Friday, 15 September 2017

#29 Thailand part 8: A series of hellos and goodbyes.

I recently crossed paths with a man who told me that travel is the real world and working and living in one place is not.

I tend to think travelling is a magical inbetween time that stays with a person through the mundaneity of real life as a reminder that it doesn't always have to be that way. There is an escape if you are lucky enough to be born with the right passport.

I once thought it would be fun to travel long-term. Every time you got a bit bored you could move on and experience that rush of waking up in a city or town you know very little about. However, having met and said goodbye to a string of different people already in only seven short months, I'm not sure it really is a fulfilling way of living. I think it would be naive to want to travel alone forever.

Sure it can be amazing. You meet all kinds of people that you would never cross paths with if you stayed at home but equally each friendship is brief and hurried.

The relationships travellers form rarely have the chance to become deeper or meaningful but equally the tempoary nature of them makes them more intense. Each encounter is one stone in the pavement that makes up the whole path.

Even in the last week since I left Phibun Mangsahan I have already met and farewelled a number of people. In saying that - the ones I'm about to tell you about must have made enough of an impression on me to want to immortalise them in this blog.

Saying goodbye to LS was rough after seeing each other almost every day for four months. But we were lucky to have formed a friendship that meant enough for it to be painful to say goodbye to.

I took a night bus from Phibun Mangsahan to Bangkok which takes around 11-13 hours. I sincerely hope the more night busses you take the more character building it is because I really can't see any other advantages.

The seats were so uncomfortable and a woman nearby kept letting out the most astonished sneezes as if she couldn't quite believe her body would do that to her. I had to suppress my giggles and I missed having someone to laugh with. I knew LS would have found it funny too.

When we finally arrived in Bangkok the driver kindly delivered me as close to my hostel as he could. As soon as I arrived I was no longer tired and decided to head into the city to have a look around. It wasn't long before I had been engulfed in a sea of black clothed dedicated royalists visiting the grand palace. (Thai people wear black out of respect for the former king who died almost a year ago). It was quite a spectacle.

I managed to get swept along by a few Japanese tour groups to see where they were going. It turned out there was a tourist entry gate but to get into the actual palace cost 500 baht. I decided I wasn't that desperate so made my way back out again trying not to get my eyes poked out by a sea of sun umbrellas. It was only 10am and I'd already sweated through my shirt.

Next I visited the reclining buddah which I'd heard a lot about. It was impressively enormous. Somehow I then ended up walking to a pier and catching a boat across the river to see another temple. By this stage I was starting to get a little delirious from the heat and the lack of sleep so I'm not sure how much I really took in. All I remember was that the buddah in this temple was also very big and there was a big ugly car park in front of it. It was much older and more run down than any others I'd seen and truthfully I had  no idea why I was there or what the significance of this particular temple was.

I decided I'd had enough sight seeing for one day so I caught a taxi back to the hostel and slept until dinner time. Sadly the hostel was not in a very good area and the only food place within walking distance was 7/11. So I filled up on a very sad ham and cheese toasty and went to bed again.

The next morning I packed up and went in search of a more central hostel. I took a taxi to Khao San road and walked until I found the quieter back streets. This time I knew the price range of dorm I could expect and wouldn't settle for anything over 160 baht. Eventually I found a very modest looking hostel named, very originally, Place Inn. They offered dorms for 150 baht per night ($6).

When I was shown to the dorm I was already sweating profusely and had to change another shirt. It was only 10am again. I would have to spend half my budget on laundry at this rate.

I could hear someone snoring softly as I put my bag away and soon a shirtless man who had a striking resemblance to the laughing buddah appeared sitting by the window. He looked at me in surprise before taking himself off to the bathroom.

I then went in search for a taxi to take me to the floating markets which had been on my bucket list. The markets are about an hour and a half out of Bangkok and I managed to get a good deal on a taxi ride all the way there and back. Unfortunately I didn't realise they have a policy that means you cannot share a boat when you get there.

At first I didn't believe the taxi driver when he told me this. It just didn't seem right. However when we got there the woman selling the tickets insisted I had to pay for a whole boat for myself which was more than $80 NZD. She could see I was very close to asking the driver to take me back to Bangkok because I felt a little tricked into parting with an unexpectedly large sum of cash so she gave me a slight discount for a shorter ride and I decided I may as well just pay since we had come all this way.

After that little shock I was in a bad mood and didn't feel like buying anything else at the markets. So the poor boat driver had to drive me around as I shook my head at all the vendors trying to entice me in. It would have been nice to support the local economy but I really didn't need/want/have room in my bag for any souvenirs.

At one stage I got a glimpse of an enormous python that was being kept in a bag and taken out for photo opportunities and an adorable bush baby who was also being used for the same reason but both would have involved pushy people wanting me to pay to have a closer look. I kept a very neutral face as we slid past in the boat even though I was dying to see them.

So, having blown my budget for about a weeks worth of food and accomodation on my second day in Bangkok, I retreated with my tail between my legs and ate a very cheap meal of Pad Thai before retiring to the hostel to lick my wounds.

When I returned, Mr Laughing Buddah man was up and about, and came to sit on the bed across from me for a chat. He was interested in New Zealand and our politics and he told me he had been arrested twice for being involved with demonstrations against the government when he was younger. He struck me as a rarity in Thailand. He was most definitely an independent thinker which isn't something that is encouraged here from what I've seen so far. Some of my students couldn't even tell me their favourite colour because they were afraid it would be different to their classmates.

Mr Laughing Buddah had studied at two different universities and told me his father had given him the name Peetha which meant intelligence because he was afraid his son would grow up stupid. Mr Laughing Buddah man was a delight to chat with and we exchanged email addresses and he invited me to visit him in his home town if I was ever passing through.

I never did get a straight answer out of him about why he was staying in a very cheap dorm on Khao San Road at the age of 75. If I didn't have a hand drawn map in my Lonely Planet and a photo of the Thai words he told me to say to monkeys ("Ling, long" which supposedly means "Monkey, come down") I would wonder if I had imagined him.

The next day I wanted to see some modern art galleries but, as luck would have it, it was a Monday and many were closed. There was one open called the Jim Thompson house. I had never heard of this man before but I was intrigued when I read that one day he dissapeared without a trace when walking in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. They searched for his body for 10 years and found nothing. His house was beautifully preserved and contained many interesting pieces of art that he collected throughout his time in SE Asia.

After that short excursion I made my way back to my hostel and waited until it was time to catch a sleeper train to Chiang Mai.

It's safe to say I'm now a definite sleeper train convert. The beds are so comfortable and you are gently rocked to sleep by the train as it sways along the track. To make things even better you wake up in a brand new place and we were greeted by lush fields of rice and the misty mountains that surround Chiang Mai.

I hadn't booked anywhere to stay this time either because I figured it was so touristy it wouldn't take long to find a nice place. Luck was on my side that day and I wandered past a nice little backpackers with ridiculously cheap dorms. I was just setting down my bags when a friendly American girl struck up conversation and we spent the rest of the day together wandering around the temples and chilling in the park. We even got a fish foot spa which tickled almost unbearably!

That evening we met up with her Spanish friend who she had met at a mindfulness camp a few weeks earlier. They were both very passionate about meditation and invited me to join them for a talking circle that evening.

This involved each participant listing the highlight of their day and then answering one question designed to help travellers connect on a deeper level than the usual "where are you from, where are you going" conversation.

The Spanish man and I then had dinner together where the conversation was equally intense. Afterwards the American girl and I went to a Jazz bar for a while and then came home for an early night.

The next morning over breakfast the Spanish man told me about his interest in astrology and proceeded to make me an astrology chart. It did present me with some things that I hadn't considered problems before and left me with lots of things to think about.

When they left the hostel for their next destination I rented a push bike and decided to cycle to a waterfall they had visited on scooters the day before. The Spanish man told me it wasn't really a place one could cycle to as it was too far. Something in me wanted him to be wrong. I didn't want the things he told me regarding the astrology chart to be true either. So in a weird way that was the driving factor behind wanting to prove him wrong. So I did. At the expense of my body I might add. I cycled 23 kilometres there and 23 kilometres back on a rickety old push bike with no gears. I hadn't done any excercise for the past four months and several times I didn't think I would make it but a mixture of determination, stubbornness and curiosity prevailed.

The waterfall was in a national park and was made up of 10 levels. Even though my legs were dead when I arrived I still wanted to climb all the way to the top and I was surprised that my body let me. It really made me realise that the mind is the strongest muscle. It didn't matter that I was pushing my body harder than it wanted. My brain decided where it wanted to go and the legs had no choice but to follow.

I returned to the hostel that evening tired but very pleased I made it home in one piece.

Another American girl was staying in the dorm along with another older Spanish man. The second American girl had just finished a stint working in a refugee camp in France and was waiting until she could find a new camp to go to. She had some awful stories that almost brought tears to my eyes. She'd seen the best and worst of humanity in the one place. People that, out of desperation, had lost all sense of compassion whilst others gave everything they had for a chance at a better life for their families.

The next morning I took my time in deciding what to do. It's taking a while to realise that I don't have a schedule I need to stick to this time. The freedom is almost unsettling. I decided to catch a bus to Chiang Rai and see what all the fuss was about. It was surprisingly easy and I was on a bus by midday for the three hour long journey. Again I hadn't booked any where to stay and I decided I didn't want to take a tuk tuk either. I stubbornly refused all the drivers offers and headed off towards where I thought the main tourist strip would be.

I found a reasonably priced room and chilled there for a bit until my stomach was growling and I needed to find some dinner. After I found a place to eat I bumped into a Dutch man who had been on the same bus as me and we ended up going to the night bazaar together.

It turned out that he had some very interesting ideas about global politics and I soon discovered that he didn't agree with anything I said and I had a sneaky suspicion it was because I was younger than him and female. I did what I usually do in these situations and just played along for fun.

He gave me a whole history lesson and told me there's no point in voting because everyone in power is actually part of either the Freemasons or the illuminati even Jacinda Ardern! At this point I had to ask how that was possible since she was a woman and the Freemasons are only for men. He relpied that there are many different strands of these groups and they are all as bad as each other. It was a very interesting conversation and I learnt more about middle aged men and their feelings of superiority over young females than he will ever know. He also seemed to think he had the whole world figured out and was letting me in on a big secret.

I don't know if he realised that I was subtly taking the mickey by asking lots of questions disguised as childlike fascination. It's my favorite game to play with older men who have large egos.

The next morning I stayed in bed as long as possible. I was having trouble deciding exactly what to do next. It's all very well having no plans if you have a vague idea about where you want to go and people to discuss it with but when you are on your own it's sometimes difficult to decide on doing anything! I moved to a cheaper dorm and visited the Hilltribe museum to try to learn more about these mysterious people. It was very interesting and made me glad I didn't go on any treks in Chiang Mai to see the villages as tourism has almost ruined their culture. Some tribes are actually imported by businessmen for tourism from Myanmar. They are essentially human zoos and I decided I don't feel comfortable supporting that.

I spent the rest of the day laying on my bed in an empty dorm room trying to figure out a rough plan of action.

Sometimes I'm so grateful to have been born into a culture that encourages free thinking but on days like these I do wish I had someone to tell me what to do.

So the first week of being an unemployed, homeless traveller again passed by with string of brief but intense encounters. There were wise men and men who thought they were wise, a fair few kilometres travelled, a bruised behind and the excitement and trepidation that comes with a completely open schedule. Who knows what the next chapter will bring.

The famous reclining buddah, Bangkok.

Wat's that you say? Another wat? 

Mr Laughing Buddahs Thai notes for me - Place Inn, Bangkok.

Mae Sa waterfall, Chiang Mai.

Clock tower, Chiang Rai.

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