I had been looking very forward to this part of the trip for several reasons. First, we knew the dollar (may it please hold up for at least another 9 months) would stretch as far as the sky and we could live like miniature millionaires, second, we would be reuniting with Debby and Derrick (Erin’s mom and brother,) and third, Thai food is one of my favorites and we would be indulging day in and day out.
The hub of SE Asia, it’s hot, humid, polluted and jam-packed with people, terrible driver’s and motorbikes. Lady boys love you long time and tuk-tuk driver’s will steal your underwear if you’re not careful. But it’s cheap, dirt cheap. Three meals a day with beers will run you about $7 total. Cab rides from one side of the city to the next may run you $3. Massages for an hour, $5. $10 hotels. I could go on and on.
We needed to handle some visa business upon arrival for Vietnam and India. This, unfortunately, took 3 days before we hopped in an overnight bus north to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand’s capital city. Before leaving Bangkok, we ate tons of Thai food, trying all of the street food and nice restaurants at night. We did have some funny happenings though, my favorite being these altercations with Tuk-Tuk driver’s:
Tuk-Tuk’s are everywhere and are really fun to be in as they are open-air and the driver’s aggressively maneuver through traffic, plus you get to negotiate fares with them in order to sharpen your skills before shopping in the markets. On one occasion, we needed to get to a restaurant near the famous Khao San street, home to all tourists and the penultimate backpacker scene in Bangkok. The first tuk-tuk we saw pulled over and we let him know where we needed to go and he started with 400 baht (30 baht = $1.) After some haggling, we agreed upon 70 baht and away we went. Once we arrived in front of our destination, I gave him a 100 baht bill, and the driver realized that we were going to a restaurant and immediately wanted to take us elsewhere where he would earn a commission. At this time, I just wanted my change but he wouldn’t give me any and was pretending he didn’t know what we meant, so I actually had to reach into his front shirt pocket to retrieve the 100 baht bill, have Erin go to a local street merchant to get change, pay the exact amount and leave! We kind of felt bad to get fussy over $1, but it’s the principle more than anything and after speaking with others, it’s the right thing to do so that they learn to not take advantage of the tourists.
My first tuk-tuk experience was bad as well. I hopped in alone after walking for 3 hours checking out the city and told the driver to take me to Khao San Road so I could do some shopping. Being relatively close to the area, I haggled him down to 30 baht but after driving a bit, he insisted on trying to sell me a vacation package for some island-hopping and kept mentioning that we would need to stop at a tailor (custom-tailored suits are all the rage here and only cost $100 for suit, 2 shirts and 2 ties,) but I told him ‘no’ and asked to just go to my stop. Like I said, they drive crazy, pulling U-turns on 3 lane highways several times and before long he pulled up to a tailor which I noticed was right near my hotel! After all the walking and riding around, I ended up back at square one, completely frustrated, and ended up walking away from the tuk-tuk refusing to pay. Three hours later I arrived at my original destination via standard metered taxi. Less stress but also less fun!
We were told that we’d arrive around 9 a.m. but 5:30 came and we were there. Twelve long and sleepless hours (thanks to an obnoxious usage of air conditioning) had passed and luckily the front door to our hostel, SpicyThai Backpackers was unlocked so we dropped our bags and passed out on the floor until we were woken by the bustle of free continental breakfast being served. I immediately ate and began to cram as much coffee down my throat as possible. The rest of our time in Chiang Mai was filled with the following:
With new friends, Thierry (pronounced Cheddy) and Leanne, we ventured off to the local market after picking up another couple from Calgary (eh?) with our hilarious chef and teacher, Perm. He showed us the local market and all of the unique ingredients found here and we purchased everything we would need for our lesson that evening. We made Tom Yum (Perm jokingly told us Tom means soup and Yum means Yummy), Pad Thai, Green Curry with Chicken, Sweet and Sour Chicken, and Banana Spring Rolls. While cooking the pad thai, we were instructed how to cook “adventurously” by sending flames to the ceiling from our wok’s. We sat down as a group and enjoyed our meal, washing it down with local brew Singha, before being dropped off to a night bazaar for some shopping.
Muay Thai Boxing Match
Muay Thai is Thailand’s national sport and you can rarely walk by a television set without a fight being broadcast from somewhere in the country. We put together a large group from Spicy Thai to attend this match but upon arrival learned that the following day was Election Day so no alcohol could be served anywhere. This, apparently, is to ensure that all Thai’s make it to the polls. Not a bad idea. The boxing match itself was a great time though. Eight-year olds were billed as the first match and with every fight you could either bet on red or blue. I chose red this time and placed 100 baht on the table of our ringside seats and I swear to you when I say that he took a dive halfway through the first round. Begrudgingly, I handed over my 100 baht to the bookie who I then figured to be the father of my fearless fighter. I held off on betting until later in the evening, choosing a local Chiang Mai fighter. Five nail-biting rounds later, three knock-downs and a TKO got me back to even. Following this fight was a truly amazing sight: Four blind-folded fighters in the ring at the same time! Hey-maker’s were wildly thrown to unsuspecting targets leading to my, and the crowds, ultimate pleasure. Before the very last fight, they even had a cabaret show with topless women. Upon closer inspection, it turns out they weren’t women, but Thailand’s famous “lady-boys.” Discussing this with a local, we learned that lady-boys are accepted in Thai culture and families rarely shun their sons-turned-daughters. Later in the trip, we would see more and more lady-boys throughout Thailand, having lunch with their fathers or waiting for the train.
Lake Huay Teng Tao and Chiang Mai’s Sunday Night Market
Pong, the owner of Spicy Thai Backpacker’s in Thailand, would advertise daily trips run from the hostel for nothing more that sharing the cost of gas. Previously being a tour-guide in Chiang Mai, Pong knows of all the local spots and takes his guests there on a near-daily basis. This day being no different, a large group packed into the truck for an hour long drive to Lake Huay Teng Tao, where we relaxed in thatch-roof cabanas on the shore. After going for a swim and teaching Pong how to throw a rugby ball like an American football (he is an amazingly quick learner), I began playing ball with some local kids which of course led to splash-fights and horseplay. Thierry joined the fun and we all played hot-potato with the rugby ball until tiring out and retreating to our bungalow for lunch.
Later in the evening, Pong dropped our group off at the Sunday Night Market which was unlike any market I had seen. Prices were as-is which took a lot of the stress out of shopping and it was here that I truly was able to appreciate the genuine happiness of Thai people. After wandering for a bit, I stumbled upon a small stand with stringed musical instruments I had never seen and asked for a demonstration. They knew I wasn’t a buyer, but were more than happy to show-off their culture, playing every instrument I inquired about. I attempted to play the Saw U (sa-wooh), a two-stringed fiddle with a coconut shelled body, but we all laughed together as it screeched terribly. Every half-block there would be another musical talent, my favorite being four young guys sitting in a line playing an acoustic jam and singing along. After listening for a while and jostling for a better view, I came to realize that they were all blind, only adding to my enjoyment. We learned it is common for Thai’s to introduce their blind to music at an early age. Carrying on, we sampled lots of different foods throughout the market and purchased some small souvenirs before heading back to SpicyThai.
Sunrise Hike, Morning Market, Hot Springs, Orphanage, Big Family Dinner
Early the next morning, a small group of brave souls woke early to hike up the mountains to watch the sunrise over Chiang Mai. Pong, showing us the way yet again, led us to this secret spot, pointing out unique local fauna and insects on the trail. We enjoyed coffee together as the sun rose and then retreated back to the local morning market to sample different foods for breakfast. I had lemongrass sausage with sticky rice, chicken stomach (chewy and a bit gristly,) and our new favorite dessert, fresh sliced mango and sticky rice drizzled with coconut milk. We picked up bananas and oranges for our planned visit to the orphanage.
Later in the day, Pong took Erin and I, Thierry and Leanne, and an English traveller, Gordon, to a hot-spring where we soaked away the time, sunbathed and enjoyed boiled quail-eggs and iced lemon grass tea. For lunch I ate frog soup. Spicy and the broth was good but I had a hard time looking the frog in the eye. I think I’ll stick to chicken.
Afterwards, we ventured to a local children’s orphanage where we had hoped to spend the rest of the afternoon playing with the kids. I had known going into this that it was going to be sad and had mentally prepared myself. What I didn’t prepare for was actually having a sick feeling once leaving, wondering if our visit had ultimately done harm or good. We arrived and spoke to the school master and were informed that the children would be waking from their naps soon. Looking around, the facility was in remarkable shape and over a dozen volunteers were working in the yard laying new sod, trimming weeds, and watering plants. After a few minutes had passed, the children ran over to us and “latched on,” all wanting to be picked up, hugged, tossed in the air or given piggyback rides. As a group, we happily played with them for over an hour, digging in the sandbox and playing on the jungle gyms. They did not speak English but were always talking to us in their native tongues. Pong informed me that were calling us either “Daddy” or “Mommy,” which really pulled on our heart strings. Burmese children were also here and we learned that their parents had been arrested while trying to cross the border. Their children are placed into this and other orphanages until the parents pay the fine at which time they are returned as a family to Burma where they would most likely try to escape again, thus completing the never-ending cycle. The kids were called back to class and we were instructed that it was time for us to leave. We sadly walked away from the children as they tried to hold us back, not wanting us to leave. In total, we had only spent about 90 minutes at the orphanage and I asked Pong if he thought it was actually good for us to come in, play, and ultimately leave on a daily basis. He replied “yes,” and said that by now, the kids are used to it.
We returned home and Erin and the girls collected money from backpackers at the hostel and cooked everyone an authentic Thai dinner (with the help of our cookbook from class and Pong) consisting of green curry pork, pad thai, and Roselle tea. It was delicious and the entire hostel was appreciative after a long day. Thanks girls!
Motorbike Loop and Bowling
Erin and I had planned on visiting an elephant rescue sanctuary this day but unfortunately we were late to act and all reservations were taken. We decided to rent a motorbike for the day ($4) instead and explore the countryside surrounding Chiang Mai. It was another beautiful day and after leaving the traffic of Chiang Mai we hit the open road, getting lost on purpose, stopping in small villages to eat, and enjoying what would be our last day in Chiang Mai. At one point as we attempted to find a waterfall, we could hear some of the local hill tribes chanting, singing, and playing music in the distance. We had elected earlier in this trip to boycott a visit to see the hill tribes consisting of the “long necks” and “big ears” as Erin had seen a special that some of the women there did not want to stay but were forced to because of tourism. I liked our approach better as it felt more natural than a point-and-click session for a 60 baht “donation.”
That evening, Pong arranged for the entire hostel to go “disco bowling” and surprisingly, amidst my inner and often publicly-known dislike of bowling, I agreed to go. Being the fierce competitor that I am, and with a free SpicyThai t-shirt at stake, I mustered together the best bowling of my life (154, 181, 174) to take home the prize. People swore I was in a league back at home and I had to have Erin vouch for me that I don’t like bowling and usually I stink, which is true. I told them it was a bit of luck and the right mix of Chang beer.
Anyhow, it was another great night with our friends and a great end to our time in Chiang Mai. We know it wouldn’t have been the same if we hadn’t stayed at SpicyThai and have since deemed it “best hostel ever,” and have recommended it to every traveler we hear is heading north. A big thanks to all of the backpackers there for making it such a special moment in our trip, and a special thanks to Pong for everything, we miss you already and we’ll be in touch for the opening of SpicySF!
Back to Bangkok, Muay Thai Training
We returned to Bangkok via overnight bus to collect our visa’s from Vietnam and India and to wait for Debby to arrive for our second leg of our Thailand trip. I decided to let the girls have a day to themselves (and a day to mine) and I spent the afternoon at Sor Vorapin boxing gym training with Muay Thai fighters. I had been kick boxing in San Francisco for over 6 months before leaving on this trip but Muay Thai is a slightly different style and they train for two hours each class versus the one hour my body had grown accustomed. The instructors spoke very little English except for common fight terms which is more than enough. There were three foreigners, including another guy from San Francisco (who was training there for a month and was REALLY good,) in the class and the rest were Thai. We began by using a heavy jump rope for the first fifteen minutes before breaking off into drills in the ring.
Elbow! Block! 1-2! 1-2! Knee! This would be repeated over and over by our instructor as we all mimicked his moves, shadowboxing to the mirror. Fortunately, the drills were similar to my gym in SF so it came a little easier and I received a little more instruction than others. I was paired off with a fully padded instructor in the ring where we went through four 3-minute drills complete with combos, knees, and kicks. He gave me tips on how to deliver a much more powerful knee and complimented me on the strength of my kicks, but it took all of my might not to let in on how winded and tired I really was. After each round I was given a 2 minute break and served water. Afterwards, I was paired with another instructor for jab-cross (1-2!) combos and uppercuts. He like my cross but my form on the jab was incorrect and spent the majority of the time correcting my positioning and technique. Silently, I enjoyed the much-needed break. We finished the class with some additional group stretching and I bid my trainer’s farewell. It was a great class with a great environment and I would recommend it to even a first-time beginner. Check out Sor Vorapin for more details if you’re in Bangkok.
Time to hop to some islands…