Bumped and shaken for eleven hours on a bus over the torturous mountain road between the towns of Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos, I had ample time to reflect on the vicissitudes of independent travel in Southeast Asia. I was one of only three westerners riding the bus that day, and if the ride itself were not enough, my seatmate, a young male Lao, was a narcoleptic whose head kept lolling on my shoulder. To complete the picture, the peasant woman in front of me had reclined her setback all the way. Then the driver’s young assistant came up the aisle passing out barf bags, and I knew I this would not be one of my happiest travel days.
My nine-week journey was nearing its end. I would spend a couple of days in Laos’ capital before taking a night train to Bangkok from where I would fly home. I had planned to enter Bangkok only once at the very end of the journey, but, as it turned out, when you last heard from me in Cambodia, the only way to get to Thailand’s north was to go via Bangkok, so I decided to spend a couple of days in that city before moving up to Chaing Mai.
Over the years Bangkok has gotten such a bad rap that I didn’t have high expectations for this visit. Imagine my surprise when I discovered an important Asian metropolis with plenty of beauty and historical interest to satisfy my curiosity. Even Bangkok’s formidable traffic seemed no worse than what I’m used to in Istanbul. Things went well right from the start.
I had chosen my lodging from an Internet site without knowing the geography of the city. As it turned out the Silom City Hotel is located on an obscure street in a part of the city not usually frequented by tourists. In addition to being one of the most comfortable of my entire journey, this hotel is only meters away from a lively street market and other shops and services patronized by locals. In other words, it’s away from the vulgar sides of mass tourism that I’d seen too much of in recent weeks. I was happy.
Cruising along Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River on a commuter ferry toward the Historical District was a pleasantly slow way to begin my visit. The quay where I disembarked gave directly onto a wide sidewalk lined with the kinds of sellers found at flea markets. There was food, too, and I ate an early lunch of curried rice and pork at a sidewalk kitchen before beginning my principal sightseeing of the day.
I need a new language to describe Bangkok’s Grand Palace. We just don’t have anything of its like in the West. From the late 18th century onward it seems that each Siamese monarch tried to outdo his predecessors with the richness of his creations. The result is a large complex of temples, shrines, pagodas, throne halls, and residences of unrestrained color and architectural magnificence. To western eyes it is truly exotic, a vision evoked in an opium dream.
One of the challenges of traveling in foreign lands is to avoid being scammed or tricked into spending money in ways you might otherwise choose not to. In Bangkok I had been led to believe that the initials TAT stood for Tourism Authority of Thailand, which indeed they do. The TAT is a bonafide government service with offices around the country and abroad that supply honest and accurate information to travelers. What I didn’t know is that certain travel agencies have appropriated the same initials in order to lure travelers to their businesses. I was steered to such an agency by a man I had no cause to suspect. He didn’t seem to be affiliated with the agency in question, and perhaps he wasn’t. However, I did buy a travel package from the agency under a false impression. As things turned out I had no real reason to complain of the arrangements the agency made, and, in fact, I have it to thank for routing me into Laos, a country I thought I wouldn’t have had time to visit. Nevertheless, I’m sure I spent more for what I received than I would have had I bought the same services independently.
The same agency sold me a day tour out of Bangkok that took me to a spot on the Khwee Yai River where there is a railroad bridge built by the forced labor of Allied POWs in 1943 during the Japanese occupation. This was the famous Bridge on the River Kwai that you older readers will remember as a successful novel and film from the late 1950s. That bridge was mostly destroyed by Allied bombs and later rebuilt with Japanese war reparations. Nowadays, tourists can walk onto the bridge and admire a particularly lovely stretch of a peaceful river.
The same day tour took me to a curious place called the Tiger Temple, not a temple at all in the proper sense, but rather a preserve for both wild and domestic animals. Its main attraction is a collection of live tigers that tourists pay to sit with and stroke while having their photos taken by staff members. I won’t go into how this is possible and the caveats involved except to say that the animals are not drugged. It was an experience to be sure.
An even more rewarding experience in the animal kingdom was the day I spent learning to command and care for a 27-year-old female elephant named Fern Leaf at the Baan Chang Elephant Home near Chaing Mai. I didn’t have to share this with anyone except the guide who brought me there and Fern Leaf’s mahout, or handler. Before I could begin to develop a relationship with Fern Leaf, I had to learn some facts and memorize a series of commands that would allow me to mount and direct her. I learned that a full-grown elephant sleeps about four hours a day and eats the rest of the time, consuming as much as 300 kilograms of food, an amount that seems simply incredible. Elephants sweat from their feet, and in spite of their tough hides, flies and mosquitoes annoy them. Their huge ears are in constant motion to ward off insects, as are their tails. They love fruit; I probably fed my elephant at least 15 kilos of bananas in the course of our hours together.
Once I had practiced directing Fern Leaf in the elephant yard it was time to take her on the trail. We went up and down some steep paths around a mountainside with me sitting on her neck and urging her forward with voice commands and kicks to the backs of her ears. It was harder work than I thought.
We stopped for a long while in a river. That’s when I really got the point of the ill-fitting clothes I had been issued earlier. Once in the water Fern Leaf, using her trunk, began to splash water all over herself and me. In no time I was soaked to the skin. It didn’t matter though because, next, the elephant lay down in the shallow water to enjoy having her enormous head and sides scrubbed with brushes wielded by her mahout and me.
My day at the elephant home was a highlight of my time in Thailand, something that I can’t imagine experiencing anywhere but in Southeast Asia or Africa perhaps.
Chaing Mai, population roughly 200,000, is Thailand’s northern center. It’s an old town whose historic district is still bounded by the moats and parts of the walls that protected it in days gone by. It has a very well developed tourist sector and a large night market said to operate 365n days a year, rain or shine. As part of my package I was booked into a backpacker hotel where every service except a meager breakfast was an extra-cost option. The hotel staff tracked these extras on a pay-as-you-go basis. “You pay now, okay” was a refrain I became used to hearing.
Although it was my base in the north, I didn’t spend too much time in Chaing Mai. After my elephant day, I went on a three-day “jungle” trek in the hilly forests north of the city. I was one of a group of eight, including Army, our guide. Those who didn’t have trekking backpacks were issued what looked like Thai army surplus rucksacks that had seen a lot of service. I was surprised that no one complained. Besides Army and myself we were three couples, two young British boyfriend-girlfriend combos and a middle-aged couple from Holland just as much in love as the younger persons. It was good that we got along well because we spent a lot of time together.
Our adventure began with a trip on two bamboo rafts down a pretty fast moving river with some rather exciting stretches of white water. In the West on such an excursion we would have had to don life jackets and fasten our seat belts. Here, by contrast, we had neither life jackets nor seat belts; in fact, we had no seats. The rafts were simply eight or ten bamboo poles lashed together. We wore our bathing suits and on the slower stretches we took turns polling the raft and fending off the big rocks. On the hairier sections our experienced pole man took over.
The rafting at an end, we began what was a long uphill slog to the Karen village where we would spend our first night. The cool of the river was soon forgotten and in no time our shirts were sticking to us and the sweat was running into our eyes. Like everywhere else I had been in Southeast Asia, the weather was hot and very humid.
Fortunately, our campsite was provisioned with plenty of water and beer. Sleeping arrangements were in bags on bamboo platforms under mosquito nets. Dinner was a simple affair eaten at a long table.
We didn’t see much of the villagers except for the children who came to serenade us in their fashion after dinner. We gave them encouragement and a few donations.
The highlight of our stay was the following morning’s visit to the village school. We arrived to find young children of different ages on the grounds with no adult supervision. Girls were sweeping the walk with large brooms while a small boy with a large sprinkling can watered the flowerbeds. Other children were in the classrooms talking and laughing. There was no graffiti and no rowdy behavior. These kids are proud of their school with its colorful wall posters in both Thai and English. A few boys said the English names of fruits and vegetables when I pointed to them.
One memory of the trek was of the waiting. In the mornings it took an hour for water to come to a boil over a small wood fire. Everything unrolled at a leisurely pace. At times the waits got on my nerves, and I had to remind myself that one reason I travel is to experience how life is lived in other cultures.
As I became better acquainted with my fellow trekkers, I realized how lucky I was to have fallen in with this particular group. One of the young couples, Hiten and Georgie, had left England not long before on an around-the-world tour that had begun in India and would take them through Southeast Asia, then to Fiji, Australia, and New Zeeland before returning them to the West by way of California. In my travels this time I had met other travelers doing likewise. They had saved, borrowed money, quit jobs, and sold their possessions, including cars and homes to be able to join a wave of nomad backpackers and travel as far and for as long as they could. In most cases these mostly young travelers had finished their education and were giving themselves “the trip of a lifetime” before settling down to more serious lives back home. However, I met older travelers who had given up unsatisfying jobs and careers to travel and “find themselves,” whatever that meant.
My relationship with Hiten and Georgie would continue after the trek as we were bused to the Thai-Lao border together where we boarded a Slow Boat down the Mekong River to the town of Luang Prabang. This was indeed a slow journey, on a boat not much wider than an airliner and just as long. There must have been 70 or 80 of us aboard, backpackers mostly, but also some locals who would get on and off at different points along the route. And there was cargo, carried mostly on the roof. I’d been on several southeast-Asian rivers lately, and this was the first to be so sparsely settled. On either bank the hills rose steeply, densely covered with foliage. Occasionally, on a cleared hillside, I would see a shack perched high up, and I would wonder what it was for and how anyone could have built it on such a steep incline.
Luang Prabang is a charming, laid-back town, perhaps the nicest I stayed in during my entire nine weeks. It’s small enough to navigate on foot, yet it has beauty and historical interest galore. In Laos I was back in former French Indochina, and the French must have loved this spot on the muddy Mekong, for French colonial architecture abounds here, along with temples, a former Royal Palace (now an interesting museum), and a section of maze-like narrow streets where my guesthouse is located. The town’s night market offered a really pretty and affordable selection of textiles and other handicrafts while its morning market, besides the usual array of mysterious fruits and vegetables, offered the 6 a.m. spectacle of Buddhist monks lining up to receive alms. The sights and sounds of Luang Prabang will live long in my memory.
In these accounts, I’ve described only a few of what were many opportunities to see new sights and learn about cultures new to me. As with any lengthy journey I had good and bad days, never feeling I had spent enough time in any one place or in any one country. Nevertheless, of the six countries I toured, I am drawn to return only to China. Perhaps due to its several millennia of culture and civilization or perhaps because of its current importance in the world, I feel I want to see and know more about this huge, fascinating country. With luck I’ll be able to return someday and take up my tour where I left off.