Chang Mai Surprise or A Bicycle Built for a Midget

Still on the train, we woke with the dawn. As we moved north, the temperature dropped and the open windows left us shivering and dew damp. I couldn’t have been more glad to be awake. The north country revealed itself as a patchwork of fields covered with oxen and distant figures under large straw hats working the soil. It was the dry season, so we missed the impossible velvet of rice paddies with which I’m so familiar because of my grandparents’ place on the Mississippi delta, but this had an arid pale tan beauty. Rice straw and oxen and the occasional town with a red and golden temple rising like a dream out of the farms and homes of brown and green. And distant mountains which swiftly became less distant and then we were in among them and could see nothing but the overarching bamboo and greenery. The land directly surrounding the train tracks has to be burned regularly to keep life of all kinds from overtaking it.

When the train finally rolled into Chang Mai, with one voice we all croaked sleepily Shower??? And mercifully Intrepid in its infinite wisdom had incorporated this into their plans. We took a pass through a backpacking equipment rental place and then were off to repack our bags for the hike to come and get showered.

The surprise about Chang Mai? We were there for about four hours, all wrapped up in logistics. We saw nothing of the city that day, but by late morning we were all piled into the back of a truck, headed still further north and west to the home of Oii and Charin, the local guides who would take us into the jungle. We would see Chang Mai, but not until we returned from the larger adventure with the hilltribes.

We arrived at Oii and Charin’s house about noon. They live about two hours outside Chang Mai in a small farming village at the foot of the mountains with a couple of hundred families. In Thailand, the villagers own two pieces of land, the one in town that has their home and their livestock and then another outside the town that is farmed, a sensible way of living when compared to our American model where a farmer lives directly surrounded by his cropland and is far from his community.

Oii and Charin’s home is actually a walled compound with a lush haphazard garden. The chickens wander through the orchid pots and drink from the raised lily pond in a small roughly bricklaid courtyard, the pigs can be heard grunting softly from their sty concealed by greenery. In the midst of flowers, a 19 century British police helmet stands on a spike. Oii and Charin may not be headhunters, but they’ll tease you about it.

We sleep in the main building of their home on thick soft bedrolls covered with mosquito nets. Washing happens in one of two cinderblock walled, tin roofed constructions on either side of the main house where a large barrel of water (COLD) and a dipper are what you have to work with. The toilets are in separate niches just like the showers and to flush you put a dipper of water into them. Between us, the pigs and an interest free government loan, Oii and Charin will be generating their own natural gas next year and won’t have to buy it anymore to cook with.Heating ones house in Thailand is simple not an issue.

When we arrived, it was noon, so after lunch there was plenty of time to do other things. It was decided then, that a bike ride and a swim in the local hot spring would be just what the doctor ordered.

Now about that bicycle in the title, Charin broke out the bicycles, and there she was. Short of crank and inadjustable of seatpost with brakes that barely worked and no gears at all, she was all mine, complete with cute little basket on the front; a cruiser of the old school all 800 pounds of her. The others were all just as absurd, and we worked hard to drag them the first mile or so to where we would turn off and go to the hot springs. Unfortunately, when we got there, the hotspring was closed, so we wandered the local village for a while visiting the weavers and cursing the fact we left our cameras back at the house. Then we got back on our bikes to ride home, only Charin took us the scenic route so it took longer. Picture the gaggle of us, biking down dirt roads, hoping the chickens and sleeping dogs vacate our path because there is no stopping, knees at elbow level, trucking along.

Biking was hard work, but the day was fine, almost like San Francisco, cloudless and temperate and perfect, and we were silly and on vacation whooping and calling to each other to try and mitigate the damage having no brakes could cause, dragging our feet in the dust when it really mattered. Small children cheered for us and slapped us fives like we were on some major bike tour and shouted as we went past. Clearly, the town didn’t have anything more exciting going on a random Friday afternoon, and we wandered out of town, down rice paddy roads and the mountains rose like purple dreams in the distance. For all the bikes were heavy and awkward, it seemed there was nothing but downhill all the way home. I have no happier memory of Thailand.

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