painted, gold-leafed, and mosaicked. Most of them had statues of people, giants, and mythological creatures outside. The swirling color and shining light in every direction, combined with the crowds of worshipers, monks, and tourists, was almost overwhelming.
At first, we tried to take some broad photos, in an effort to capture the whole of the place. This proved impossible; the palace is so dense that you simply can't get far enough away from your subjects. Here are our best attempts:
Eventually we switched tactics, concentrating instead on the finer details:
From a distance, most of the building decorations appeared to be ceramic tiles, but when we got up close we realized that many were in fact painted directly onto the walls. We even saw artists touching up some of the paintwork; it must wear off quickly in Bangkok's frequent rain. The ones that really were mosaics were actually made not of ceramic but in fact bits of colored mirror; no wonder they shine like jewels.
We thought these soldiers deserved their own section:
The entire complex is built around a temple called Wat Phra Kaew, which houses the 2000-year-old Emerald Buddha. This statuette (actually made of jade) has served as a sort of trophy of war, changing hands between the Thai, Lao, and Khmer peoples multiple times over the past five or six centuries. He has three little gold outfits, one for each season: cold, hot, and rainy. (The two he isn't wearing at any given time are kept on display in the museum.)
The statue is much-revered: Visitors must remove their shoes before entering the wat, whereupon they're expected to either stand quietly in the back or approach the comically-high pedestal to pray at its base. If you do choose to pray (or just sit for a while), you must kneel down with your feet facing the rear of the room. Palace guards are on hand to reprimand tourists sitting cross-legged — or, worse, with their legs straight out in front of them — as it is considered highly inappropriate to point one's feet at the Buddha.
Photography is also forbidden (though Google managed to get ahold of a few shots), so I asked Mike to draw a picture of what it looked like:
What we really liked was the long wall surrounding the Wat. It's covered in a murals depicting a Thai folktale derived from an ancient Hindu legend. Apparently Southeast Asia was Hindu before it was Buddhist, and the Thais still incorporate a lot of Hindu ideas into their religious and cultural life.
There are plaques on each column describing what's going on in each mural, but of course we couldn't read any of them. Instead, we just looked at the pictures and made up our own story.
Some of you have asked whether it was difficult for us to get visas for all of the countries we're visiting. With one exception, it couldn't have been easier. Many countries allow American tourists to visit for a short time, visa-free. Most of the others issue visas at the border — all you need is some cash and a passport photo. (If you're planning a trip, the State Department website keeps a complete and up-to-date list of each country's rules.)
As mentioned, though, there was one country whose entry requirements were a bit more onerous: China. Not only do visitors need to apply in advance, they need to do it no more than 90 days before their arrival. In other words, this wasn't something we could have taken care of back in New York. We had to do it mid-trip.
As luck would have it, Sam was also planning to visit China after splitting off from us. We decided that Bangkok would be our best opportunity to get the visas.
According to the Internet, we would each need to bring a passport photo and a completed application form down to the Chinese embassy. Since we didn't have access to a printer, and had run out of passport photos, we went to something called the IT Mall to get our paperwork in order.
This was a six-story building packed with tiny stores, all selling either technology or noodles. There were cameras, computers, software, iPods, iPod knockoffs, real DVDs, bootlegged DVDs, cables, cell phones, video games, and noodles. In no time, we were filling out our applications, eating noodles, and waiting for our passport photos (which, by the way, cost just $1 / dozen; I always knew the price back home was a ripoff).
We arrived at the embassy at 12:15 PM, followed the signs to the second floor, came to the door... and were denied entry. The security guard pointed to a sign indicating that dropoff hours ended at 11:30 AM. They spend the early afternoon processing applications, and then there's a one-hour window, starting at 3:00, where everyone comes back to pick up their passport, hopefully with a shiny new visa in it.
Of course, there's no mention of this on the website.
We returned the next morning, and found a scene reminiscent of both the DMV and the horseracing track: take a number and wait for it to be called, then go to a window and shout loudly to the agent so she can hear you over the din of everyone else loudly shouting.
After all was said and done, the three of us walked out of there, each having exchanged our passport for a piece of pink tissue paper.
Although we were eager to reverse the trade as soon as possible, we got a little tied up on the way back and arrived just minutes before closing time. At first we thought we were too late — the seats were all empty, the room dead quiet, and all the windows seemingly closed. But then we heard a call from the far side of the room — there was one window open, all the way at the end. We rushed over and handed in our pink tissues.
There would be one final stumbling block: the embassy only took cash. Sam had been informed, incorrectly, that credit cards were accepted, so we hadn't prepared for this. We nervously emptied our pockets and money belts, pulling together just enough Thai cash to cover it. Whew. Had we needed to find an ATM, there's no way we could have returned before closing.
As we were handed back our passports, we each excitedly flipped through them looking for a new page. Sure enough, our hard-won Chinese visas were there, and they looked great!
Now we could stop worrying about China and get back to Thailand.
That night, we boarded a train bound for the northern city of Chiang Mai. Saying goodbye to Bangkok's fancy business hotels and metered taxis, we prepared for the worst.
It was actually pretty comfortable, though very different from anything we had seen before. The car was narrow, with just one seat on either side of the luggage-filled aisle. Front-facing seats alternated with rear-facing ones, and between each pair was a removable table. When it was stowed, the chairs slid inward to form a reasonable facsimile of bed, and a second bunk flipped down from above.
The bathrooms had no plumbing: The bottom of the toilet was just a hole. Through it, the tracks were visible. Sam pointed out that we were lucky the carriage was air-conditioned; on trains with openable windows, he said that the fellow passengers would be smoking, spitting, or even throwing their garbage right outside.
We ate the dinner we had bought in the station, set up the beds, and got as much sleep as we could. In the morning, they brought us breakfast, which we had just enough time to eat before we reached our destination.
Chiang Mai is an ancient city, and one of the largest in the country. It doesn't have the international feel of Bangkok, though — here, you're constantly aware that you're in Thailand. The old city walls and moat are still intact, along with dozens of Buddhist temples. We spent our first day exploring the alleys and shops, planning our stay, and learning how to get around.
Getting around was a lesson in itself.
While Bangkok has an abundance of metered taxis, the transportation outside the capital generally involves climbing into the back of a truck. These vehicles come in two sizes.
The smaller variety is known as a tuk-tuk — after the noise it makes — and can be found in clusters just about anywhere there's a road. They seat four to six passengers and usually have a luggage rack on top. Nicer ones have zippered curtains to keep out the cold and rain, and the best have four wheels for extra (i.e., any) stability.
The three-wheelers are far and away the norm, however, and look like a mythical creature with the head of a motorcycle and the body of a golf cart. The worst of these put the cart before the horse, so to speak, with a motorcycle in the back pushing the passenger cage. To steer, the driver grabs the carriage and uses brute force to turn it. I don't understand why anyone would build such a monstrosity, and we avoided that model like the plague.
The other travel option, seen only on major roads, is called a songthaew (literally, "two benches"). Reminiscent of Le Truck, songthaews provide a substantially smoother and faster ride. The catch is that, like a city bus, it's always stopping to let people on and off.
While roaming around town, we kept an eye out for cooking schools. We love Thai food (as should everyone), and we weren't alone in being curious as to how it's made. Half the hostels in Chaing Mai had signs out front advertising on-site cooking classes, and the three of us signed up for an six-hour lesson.
The next morning we showed up at 9:00 AM sharp and met the teacher, a woman named Gay who teaches art at the local university when she's not showing foreigners how to cook. She turned out to be an excellent and organized instructor.
She began the class by passing out copies of her cookbook (ours to keep!) and having us select, as a group, which dishes we'd be making. Although there were nine people taking the class, agreeing on a menu was surprisingly painless.
After that, Gay took us to purchase ingredients. We paraded along the main road, baskets in hand, and turned onto an unmarked side street. A few blocks later, we found ourselves at an open-air food market filled with everything a Thai chef could ever want. It was actually pretty overwhelming, and we were quite glad to have a guide; had we somehow stumbled upon the place on our own, I would have been too shy to approach anyone.
Before buying anything, though, we got the grand tour: Gay took us from stall to stall, holding up items, passing them around for us to to see and smell, and telling us all about them. Topics included:
After a tutorial on the sixteen varieties of rice for sale, Gay's assistants filled our baskets with supplies and we went back to the hostel's outdoor kitchen to start cooking. The menu we'd chosen included three different noodle dishes. In addition to the usual pad thai (thin rice noodles with peanuts and egg) and laad nar (thick rice noodles in vegetable gravy), we made a local specialty, Chiang Mai style noodles in yellow curry. This dish comes from the area's Muslim community, and uses fresh turmeric (which, confusingly, looks like ginger). It includes egg noodles in both soft and crispy-fried form for a variety of textures.
The noodle dishes were all made much the same way: heat your oil to medium and sauté garlic till fragrant. Add meat, if you're an omnivore, and egg, if called for. Turn up the heat, put in vegetables, and hit it with what Gay called "one-two-three": one spoonful of sugar, two spoonfuls of fish sauce (salty), and three spoonfuls of oyster sauce (meaty). Cook until veggies are at your desired level of doneness, and serve. It wasn't hard, and everything was delicious. Perhaps it was the fresh ingredients, but I was surprised at how easy it was to make food that was as good as any I've had in Thai restaurants.
After a break (not a lunch break, since we'd been eating continually for hours at this point), we broke into teams and got to work making curry paste from scratch. Besides the aforementioned red and green, there would be penang (with peanuts) and massaman (Muslim-influenced). Gay had already laid out the raw ingredients, but it would be up to us to do everything else. We had to finely chop everything and then pound it all in a mortar and pestle until it formed a fine paste. It was much harder than I realized, but once the paste is ready, it cooks pretty much like the noodle dishes. The only difference was that we started with a ladleful of coconut milk instead of cooking oil, and stirred in the curry paste in place of the garlic.
Our homemade curry was absolutely delicious, but I'm not sure we'll be cooking it at home every week: making the paste was fairly labor-intensive, and finding Asian ginger and kaffir limes in the U.S. would probably be as well.
We were almost too full to even contemplate dessert, but our sticky rice had been soaking all day so we pressed on. We filled a pot with coconut cream, which was pretty rich to begin with (Gay insisted we taste the sauce at every step in its preparation) and then we added palm sugar. Palm sugar is similar to maple sugar, but better. Once the sauce was almost too sickly sweet to bear, it was time to add another huge scoop of palm sugar — the rice, it seems, absorbs so much sweetness that the final dish would turn out bland if the sauce weren't mega-saturated.
Once the sauce was ready, we poured it over the sticky rice and let it soak in. Served with mango, it's long been one of Mike's favorite desserts. If we can find palm sugar in an Asian market, we'll definitely be making this one at home.
Sam took some terrific video of the cooking class, and with his permission we've edited it into the following montage:
Chiang Mai is also known for being a major jumping-off point for trekking, which is a cross between hiking, camping, anthropology, and adventure sport. You go up into the hills and... do stuff.
We signed up for a trek through our hostel — they organize their own. The night before we left, we sat at outdoor tables for an orientation session. The rest of the group consisted of a Bavarian couple, a trio of Scottish girls, and an Englishwoman traveling alone. All appeared to be significantly younger and in better shape than the three of us.
Soon we met our guide Montri ("Call me Tree"), who told us what to bring: sleep sacks, bathing suits, towels, sandals, hiking shoes, and as little else as possible.
Tree was a funny guy, as Sam discovered when he described his dietary restrictions: "No meat, but I do eat fish and eggs." "Got it," Tree said, "Fish okay, chicken okay, pork and beef not okay." "No," Sam replied, "I'll eat eggs but I don't eat chicken." Tree paused for a moment, furrowing his brow in mock confusion. "You know they same animal, right?"
At the end of the session, we were issued army-green rucksacks. They were totally no-frills, without padding or waist belts, so I ended up filling mine with everything I didn't want to bring... and then leaving it at the hostel and bringing my own backpack on the trek. We climbed aboard a songthaew early the next morning and took off along the bumpy roads.
Our first stop was a market, where the sandal-less and towel-less could buy their supplies and the rest of us could stroll around. There was an awful lot of raw meat for sale, including enough organs to reassemble the original animals. They had an ingenious solution for keeping the flies away: a small motor over each table spun ribbon, string, plastic bags, or whatever else was available, which created enough of a breeze to repel all insects. Tables employing this technology were bug-free, whereas the few without... well, let's just say it was pretty gross.
After the market, we had one last brush with civilization: the office of the Tourist Police, which made photocopies of everyone's passport, presumably so that they'd know which consulates to contact in the event of our disappearance. The officer (an expatriate volunteer) waved goodbye and we sped away, the paved roads quickly giving way to dirt.
Our warm-up activities began with a visit to a waterfall. A few members of the group waded over to stand under it, but the morning air was cold and the water was freezing, so Hil and I just splashed around at the edge of the pool.
Later, as the day grew warmer and we started to sweat, we reached a hot spring. Here, the water was nearly boiling. Even the Thai visitors dipped nothing but their feet and hands. It's too bad that geography was working against us so far; the two stops would have been very refreshing in the opposite order.
After that, the trek really began: we got off the songthaew, the driver called out, "See you tomorrow!" and Tree and an assistant led us into the woods.
What ensued was the most difficult hike Hilary or I had ever been on. The trail went up and down and up again, over and through a sweltering Southeast Asian forest. Though the temperature was probably similar to what it had been in Death Valley, as they say, it was the humidity that got us. It had been oppressive even back in town, and now that we had loads to carry and altitude to gain, it was nearly unbearable. Worst of all, our fellow hikers were going full speed ahead. To us, it felt like they were running up the hills.
Once we began to fall behind, things got even worse. The rest of the group disappeared from sight, and we would only catch up when they stopped for a break. Usually, by the time we arrived, they'd already been resting for five or ten minutes. We'd barely have a chance to take our packs off and sit down, and they'd be ready to move out. They were refreshed and we were ready to collapse.
Eventually, we decided to stop worrying about the others and just enjoy the hike at our own pace. This was a good move, because it gave us our first opportunity to really look around, to take pictures, and to stop and smell the termite mounds.
Brutal conditions aside, it was really nice up there. We passed a few farms, but it was mostly unspoiled jungle. Tree's assistant hung back with us, and though he only knew a little English he was good at spotting things and pointing them out to us. At one point he even picked up a stick and hurled it high up into a tree, knocking down tamarind berries for us to taste. The air was really clear, and from the tops of the ridges we could see halfway to Burma.
In the late afternoon, we reached a mountain village that was inhabited by an ethnic minority known as the Karen. Most live in nearby Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma), but there are a few hundred thousand in northern Thailand as well. They build their houses on stilts, with the living quarters high off the ground and the livestock below. The floors are made of split bamboo covered in woven mats, and like pretty much all Asian cultures I know of, the Karen don't wear their outdoor shoes inside. Some of the houses still use thatched roofs, but we'd be spending the night in a tin-roofed model.
We were all hot and sweaty when we dropped our bags, but it was getting dark quickly, and in the mountains it can be cold at night. There was an outbuilding with cold running water, pulled in from a nearby river. We were advised to shower immediately, because the water temperature drops at dusk and wouldn't warm up until the next afternoon. Using a spigot and bucket, we took turns in the little shack doing our best to get clean. Sam and a few others chose to bathe in the river instead, and they too had to hurry before the air got too chilly.
As the sun was setting, Tree led us on a walk around the village. I was really interested in the Karen, and hoped to interact with the villagers, but they couldn't have cared less about us. The men wear modern clothes, while the women wear traditional woven skirts with ordinary blouses or T-shirts.
Most Karen are still animists, but some villages, including this one, have been visited by missionaries and converted to Catholicism. Their little parish church was up on stilts just like all the other buildings, but the bottom was closed off to keep out livestock and there was a cross hung under the eaves.
We even saw a satellite dish, although there were no signs that the village was wired for electricity. Perhaps the government issues a dish, TV, and generator to each village so they can watch the official state broadcasts.
It was dark by the time we got back to the house — we couldn't see the ground under our feet for the last few turns. We kicked off our shoes at the base of a ladder and climbed upstairs. There, the proprietors were already hard at work on dinner, which consisted of stir-fried chicken, vegetables, and rice.
Next to the long dinner table was a metal tub filled with beer and soda, which we paid for on the honor system. Since the fastest route into town was the trail we'd just taken, I wondered how they got all the bottles and cans up the mountain. Tree said they sometimes use motorbikes, but mostly just walk it up. If that's the case, the 50-cent drinks were a real bargain.
During and after dinner, we really got to know the other trekkers. Sam started reading people's palms, and although we doubt anyone at the table really believed in chiromancy (Sam included), everyone seemed to suspend their disbelief and get really into it. Even Tree and one of the villagers insisted on a turn.
One of the favorite topics of discussion amongst us Westerners was the idiosyncrasies of our respective homelands. The Brits seemed particularly fascinated with American universities and their fraternity systems ("Is it really like the movies?") We were pleased to inform them that, yes, pledges really do sometimes get paddled and yes, we had really been to toga parties.
The biggest laugh for us was when we started talking about linguistic differences, like how Americans say "math" and "sports" whereas with most other English-speakers it would be "maths" and "sport." "Hey guys," one of the Scottish girls said to the other two in a mock American accent, "I forgot to do my math homework." Then they all burst into a fit of giggling. Even Mike gave it a go: "I'm going to take the elevator up to my apartment."
As the night wore on, a guitar was brought out from somewhere in the house, along with pages of worn, photocopied tablature for the B-list songs of A-list artists. Flipping through the stack, a photo of R.E.M. would come up and I'd hope it was Stand or Superman, but it would always turn out to be something like Flowers of Guatemala.
Luckily, the German trekker (the only one who could play guitar) already knew quite a few American songs, and we all stayed up late singing along. Had we been forced to sing German songs, I wouldn't have made it past Autobahn and the first line of O Tannenbaum.
When we ran out of candles, it was time to go to bed. There was just one big room, with mosquito nets, old mattresses on the floor, dusty blankets, and inch-thick foam pillows. Luckily we had come prepared.
Those of you who haven't spent much time in youth hostels may be unfamiliar with the "sleep sack." In its simplest form, it's a large bedsheet folded over with the bottom and side sewn up. You use it in situations where your accommodation charges extra for bedlinens, or doesn't provide any, or provides sets of dubious cleanliness. Even the cheapest guesthouse will give you a blanket, so unless you're going camping in the woods, there's no need to carry around a heavy, bulky sleeping bag.
Now that the travel-supply industry has entered the sleep sack business, you don't have to sew your own anymore. Mike and I each brought along an extremely lightweight sack made of tightly woven parachute silk. It's impervious to mosquitoes and bedbugs, packs up tiny, and even has a pillow pocket. Soon we were snug in our clean silk sheets, with warm blankets on top and a mosquito-net tent overhead.
I slept pretty well until around four in the morning, when people started getting up to use the toilet. I realized that I needed to go too, but the prospect of leaving my wonderful cocoon was hard to face, especially since the next steps would be to search my bag for the toilet paper, put on yesterday's filthy clothes, tiptoe across the wooden floorboards, descend the ladder to ground level, pick out my shoes from amongst the collection, make my way across the yard to the outhouse, and try to negotiate the squat toilet while holding a flashlight in my mouth.
As I lay there weighing my options, it started to rain. The loud plinking noises told me it was quite a downpour. Now that the prospect of mud had entered the equation, I resigned myself to waiting until morning and fell asleep envious of those who had gone earlier.
By morning, the rain had stopped. Hilary of course bolted out of bed as soon as she woke up, but I and a few of the others lingered until roused by the smell of French toast. Soon we were all at the table enjoying our breakfast. The girls from the U.K. referred to it as "eggy bread", and one said she used to wonder about this fancy-sounding "French toast" she'd heard so much about. "I was so disappointed when it turned out to just be eggy bread!"
Anyway, this particular batch of eggy bread was especially good, partly because it was covered in butter and honey and partly because we were starving and in the middle of nowhere.
After breakfast, we set off for one last hike. This one would take just 45 minutes, but it was nearly straight uphill as we climbed out of the village's valley ... and then straight downhill as we headed for a riverbank on the opposite side of the mountain. The other trekkers still didn't seem to be having much trouble, but Hil and I were suffering perhaps more than the previous day; sleeping on the floor had done little to soothe our very sore muscles.
Still, the end of the trail brought a rush of adrenaline as we saw what was in store: a team of elephants was being led across the river for us to ride!
I had never even been on a horse before, but nonetheless pulled Hilary to the front of the line. We were led up to a boarding platform, from which we stepped onto the animal's back and sat down on a howdah — it's sort of like a giant saddle. The elephant wrangler on the boarding platform yelled "Huhh!", which was apparently elephantese for "giddyup," and we started to move. We were encouraged to shout it ourselves, to keep the line moving, and soon we were off towards the riverbank.
Fortunately, we were not expected to steer; the elephants have been walking this same route for years and know exactly where to go. It was a bit like one of those Disney rides, where the vehicle goes along a track. We just kept shouting "Huuh!" and watched to see where the command would take us.
Before long, we were entering the river. I glanced back to verify that this was expected. The main elephant handler, who was now sitting on the neck of the one behind us, nodded his approval. Over the course of our slow and beautiful ride, we heard him having a conversation with his two Scottish passengers. He didn't know more than a few words of English, but even this hillsman who lived a day's hike away from anything had been exposed to enough Western culture to know how to get laughs, crying out "Oh my Buddha!" and "Elephant dot com!" Globalization is complete.
All too soon, it was time to get down off the elephants. They were taken back upstream, while we were led through rocks and brush to a small dock. By then it was late in the afternoon and we were all wishing we'd had more eggy bread. Unfortunately, the next item on our agenda was not lunch, but rather a rafting trip.
We reunited with Tree and his fellow guide, who were waist-deep in the river doing something with a pair of bamboo rafts. As we got closer, we realized what it was: building them. For three reasons, the rafts are built anew for each trek and only used once. First, the agita of getting a raft upstream was simply not worth the value of the raft itself. Second, there was a village downstream that needed bamboo for (depending on its quality) building material, scaffolding or firewood. And finally, by the time we reached our destination, the rafts would be so pounded by rocks and water that they really wouldn't be seaworthy anymore.
Of course, we didn't know any of this as we climbed aboard. We asked if we should change into bathing suits, but they said they wouldn't be necessary. They just asked for our packs, tied them to a stand, and told us to spread out on the raft: Sam in the back, preceded by me, then Hilary, one of the Scottish women, and Tree's colleague at the front. The rest of the group took the other raft.
Once everyone was on board, the rafts sunk a few inches below the surface of the water. The guides insisted this was normal, though they also tied on a few extra stalks. Eventually, they were satisfied with our level of flotation and passed everyone a stick.
At this point, I would have expected some sort of stick primer to commence, but they just shoved us off and we started floating downstream. We improvised, first using our sticks like oars, and then like gondoliers' poles, but were sternly reprimanded both times. Eventually we worked out that the sticks were only for positioning the rafts — the river current took care of propulsion. Sam and I, in the back, were trying to figure out if we were supposed to push off the same side as the pilot, thus shifting the boat, or push in the opposite direction, thus turning it. Hilary, at dead center, wondered if she should be doing anything at all.
The pilot seemed a bit in over his head. A common joke among the guides we've met in our travels, going all the way back to the ziplines in Costa Rica, was to wait until a critical moment and then claim, "Oh, by the way, it's my first day." If this guy had said it, we would have believed him. When we tried to clarify the steering confusion, he just shouted, "Left!" and we would push one way or the other and he would shake his head regardless.
This wasn't a big deal at first, as we meandered along the Mae Taeng, but all of a sudden the pilot announced, "Girls get down!" and took their sticks away. This was the beginning of the rapids. At the very first patch of white water, there was a burst of "Left!" and "Right!" commands and a flurry of sticks poking in random directions, and suddenly the bottom of the boat slammed against a just-submerged rock.
Besides getting a massive scrape, the raft was brought to a sudden halt, and we all fell forward. Even the female contingent, who had been crouching down, were thrown face-first onto the bamboo floor. It was jarring and painful and it took everyone a few seconds to be sure there were no broken wrists. Also, everyone's pants were now soaked. (From the river water, that is.)
We got back upright and looked behind us to the other raft. They made it through the patch unscathed, thanks to our team serving as an example of what not to do.
Things went on like this for quite a while — fall, paddle, spin, crash, fall. Remember, we weren't in such great condition when we woke up that morning. A second hike, an empty stomach, and a series of fresh bruises were really pushing us to the limit. On top of that, we were now standing wide-legged on the slippery raft to maintain stability. It's not easy to stand like that for long periods of time. (I'm sure it wasn't easy for the women to squat for that long, either.) And if I may work in one more complaint, the water had turned the fabric of my sandals stiff and abrasive. Keep them tight, and I'd get blisters. Loosen them, and I could sprain an ankle on the next fall.
We were wondering why our sorry crew had to take the lead — we'd be in much better shape if we could watch the others and learn from their results — and finally, after our worst fall, we figured out the reason. Our pilot had ordered us to turn right when we were already aimed too far to the right, and by the time he realized the mistake and said, "Left!" it was too late. The current forced the boat to continue spinning right until it was nearly perpendicular to the river. At this point, the water flowing over the raft knocked our feet out from under us and we ran side-first into a boulder. We were all tossed into the river, and our boat was wedged against the rocks. We were in up to our necks and and in danger of getting pulled under the rapids.
Everyone seemed okay, by which I mean alive, but our bags were within an inch of plunging under. Sam had insisted on wearing his camera bag, which he was now holding above his head with two hands. The other raft passed us and was a ways downstream before they landed on the bank and Tree hiked back to help us.
The two guides shouted at us to bring the raft upright, but our combined strength couldn't overcome the rushing water. Further, I was standing on one slimy rock with my back against another and had the raft in front of me. I was truly worried about getting crushed by the raft once we dislodged it from whatever it was stuck on.
Eventually, we unloaded the bags one by one and walked them downstream to where the other team was waiting. The empty raft was easier to free, and we were soon on our way again. The incident had taught us why the better pilot took the second raft — had he already been in front when we crashed, who knows how long it would have taken him to reach us?
After a total of about two hours on the river, we finally reached our dock. Both rafts had been through so many accidents I lost count. Everyone was soaked and angry about not being warned to put on bathing suits. Still, it was definitely fun at times. Hil and I decided that it would have been an excellent 20-minute ride, but far too intense for an entire afternoon.
It was hard to stay mad, though, because there was a huge and delicious meal of pad thai waiting for us on land, and we all went back for seconds and thirds. This was the end of the trek; soon the songthaew picked us up and we dried off in the wind as it took us back to the hostel.
The first thing we did upon returning to Chiang Mai (after showering, of course) was go out for massages. We had been having them regularly since Bangkok, but we knew that after two days of strenuous activity, this time would be special.
If you take a trip to Thailand, we recommend you get all the massages you can. $5 or $10 buys you an entire hour — and that's the no-haggling price. The only real drawback is that there isn't a proper table, like with a face-doughnut. Instead, you put on cotton pajamas and lie on a padded mat on the floor. Still, it's a clean mat, and it allows for a methodology much different from your local spa's.
For example, my post-trek massage mostly entailed an old lady climbing all over my body and pulling my arms and legs in various directions. It was wonderful, in part because she was literally able to put her entire weight on my sore muscles and apply force in directions that would not have been possible on a raised table. I felt like a lump of dough being kneaded, or a piece of gum being stretched, and with each bend and twist, my strained body was feeling better and better.
After an hour of this, including a soothing dose of mineral ice, I walked out of there a changed man. Sam and Hilary were already in the waiting room, enjoying complimentary tea and oranges. We compared notes: Sam's rub had been much like mine. Hilary opted for a full-hour foot massage, and was equally satisfied. This would have been a bargain at ten times the price.
Our last planned stop in Thailand was Sukhothai, which was the capital of the ancient Thai kingdom back in the 12th and 13th centuries. The historic part of town was within the walls of the old city, a short songthaew ride away. We were dropped off right in front of a bicycle-rental yard, and following our guidebook's advice, we immediately climbed aboard. Neither Mike nor I could remember the last time we'd been on a bike, but it turned out to be one of those things you never forget, like riding a bike.
The area within the old city walls consisted of mostly car-free paths running between restored Buddhist ruins, lakes, and groves of trees. To be honest, it kind of looked a lot like Zelda. The most unusual temple housed the "keyhole Buddha," who sits behind a narrow slit. From far away, you can only see a small part of him, but as you get closer, he comes completely into view.
This was a popular attraction, with Cambodian monks praying and a little girl snapping their photo with her camera phone.
We also visited an area with dozens of crumbling stupas, which were built by wealthy citizens to curry favor with and honor the Buddha. These were built of brick and originally covered in elaborately molded masonry, though only some of it remains.
Sukhothai was built by the Thais around the same time that Angkor Wat was being constructed by the rival Khmers to the south, and we looked forward to our trip to Cambodia in a few weeks so we could compare and contrast. But first we were going to Laos.
There are no direct buses from Sukhotai to the Lao border, so we had to make a stop in the provincial capital, Phitsanulok. We spent the night there since we still had about nine hours to go.
The bus station was in a crowded plaza with just a few hostels, all pretty sketchy-looking. On a hunch, we asked a bus station employee where we could find a hotel with air-conditioning. It's not that we particularly needed the A/C itself; we just thought it would be a good yardstick. She directed us to the main highway, a few blocks away.
A little ways down the road we came across a building that seemed hotel-like, but it didn't exactly have a neon marquee. There was just one unlit sign out front, and it wasn't in English. We pantomimed with the girl in the office and ended up with spacious, air-conditioned rooms with clean, attached bathrooms and cable TV. It felt downright luxurious, and only cost $12. Even in Thailand, this was a steal; we were surely getting the local businessman's price. We paid cash and were not given a receipt, later realizing that this meant we'd never even know what the place was called. If you find yourself in Phitsanulok, you'll just have to chat up all the ladies at the bus station.
That evening, we wandered into town in search of dinner, and discovered Phitsanulok's night market. There was all manner of Thai street food — noodles, meat skewers, spicy sausages, and the like. One of the most popular stalls was selling ice cream, but it came in long, rectangular blocks, like sticks of butter. Sam even cheated on his vegetarianism to sample, of all things, fried grubs. Mike couldn't bear to watch him eat, and disappeared for a while. We found him later, digging through a bin of electrical sockets, telephone jacks, and other things that belong in a wall. Interestingly, these did not appear to be new; they were clearly gutted out of old buildings.
Other used items included clothing, sneakers, and auto parts. The latter were spread out on a blanket across from a platform where a live band was playing. Sam captured the moment yet again:
We stayed for hours. It was the first time we'd really gotten off the tourist track in Thailand — we didn't see any other foreigners all night — but the locals were totally friendly and welcoming. Even Phitsanulok's Internet cafe was up-front about their discriminatory pricing: Sure, we'd have to pay a little extra, which is just the way things work around here, but this was the first place we saw that actually had a sign clearly announcing the existence of the "Foreigner Price." We applauded this fresh breath of honesty and happily forked over the 65 cents per hour. While we sat there checking our email, Sam offered his remaining grubs around to the cafe staff. "Eww!" the ladies winced. "We don't eat that stuff!"
In the morning, we caught our bus to the Laotian border. This would be our first visit to a communist country. We tried to be cool about it, but were a little unnerved when we neared the border and noticed that the bus station's trash bins were made out of old munitions.
The bus dropped us off at the Friendship Bridge, built in 1994 to provide access to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. We hired a driver, climbed into his van, and sped out onto the bridge... but that's a story for another day.
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