It's been nearly a month since the Thailand government gave me 30 days to roam free within their borders, so I reckon it's about time for me to get out of here before they start fining me for overstaying my welcome. After leaving Bangkok, it was my hope that both Chiang Mai and the surrounding area were heaps different from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The plan was to work on a farm for the 30 days and then get a “real job” elsewhere making money to help refuel the accounts. And continue to grow the beard, of course.
How things change.
After 13 sleeps on the farm, the volunteer pool had quadrupled by the help of a solo Dutch traveler and 2 Belgium friends on holiday. The routine was simple: wake, eat, farm, explore. It was fun. It was educational. It was hot. But most of all it was rather humbling.
One needs to see both sides of the coin to be “humbled,” right, whatever that word means. I was brought up in a home where we didn't struggle for our needs. We weren't by any means loaded, but if we needed something, it was as simple as running down the store to get it. And for the luxury items --- a new baseball bat, new clothes each year, a family vacation --- they were afforded by hard work and an intense practice of frugality. I can assume that most of you reading this fall into that category.
In a twist of irony, however, the most humbling part wasn't even the farm. The owner had spent 47 years of his life in either Italy or England --- 2 very developed countries despite recent events. And no, we didn't have things like showers or satellite, but if we needed something, same story as the past 26 years, it could be obtained relatively easily because We. Have. Money.
Dispersed in the mountains surrounding the village, communities of Karen people lived. Each day after work, I went to one of the villages to try and get a better idea of how they live. Uneven and weather beaten wooden planks arranged together formed their 1 room homes --- not 1 bedroom, but 1 room --- all with dirt floors. Clothes are hand-washed and air dried, food cooked over fires, and baths taken in the river. These people have far less than I had when I had no income, no job, and no money, and the frightening part of it is that Thailand is not that poor of a country. I mean, look next door to Bangladesh for example. I can’t even imagine…truth be told, I’ve only seen a glimpse of the coin’s other side.
But these were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. I mean, we’re notorious for helping industrialize undeveloped countries for the “better good.” I’m not knocking helping out your fellow man, but it makes me wonder…have we got it backwards? Maybe we should take a lesson from their book of life. Is all the shit we have really necessary?
For the farming, we didn't kill too many plants – in fact I think we did a pretty damn good job – but for reasons unbeknownst to us, we were abruptly kicked out on day 14.
So with questions unanswered, back to Chiang Mai city we went.
The 2 Belgians planned to shoot up north; the Dutchman was looking to go on a visa-run; and I began researching the Mae Hong Son loop. It’s a paved circuit that outlines the northwest corner of Thailand just along the Burmese border. Reviews taught me that "experienced riders need only apply" because there are "lots of zig-zag curves" along this "dangerous road with hairpin turns and lots of blind curves."
The next morning Mark and I went to rent motorbikes. (He opted to push his visa-run back 1 week.) At $6/day, who could say no to discovering more true Thai backlands?
Later that Monday morning we left on the not-so-crowded street under the historic Chiang Mai Gate and headed east, driving the loop counter-clockwise, saving the most dangerous roads for last. The plan was to spend more time in the small villages rather than the "touristy towns."
Rooms never cost more than $3 or $4 per day and meals about a third of that. There was no "tourist tax." There were homemade meals and family dinners. There were no tour agencies. Rather, locals were happy to take us in their cars on complimentary day-trips. We couldn’t talk to them but pointing and smiling are international languages. Rice fields, rivers, mountains, national parks, caves and waterfalls were more than abundant. And no one spoke English.
I’ll spare you the play-by-play, but 1 week, 900 kilometers, 1 flat tire, and 1 crash later (I'm OK, just out 2,000 baht), we arrived back in Chiang Mai. The Mae Hong Son loop was a fantastic way to end this tour of Thailand; I can only hope the rest of my time in SE Asia will be as fun as the northwest has been.
So tonight I'll bus down to Bangkok from where I'll fly into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I hear they REALLY like Americans, so this should be an adventure. On September 1, Da Nang, Vietnam will likely be the place I ultimately succumb, as I've registered to run in their inaugural marathon, a beautiful 42.2 km in the form of 1 big 13.1 mile loop that will unfortunately need to be repeated. It should be fun, but truth be told, I signed up more for the beach party at the end...
The Beard, 11 months, was shaved at 6:00 PM ICT yesterday, in northern Thailand, outside of Chiang Mai. It sprung to life just short of a year ago, in August 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
It is survived only by pictures and memories; its father preceded it in its death at 1 month after an unpleasant run-in with an ex-employer.
The Beard was a long time resident of Australia, where it moved to as a youngster and lived out the middle 9 months of its life. After leaving its childhood home just earlier this month, it found itself in a climate far too hot for it to sustain life. Knowing that a beard-friendly future employer was only 8 weeks away, it was ready to reproduce as to be in a “manageable state” upon arrival.
It radiated wisdom and sexual virility. It never slept, never complained, was always there when you needed it. It saved your crumbs; it allowed you to relish your beerafter finishing the can. It acted as a natural compass. It could sense changes in the weather. It naturally repelled insects, sun, and sarcasm.
It created fear in men, lust in women, and jealously among all pubescent faces.
It put one-size-fits-all's to shame.
It loved blowing in the wind on an afternoon cycle. It enjoyed bonding with others over a cold drink. It especially treasured being scratched by any hand lucky enough to touch it. Don't wash those hands.
It was the single most greatest friend a man could have.
Let us all have a moment of silence out of respect.
RIP BEARD. We will always love you.
There was a funeral in the village today. Both the death and funeral date were announced a few days ago over the village loudspeaker.
In Western countries – at least where I grew up in the Bible Belt – funerals tend to be a place for mourning and grieving. One day to “say your goodbyes” and commonly spend copious amounts of money on a wooden box that eventually will rot and pay fees for people to arrange flowers and music for someone who is already dead.
Funerals here last a couple of days, from what I can gather somewhere between 2 and 7. If you knew the deceased at some point in time, you generally go to the funeral. In a village of only a few hundred, it’s a community affair.
The village has communal tables, chairs, etc. that are used for events such as this. Men friends of the deceased will collect and assemble these either in the family’s yard, or, if they don’t have one large enough, in the street. (I learned this the hard way after cruising the motorbike up on the program after turning onto an unknowingly closed-off street – if only I could understand either those morning announcements or street signs…) As in most countries, the women cook an array of food enough to feed a village (pun intended).
The morning of the cremation, the men go into the forest and cut any dead wood. This is used for the burning of the body, and is quite frankly the part I found most interesting. (That, and the fact that the joke’s on the tourists given the crematory is shockingly close to where they come to wash the elephants in the river.) Everything out here is by the land and is given back to the land. Nothing is wasted, everything returned.
I know that this post would probably have been more both interesting and factual had I gone to the funeral and more so if I had taken a few pictures. But being the obvious black sheep in the crowd, I opted to not even ask. I’m sure someone has; just use that Google machine.
Anyway, I've made it pretty clear in my will – calling out certain people – that I’m to be burnt wherever I kick the bucket. Do not fly me back home; do not waste money on a casket. And even though it’s not in there (yet), I won’t be too disappointed if you all take off work for a week and have a little celebration… After all, I’m not going anywhere…
If you’re still with me, here are some pictures of some elephants; they live down the street.
The Chiang Mai changwat is subdivided into 25 amphoes. These are further subdivided into 204 tambons and again into 1,915 mubans.
Baan Mae Mut is the village I’ve been calling home for the past week. It’s nestled into the valley about 60km southwest Chiang Mai city, 300 west of Laos, and half that south of Burma. Its 160 homes make up a small portion its mother sub-district, Mae Win. The farm is shaded by Don Inthanon in the evenings, which at a 2,500m is Thailand's highest mountain.
To get here from Chiang Mai city, I had to hop in a cab, which took me about 40km outside of the city. By cab, I mean a 2-seat pick-up truck painted yellow with some benches screwed into the bed. It had a roof, but when they built it, they were either short on material or intended for only locals to be passengers. It’s not a stereotype, it’s true.
So about an hour later, I get out, crack my neck, and meet, my Italian host at this very Thai farm. As we drive the remaining 20 minutes to the farm, I learn 2 things:
1) No one uses this road unless they are going home. There is no outlet. It's not your typical city dead in, it's a 10 mile dead end through the Thai valleys.
2) My being here increases the English speaking population by exactly 33%. Not only that, but I am, in fact, the only native English speaker in the entire village. An oddity they have very little use for besides using me as a source of comedy among themselves (can’t really blame them). The most frequent rough translation I get is “Thai women no like beard.” Turns out, this is true, too.
Marco owns about 25 rai of land, making him by far the largest land owner in the village. Scattered across these 10 acres are rice fields, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, ponds, and houses. The rice fields are pretty basic but majestic in their own right. The list of food that is grown on the property is staggering: papayas, mangoes, bananas, Jamaican cherries, mulberries, star fruit, tamarinds, coconuts, peanuts, pineapples, limes, lemons, passion fruit, guava, corn, avocados, okra, asparagus, squash, zucchini, pumpkin, two types of eggplant, jackfruit, green beans, and just about every type of pepper imaginable. That of course doesn't include the scores of herbs and edible plant being grown as well. There are literally thousands of plants and trees. All of this without any factory produced herbicide, insecticide, pesticide, or any other -cide.
That’s nothing short of incredible considering 2 years ago this place was nothing but a desolate, empty field!
For the non-living, very little is made with outside resources, rather from wood, bamboo, and mud. The shed, rice house, chicken coop, waste baskets, etc. are made from bamboo. The tables and chairs from scrap wood around the property. And the houses from mud.
Two thirds of the houses are adobe brick, and the eldest is a homemade collection of wooden planks. The original adobe house serves as a home for Marco, Nok, and their 8-month old Selena, and the other is to be a guest house for visitors wishing to learn more about permaculture. The wooden house is about a 400m walk from the main house, and, with its 2 rooms and balcony, is where I sleep, currently on the floor under nothing but a mosquito tent and starlight.
There is a washroom, but nothing like your western bathroom. It’s essentially 3 tile walls, the fourth a bamboo door. Inside sits 1 toilet, 1 fifteen gallon tub, and 1 fifty-five gallon tub. Each tub has its own water scoop. Two scoops from the 15-gallon tub poured into the toilet will create its flush; the scoop in the 55-gallon tub is to help you wash. There is no shower. There is no sitting tub.
There's also no set schedule, no chores, no rules. Being the first outside (non-local) help he’s had, Marco’s main goal for me whenever I leave is to have had fun, know more than I arrived, and leave a friend. And though I know little to none when it comes to permaculture, I try to help out where I can.
The typical day thus far consists of waking to the Thai hymn and occasionally getting in a jog. We shoot to pack in as much work as possible prior to 1pm, as from there until about 5pm it’s brutally hot. The sun literally burns the skin to the point where the local Thai workers wear long sleeves, long pants, hats, neck protectors, and cloth face masks to shield themselves. But more to come on those incredible people later…
“Work” can mean a variety of things: weeding the gardens, harvesting the corn stalks, planting trees, spreading compost, etc. Read: generally a lot of things that I've never done nor considered doing before coming here. Then the rest of the day is spent reading, exploring, motor biking, swimming, etc. Kind of whatever you please.
The small village of Baan Mae Mut is probably the most tranquil place I've ever "lived." Tranquil not in the sense of a private beach resort, but a humble and unpretentious, almost detached from society, kind of way. The past week has been great, and I'm looking forward to the next.
Here are some pictures from around the farm:
Saying that the Thai people have "a lot of" respect for their king is far from the truth. Take Obama's approval rating and double it, and you're getting closer. [The NSA is now tracking my blog :) ]
Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) is the current reigning king of Thailand. And he's not new at his job. Having held the office for the past24,506 days (that's over 67 years), he is the world's longest-serving current head of state, not to mention the longest in Thai history.
I recently saw Monster's U (awesome) and they had a short animated film before the main feature about 2 umbrellas falling in love (pretty good). In Thailand, before the main feature, they show a short film about the king --- and everyone stands out of respect.
And respect they do. This past January, a magazine editor was charged with lèse majesté and sentenced to 11 years for defaming the king. Talk about a way not to spend your 50s. A Swiss man entered into an early retirement after he drunkenly spray-painted posters of the king just down the street from here, in Chiang Mai, because he couldn't buy booze.
The Thai hymn is played every morning via a loudspeaker in Mae Wang at 8am and again in the evening at 6pm.
And just in case anyone from the Thai government is reading, I stand every morning; here's one very good reason.
Oh, and here are some pictures from Hua Lamphong Railway Station in Bangkok before I boarded the 12 (read: 14) hour train to Chiang Mai.
I touched down at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airportvia Tiger Airways, a budget friendly city bus of an airline, and Virgin, with their much more attractive fleet, one of which was the least intriguing party to help me celebrate America’s 237th birthday. But together we bonded over some 5,500 miles, spanning 29 hours, 4 cities and 3 countries. Everyone and everything arrived safely, less Tiger’s landing gear after the pilot decided to go all WWE on the landing strip.
Customs deemed me not a terrorist, so I grabbed my bags and head towards the train. The Skytrain is located inside of the airport, so as I de-boarded 20 minutes later, it’s was my first time setting foot on Thai soil. Immediately a heavy, pungent, and wet air slapped my face. It was hot.
And so it was for my entire stay in Bangkok. But in those short 3 days, I weathered the heat and rain to see as much as I could. Which in hindsight probably wasn’t too much; in Bangkok’s 230 years as Thailand’s capital city, it has sprawled out over some 600 square miles – that’s twice NYC – and populated itself with 8 million people. The place is huge.
But regardless of size, I reckon the best way to see a city is to ditch your travel guide, put on your running shoes, and go exploring.
Friday saw an 8-hour run/walk-about of the city. Saturday morning, I swapped shoes for wheels and laces for chains and did a 5-hour cycle through Bangkok’s back roads and outer suburbs. Not knowing Bangkok’s highest peak, a few of us settled for the 61 stories of Moon Bar for an absolutely stunning panorama of the city on Saturday night. To wrap it off, for some “real Thai exposure,” on Sunday morning we taxied 30 minutes outside of the city to the Khlong Toey markets, where the locals shop for everything from corn to brain.
And thus my 3 days in Bangkok were over. And though the food was tasty, the language pleasantly peculiar, the cost incredibly cheap, and the architecture historic, I’m pretty set on not going back. It was just another big, congested, dirty city. I’m not saying Bangkok is awful, but in speaking with the other backpackers, many of whom had been in Thailand for months, there are heaps of incredible and exotic places this country has to offer, all just outside of Bangkok.
I’m hoping to find that in Chiang Mai.
Friday morning. Around 10am. Bangkok, Thailand. Number of elephants seen: 0.
After multiple failed attempts at catching a city bus, I jump in a taxi, point to an intersection on a map and show the driver the address of my guest house. I can only assume that if you are a taxi driver by profession, are given both a map and an address, that those 3 things will suffice as adequate information to get your passenger to his destination…
The driver assures me that he knows exactly where I need to go. So I sit back and learn a few things as he drives: 1) There are no road rules in Bangkok. 2) There are a lot of motorbikes. 3) My Thai vocabulary is non-existent. 4) My driver knows very limited English. 5) My driver asks heaps of questions.
He not only asks, but feels the need to turn completely around and look me in the eye until I give a response that he deems appropriate. It was as if I had Lloyd Christmas as my driver. Trying to keep the “eyes on road” ratio greater than 1, I begin to answer “yes” to mostly everything.
So about 15 minutes in, Lloyd pulls literally off of the road, turns around, and indicates we are at the destination by pointing outside then at me while giving a 1-5-0 with his fingers – because the whole sidewalk thing didn't give it away – to let me know how much I owe. He is all smiles and very proud of himself. We did after all just break some serious language barriers.
Exhausted to keep up with his questions, I hadn't been paying too much attention to where we had been going, but after I start to pull out cash, I look around and deduce we are not in the correct place. I voice this…
Through hand symbols, I learned that apparently at some point in the conversation I agreed with Lloyd that it would be better to be taken not where I indicated on the map, but to somewhere where I can drink beer, get a massage, and see boobs. Those were the 3 words in English he knew and apparently since I smiled and shook my head “yes” when I heard him say them, he decided I'd rather forego dropping off my bags for a quick round with a tallboy and a stripper. And so, my first act in Bangkok was hiring Jim Carrey to drive to me to a brothel.
Lesson 1: Don't play Yes Man in a country where you do not speak the language.
We pull off of the sidewalk, this time speaking infrequently as to avoid confusion. He ended up getting within 5 blocks of the intersection, and for the 30 minute drive, the fare on the meter was 120 baht, or a bit short of $4. This, I can live with. Except the driver refuses to take anything less than 300B. We get in a small confrontation, me offering a generous 200, and him screaming something I cannot understand, all the while asking for 3-0-0.
Lesson 2: Always confirm you're on the meter before getting into the cab.
The bottom falls out as I walk inside the KS House, so I check-in and head upstairs to the restaurant for a quick bite: Chinese noodles with pork and bottled water for a cheeky $1.50. By the end of my meal, as I was writing this, the thunder and lightning had run off, and the sun decided it would show its face. I walked down to my room to pee and got my 3rd lesson of the morning.
Lesson 3: Don't put used condoms and napkins into the toilet bowl.
Is it that big of an issue that it warrants a sign in the bathroom? Is this common in every room, or did I just get the sex room? Where am I? I rethought my choice in hostels, finished my business, and quickly left the room. Bangkok: you can only get better from here.
PS - I only paid the meter.
This past Monday marked the 50th week since I began my "gap year." After numerous discarded drafts, I reckon now is a pretty good time to actually sit down and email an update.
So here she goes :
It was tougher than I thought it'd be when I packed my bags, said my goodbyes, and boarded the plane nearly a year ago. I'd be lying if I said that singing Home by Phillip Phillips while in the shower isn't a guilty pleasure. Throughout the first 8 weeks, not a day went by where I didn't contemplate shutting the doors and hopping on a plane back to the good ole US of A. Sundays seemed to be especially difficult. Those were the days where I wasn't working and most of my mates went to family lunches and dinners, so finally I started accepting invites to tag along. What a great decision. It's amazing to see how other families interact with each other, from the loving to the joking to the fighting. The free food isn't too shabby either.
And as time progressed, with any major move, I met some incredible people, and those people turned into incredible friends. And those friends traveled with me to incredible places; taught me things; challenged my thoughts; shared food, laughs, and tears; engaged in unbelievable conversations, some good, some bad; and honestly did just about everything in between.
Backpacking and being a new-age nomad is all good and well, but actually living in Sydney allowed me to experience a city and build relationships unlike any other travel experience I've had before. If you fall in that bucket, thank you so much for the past year. You guys are awesome.
That being said, realizing that I only had 3 months left on my visa hit me like a bag of bricks. Australia kicks Americans out after 12 months, unless you apply for residency. "Suddenly" I was deciding between either "permanently" relocating literally around the world or re-packing my bags and heading off to the next location. But those first 2 months...is that something I want to do all over again? I do love traveling, but there's that little guy in the back of my head saying "Dude, you should probably consider settling down and trying to find a significant other one of these days."
So as you might have guessed, I opted to re-pack, but only 1 small bag this time. I'm down to 3 tops, 3 bottoms, 1 pair of shoes, 1 jacket, 1 hat and sunnies, 1 camera and 1 laptop. It's amazing how much stuff you think you need but will never touch.
So...Mom don't freak, but I met this guy online who needed some help with his online presence for his garden in the middle of nowhere Thailand (why, I have no idea). I mean we are talking rural. Nonetheless, I emailed him and told him if he taught me how to cook Thai food, I'd teach him about computers and what not. He agreed.
On Thursday, I fly to Perth, which I'll visit for about 10 hours, then fly to Bangkok by way of Singapore. What to do in Bangkok, no idea, but I know it'll be a hell of a lot warmer and probably a little more wet, too. After what I'm thinking won't be more than a week, Thailand's trusty trains will carry me north to the bustling town of Chiang Mai.
Once there, my new Dutch friend Marco, his Thai wife, and their child will pick me up and take me to my new home. Rice season, or whatever you call it, starts in about 3 weeks, so I'm going to help plant and harvest the crop all the while giving some tech tutorials. Maybe I'll get one of those cool hats.
So, as I write this, I'm unemployed, homeless, single, broke, vaccinated and immune to about 500 Thai diseases, and remarkably happy.
I've got some officially unofficial plans for after my brief stint in Chiang Mai, but I'll hold those off for a later update.
I love you guys, and I miss you heaps.