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...