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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Night train to Chiang Mai

I take back what I said about Germans being the only other backpackers talking to us. Oh sure, a German couple sat down at our table one night at a traveler-oriented restaurant (not great, but T. was suffering football withdrawal), and we talked with them for a while. For some reason T. always seems to meet Liverpool supporters. We ran into them again the next evening on the Sunday “walking street” of Chiang Mai. That’s when the whole street is pedestrianized and filled with booths, plus food vendors in the courtyards of the Buddhist temples. And they were friendly.

But nobody starts, or keeps up, a conversation like someone from the U.S.A. And travelers from the U.S., while plentiful in this part of the world, are also kind of a breed apart. As has been observed, it is highly unusual and difficult for Americans to take significant time to travel, compared with most other Western countries. So while backpacking is almost a rite of passage for many middle-class Europeans or Australasians, in order to do this type of traveling, Americans have to be more countercultural, like their hippie predecessors. 

We started talking to a couple at our guesthouse (or rather, they started talking to us). He was originally from Indiana and she from Kansas, but they looked and sounded like they’d left the Midwest long behind. They had been living in New York, but now were bound for a working holiday in Australia, to save up money for their travels in Europe. They talked of “burning their lives” back in New York, and clearly, what they’ve done is radical by U.S. standards. Of course, we thought it was great.

Then there was the day we left Chiang Mai in the morning, to get a bus to Chiang Rai. We got to the bus station in plenty of time, but the next bus with seats available didn’t leave for nearly five hours. Earlier in our travels—say Madrid—the prospect of spending all day on a three-hour bus journey would have felt like a major setback, but we’ve slowed down so much now that it didn’t faze us at all. We just settled in on a patio for an hour or two, had coffee and sandwiches, and caught up on our friends the Lawsons’ travel blog. Then we found seats back at the bus station. Trish got out the sewing kit to attach my latest country patch, Thailand, to my day pack.
No time is wasted.
Then this young foreign woman came and sat down opposite. “Do you speak English?” she said, in a voice that neither of us had difficulty hearing. I knew she was from the United States before she said so.

The next two hours passed like no time at all. I can tell you everything about this gal now, except her name: her history of sobriety; what injuries she’s had; her business that allows her to travel for weeks at a time (always a question where an American is concerned); how old her dog is; when her dad quit smoking; her dietary issues and allergies; how much her vaccinations cost. And, most relevantly, where she’s traveled and where she was going next. Chiang Rai, as it happened. We barely had to say a word, and when we did, it was just her cue to tell us another thing about her own life.

If I went on a date with someone this self-absorbed, I’d throw myself out the window; but she was the best thing that could happen to us in a bus station. God bless her, this is what you have to do if you’re traveling on your own. Americans are the best at it. The day we met the elephants, it was the solo American in our group who made us a group: she took seven disparate people and turned us into friends for the day.

We walked with them while they foraged for food.
She, and the elephants. T. has already blogged about our experience with the pioneer of ethical elephant interactions; it remains for me to add some pictures of my own. 

The encounters between large numbers of elephants and people at the Elephant Nature Park were all booked up, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. A small group, in a remote mountain village, meeting four elephants and their mahouts from the Karen tribe, was the kind of win-win experience I like most.
The bamboo floor took some getting used to.
Asian elephants have been used as beasts of burden for thousands of years, and these Karen people used to work in logging with the elephants. The numerous “hill tribes” of Thailand do not have Thai citizenship in most cases. The phrase “Third World” is not used much these days, but when I was growing up, we knew the Second World to be those countries aligned with the communist superpower, the U.S.S.R. You might say the hill tribes are almost Fourth World people, belonging neither to the developing nation in which they live, nor to the First World.

So they have enough problems, and now logging is outlawed in Thailand. This is doubtless good for the environment and for sustaining people’s future, and I’m sure the elephants don't miss logging; but it did throw their mahouts out of work. Many of them took to using their elephants in tourist interactions such as riding, shows, and street begging. These are at least as painful and unnatural for the elephants as logging was. Fortunately, Elephant Nature Park and its imitators are recruiting mahouts to turn to ethical elephant encounters instead.
We appreciated the traditional Karen tribal clothing.

Especially in the mud bath!
It made us feel good, because we weren’t contributing to the problem. The Karen are making money from their elephants again, and the elephants’ lives are free from abuse. Doesn’t get much better than that. Plus, it was amazing!
Grandma elephant at bath time

We had reached Chiang Mai aboard the overnight train, “old Number 9” as Libba Cotten sang in “Freight Train.” I was still feeling the effects of a second day on a bicycle, rented from the guy who called me “K-now-les.” The announcements aboard the train were in Thai, English, French, and a fourth language which I guessed was Chinese. Clearly, we weren’t the only foreigners aboard Train #9 (our German friends were with us too).

If we hadn’t already known we were backpackers, our simplified expectations for guesthouses should have made it clear. A shower hanging off the bathroom wall, nothing separating the shower from the toilet area? No problem. When our guesthouse in Ayuthaya offered a shower before we boarded the overnight train, T. was all ready to climb under a tree in the backyard—we were pleasantly surprised to find it was a room!

Smile House, Chiang Mai
Our guesthouse in Chiang Mai was supposed to have once been a safe house for Khun Sa, infamous opium lord of the Golden Triangle. I don’t know about that, but it was a very relaxed place to hang out, swim, talk to Americans, etc.  And, I finally had a chance to try boat noodles, the rich broth-based dish invented in Ayuthaya, at a no-frills place down the street. The guy in front sat on an overturned boat stirring a big pot, and we were the only foreigners. Boat noodles and an iced coffee for 85 baht. We ate there every lunch we were in town.

Chiang Mai was so relaxing after Bangkok, and inertia set in. I just wanted to stay and wander around the old city, where we were staying. We did manage to leave the city gate and cross the Nawarat Bridge, where we found this striking building from the era of teak logging.

This is First Church, founded by the Laos Mission from North Carolina in 1868. We visited on a Sunday, but as it’s now used as the Chiang Mai Christian School, there were no services.

This being Thailand, we had to tour some temples also. One of the most interesting experiences was actually outside Was Chedi Luang, where some schoolgirls asked if we would speak with them on video. It was a project for their English class. They talked to us for so long they almost could have been Americans (their English was very good too)!
Most of the elephants at the base of the tall ruined pagoda are reconstructions, but this one is original.
After all this, we were ready for a rot daang (red truck) ride back to our safe house. The rot daang is just what it says, a pickup truck with a cover and facing bench seats put in the back. It passes for a taxi or dalla dalla in most of Thailand. We were also ready for a beer, but 7-Eleven, which is almost literally on every corner, doesn’t sell booze between 2:00 and 5:00 P.M. (or lots of other times). Before I got to Thailand I’d heard rumors to the effect the country was a sleazy free-for-all, but I sure got the opposite impression on the ground!

We continued our hit-and-miss with Thai food—some hot and delicious, some cold and/or completely unappetizing. For a change, we tried a Burmese restaurant one night. Everything there was delicious, but unfortunately, I can’t remember what any of it was called.

Nothing could compare to our day in Karen garb being followed down a river path by elephants. However, we did make it to Doi Inthanon National Park, which is the highest mountain in Thailand. It felt a bit like cheating to reach the summit of Doi Inthanon, since it was accessible by minibus! But we did hike down from it, to the Pha Dok Siao waterfall and through terraced rice fields. Our guide, and the village of Mae Klang Luang, belonged to another Karen tribe.
The view from the king and queen's pagodas is better than from the summit itself.

Pha Dak Siao waterfall, Mae Klang Luang hiking trail
These particular folks, who are Roman Catholic, grow and sell coffee. Like many people in the “Golden Triangle” where Thailand meets Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, they used to grow opium. Nowadays the illicit production of opium has shifted to Afghanistan, and the good people of Mae Klang Luang are producing a more acceptable addictive drug. (Delicious, by the way.) 

We also visited a market run by Hmong women. The Hmong are another hill tribe, with a reputation in Thailand for being good at business (their reputation in neighboring Laos is somewhat different, as we shall discover). Several samples in I was talked into buying a bottle of lychee wine, only to realize that I had no corkscrew. This not being Europe, I can’t find one, either. I knew I should have packed that damn Swiss Army knife.

We were going to leave Chiang Mai on the 3rd of November, until our ever-helpful American from elephant day told us the Loy Krathong and Yee Peng festivals were about to begin. These festivals mark the full moon of the last lunar month, so the date is only nailed down one month in advance. Loy Krathong involves floating lanterns made out of flowers down the river, while Yee Peng involves the more dubious practice of releasing paper lanterns into the sky. Both, as far as I understand, represent letting go of negative things at the end of the year.

It’s a marker of how different things are here that no one thinks anything of letting thousands of people float lit candles off into the air. Sure, what could go wrong? We opted to float a krathong down the river and not participate in Flaming Litterfest.
Only sign of the fire department

I often think, if the attitude towards safety in Africa or Asia was averaged together with what now prevails in our home countries, we might achieve some happy medium. Like my childhood, which was a little bit dangerous, but not filled with fear of everything that might possibly happen. Then again, back then we genuinely thought a dolphin show was about the intelligence of the animals, and rode elephants without thinking we were doing any harm. 

People learn to do better. Maybe there is hope for humans and the species with which we share this earth.
Me and Mae-Yung

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nothing can surpass your astonishing experience with the elephants (both mud fun and cleansing!), but your hike in the National Park was also splendid, especially your view of the powerful waterfall. (And you can now forgive yourself for riding an elephant when you were 2. The elephant probably thought a large flea had landed.) G & P