One of the best parts about being in South-East Asia is its proximity of varying countries nearby.
After spending about three months in Viet Nam, nearly to the full extent of my first 90-day tourist visa, it came close to the time where I would have to renew it.
Some of you may recall my adventures alongside the Chatty Swede, during my first few days in Sài Gòn. She and I had kept in sporadic touch since then, as her plan took her out of Sài Gòn and north, then back west through Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. There in Thailand, the Chatty Swede remained for upwards of two months, volunteering at an elephant camp and a tiger kingdom. The names of both places are most apropos.
This would more or less be my last opportunity to see my Swedish sister before she embarked to continue her backpacking. Not only would I probably never again get such a chance to see the tigers she worked with, but after being away I would arrange to have a fresh, new, 90-day visa when I returned to Sài Gòn. Thus, we devised a plan for me to visit her there, leaving my home for about five days.
Arranging everything turned out to be mostly painless. Had I booked my flights earlier, I might have saved about twenty or thirty dollars, but as it turns out a two-way flight between Sài Gòn and Bangkok ran me only a little over a hundred. So, leaving my motorbike in the safety of my home behind locked gates, I took two buses out of my home area of District 9 to the airport, after which I managed to catch my flight without incident.
I remember glancing at my phone, having flown out of reach of 3G range, and flipped on the GPS to see where we were. I happily had a window seat, and looking outside, I saw rolling forested mountains that in truth did not look all that different from not-s0-far from Sài Gòn. Once my phone triangulated my position – oh yes, they always say on those flights that use of phones is forbidden, but come on, whether the things are turned on or not, they would be interfering with the flight signals regardless – I saw that my plane was about half-way between Sài Gòn and Bangkok, making the immense lake (Tonle Sap Lake, for those of you who care) I saw and the forests below to be smack-dab in the middle of Cambodia.
So unaccustomed to short flights was I that the hour it took to reach Bangkok felt about as easy as the jaunt between my old home and family I had in New Jersey. By car.
At the Bangkok airport, my first order of business was acquiring a SIM card for my phone, which proved to be easier than ever expected. There I saw booths offering 7-Day Traveler’s SIMs, with unlimited internet access and 3G ability, for less than ten dollars. Not bad, I figured, though throughout my travels in Thailand the majority of my connectivity was pretty bad. I know not whether it was the 3G available, or perhaps my phone, but only WiFi at cafes seemed to be reliable enough to send and recieve any messages. I would not hear from the Chatty Swede until later.
Thai folks really know how to make their cities look like a bag of candy.
Getting to the Hualamphong Train Station turned out to be easy. I hopped into one of the bright yellow-and-green taxi cabs (though vivid fuschia ones seemed just as inviting), and for 500 baht I was taken across the city. In retrospect, of course I know I could have gotten there for cheaper, but I knew not the train schedules and every bit of advice I had ever read or received about Thailand urged to book as early as possible. I felt I had not time to fumble with public transit.
And so I justify over-spending on a taxi-fair in a foreign city. Not for the first time. 500 baht comes to about $15.00 USD so I’ll live, but I would later find out how cheap and easy it is to simply use the subway.
At least I got to meet the taxi driver, a gentleman whose named sounded like “Soap Sock.”
We got to the train station in good time. Arranging my two-way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai turned out to be just as easy, and any anxieties I might have had about getting a ticket (as one cannot book them online in advance) disappeared. In fact I had about an hour before my train departed, so I took a moment to peruse the Hualamphong food court.
Vegetarian food is delightfully easy to find in Thailand.
And, much in the manner I encountered in South Korea, most street signs (or otherwise important ones) are accompanied by English translations. Bangkok is a noticeably more developed city in a noticeably more developed country than Việt Nam- evidenced by their public train systems, number of cars (as opposed to motorbikes), and of course international population. It really shows in its ease of accessibility to foreigners, and many Thai people (especially in Bangkok) speak English; all of whom I’d met wore big smiles and were happy to help. I know I looked the part of the typical tourist, walking around, taking pictures, pausing at every sign and checking my notes or phone to ascertain where I was.
But aside from the sudden lack of motorbikes, among the first things I noticed in Bangkok, both on the way to the train station and even on the train itself, was the architecture. While much of Bangkok itself is indeed “modernized” office buildings and the like, and the view from the highway in particular passes over large swathes of shanty-towns as I’m familiar with seeing in Sài Gòn, there are temples everywhere. I also happen to find the Thai script simply beautiful to look upon, as unintelligible as it is to me.
Having boarded the train, the first ‘sleep train’ I had ever attempted, I found my assigned seat to be near a trio of delightful old Thai ladies. Only one of them spoke English, and interactions were fairly limited as I found myself mostly interested in the what zoomed passed the train out the window, but I learned they were in their sixties, that they were headed to Chiang Rai (further north of Chiang Mai, the city to which I was to debark) and that they – or at least the one who spoke the most – was also vegetarian. They were all quick to laugh, and quite chatty; while the entirety of the car had pulled its curtains shut and settled to attempt to sleep through the night, the three old Thai women went on in their incomprehensible language. I happened to not mind, and sleeping on the train took some getting used to.
A peek out of my bunk.
Besides, the Thai Trio fed me this, too. I have no idea what it is, but it tasted like a mooncake.
The next day, I awoke two hours before the train would stop in Chiang Mai, and passed the time talking to a friendly Thai gentleman who spent nine months of the year in Florida. Our arrival in Chiang Mai put me in the city at around nine in the morning, and I would have about five hours of free time to explore the city until I would at last meet my chatty Swedish sister. Looking at the maps (as well as the one on my phone), the way to the Old City from the Chiang Mai train station was, graciously, a perfectly straight line.
Getting there was more a matter of avoiding the insistent tuk-tuk drivers, whose behavior I found virtually identical to the Vietnamese xe ôm drivers.
In those five hours of wandering about Chiang Mai, keeping myself within the confines of the Old City – which was more than big enough to occupy one such as myself – I found dozens of temples.Wats, they call them.
Every wat, and most other remotely traditional-looking buildings that I saw, seemed to always have symmetrically placed statues of naga, which at first I confused to be dragons, but a local corrected me when I asked.
How about another shot of one these beauties?
Naga have been popularized in fantasy as snake people, but in Buddhist folklore they seem to often play the part of a guardian, but they’re not always benevolent.
I found myself often looking around to make sure whether or not I was trespassing, as I did, in fact, accidentally let myself into a monk’s private study while exploring. Just once. Everything after that, like this place, was completely open to the public.
I visited temples, dropped a few baht coins in a donation box at one of them, and eventually needed something to eat. Remembering that I had jokingly insisted the real reason I had chosen to come to South East Asia was to in fact try eating authentic pad thai, I set out to find some of the real stuff.
Vegetarian pad thai. Tasted about the same as restaurants I knew back in New York; sweet with only a hint of spice. I suspect it is because I had it in a touristy area.
The next time I find myself in Thailand, probably to see the White Temples of Chiang Rai, I will make it my mission to seek out real, authentic pad thai.
I spent the remainder of my time waiting visiting various touristy things; with more than enough temples already perused, I found two museums (where I learned a wealth of information about the ancient Kingdom of Lanna, of which Chiang Mai was the capital in ancient days) and a cultural center, primarily centered a stone’s throw away from the Three King’s Square.
Eventually, enough time passed that I decided I ought to head to where I would meet my Chatty Swedish Sister.
I got there without incident, riding in the back of a “bus taxi,” one of many such vehicles, that appeared to be little more than a pickup truck outfitted to hold a pile of people in the back.
Nothing could have prepared me for the experience at the place where I’d meet my friend, the place she had spent the last few months working.
The Chiang Mai Tiger Kingdom.