I’m relaxing at my guesthouse in Chiang Rai, Thailand. I’m enjoying the cool breeze and a glass of local whiskey. I’m now a week into my third trip to Thailand in less than a year and once again exploring new places, meeting amazing people and eating yummy food!
On the six hour bus ride to Chiang Rai today I could barely contain myself as I took a step back and looked at how fortunate I have been to be able to take this trip and simultaneously looked forward to the adventure that will follow as I move north towards China and eventually Mongolia. The scenery was once again spectacular – undulating hills, karsts, rice paddies and small hill-tribe villages. A packed bus filled with people in ethnic garb, exuding mystery. I’m starting to really settle into the psyche of the long-term traveler, with things like ambition, time and duty starting to lose their power over me. 12 hours on an uncomfortable bus? Camping in the mud? Stuck in a torrential downpour while on a motor bike? No problem, its just part of the process. I’ve decided that this trip is much more about the why, how and what rather then the when and where. Each day, decisions are made based on intuition and a few facts. When will I come home many people ask? When I no longer see the beauty and wonder in the every day activities of travel, when travel becomes a burden or feels like an obligation towards some unknown goal. I’m nowhere near feeling that yet.
Backing up – I landed in Bangkok last week to find my old friend Wei waiting for me at the airport. It was a great feeling to see someone I knew at a place so far away from home. Wei and I went to high school together and just recently reconnected on Facebook. I mentioned in the last post that through the magic of Facebook we discovered that riding horses in Mongolia was a life-list thing for both of us. We figured teaming up would help with trading horses and guns on our way up into the wilds of Central Asia.
Bangkok was Bangkok – a great place to take care of business, but loud and stinky and after a quick couple of nights we were off to the north. A random highlight this time was finding a place called Fashion Mall where there were 30 different shops full of lady boys offering hair extensions and massages… we did indulge in a foot massage but skipped the extensions.
The morning we left one of the lowest moments of my trip occurred. As Wei and I jumped into a taxi, another taxi driver was stuffing our bags into the trunk. We were in the back seat before he closed the trunk and we both heard what we thought was a zipper sound. I looked out at the guy as we drove away and he was slightly turned away but didn’t appear to have anything in his hands. We looked at each other, agreed it was a zipper sound but for some reason ignored our intuition and agreed to continue. Bad idea. When we reached the train station, Wei’s pride and joy, her large SLR camera was gone. We drove back, talked to the police but knew it was hopeless. Wei is a photographer and that was her single most important possession. I have to give her credit that despite this great loss she is not letting it deter her at all – she is staying positive and not dwelling on it. We both learned a powerful lesson that morning: trust your intuition. If you hear a zipper, it probably is a zipper. And never take your eyes off your bag, even for a second. We agreed that getting out of Bangkok ASAP was the best way for Wei to feel a little better, so after missing our train dealing with the police we made our way to the bus terminal.
The northeast corner of Thailand was our destination this time – somewhere untouristed (the locals in Bangkok didn’t even know what city we were talking about!), natural and somewhere neither of us had been before. We targeted a city called Nan for its proximity to a large national park called Doi Phu Ka. Our first bus only made it to a town called Phrae, rather uninspiring but with a great night market and a few decent temples. The next day we did reach Nan, spent one night and rented a motor bike the next day. It was a Yamaha with a retro design, and Spiderman insignia where you put your feet – off we went on a 100k journey through windy roads (and yes torrential downpours on the way). We eventually arrived at the park after one of the best drives I’ve ever taken ( I know I JUST said this about Bali but its true!) on a newly paved road along the Laos border. No traffic, just mountains and greenery. And the occasional pack of goats or cows you have to stop for.
Eventually reaching the park – we were the only visitors that evening in a large place that could have slept hundreds in various bungalows and tents. Wei brought camping gear so we headed for the campground despite the curious questions from the park staff. They were wondering who in their right mind would camp at the height of the rainy season? Despite a very soggy campsite, it felt great to sleep outside, watching and listening to the thunderstorms and the forest. The morning was brilliant and we enjoyed a sunny start to the day. I figured out a 3 or 4 mile hike we could take and we took off on a muddy trail. About 30 minutes in I felt the first leech sucking on my ankle. Before we knew it, they were latching on faster then we could pull them off. If I hadn’t had my first experience with leeches on my trek a couple of months ago I would have not been as cool as I was. Wei found a couple right on her stomach and we both shrieked, realized we were losing the battle and hightailed it to the campsite to pick the rest of them off of us and get out of there. Hiking in the jungle will not be easy until we get farther north and out of the monsoon season. Leeches don’t carry disease but they are simply disgusting as they latch onto your body to suck your blood until they are so full they fall off… We drove back to Nan for some civilization and spent the evening watching the locals train for their boat racing festival in October. It was quite a site – 40 men in one boat paddling in unison, shouting and grunting as the literally flew along the water.
Phew – that was a lot. We are now plotting our next move – maybe into Burma but more likely towards northern Laos where it will be easier to make our way into China. The journey with no end goes on.