Saturday, February 1, 2014

Manwood Dorking [sign spotted in Chiang Mai]

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Our departure from Bangkok couldn't have been better-timed. Upon returning to Terrance's on Sunday evening [after getting some phenomenal som tam, or green papaya salad] he informed us that the protest leader had just been shot dead.

We spent that night on a sleeper bus along with Jones and April, during which we all attempted to study the Thai alphabet using children's books with minimal success, and all woke up about an hour before our 7:20 a.m. arrival because they'd cranked the air conditioning down to nothing-degrees. When we arrived, we shared a songtaew [that is, a pick-up truck with two benches and a roof in the back serving as a taxi] with some Canadians to get to the Old City [since we'd failed to watch what the locals had done in order to leave the station, which probably would've revealed a cheaper way of getting into town].

Closing thoughts on Bangkok: New York City is a fat, narcoleptic grandpa in comparison [whereas Bangkok is some scruffy-but-vaguely-glamorous young thing you might run into on some altered night in a dive bar outside your normal neck of the woods, charismatic but possibly a bit misleading, maybe subtly hopped up on some varietal of white powder, beckoning you congenially to follow him down to his subtropolis].

Summarily, Bangkok lived up to its stereotypes. For locals and tourists alike, it seemed like the two main things to do during the day were eat and shop [but it was easy to see why]. At night, the eating and shopping continues behind the nocturnal backdrop of colorful bars, strobes and lasers, lanky hookers, cheap massage parlors [which, by the way, do offer--and sometimes insist upon--the delivery of happy endings] and the penetrating thrum of nnts-nnts-nnts.

I loved it, but it was making me feel sluggish and stupid all the time, like my brain was tapped out on the constant stimulation. Everything was so new, even the daily walks to the BTS--past little boys dangling fishing poles over a city bridge overhung with barbaric trees that remind us we'd be in a jungle if not for urbanization, past lightning-fast fry cooks chugging down a bottle of Chang in between serving ten people a minute, past a horde of ladyboys foraging through a two-mile succession of clothing vendors--felt dense and fast and bright. Of course, it was partly culture shock--those sights have now become mundanities--but Bangkok still gets some credit for being altogether more alive than the cities I've been used to.

Chiang Mai, on the other hand, makes me feel almost too relaxed and on top of things. For better or for worse, it's almost too easy: our private room is $7 total per night; if we want to get out of town, we can rent a fast scooter right downstairs for $6; within twenty feet of the guest house are a million food carts at all hours of the day, each cheaper and better than the last; every conceivable brand of nightlife is reachable within a three-minute walk; and, with the moat around the Old City, it's virtually impossible to get lost.

On the one hand, the place has sucked us into wanting to just kick back and live here for a while [which seems to happen to a lot of people here]; on the other, it feels too comfortable and I feel like I'm cheating, like I need to pursue a more rugged destination. Despite the complete dissimilarity between here and anywhere I've thought of as "home", being here makes me feel like a homebody.

Tucked in among Thai culture and hundreds of majestic wats [Alex: "It's almost disappointing just how many temples there are. They're gorgeous, but they're just fucking everywhere; after a day you're desensitized and basically see them as road blocks."] is a sort of Hippie Disneyland Village of Hostels, which I suppose can be seen as bad or good--as a cultural parasite or a natural progression of the city's adaptation to global tourism. At any rate, Chiang Mai is a gallery for every stereotype of expat and tourist: granola festie-kid types, Golden Anniversary re-honeymooners, douchebaggy European spring breakers, and so on. Homemade flyers in all the restaurants of a guy who'll give you dreadlocks, or a woman who does Tarot readings. Ex-pat cafes serving ayurvedic teas with coconut milk and stevia. And so on.

Quick answers to my previous two questions:

Mosquito-wise, it seems the locals mainly rely on diet [lemongrass and garlic, particularly]. Sometimes people even bring a bit of lemongrass around with them, in their pocket or some such. Other than that, mosquito coils and fans. Not much else. [Still went ahead and got a bottle of citronella spray, since I've been shoving garlic into my face and am not sure it's actually working.]

Temple-wise, it's kind of a no-brainer now that I know. Thai people [and people who can pass for Thai] get in free, and don't really go to the big swanky temples to worship [they've got their own temples for that--the same way Catholics don't necessarily go hang out in Notre Dame every Sunday]. Well, hurp dap.

Fun fact: We've been enjoying Thailand's longest cold season in ten years [they usually last a couple weeks; this one's lasted for months]. The other morning the cold was "record-breaking", at a frigid 15° C [that's about 60° F]. To me, this seems like great weather, but there have already been at least sixty-three Thai deaths related to the cold, and when we've gone out at times when there's been a mid-80-ish going, several people are walking around in sweaters, winter jackets, and long underwear.

...Yeah, so. We've yet to find out what they consider "hot" to be.

Bua Tong Waterfall

Easily one of the coolest places I've ever been. I've never been much for a good "view" or for "scenery"--I like to interact with things. I like mountains I can climb up or ski down or camp underneath, and lakes I can swim in. If all I want to do is look at a place, I can pick up a postcard.

This waterfall? There's a wonky set of steps alongside of it that'll take you to the bottom where, thanks to calcium carbonate deposits on the face, you can walk back up it on the face, like a steep bulbous staircase. It's also known as the "sticky waterfall". There's not a whole lot I can say that pictures won't say better.

Starting from the bottom, working up:

Getting to it involved renting scooters and driving more than an hour into the countryside past rice paddies, clusters of banana trees, and temples. We stopped on the way for some fermented pork rice and deep-fried sweet potatoes--and a local vendor let me sample some crickets, which were actually quite good.

On the way back, we drove past the site of an accident--all that was left was a smashed scooter and puddle of blood--which had us feeling a bit apprehensive about navigating the rush hour traffic. Consequently, we lost Jones and April on their scooter, and we'd been following them to get home since they had the directions. Our phone was dead, and our map was in English, which wasn't helpful.

After the initial frustration of being lost, I was overtaken in a new sense of freedom. So far, it's almost felt like this trip has been too easy--exhausting, perhaps, but posing no true challenges.

Granted, I'm not saying this was really a challenge, either--we were basically already in town and found our way back after about five minutes of gesturing on a map to some Thais in a shop--but it gave me a chance to reflect on what's always appealed to me about traveling in the States. The sense of uncertainty and risk. For some reason, I've been a lot more wary here, always thinking of tomorrow [in terms of money, what we'll do, visa logistics, possible issues...] and while I haven't been overanxious, the whole point of my travels in the states has been to free myself of any place and time other than the here and now, and traveling abroad shouldn't be fundamentally different.

The Anti-Monk

That first night, while navigating through the bazaar stalls, I almost ran headlong into a monk [fortunately, I didn't--monks aren't supposed to touch women; if they do, they have to go through arduous cleansing rituals], who gestured for me to move aside, then approached Alex and put a string of beads around his neck. He started rubbing Alex's chest and whispering things that we couldn't understand, and made Alex kiss the necklace. Then he asked Alex for 100 baht and, when Alex shook his head, chuckling, took the necklace back and walked away.

"I...don't think that guy was a real monk. That, or he's a rebellious one. A lot of the monks get offended if you even try to give them money--why would one be going around asking for it?"

"I bet it was a test--maybe he was whispering something like, 'I'm going to try to take the necklace off of you. If you don't let me do it, you'll win Enlightenment.'"

Since that night, we've run into him at least once per night, always only going after young white men [he's tried to get Alex again at least two or three times and walks off with a bitter smile and what sound like Thai pejoratives each time we start laughing].

I might be developing a bit of an obsession with him. We'll see him in two different spots in one night, miles apart. The other night, he was sitting on a bench outside of our guesthouse. I would've struck up a conversation with him but he seems to speak no English [and my Thai isn't good enough to transcend basic niceties]. He's everywhere we are.


One: Who the hell is this guy? Is he a real monk?

Nocturnal Everything

I think this place has the right idea. Chiang Mai isn't exactly metropolitan, and yet it comes alive at night. There are a million food carts, most of the restaurants in town stay open until at least midnight [as do many other shops, including bookstores and cafes], huge marketplaces and night-only shopping centers, random shows [many of them free], and an absurd row of backpacker bars that felt like Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras when we went on a Monday night.

On our first night, we headed out to the night bazaar with Jones [April had passed out], all hankering for a beer. Dirtbags that we are, we opted to go buy beer at the corner store and then bring it into a food court with our dinner [right next to some Khmer dancers--easily the most benign form of dance I've ever seen, like stylized somnambulism...except for the crazy-triple-jointed-backward-flexed fingers, which is the one interesting thing about the dance style, and which hurt my joints to look at].

Along with the standard Chang [which I've actually gotten pretty fond of...I've heard it referred to as "Asian PBR" or similar, but I think it's actually a fuckload better than your standard cheap beer] we grabbed a bottle of some mystery booze because it was 30 baht for a large.

Mistake. It tasted like fish oil with grape juice. We all decided we had to choke it down to get our money's worth, and after a couple attempts each deserted the thing, still more than half-full.

We found April drinking by a closed leather workshop with two friendly and inebriated Thai men with a guitar, both of whom were named Egg [though one of them also answered to "Johnny Depp"] and a rad Australian girl named Ella, who introduced herself to us in a weird Asian-y-Pidgin-esque pseudo-accent before adjusting: "Oh, sorry--I've been hanging out with Thais so much it's got me speaking in broken English to compensate."

After some general merrymaking all of us left Egg and Egg to go check out the backpacker bars, a condensed block about a hundred feet long, to meet up with Ning. I can best describe it as a really compressed Bourbon Street with a dash of Burning Man. A Thai band was covering Pantera in one bar that was next door to a reggae bar that was next door to some place playing hard rock; in the middle of the row were two nightclubs complete with lasers and fog machines blaring dubstep at one another as if in a face-off; the places were so bloated with shitfaced Commonwealthers that they spilled out into the street, which served as an extension of the conjoined dance party.

"Isn't it a Monday night?"

We all decided to make the most of our situation by mini flash-mobbing unsuspecting clubbers on the dance floor, and took turns selecting victims. One by one, we'd squeeze our way through the mash of people and circle around our victim--and then spontaneously start jumping/dancing/fist-pumping insanely when we had him completely surrounded.

First guy, who was clearly blacked out, was stoked, and started whooping at us in what sounded like gibberish and laughing. Second guy freaked the fuck out and had bolted straight out of the club within three seconds.

And so on.

We saw the maybe-monk there, too, provocatively rubbing the nipples of some bro in another loud nightclub, while a six-year old Thai boy leaned stood and watched while leaning against the bar. Not something you see every day. Jones decided he had to go "get a blessing" for himself, and came back reporting that it was an unprecedentedly erotic experience, what with all the nipple-rubbing and mumbling.

And so on.

April and Jones headed out a day or so later, which reminded me of one of my favorite aspects of traveling--sort of sloughing together a temporary "crew" of people you've just met, hanging out more-or-less as you would with your close friends from back home, for a couple days or a couple weeks, and then parting ways just as simply. About five minutes after we said goodbye to the two of them, we met up with Alberto, a guy we'd spent a single night talking to back at the hostel in Reno. A couple days later, we met a guy named Nathan for the first time after a mutual friend insisted upon it via Facebook; we wound up talking ceaselessly for several hours [one thing that stood out to me was our mutual observations of the incompatibilities between Buddhism and Buddhist culture--similar to Christianity and Christian culture--and grappling with consequent disillusionment].

There's something elegant and genuine about it, as opposed to socializing back home--when you're a fixture somewhere, it gets easy to fall into a rut of hanging out with the same people all the time, regardless of whether you actually want to [and, in the cases of shared mutual friends, regardless of whether you even like everyone you're hanging out with], because they're available.

And so on

It's been pretty mellow. We've spent a lot of time teaching ourselves to read and write in Thai in a decidedly New Agey tea house in an upstairs loft overlooking the bustling-but-cozy soi we've affectionately come to think of as our "neighborhood", drinking fancy Ayurvedic teas and lemongrass kombucha while flopped over Thai massage mats and pillows. In one corner are hula hoops and guitars to tinker on, in another are random goods for sale [diva cups, natural face creams, flower of life stickers]. The place is run by an Austrian ex-pat hippie girl and hosts yoga classes, movie nights, open mic nights. While I initially came here with what I now think was a bit of a naive purist attitude of what is/isn't "real" Thai culture...I've begun to realize that all of this stuff is a part of contemporary Chiang Mai culture--it's a melting pot, and the natives seem to have embraced this.

Lots of wandering around, sitting in parks, trying new food. Eating has been our primary pastime, I'd say. Figuring out our favorites--like Thai iced tea served in a giant plastic bag stabbed with a straw [the packaging here is pretty insane--you have to be pretty assertive if you don't want every small purchase you make to get stuck into five different plastic bags].

Speaking of eating, I forced myself to try durian no fewer than three times, and hereby declare that it resembles soggy garbage in both taste and texture.

The Ladyboy Cabaret, a free nightly show we came across unintentionally while hanging out with Alberto. We sat down in front of two unfinished Heinekens, which we helped ourselves to [Alberto: "Is it really beer, or is it piss?" Us: "It's piss."] I quite enjoyed the guys' noticeable ambivalence as we watched what appeared to be several scantily-clad and legitimately gorgeous women waggling flamboyantly on stage. A couple acts involved a hot "woman" transforming [via costume changes and make-up remover and wigs] into a handsome dude. Pretty killer, especially for the price tag.

As I suspected, massage up north is far superior to everything I found in Bangkok. In particular, I really wanted to go get a Nerve Touch massage, a specialized style of Thai massage that I've trained in. Easily one of the most effective massages I've ever gotten. It's been days since then, and we both feel fucking phenomenal. Without realizing it, Alex had gotten a massage from the current Nerve Touch instructor [the one before her was the founder of the style, who taught my own instructor in Nevada City]...and when we got to the register they informed us that the price for his massage was 950 baht. Luckily for us, they were really gracious when they saw how shocked we were and honored the normal price, realizing that we hadn't known. [Though, to put it in perspective, that'd still be a fucking steal by American standards, especially for how good of a massage it was: less than $30 for an hour and a half].

We also spent a day at Huay Tung Tao, a lake about twenty minutes outside of town, eating lunch [and subsequently falling asleep] in a bamboo hut over the water. It wound up being pricier than we'd expected after the scooter rental, entrance fees, and pricey food, but was worth it. That being said, there's so much amazing free stuff to do in the area that I don't see myself going back.

We've spent two days looking for Saimok Kap Dokmai, an edible flower restaurant that's supposedly ten minutes out of town, but fucking impossible to find. The other night we gave up after almost three hours of circling around on a scooter, backtracking and asking for directions a million times. At one point we'd turned down a deserted road and saw a bunch of people walking towards we followed, thinking it might take us to a night market or some other event where we could re-orient ourselves.

We were at a temple. There were eerie lights [candles, glowsticks, and lasers] and some intensely somber chanting. People were sitting in silence, and we couldn't see what they were all staring at. Blood sugar critically low, it took us a second of whispering to each other in the back to realize we weren't at a market or other public event.

"Whoa, is this some sort of occult ritual?"

"Uh. Anna. I don't think we should be here..."

It was then that we saw what appeared to be a casket, or at least a shrine decked out with some guy's picture. Whoops.

Two: Find this damn flower restaurant. It looks fucking awesome [flower salads, flower drinks, fried flowers...]. Even if it means renting a tuk-tuk. Or a guide. I'm too proud to let it go after we've invested so much time into it. 8P

Three: Most of the beggars we've seen have been amputees. I want to know why that is. My imagination's gone nuts. Are they being exploited by a con artist who's cutting off their tongues and limbs? Are they all victims of workplace injuries [wouldn't be too surprising--we've had to tiptoe around people welding in the sidewalk without so much as a pair of safety goggles or long pants]? Is there some leprosy-esque outbreak affecting the local poor?

And so on.

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