Northern Thailand: Bustling Bangkok to the Mountains of Chiang Mai
I sat in the back of the Uber as we traveled to downtown Bangkok and breathed slowly out, feeling all the muscles of both my body and spirit slowly unclench. I hadn't realized how tense I'd been over the course of the previous month in India and it was immediately clear that Thailand would be a completely different experience. For example, I'd acquired and installed a new SIM card in the time it took to call the Uber from the free airport wifi. The highways were first-rate and nothing around me indicated anything but a world-class city.
Installed in a four-star hotel near downtown that cost less than a good meal in San Francisco, I felt the pull of the spotlessly clean sheets luring me towards immediate sleep. But the whispered song of the Thai capital that thrummed through my fired veins spoke of a far different imperative. So I mustered the energy and set out into the nearby alleyways to get my first taste of real Thai curry.
The spot I found wasn't much to look at -- it combined a half-hearted bar with the neon lights and row tables of a night market -- but clearly had a loyal following based on the banter between servers and regulars. And, after a month of begging Indian chefs to make their meals spicier with little success, that first Thai curry left me weeping satisfied tears.
It was impossible not to draw comparisons with India everywhere I went as I ping-ponged my way through the city at night. The level of energy was just as high but for different reasons. The alleys were a chaos of drunken tourists, food peddlers and prostitutes. Whereas public places in India were almost exclusively occupied by men, Bangkok appeared to host a majority of women. The energy of the music, the lights and the crowds was contagious.
I posted up at an outside bar and settled in to observe the street ecosystem. As expected, the tourists weaved like a school of intoxicated fish along the sidewalks while they were stalked by the barracuda-intense attentions of bar boosters, prostitutes and masseuses. These locals went about their business casually and with good humor, stopping to share stories with each other and laugh before returning to their hunts.
The sidewalks hosted every imaginable form of food. Vendors tended stalls piled high with dozens of types of fish and meat well into the early hours of the morning. The alleys were awash with the powerful smells of sizzling fat and the gentle waft of organic garbage.
I explored the city on foot the following day, threading through well kept passages between buildings that overhung the way with balconies and carried the dark stains of mold down their sides. Even in the morning, the heat was enough to make me sweat.
I was surprised when a local stopped on the street to ask me where I was going. Wary of the hustles of India, I was guarded and waiting for a pitch to take his friend's brother's taxi to their cousin's tailoring shop. But his interest was genuine and he even pulled out a map to show me the best places to go.
I would have written it off as a one-off occurrence but it happened almost exactly the same way twice more that day. Each time, my helpful friends were curious about what brought me to Thailand and confident that their advice would give me a great experience. I'd heard that Thai people are nice but this was above any expectation.
I was also impressed by the civic order after the previous month's utter chaos. On the staircases to the metro, little footprints show which side you are meant to walk on... in English, of course.
Since this was my first time in Southeast Asia, I was particularly tickled by the public art. For better or worse, it did little to discourage some of the amusing stereotypes I had going in.
The streets were relatively clean and the avenues wide. Some sort of strike or holiday had reduced traffic to a trickle so the city had the air of being almost deserted.
The smiling face of the Buddha was everywhere and seemed to be reflected in many of the people I passed on the street or interacted with as I went about my explorations. "Thai people are happy people" read one sign along the way.
I passed a number of small temples and altars along the way where people lit candles, laid wreaths of flowers and placed thin wafers of gold leaf atop stone Buddha statues.
A people with a strong generosity of spirit do have two clear lines of offense: Religion and Royalty. Signs all over proclaimed the sacredness of the Buddha and described how his statues are not art but are meant only for worship. I was also explicitly told to keep any political opinions I had about the king to myself because he was fanatically beloved by the people.
Though Bangkok was a welcome relief from the undeveloped chaos of India and an influx of energy for me, I can't say that I ever felt personally connected to the city. It was a fascinating window into a southeast Asian culture that I'd never experienced before but it always seemed just a bit sterile and, ultimately, never really captured my spirit.
Chiang Mai, nestled in the mountains of northern Thailand and accessible via a short flight, was totally different. This city, which has burst outwards from the squared fortress walls that originally contained it, felt much more like a large town and I immediately had a strong connection with it. The energy was friendly and the shops, cafes and restaurants were well cared for and modern. Many would have been right at home on the streets of San Francisco... just for a fraction of the price or pretension.
Chiang Mai is the unofficial global hub of digital nomadism and location-independent entrepreneurship. The combination of great internet and extraordinary lifestyle comfort have created a critical mass of foreigners looking to "baseline" their expenses while they work on various projects. It has become a kind of pilgrimage for any nomad to pass through.
The day I arrived, they were getting ready for the annual flower festival and colors were in abundance absolutely everywhere.
The cooking class I took the next afternoon used a different style from others I've experienced. It started with a tour of their house garden and continued through the local marketplace, where the hosts pointed out the exact plants and spices we would shortly use and how to identify the best ones. I appreciated that they took the time to build a conceptual understanding of Thai food literally from the ground up.
Thai food embraces the idea that the best meals are a balance between five flavors: sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter. Sweet is generally achieved with cane or coconut palm sugar. Sour comes from lime, tamarind, pineapple or other sour fruits. Spicy is granted via chili peppers (often pasted) and peppercorns. Salty often uses fish sauce instead of salt. Bitter is often imparted via bitter melon or leaves bitter basil. Try to tease them apart the next time you tuck into a Thai curry!
After several days off a bike, I was excited to get back onto two wheels again. On the recommendation of the locals at the rental shop, I picked up a rental for a day trip along the Samoeng Loop. It was strangely refreshing to go through a rental process which actually involved checking my license and acknowledging that they would fix many common issues themselves.
Riding a buttery smooth Honda CB500x, the route took me into the mountains along fast roads with little other traffic. The heat and humidity were not as pervasive as in India and I really enjoyed the flow as I passed through dense forests rimmed with small farmsteads and broad-leafed vegetation.
I turned around in a small town that farmed strawberries. Stopped at a row of fruit stands, I couldn't help but notice how their proprietors generously gave me my space and helpfully answered any questions I pantomimed without pushing for a sale. The mental re-adjustments for this culture were most welcome.
To close the loop back to Chiang Mai, I made my way back through the hills and stopped off at the Royal Botannical Gardens.
At one point on the ride home, I had to do one double-take when I passed an elephant by the side of the road being ridden by a small man in what seemed a comfortably familiar ritual. I resolved to see some of the elephants myself.
Elephants around the world have been used as draft animals, pressed into service for logging operations or abused in the service of providing rides to tourists. Thanks to strong efforts from non profits and a wave of better-informed tourists, most of the elephant experiences have changed their tune to provide "no ride" sanctuaries. It's always difficult to tease apart what is simply marketing and what is substance but my experience indicated elephants who were well-treated and enthusiastic.
We looked at each other with some uncertainty across the back of the truck bed, bounced and jolted with a violence that rattled already frayed nerves. We were 2 hours into what had been billed as a 45-minute drive to the elephant sanctuary and my Google Maps had stopped tracking us properly a half hour ago. She clearly had the same thought as I did -- are we being kidnapped?
The dirt road wound up through the mountains and along steep ravines while we traveled at a pace which left no margin for the errors of oncoming vehicles. Filled with regret for a large breakfast but hale, I held on until the trail finally ended next to a large shade structure at the edge of a quiet hillside. The view was spectacular but I was busy craning my neck to catch another glimpse of the giant elephant butt that had receded around a corner ahead. Our grinning driver hopped out and bade us change into our bathing suits and put on the grass hats and ponchos which were supposed to help the animals understand our role as caretakers.
I have to say that I enjoyed the day with the elephants far more than I expected to. The ritual of feeding them by tossing cantaloupes into their mouths and then bathing them in the nearby mud pit was clearly one to which they were well accustomed but there was no denying the depth of personality in each of these creatures.
There was the small baby who clearly hadn't realized that he'd grown well beyond the "cuddly" size and loved to wrestle his way onto your lap. And the mother who gave "kisses" with her trunk before snaking it around your waist in search of more food.
They had gentle spirits but also clearly enjoyed pushing around the little humans who cared for them a bit and the kinetic connection via our briefly shared space made it far more meaningful than the cages of any zoo.
Two forces had been building up inside of me during the course of the trip so far. One was a hair-pulling frustration with the one-dimensional conversations of 20-year-old backpackers who seemed to frequent the same routes I was on. They were no doubt wonderful people but I simply had no interest in that time they got drunkest or how mind-blowing this summer/semester/year off has been so far.
The other was a nagging desire to get my brain active once again and start addressing the question of what to do next. I'd purposely tried to create distance for myself from that question so I could return to it with a clear head but was finding it more and more difficult to avoid it.
The answer to both questions proved to be spending a couple of weeks in Chiang Mai reconnecting with the grid and finally joining a community of location independent entrepreneurs that I'd been flirting with for a year or so. I suddenly found myself back to having interesting conversations about changing the world and building better businesses while getting a chance to start thinking about what life might look like upon my return.
Immersed in a community of great people halfway around the world, I felt connected again to the kinds of people who made a portion of my Tribe.
One advantage of having a new local foothold was finding out about a music festival called Jai Thep and spending a day immersed in dance there. The experience was a wonderful reconnection to some aspects of social fun that I'd had to keep dormant over the past month but it also put more contrast onto something I'd noticed about the expat culture in Chiang Mai.
Basically, the festival was almost entirely filled with westerners who could have come straight from San Francisco. In a clearly recurring theme, our culture was basically overlaid on top of the local Thai one without mixing. A part of me felt guilty to be a part of what felt like an invasive culture which was allowed to do so because the local culture was gentle and forgiving enough to permit it.
Determined to spend some time away from Westerners, I rented another motorcycle and set off for the famous multi-day Mae Hong Son loop through the mountains.
Spending four days on a superb Honda CB650f, I found a sweet peace among the rolling hills and small villages. Occasionally, I'd buzz past a small pack of tourists wearing tank tops and flip flops atop tiny mopeds that struggled to surmount the steep grades but most of the interactions were genuine. The locals I met smiled a lot and cooked some of the best food I've ever had.
The last day of the loop took me through Pai, a small mountain town which was a popular spot for backpackers. Despite being surrounded by a crowd I preferred to avoid, I loved the town's mountain charm.
After arriving, I got out for a run through the rice paddies. Though proud of packing small, what I missed more than anything else was my pair of running shoes. Flip flops were barely adequate, though I definitely leveled up my toe-clenching skills after several runs in them.
Pai had a lot going on all the time and the day I arrived there was the weekly street food fair. Though I'd hardly eaten poorly before, the Feast of Many Vendors left me in a near coma of satiety. It didn't prevent me from spending time in a bar soaking up some unexpected jazz music.
On the way out from Pai, I stopped off to see the highly touted bamboo bridges but found the paddies out of season and completely dry. Instead of an idyllic view of rickety old causeways spidering above green fields populated by pickers in rice hats, the land was inhabited by several head of scraggly-looking cattle whose bells clanged constantly in the dusty air.
It was difficult to say goodbye to Chiang Mai after spending nearly two weeks there and meeting a host of new friends. Most of them planned to leave anyway due to the upcoming burning season but there is no question that Chiang Mai represents one of the most comfortable places I've ever stayed.
For someone who typically avoids such comfort in the name of growth, it was nonetheless a most welcome way to recharge and I do expect to return.