This experience is now certainly in full motion. The past 17 days have carried me from the limelight of Bangkok to the isolated hill tribes in the far north – and everything in between.
Since embarking, I have traveled the following route: Bangkok – Pai – Lahu Village- Soppong – Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai – Akha Village.
After getting off the plane and entering the Sky Line, I noticed a majority of locals wearing breathing masks like that of medical professionals. The reasoning revealed itself the moment I stepped out of the public transit and into the sweltering smog that radiates every square inch of the city streets. The city was pretty much how I imagined it to be – loud, busy, hot, and smoggy. Walked for the first few hours, I was taking it all in.
My first stay was a cute little French-owned guesthouse south of the chaotic scene in an authentic neighborhood. There, I relaxed after a lengthy travel and got an hour of shut-eye.
As afternoon began to fade into night, I headed back out to do some exploring. This presented the simple reality – in Bangkok, things can get really weird at rush hour…
While walking down a sidewalk of a busy street, soaking up the scene with all 5 of my senses, I was honked at from behind? Turning around I was aggressively confronted with a line of motorbikes ranging from ordinary civilians, to motor taxis, and even police. This forced me to march onward in the gutter between the street and walkway. “Well, this is Bangkok,” I thought to myself…
Besides the apparent chaos, I saw a conglomeration of ethnicities, cultures, and lifestyles. The faces I peered into were only a percentage Thai. Roaming and working the streets were also Chinese, Burmese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Pakistani, Caucasians, and so much more. There were also many types of street art, activities, food, and other festivities. To compare, Bangkok is New York City gone Asian.
As I drifted to sleep, I thought of the Thailand I had imagined…green, smiley, and peaceful.
When I awoke, I made my dreams a reality.
The 12 hour overnight bus I took landed me in Pai, a quaint town embedded in the sleepy mountains 3 hours north of Chiang Mai. After putting my pack down, I set out on my motorbike to see the beauty before my eyes. I hit a cozy hot spring, fed a few elephants, and overlooked a spectacular canyon. This is what I came here for…
After sundown in Pai, the streets invite locals in to share some famous Thai dishes with the traveling vagabonds – a very lovely scene where interaction thrives and laughs are shared.
The next day, based on a recommendation from the owner of my guesthouse, I ventured off the beaten track to a ‘secret’ waterfall she knew about. In fact, she was exactly correct. In the 14km trek across uncountable streams that soaked my pants to my knees, I didn’t see a single other foreigner and only occasionally made eye contact with a local working deep in the forest. Birds were singing, water flowed in pristine conditions, and foliage emerged from every angle of the eye. As the sun continued to transcend across the sky, I reached the waterfall with not another person in sight. I found Eden!
The next day, a group of 7 of us began a 2 day 1 night trek into the hills beyond Pai towards the border with Myanmar. 8 Hours of trekking each day brought pain to our legs, but sensation to the eyes, ears, and appetites! Our guide spoke of the true history behind the hill tribe people.
In 2002, the government began the intensive crackdown on opium production and sale within the border. The tribal people, however, had relied on the drug as the primary cash crop. With this now outlawed, most were forced into ‘reservation’ type environments (such as Soppong) where they were (re)educated, subsidized for crops such as rice, and stripped of their native religion and lifestyles. We were fortunate enough to be connected with a few families who resisted and continued their way of life in the hills – individuals of the Lahu Tribe. They were welcoming, charming, and extraordinary chefs.
Overall, the trek was a phenomenal workout, valuable educational experience, and fantastic nature exploration. As we returned that night and got beers as a trekking crew, we laughed and joked about bits and pieces from the trip. This was the first group of friends I made on this trip. The initial travel anxiety began to fade, and I felt comforted by the company of others.
Welcome to backpacker central! Chiang Mai is the major city of the north, which hosts foreigners from all corners of the globe. The charm is present in the local people who truly welcome others, and in the fellow travelers who often make this stop a prolonged home due to the comfort and ease of life. Most speak English here, and the major source of revenue appears to be tourism within the old city.
Here, I rented peddling bikes to explore the central parts. A motorbike led me to the tip-top to Doi Suthep (Thailand’s greatest temple) for sunrise and morning offerings to devout Monks. I indulged in an incredible cooking class with Zaa-B-Lee. And, the people surely showed me a good time. I met many who had decided to stay in Chiang Mai for many weeks. It was obvious why. The town turns into a backpackers delight at sundown where beer is far more common than water and music rings down each street.
After a 3 days, I hit the road again seeking more adventure and less comfort. Though in retrospect, I have very positive sentiments toward Chiang Mai!
Chiang Rai & Akha Hill Tribe Village
Back to nature I went. Chiang Rai is the sleepy neighbor of Chiang Mai, and a springboard for trekking and outdoor exploration. After an incredible night out at the local Saturday market where authentic goods are sold to locals and travelers alike, I headed for the best-kept-secret of the region: Akha Hill Tribe Village.
The Akha have done their best to maintain their traditional culture, and to support their village they invite a small number of visitors at a time to peer into their way of life and habitat they call home. I arrived with eyes wide open as smiles welcomed me off the back of the transport truck. Little kids, playing with sticks and tires (or whatever they had at their disposal), ran up to give me high fives. And a stunning waterfall radiated from 100 meters away, effectively calling my name. I spent the first afternoon there reading Alan Watts esteemed writing, The Wisdom of Insecurity, while endless amounts of water peacefully crashed from 100 meters into a pool of shivering temperature then proceeded downriver to supply for the tea plantations and rice paddies.
I spent the next day with two guys who arrived that morning, Michael (Switzerland) and John (Australia). One of the best parts of this trip has been the other travelers, especially those who share a similar mindset. After watching a marvelous sunrise at the crack of dawn, we trekked all day through the various villages, overlooked stunning landscape, and talked for hours on end. When we got back, I hung out with the locals talking about how life has changed for them over the years, and sharing stories from our pastime. As night crept and the temperature plummeted, we sat around the central bonfire and continued simple conversation.
During the start of my travels, I was staying focused on getting my bearings straight. This blog was a brief overview of my doings so far. In the future I hope to write more often and provide more insight, rather than wait to the end of a country and compile so much into a readable page. It’s difficult, though, when there is always something to do and you’re living in the moment…so we’ll see.
I have done my best to get off the beaten ‘tourist’ path as best as possible, and would consider myself so far successful. This trip has been incredible, and I know as I head to Laos tomorrow it’ll only get better and more authentic! Thailand is a fantastic country, but it’s heavily traveled and thus hard to gain novel respect from locals.
As always, my focus has been on the people and nature…rather than the monuments, beer, or other famous stuff to see. That is the way I will continue to travel, knowing there is so much more to learn…
Peace & Love,