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Northern Thailand

sunny 30 °C

Thailand: the epicentre of Southeast Asian travel. Its white sand beaches and crystal clear waters have been attracting travelers from all over the globe for decades. Families, honeymooners, backpackers, partiers and sex tourists alike all flock to this small Buddhist nation for various different reasons. As a result, the country has become one of the most touristified destinations in the world.
Everything I had heard about Thailand gave me the impression that it was not a place I would soon fall in love with. I am easily annoyed by tourist gimmicks and don’t enjoy being catered too as a foreigner. Nonetheless, I had to fly both in and out of Bangkok in order to reach Burma and I am not one to make decisions solely on hearsay, so I decided to give Thailand at least a few weeks. I had heard all the crazy stories about the southern islands: the pristine beaches, the overdeveloped tourism industry and the westerner dominated parties. I decided to save that trip for another time and just spend a couple weeks in the north relaxing before my flight to Yangon. I had heard that the north was a lot less touristy and far more laid back than the south. I thought maybe I could even find a few untouched corners of this giant traveller magnet.
I arrived in Bangkok mid-afternoon and in mid-peak season. Crafted from popular media in the west, my mental image of the city of an underdeveloped, dirty, wild metropolis was fully intact. That image, however, was shattered soon after leaving the airport. Perhaps it was because I had been in China for too long, perhaps it because I was traveling through a nice part of town, but as I rode the air-conditioned shuttle bus from the airport into the heart of the city, I couldn't believe how clean and modern Bangkok looked. The traffic was not as bad as expected, the sidewalks were relatively well kept, and many of the buildings looked quite new. Almost every major western fast food and clothing chain was represented and there were two Seven Elevens on every block. I was a little taken aback.
I thought surely this was a facade. This couldn’t be the same Bangkok that inspired movies like the Hangover II or songs like ‘One night in Bangkok’. After the sun went down, I set out into the city with a small group of travelers from my hostel determined to expose the true dark and crazy underbelly of this infamous city. I was surprised by what I found.
The after hours streets were far from the untamed chaos that I had expected. If anything, they were more like controlled illusions designed to trick tourists into thinking they in midst of something wild and crazy. There were massive strip clubs and go-go bars where bored Thai girls pick up old sex tourists, tourist bar streets where the only Thai people I saw were selling t-shirts, seedy sex show bars full of creepy old men and Thai only clubs where travellers are typically shunned. Everywhere I went I had the distinct feeling that this whole system was far more regulated than it appeared. It was big business and it seemed unlikely that the countless tourists throwing money into the cesspool could get themselves into any real trouble. It was like a big performance.
To be fair, this initial impression could have something to do with the group of travelers I was hanging out with on my first few nights in Bangkok. My hostel was full of three week vacationers who were only interested seeing sex shows and hangout at strip clubs. In some cases, it was the only reason they had come to Bangkok. I certainly expected to spend one of my nights in the city at Nana plaza or Patpong watching a ping pong show. Witnessing an unattractive Thai girl shoot a dart out of her private parts is simply part of experiencing Bangkok. Nonetheless, I assumed this was not the only thing to do in the city. As much as I lobbied for the hostel group to try something new like look for a normal bar or a market, night after night, sex tourism is all anybody seemed interested in. These travelers were generally adamant at the beginning of the night that it was just for kicks and they would never actually pay for sex. But on a couple occasions, I was forced to leave the go-go bars alone in search of other people to hang out with since it was clear my bars mates were not leaving until sunrise.
Needless to say, I didn't really enjoy my first few days in Bangkok. To be honest, I was not in the best state of mind for that city anyways. I was experiencing a 'China Hangover' of sorts. After being immersed in China for so long, arriving in Thailand precipitated a bizarre type of culture shock, but not from Thai culture, from my own culture. Like so many major travel destinations in the world, Thailand had developed a huge western cultural bubble created and fostered in large part by tourism. I wasn't used to seeing or hanging out with so many westerners again. I felt suffocated by all the chain restaurants, honeymooning couples and college frat boys. I found the attitude towards Asia that many of these tourists held to be pretty ridiculous and only possible where a cultural bubble exists. South East Asia was a playground to these people. I place where they could ditch their sensibilities at the airport and explore their dark impulses while still surrounding themselves with all the western niceties they could ever want. Of course this is a broad generalization but, as a backpacker, I felt like a minority.
My china hangover was further exacerbated when, after a few days in Bangkok, I received some bad news from the big country to the north. ZhuQi, a girl with whom spent a short but intense two weeks in Dali, had arranged to fly to Burma to travel with me for a week over Christmas. She had booked her flights and we had started planning a trip together. A few days after she sent me her flight details, however, she mysteriously cancelled her trip. She refused to even give me a reason. I had been really looking forward to seeing her again. Instead, I was left confused and angry. Being in Bangkok did not help. I wanted to get out of the city but I had to wait for my Burmese visa to process. Since there was a national holiday in Thailand, this would take one week. I was stuck.
With a few days of rest, my outlook eventually improved. I took many long walks through Lumphini Park, a large peaceful lake filled area in the middle of the city. It was my favourite place in the city. As I was relaxing on one of the park’s many wooden benches one humid afternoon I noticed a young Thai woman studying English on the bench opposite mine. On a whim, I decided to strike up a conversation. Her English was basic at best but she introduced herself as Fay and told me she was studying for a University exam. It wasn’t long before we made a deal. I agreed to help her study if she toured me around her city in her free time.
She was wearing a bright yellow shirt. Apparently, it was the King’s birthday and everyone was expected to wear his favourite color. After sunset, she took me to the Royal Palace to celebrate the event. We stood amongst a sea of over ten thousand yellow clad Thais as the congregation held a candle light vigil in the King’s honour. The event concluded when the crowd sent hundreds of lanterns into the night sky. It was a unique experience and my first taste of the real Thailand.
My last few days in Bangkok were more enjoyable than my first. I met Fay in Lumphini park for several more afternoon English sessions. She repaid me by touring me through Bangkok’s more local neighbourhoods and attractions. In the evenings, I sampled the city’s barrage of cheap and tasty street food. Sweet Pad Thai, steaming green curries and sizzling oyster omelettes became my favourite memories of Bangkok. The flavours and aromas acted like food therapy relieving the stresses of the city grind.
After a long week, I was able to pick up my Burmese visa and move on to my next destination. I had only ten days before my flight to Yangon so I decided to head north to Chiang Mai. I was hoping this ancient city set amongst the Himalayan foothills would be more relaxed and less touristy than Bangkok. Perhaps I was expecting too much.
Chiang Mai was certainly more relaxed but unfortunately just as touristy as Bangkok and the immediate landscape was surprisingly flat for a city that was supposed to be at the base of the Himalayan foothills. Hundreds of ancient temples were scattered throughout the city center and the old city walls were surrounded by a shallow moat. In contrast to the temples, most of the city’s buildings appeared to be relatively new. There were Italian restaurants, French cafes and British bars on every corner. Strip clubs and go-go bars also had their enclaves. The traffic was loud and intense. The ancient atmosphere I was expecting was nowhere to be found.
I met an interesting group of people at my hostel. We spent a few good nights taking advantage of the western establishments around town. We also attended a reggae festival which sported a couple decent acts. The festival grounds were packed with partiers but the ratio of foreigner to Thai was about nine to one. This was typical of the nightlife in Chiang Mai. I remember hearing some festival-goers drunkenly convey their love of how Thai culture expressed itself through partying. I wanted to turn to them and say "this is not Thai culture, this is our culture implanted in Thailand..." but I bit my tongue. I could never quite put my finger on it, but something about the general attitude of travellers in Thailand always seemed to rub me the wrong way. Perhaps it was just my state of mind at the time.
I quickly grew tired of Chiang Mai’s temples and rented a motorbike to explore the foothills a few miles outside of town. The sights adjacent to the city were not particularly interesting but as I drove deeper into the foothills the scenery improved. The highway turned into a road and the road into a trail. Eventually I found myself on a thin dirt path racing through the forests. I came across a few hill top villages where ethnic minorities grew crops. Most lived in simple shacks and rode bicycles. The area felt remote but I was clearly not the first foreigner to have ventured this far. Even these hidden villages had makeshift gift shops where they sold simple crafts. I spent the entire day exploring the hills returning just as the sun disappeared below the horizon. It was the nicest day I had spent in Thailand thus far. I craved more. Upon returning to the hostel I informed the desk clerk that I would be checking out the following morning but keeping the bike for four more days. I had decided to drive through the mountains of northern Thailand to Pai, a small hippie town close to the Burmese border.
The drive was only supposed to take four hours but I awoke early to give myself plenty of daylight. It took an hour to get out of the city in the morning traffic. From there, it was another half hour before I turned off the busy highway. The trail from the highway to Pai was nicknamed the ‘762-bends road.’ It was known to wreak havoc on the stomachs of those prone to car sickness. The path was windy but well paved with only a few potholes. It snaked its way around and over densely forested hills past stray dogs and monkeys waiting for scraps. Hill top bluffs afforded beautiful views of the surrounding landscape.
I arrived mid afternoon with a sore butt, a mouth full of mosquitoes and eyes full of dirt. It was immediately apparent that Pai was yet another tourist mecca where foreigners outnumbered locals two to one. With only three thousand or so Thais residents, Pai had more western style bars than Yantai, a city with over six million. Nonetheless, the tourist bubble in Pai was far more tasteful than anywhere else I had been in Thailand. Not many of the sex tourists made it this far north, the bars had a distinct hippie vibe and backpackers seemed to dominate much of the traveler culture. The setting was striking. Lush green hills and rice patties were intersected by slow meandering rivers. Simple riverside bungalows were scattered throughout the farmland. I found a comfortable shack for a reasonable price and settled into the pleasant surroundings.
I spent much of my time in Pai with a friendly Maltese Rasta man who was on a winter vacation and a young Spanish university student who was in the midst of a gap year. I cannot remember their names since we always referred to each other by the names of our respective countries. After traveling for a while, nationalities provide useful monikers since rarely do people actually remember each others names. During the days Malta, Spain and Canada rode motorbikes around the countryside. At night we hit the bars for some pool and drinks. It was a relaxing routine. I always slept well in my quiet bungalow, the sound of the river slowly trickling over rocks in the background. I enjoyed my time in Pai and, when it was time to leave, I was happy to be sad to be leaving somewhere in Thailand for once.
I rode my motorbike back to Chiang Mai then quickly caught an overnight bus back to Bangkok. I arrived in early in the morning a day before my flight to Yangon. My task was to withdraw one thousand American dollars in cash for my trip to Burma before the banks closed at six. At the time, Burma had no foreign ATMs and no credit cards. I was forced to bring my entire budget into the country in the form of American dollars bills which could be traded for local currency on the black market. Furthermore, the bills had to be brand new with no tears, creases, stamps or writing. Burmese currency traders were very strict. Any small imperfection in the bills and they would not be accepted. I assumed finding such bills in Bangkok would be easy. After all, the city was international business center with many branches of large American banks. This task proved to be much more difficult than I had imagined.
I began by searching for foreign banks which would allow me to withdraw American dollars directly instead of withdrawing baht and converting it. Changing currencies once instead of twice would save me a big chunk of change in the end. The locals pointed me in several different directions but I could not find a foreign bank with new American dollars on hand. Since it was a Saturday, many of the foreign branches’ currency exchange services were closed and few English speakers were available to help. I ultimately gave up on the foreign banks and began asking around at exchange booths. Still I had no luck. It was exhausting trudging from bank to booth to bank in heat of Bangkok. I must have pleaded my case to over thirty tellers and yet no one seemed to have any new bills.
I had been hunting bills for the better part of the day when I glanced at the clock and noticed I had only a couple hours to spare before all the banks closed at six. My flight left early the following morning so I would have no chance of acquiring the funds necessary to travel to Burma if I did not do so before the end of the working day. Panic set in.
A couple of local tellers had spoken of a large currency exchange center called ‘Big Money’ in a Bangkok suburb. However, no one knew for sure whether the trade center would have American bills or whether they were still open. With limited options, I decided to make the trek. The exchange center was open but there was a queue out of the door when I arrived. When I reached a clerk, he assured me they had plenty of new bills which would pass in Burma. Since the banks were to close in less than an hour, this news came as a huge relief. All I needed to do was withdraw thirty thousand baht to trade for the bills and show them my passport. The ‘Big Money’ ATM would not accept my bank card nor my visa so I left in the building in search of another. I quickly found one down the street but was once again denied. I tried a several more international banks in the area but received the same message. ‘Access denied’. I did not understand. I had used this card at several Bangkok ATMs before. All I knew was that this was the absolute worst time for my card to fail me. I tried five more ATMs. Each time, the machine spit out my card and gave me a Thai error message. My heart sank as I realized that I simply could not withdraw the baht in needed and had less than a half hour until the exchange center closed. Without the necessary funds, it appeared as though I would be forced to miss my flight to Yangon the next day. Furthermore, I was already within the forty eight hour deadline that Air Asia offers for flight changes and would likely have to book a completely new flight with no refund.
I took a cab back to my hostel to use their internet connection to call my Scotia bank branch in Canada. A cheerful support representative named Bill informed me that I had a foreign withdrawal limit on my cards which did not allow a withdrawal of thirty thousand baht in one day. The simplicity of the problem made the whole episode all the more frustrating. Bill immediately raised my limits but by that time it was after six. The banks were closed and I was screwed. The mishap was going to cost me the price of a new flight and a few extra days in Bangkok. It doesn't sound like much, however, on a backpacker's budget, it was a tough pill to swallow.
I was wallowing in self-pity when the hostel owner entered the room. He had overheard my telephone conversation and assured me that all was not lost. According to him, the banks in central mall were open later on Saturdays and may carry the American bills I so desperately needed. As a last ditch attempt I jumped on the back of a moto and told the driver to book it to ‘Central Mall’. He understood the urgency and gunned it. We weaved through traffic at break neck speed until we arrived at a large shopping complex. But something was amiss. I had been to Central Mall before and this was not it. I later learned that there were two ‘Central Malls’ on opposite sides of the city and he had taken me to the wrong one. He quickly realized the mistake and gunned it in the opposite direction.
Twenty minutes later, he dropped me at main entrance of the Central Mall I was looking for. I quickly scanned the store directory for banks. There was only one name that I recognized on the third floor. I ran up the escalators to find the bank doors still open. I had thirty minutes to spare until closing time. Still gasping for air, I asked the desk clerk if they bank had any new American bills. She could see the desperation in my eyes. She opened a drawer with a key hung around her wrist and glanced inside. Looking a bit confused and slightly suspicious, she nodded yes and politely asked me to wait in line like everyone else. I raced over to the banks ATM to give my card one final try. I typed in my password, selected my withdrawal amount and pressed ok. I waited anxiously as the machine decided whether to grant this poor tired backpacker the cash he so desperately needed. A few long seconds later, the ATM made a ‘ding’ sound and began spitting out baht. I was so relieved I yelled out in triumph. This drew a few disconcerting looks from other customers. I returned to the clerk with thirty one thousand baht bills. She promptly exchanged them for one thousand American dollars in crisp new bills. I finally had the funds I required. It appeared I would be going to Burma the following morning after all.
After such a long stressful day of slogging around in the stifling heat of Bangkok, I was looking forward to a long night’s sleep. As I entered my hostel, however, a group of backpackers were on their way out for some drinks. They invited me to tag along. I had an early flight but figured a couple drinks were well deserved after my recent ordeal. Little did I know I would be consuming a lot more than a couple.
We had a great group of people that night. There were a few backpackers and a few young professionals traveling on business. No one was interested in going to Nana Plaza or Patpong. Everyone just wanted to have some drinks and some good conversation. We started at a Thai biker bar, moved on to a local pub and ended up on a strange street full of camper vans which had been converted into cocktail stations. We jumped from camper van to camper van sampling strange concoctions until sunrise. At seven in the morning, I was forced to return to the hostel to gather my things and book it to the airport. It was nice to finally have a good night out in the big durian. I felt as though it was overdue. Perhaps Bangkok had a little something more to it than I originally thought. I boarded the plane to Yangon dead tired but feeling good.
Despite my last enjoyable night in Thailand, I can't say my first stint in the country was a positive one. The scenery in the northern hills was nice, Pai was a special spot and Bangkok had its moments. However, I’m not sure Thailand is the best place for a solo backpacker.
Traveling is just as much about the people you meet than the places you go. In Northern Thailand, instead of meeting other solo travelers like myself, I typically met big budget vacationers or those only interested in sex tourism. Its not that I didn’t like these people, I just didn’t gel with them like I had with so many backpackers previously.
I also found it very difficult to experience the culture in Thailand. It seemed to me as though the tourist track was so well developed that it had become obstacle to experiencing the country itself. I felt as though I was constantly being catered to instead of being immersed. Overall, I was exposed to more western influence than Thai influence.
Maybe I wasn't in the best state of mind during my stay. Maybe I was too rushed and missed some of Northern Thailand’s gems. Perhaps my perception of the country was skewed by the people I spent my time with. Nonetheless, Thailand was the first country I left with no great desire to return.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 09.01.2013 05:01 Archived in Thailand

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