Some Facts About Transportation

By this point, the linear nature of my narative sort of breaks down. We came back to Bangkok, the organized portion of our vacation ended. Reed and I then had a week to ourselves to do with as we chose.

Our first choice was a hotel and some sleep. We said goodbye to everyone and exchanged contact info for the week with the one or two people who were staying in Bangkok. Then we crashed.

Our next day or so involved finding some way to do laundry in Bangkok and figuring out where we wanted to be based for the rest of our week. The logistics of this are, worth relating, I think.

First of all, there’s transportation. When we first touched down in Bangkok, we had to catch a cab to the trekkers’ hotel and all the rest of our trip involved transportation that had been arranged for us. We learned a lot by observation, but now we had to put it into practice.

There are four ways for the average tourist to get around Bangkok. Two are pleasant, and reasonably priced but slow. The other two are varying shades of fast but unpleasant having elements of life risk, temperature, odor and price control that add a special something to the trip.

In no particular order, I give them to you here:

The Metered Cab
In Thailand, there are cabs with meters. The fact that I stress the ” Metered ” part should leave you with the suspicion that there are also cabs without meters. This is true. They’re called tuk tuks. Metered cabs are:

  • clean
  • air conditioned !!!
  • price controlled by the government

These cabbies don’t make a lot of money, and they don’t usually speak much English, but you can be sure that if you can ask a concierge to write an address in Thai, you’ll get there with a minimum of fuss on your part.

The Tuk Tuk
The only really viable alternative to the cab is the tuk tuk. These little three wheeled covered scooters account for 90% of the polution in Bangkok. The drivers all speak great English because their favorite pasttime is fleecing tourists. The tuk tuk is fast, but you have to be willing to

  • breathe the air in traffic
  • put your life in the hands of a madman to whom time is money
  • bargain for the price of the trip.
  • firmly decline your driver’s earnest offers to help you see the city

Fact is, tuk tuks are kind of fun. They’re also kind of necessary if you’re in a hurry. It helps if you’re going someplace you’ve been before in a taxi since then you know what the regular taxi ride costs. The air is unbreathable, but if you need speed, you just have to put up with it.

The River Ferry
Bangkok is on the banks of a river. The ferry is cheap. The ferry is moderately paced. The problem is, it only goes up and down the river. There are lots of places you can’t get to using the ferry. There are canals, but the ferry does not use them.

The Water Taxi
I saved the one that’s the most fun for last. The water taxi is by turns, cheap, fast, amusing and completely disgusting. Like the tuk tuk you risk your life, but only if you’re the last person into the taxi as it’s about to take off. (This happened to me.) If your feet are not firmly in the taxi you WILL be dumped into the canals. (This did not happen to me because Reed hauled me in.) This would at the very least make you want to take a bath and at the worst could give you parasites or some horrible thing. The water is toxic. No two ways about it. The fun doesn’t stop with the mad taxi drivers, though. Water taxi riding is a participatory sport. You see, the canals all have bridges over them. These bridges vary dramatically in height. Water taxis have awnings on lowerable pulley systems overhead. At times, everyone has to duck. I think I also forgot to mention the boat’s low sides. Remember that toxic water? You have a canvas awning at your side you have to hold up in order not to be splashed. All in all, this is fun, but the water is frightening and of course the canal system is pretty limited. The water taxi was the fastest way we got anywhere in Thailand.

There are other transport options, but none of them are much use to a tourist. Bicycles might be rentable, but then you’d be responsible for them. The train is great, but only for getting out if the city. Next time, we’ll talk about Sanitation.

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The Trek, Day Three: Ow, Ow, Ow

On the morning of the third day, we left our hut at dawn to be greeted by a silent, solemn craft fair. The villagers receive seeds and blankets as gifts from the visiting tourists. These things are important and useful, but they are not cash. Seeds and blankets do not buy metal farm tools or dye for yarn or medical care. The cash had to come in somewhere. And it did.

Most of the village women earned cash by weaving and making handicrafts. Oii, knowing the tourists don’t want to be harrassed and asked to buy things had set up a system whereby the village women laid out their handiwork at dawn and went to go sit quietly by the fire. The potential buyers would see everyone’s work at once, make their choices and then the woman would come forward and take the money.

If all this sounds a little disciplined for a Thai village market (and it is, make no mistake) it’s probably because Oii insisted on it. Our Thai guide had tremendous power in the villages we visited, and if she had been a different kind of woman it could have been a bad thing. We knew nothing of her arrangements with the villagers really. We asked her what families hadn’t had blankets and seeds recently, so she could tell us to whom they should go. We bought weavings only from the women that Oii allowed to display their work for us. If the villagers wanted the things we brought, they would only have them on her terms. I really believe, though, that this was a good thing. Oii cared about those villages and the people liked her. If the whole thing was a sham for the tourists, it was very convincing.

So anyway, we got up in the morning and the school room we were sleeping in had been surrounded by weavings. Tunics, sarongs, bags and headdresses in all the colors of the rainbow were hung on bamboo fences all around us. A few of us bought things. We ate breakfast, the shamans blessed us, and we were off.

Saying the shamans blessed us is literally to say they tied strings around our wrists, and laid rice and string on our shoulders. I think I’ve said that the Karen people are animists who believe in the spirits (I am unclear on whether they are sentient spirits) of all living things. I cannot tell you whether the shaman asked the spirits of his place to watch over us, or whether he asked spirits with less of a sense of place to do the guarding. It was all very warm and kind and confusing. We sensed their good fellowship as I hope they sensed ours. And then we left.

Hiking on day three was a problem for me. I had developed blisters wandering around the village in really old really decrepit Tivas after the hiking day was over and half way through day three they began to fester. Further, my feet clenched up from walking on them strangely trying to avoid the blisters. By the last hour of the hike I was limping along swearing savagely under my breath and no longer putting a very good face on it. Fortunately, it was soon over. And then we all piled into the truck to head back to Chang Mai. And along the way, to ride some elephants.

Now a word about Thai elephants. Elephants were used in Thailand for logging in the teak forests until pretty recently when the Thai government put a ban on logging. This means we have tons (quite literally) of asian elephants with nothing to do. The people can’t really afford to feed them if they’re not logging. The lucky onese end up as tourist transporters. I don’t like to think about the unlucky ones.

So what’s it like to ride an elephant you ask? It’s sort of like riding on a swaying bristle covered rock. The elephant’s skin does not give to the touch. It will not acknowledge that you are on its back (unless you’re its trainer and then you can tell it what to do) and you’re apt to be dragged slowly through the brush when your mount decides its snack time — which is often. Elephants are hungry beings and will take any opportunity to grab an extra mouthful. All that girth, you know. Petting an elephant is far less charming than you might suppose. They just don’t feel pleasant no matter how cute they are and it’s never clear that your scratching makes any difference to them. While petting is sort of pointless, feeding them is actually a lot of fun. Our guides brought a ton of banannas and watermelon rinds for us to give the elephants and the elephants were very clear on just exactly what we had with us. They’re really pushy with those trunks of theirs and if you don’t mean to give one a whole bunch of bananas at once you have to be really careful just how close you stand. All in all, the elephant experience was great, even if I did manage to step in elephant poop on the way out. This was to have interesting (not disgusting, I swear) consequences later.

After elephant riding, we returned to Chang Mai and saw the night markets, but I’ll tell you about that in the next journal where I talk about seeing Chang Mai.

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The Trek, Day Two: Down Down Down

We were off by about 8:30 having thanked our hosts and gleefully lauched ourselves down the path. We threaded through bamboo and grass jungles so thick and close you could hardly believe that the trail managed to exist one day to the next. I could ramble on and on about what hiking in a jungle is really like, but I don’t know that it would be that easy to understand or believe. You’re not aware of the bugs until you’re aware that you forgot to use your bug repelant and you’re bleeding from your bites. You’re not aware of animal calls — and in fact we never saw anything alive. We were too loud ourselves I think. All you think about is keeping your footing in the grass, not getting tangled up. Getting an anchor for your walking stick so you can haul yourself up another foot. It’s beautiful, but you’re not looking. That’s what Thailand was like. Constant beauty you could never quite stop your balancing act to appreciate. And if you had stopped, maybe it would have been less beautiful. The whirl was part of its charm.

So we climbed for a couple of hours and eventually came upon a dramatic waterfall that felt personal and private and earned in some way emerging out of the jungle creating its own mist. The waterfall we had visited the day before was trivial. Anyone could get to it and its beauty was the beauty of a received image. Someone in a government office had said “go here. admire this” to the foreign tourists and in droves they had. The waterfall we found that day was incidental and discovered. It’s not that our guides didn’t lead us there. It’s not that we weren’t supposed to come see it. It’s just that we had paid a price to see it that made it worth something. We hadn’t known it was coming, but there it was.

So we arrived at the second village around lunchtime and went exploring. This was a much larger place. Maybe 50 or 60 families, but still the same bamboo huts with leaf and straw roofing. We were less shy and so were the locals. They saw more tourists. In this village, Oii fed the children when we ate and it emerged that although the other village was smaller and more remote it was healthier. It needed her less. In the larger village opium abuse was more of a problem. Opium in the villages used to be the vice of the old. When you could do nothing else, you could at least drug away the pain of dying. Unfortunately, some tourists actually come on adventure travel trips specifically in order to smoke opium once as part of the trip. The kids see rich tourists smoke and emulate it. In a world where a boy and girl are adults and marry at fifteen you can imagine what happens. They’re young and curious. They live every day with what the tourists do once and then leave. Instant opium addition. One parent, usually the wife doing all the work and caring for the children while the other gets high all day. A mess. Oii has been working hard at feeding these kids and impressing upon them the fact that her tourists do not come for the opium. Hopefully her work will show results. Apparently the kids are better fed than they used to be so at least that’s something. We took pictures. We went swimming. We took some more pictures. I pounded rice. Reed and I watched some kids playing a game that looked like volleyball only you play it with your feet. We stopped into the school just as it was breaking up for the day and watched the kids streaming past us as they ran home.

And it was evening and it was morning. And then it was the third day.

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The Trek, Day One: Up, up, up

The morning of our first day of hiking, we were up and back in the trucks heading towards the mountains early. Another perfect sunny day in Thai winter. At lunchtime we stopped at a national park, hiked a half an hour up above a waterfall, had lunch and went swimming. By about two we were at the entrance to the trail we were going to be on for the next three days pulling out backpacks and congratulating each other excitedly on the beauty of the day and how great an idea this was.

Our water bearers met us at the mouth of the trail for the first time. There were two of them that day when usually there was only one. Short to middle height, slim and darker than the Thai, they were both Karen men, ethnically and culturally separate from the Thai people. The Burmese drove them out of Myanmar (Burma at the time) more than a hundred years ago and they began migrant farming in the mountains along the Thai border. They would slash and burn the jungle, build a village, plant a crop or two and move again as soon as someone died believing that the the souls of the dead would haunt the place. Needless to say this is pretty destructive and the Thai government put a stop to it about 50 years ago. It was Karen villages we wanted to visit, and the water bearers live up there. Sensible that they should help the tourists and earn a little money that way. I don’t remember the name of the fellow who was with us only one day, but the other man was nicknamed Superman.

So we started walking. Our packs were not heavy, but we were not used to them, and it was the heat of the day. While it may not seem like a big deal to hike uphill for fifteen minutes. Try two hours of it. Try three. Try four. You rest occaisionally, and you go downhill occaisionally, but the truth of the matter is that you’re mostly going up hill and you’re NOT used to it. Then consider you’re going to do it for three days. Then suck it up, because there’s no backing out of it now. So there we were hiking, sweating and wondering what the f*ck we’ve gotten ourselves into while the Karen water bearers hauled all of our water for 3 days on their backs and maintained a stance and bearing as though this was nothing. Our bearer’s nickname was Superman for a reason.

The day progressed, and we stopped. We had a water break and I ate my first tamarind. You might have seen tamarind paste in the grocery store, a jellied block the color of lager or cloudy honey. The fruit bears exactly no resemblance to the paste. It’s a rough brown husked beanpod filled with fibrous strands of pith and seeds and incidentally the yummy fruity paste that gets made into those blocks in the store clings to the pith strands. The pith to fruit ratio is not in the fruit’s favor. We saved our husks for Superman. He used them to roll his tobacco. And it was time to walk some more.

I think we walked later that day than we did either of the other two days. I remember the walk as a blur of heat and muscle burn, but I remember its end vividly. We came across a rice straw covered field striped with low dry dikes, up yet another set of hills and at dusk, kissed by a soft rosy glow, the thatches rose above the bushes in our sightline. You never saw the whole village until you were upon it. The dozen or so huts were scattered down an unlevel clearing with jungle and rough mountain rising on all sides. Beneath the first hut we came to an old woman smoking a pipe was attempting to both beat and feed a pig at the same time. We passed her and went to the top of the hill where we dropped our shoes at the base of a hut ladder and carried our bags up to where we would sleep for the night. We then had to choose between exploring the village with the last of the daylight and washing right away. Most of us bathed in the dark.

I was shy in this village. I wish I hadn’t been. It was hard to invade peoples lives and take their pictures when you couldn’t talk to them. The town was not a human zoo and I didn’t know how to be. Oii helped a bit though. After dinner she brought the village’s kids over to the hut to play Uno (a truly international game, I guess) and we played and asked them questions in English and in really awful Karen (We had a phrase guide). Kids are kids and if you’ll play with them they will be happy. I didn’t take any pictures in the first village, a pity since it was the more beautiful of the two and the less tourist ridden as well. But playing chess and uno and rattling on about nothing in particular was good. We went to bed early.

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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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In the Temple of the Emerald Buddha with no Baedekker

Although we arrived in Thailand at 2 am, we were awake bright eyed and bushy tailed at 8 am the next morning, had breakfast in the hotel restaurant (included in the price of the room) and wandered out into the smoggy sunshine to go exploring on our own the first day there.

First of all, you need to know that our hotel was just off Khao San Road in what, tourist wise, can only be called Backpacker Country. You can scarcely go a foot without tripping over a vendor stall so thick with random merchandise you can’t walk on the sidewalk, a massage parlour where the masseurs are standing outside soliciting, or an openair restaurant crowded with tourists, mostly Australian.

This is charming the first time you see it and tiresome the fourth because the masseurs are pests, the vendors mostly sell junk and have the sidewalks so crowded you want to kick them and their stuff into the street and when you move to the street to walk you have to be closer to the endless stream of tuk tuks, three wheeled taxis with twostroke engines and drivers who look at you as though your name is Dinner — which of course it is since scamming tourists is how they make their living, but more on that later.

For the moment, Reed and I are just stepping out bright eyed and bushy tailed into the sunshine and the crowded sidewalks. To us, at this point, all is charming. We had a good wander, unassisted by the thousand and one willing Thai con artists. We nosed our way through Tshirts that said McShit and vendors of Nike knockoffs with amusement. We spent time wondering what the hell you did with those waffer thin dried fish with the bones in and sampling the fare of the vendors whose food we thought we knew how to eat. We wandered for hours.

Eventually we found ourselves near the Grand Palace, the first home of the Thai kings in Bangkok, now a tourist attraction, a temple and a set of ceremonial halls in that order of priority near as I can tell. The royal residence is further outside the city now, with extensive gardens. We paid our dollar ninety eight (or whatever it was) and went in with the rest of the gawkers.

Note now that Thai architects have never heard of the old adage that less is more. If you think millions of dollars worth of gold leaf and more ceramic shard mosaic than you can shake a stick at is simplicity then maybe, but somehow I doubt it. Reed and I were mercifully bereft of a herder guiding us through the tourist attraction, which meant we actually enjoyed it. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is the temple portion of the Grand Palace and it is encircled with a mural that shows the complete Ramadan. No tour guide attempting to make money by turning over the foreigners once an hour was going to let us look at all of it. No tour guide was going to humor us watching the temple cats for half an hour at a time. We didn’t need to know which Rama (I, II, III, IV, or V) had built each chedi or stupa or put up each Chinese statue. We just wandered.

The temple itself in the central courtyard had a light sprinking of worshipers and tourists when we came to call. You take off your shoes outside, ascend a small flight of steps and enter a place that, when it’s not full of disrespectful farang (big nosed foreigners) is certainly a meditative and spiritually calming experience. The Emerald Buddha is actually fairly small, but it’s made of solid jade and it’s up on a pedastle far above you. Everything is covered in that 28 karat gold all of asia seems so fond of and there are garlands of flowers laid out with fans over them at the Buddha’s feet. You may not stand, but instead you sit on the floor and there are only one or two polite postures all of which include your feet being tucked under you. The flowers are fragrant and their scent wafts over everything. It’s cool and peaceful. I liked it.

We lighted candles for Reed’s grandfather, bless his pagan heart, and I thought of my dad, but refrained for his Christian sensibilities. Well, until later. But that wasn’t until Chinese new year.

We wandered back through the city and also found Wat Pho, another temple, but one whose name no one translated for us. The largest wat in Thailand with a monstrous reclining Buddha and a half a dozen smaller Buddha images set in smaller temples inside the compound. By dinner time, having walked off at least two liters of water each, we managed to find our way back to the hotel where we met up with our adventure travel group for a drink. More on them tomorrow.

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