On my way to the bus station to buy a ticket from Pai to Mae Hong Son, a little further to the northwest of Thailand, I suddenly don’t understand why I would want to go by bus. Instead I go to the motorcycle rental counter and rent a strong 150cc bike to be able to conquer the steep hairpin bends myself. Why not? Probably safer than a minibus driver with suicidal tendencies. And what a good decision it is! The next morning the trip of roughly 5 hours starts through the seemingly endless mountains and bends. Earphones in, spotify on and start cruising through countryside and greenery! Rice fields, tops in the clouds, villages in the depths… it is a great trip with a stop at the Lod Cave. I have seen many caves in my life, but never before have I seen a cave where you float through the cave on a bamboo raft, illuminated by lanterns. It feels a bit mysterious… the cave itself has no light at all, so everything must be lit by the (personal) guide with the lantern. By the way, the guide knows 5 English language expressions: “mind your head”, “monkey”, “crocodile”, “buda”, “popcorn”. Apart from that it is a silent treatment. Besides the hundreds of bats, you sometimes hear another raft throddling through the water and in the distance you sometimes see some other lanterns. That’s it. Lovely.
``Never before have I seen a cave where you float through the cave on a bamboo raft, illuminated by lanterns``
It’s a sleepy village with a fine vibe. Together with my Spanish roommate, the next 2 days are filled with waterfalls, hikes through woods and an almost non-Thai place along a quiet pond. If you would tell me we were in Canada or Finland, I would have believed you right away and if I had had a tent with me I would have put it up instantly. But what’s cool about the place is not the place itself, but the village just before you enter the area. When we decide to stop there for some food on the way back we discover that this might be the highlight. I don’t think you’re going to find a more authentic village in Thailand. Small wooden huts, restaurants run by families, houses at the side streets that come straight from an Asian movie set – and bamboo… lots of bamboo… 30 meters high bamboo! Crazy high bamboo there. Because it is late in the afternoon the sun is low and the rays of sunshine through the rising fog is what gives an even more special vibe to the village … if visual thinking is required: you look at the end of the street, you see wooden huts, paved and unpaved roads, a foggy street, silhouettes of villagers who quietly walk through the village, some chickens are running for their lives because 3 meters away the restaurant boss is preparing his evening meals and dogs wagging their tails hoping for some food. It’s one of those moments where the objects aren’t spectacular, where the sunset doesn’t play a role and nothing actually happens… but it’s the vibe that gives you the spectacle. Just being there and experiencing it, feeling it. That’s enough for this climax and it’s completely free. After buying a bag of dried fruit at a wooden hut we unfortunately jump on our bikes back to the Mae Hong Son. There awaits the nightmarket which is no less cool – but can’t match this unexpected experience!
``Small wooden huts, restaurants run by locals, houses at the side streets that come straight from an Asian movie set ... ``
It’s hard to imagine that Mae Hong Song is under there! 5 AM the alarm clock had gone off that morning and we had braved the cold to drive to the monastery at the top of the adjacent mountain. At the monastery we have a warm cup of coffee, made by the monk, while looking out on cotton wool. Everything around the monastery is white. Very white. Cotton white…. only a few tops of other mountains break through the cotton. We’re literally above the clouds and look down on the village, without actually seeing it. Ah, who cares… this is cool too! A beautiful sunrise at the end of the cotton desert heralds the day. Mae Hong Son is ‘on’ again and so is my motorbike – it takes me back to Pai. Pai was fun – but if I go back into that relax mode now, I’ll end up stranded forever. Upon arrival I decide to book a bus which will drive to Chiang Mai an hour later. Self protection. Too relaxed there. Netflix it is. Mindhunter! Unfortunately getting bounced from left to right for 4 hours isn’t ideal during a Netflix marathon, but what choice do I have?
So; Chiang Mai. The 2nd city of Thailand. A couple of years ago already culturally explored, so now I’m looking for something else. Since I have been sucked empty by mosquitoes in Thailand, I want to understand them better. If you want to defeat your enemy, you have to understand him first. The highlight of Chiang Mai: insects & wonders of the world museum.
``21:30 Dutch time, 03:30 Thai time it’s show time! I video call in and join the party from the hotel room.``
“I need your passport”… “Why? it’s a train ticket..” “because I need your passport number”… “I don’t have it with me, but I do have my ID card; it also has a unique number”… “No I need your passport”… Ugghhh… you learn something new everyday right? Apparently there are train stations where you can’t buy a train ticket without your passport. 5 minutes later I find my passport number in my email and hand it over to the lady behind the hatch. “ah, now the train is full, come back tomorrow”… “oh man… *&%^$#%…. just book it one day later!”… “also full”… “No way, is this a prank show?” 2 days later as planned, I finally return to Bangkok. Not that I’m actually looking forward to the tourist crowds and pingpong shows, but from there my flight will leave for the next destination.
Maybe, in retrospect, it’s for the best that the 14 hour train journey from north to south will not depart on the 15th of December. That night I have a party in the Netherlands. Digitally however. One of my best friends is celebrating his birthday. Without anyone knowing it, his girlfriend has prepared a mannequin with my head on it and a phone in his hand. 9:30 PM Dutch time, 3:30 AM Thai time it’s show time! I video call in and join the party from the hotel room. The mannequin goes all over the place and through a headset I have fun with everyone. At 9 AM Thai time I throw in the towel. I’m glad now the train was fully booked that day… my minibar filled with LEO beer is empty when I go to bed. Nice party.
``There awaits the nightmarket which is no less cool - but can't match this unexpected experience!``
14 hours doesn’t feel like 14 hours if you have good company. Travel, infrastructure, food, religion, there isn’t actually a subject that’s not discussed with my opposite neighbour in the sleeper train. He just returned from Laos where he worked as an engineer for 3 years and he knows everything about the construction of large projects. 9 PM the seating is professionally transformed into beds and fully rested I arrive in Bangkok at 6 AM. In Chinatown to be more exact. Because there, in a vague back alley, I booked my hostel to spend the last 2 days in Thailand. I hadn’t experienced Chinatown in Thailand yet and spending 2 days among the tastiest Chinese dishes is no punishment at all. Being stuck amongst smacking people for 2 days is though! Where did I end up?! In Smacktown? in any case.. Smacktown during the day is an anthill with people, stalls and narrow shop filled alleys. Many shops with generally a lot of the same inventory. It isn’t the shops that attract my attention very much. It’s the organized chaos that amazes me. To illustrate: there is an alley that’s 2.5 meters wide. There are 100 stalls, 300 people, a bunch of stray dogs and everyone is fighting their way through it. I would say, from behind my tuk-tuk steering wheel: “…naaahhh, no way”. The average tuk-tuk driver thinks: “no sweat…”. The tuk-tuk comes up and suddenly stalls are pushed to the back, people push themselves flat against the wall and the tuk-tuk encounters 3 scooters and 2 handcarts with bags of spices. Here the survival of the fittest applies: tuk-tuks have more horsepower, so: 3 scooters and 2 handcarts with bags of spices have to go in reverse. In the end you would think; people get frustrated… but either they hide it well or they are used to it. End of alley: tuk-tuk happy. Everyone continues on their way, stalls come up again and the next tuk-tuk reports at the beginning of the alley. Oh, my dear.. genius!
``Everything about the monastery is white... only a few tops of other mountains break through the cotton``
Slowly I’m getting ready to leave Thailand. The flight to India is scheduled for the end of December. Besides observing the hustle and bustle of Chinatown I’m not doing that much anymore. After 3,5 weeks of being active I’ve earned a bit of rest. At home you sometimes plan a weekend of “nothing” too. Just nothing, as in: keeping the couch in balance. The idea that I’m celebrating “vacation” gradually fades away. It slowly turns into “taking a trip”. And that’s good. On holiday, you make the most of it, every day. You can rest when you’re back home. But that “rest at home” doesn’t apply here. There is no home. The world is my home now. That rest has to be taken during the journey. Nothing wrong with sleeping late, dragging yourself to a coffee bar and enjoying a cup of coffee and some music overlooking a river. This is what my last 2 days looked like until the 20th. I had given myself a challenge the day before. The journey from the accommodation in Bangkok Thailand to the accommodation in New Delhi India may only be done by public transport. No taxi, tuk-tuk. Only metro, train, bus and walk. Starting signal from Bangkok 7 AM. Walk to metro, change metro, walk to train, from train to other train, from train2 to airport, wait for boarding, fly to New Delhi, frighten, take metro in New Delhi, change metro, walk to accommodation. 11 hours spend with minimal costs, but above all: challenging and fun!. Just fun. Delhi… yeah! Wow… COLD! SMOG! Let’s acclimatize!
``2 days among the tastiest Chinese dishes is no punishment.``
What did I think of Thailand? Would I book another week? I’m glad I focused on the North of Thailand this time. In this whole Thailand trip I haven’t seen a single beach… and I know those beaches are dazzling! But the North, North-West and North-East are also very fascinating and beautiful in their own way. Besides that, I’m glad that I made the deliberate choice to experience as much of the non touristy Thailand as possible. You can’t avoid visiting tourist places like Chiang Mai and Bangkok because you fly there or it’s your transit destination and I’m not going to lie at all by saying that I didn’t have a lot of fun there. But if you ask me what my preference is: clearly it is not the touristy part of Thailand! Read my tips about these places in my “travel destination Thailand blog“. India is next. Curious what that will bring me. Look forward to it!