superfluous on demand

Back in December when I was last in Florida, I wrote a check for $2,000 to my parents. This was the money I owed them from what they had spent on Varekai (my house). A few weeks later I received a call from my dad informing me that, after much thought, he had torn up my check. “And here’s why,” he said “I just don’t think a couple thousand dollars means as much to me as it does to you. So keep it and use it on something special.” Which, I was obviously so blown away by. I had very intentionally planned to build that house on every penny of my own money. Maybe it was a pride thing, I dunno, I didn’t want help; I wanted to do it myself. But, after some thought, I accepted my parents decision to contribute that $2,000 because, like my father, I think some things have more value than their price tag.

That money was destined to the black hole that is my bank account – destined to be saved and largely untouched for years (until the opportunity to purchase a plane ticket comes along). Despite the fact I was instructed to use it for something special. I guess, in my mind, life is pretty special. Just cooking dinner with my roommate is a special occasion to me, or going to a cafe with a book and having a cup of tea, or renting a movie for pizza movie night – it’s all part of the extraordinary web of this existence…so, black hole is where my money goes. To be used on small, insignificant, daily getting-bys.

However, this lifelong habit of anti-spending encountered a window of opportunity. Upon docking in Koh Tao, I found myself in the superlatively optimal situation to learn scuba diving. It cost so much more money than I would normally be willing to spend. I’m surprised, really, that I even entertained the idea. But I did. And I remembered that $2,000. Maybe I would take my father’s advice and do something I wouldn’t normally do. So I did. I spent $400 on getting my open water and subsequently my advanced open water certifications. I traded $400 for an incomparable and ultra amazing week of exploring the world contained within our earth’s enchanting ocean. It was amazing.

Later, in Vietnam, I was gripped with the desire to participate in a two day cave tour, also a spendy adventure. Realistically, it would complicate my itinerary and equally havoc my bank account. But the prospect of trekking through the jungle and camping in a cave were dancing through my mind. I thought again about that unexpected money in my possession. So for $300 I was able to explore the jungles of Vietnam and sleep in the magnificent Hang En cave, third largest cave in the world. Those two days were unequivocally among the best experiences of my life.

At this point I thought: what if I do something I normally wouldn’t in every country? I had also spent several nights in this exceptional tree hut bungalow on the calm white beach of Otres II in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. While its bill didn’t come close to the hundreds of dollars from the diving and caving, it was a luxury of an accomodation. A splurge, if you will. And there I spent some of the most relaxing, free of expectation and obligation, contemplative days. That travel brochure worthy tree hut provided the perfect backdrop for my full-being-reordering.

Wandering the night market of lovely Luang Prabang I encountered so many interesting foods I wanted to sample. I decided to have a night market feast and try all of the things that caught my attention. This one is funny, because while I ate everything my continually-shrinking-stomach could handle, I only spent about five bucks. Which, is still something I would never have done when I could’ve gotten by on $1-2 for a decent meal and a few new dishes.

Myanmar didn’t immediately have anything that stuck out to me as something that I would like to do, but was exorbitantly costly. It kind of came out of nowhere, the decision to have an upscale dinner. This whole trip (ahemmywholelife) I’ve favoured street food with the absolute belief that the fare was far more worth my time. But, why not actually test that theory? I found the least obscenely extravagant, but still upscale restaurant I could and had a fancy five course meal for $15. The whole experience was definitely a standout from the rest of my clearly budget trip. I was able to try a week’s worth of traditional Burmese dishes in one excellently constructed and attractively presented meal.

I didn’t use all $2,000 (more like $750ish). But I did get more than my typical money’s worth during this trip. I still hold that you can have a stellar, meaningful, life changing travel experience on the tightest of budgets. But I definitely concede that money will provide you some things that your thriftiness just can’t afford. I enjoy budget travel more, I suspect, than I would enjoy luxury travel. But it has been fantastic having these bonus adventures.

So, all of this just to say a really huge thank you to my ever generous parents. I had some of the coolest and most incredible experiences from that check you refused to cash. Thanks for always being a sponsor for my life, whether that comes in the form of money, time, moral support, manual labor, advice, encouragement, putting up with sprawling and never-ending projects, coping with having an unusually-minded and admittedly stress-inducing daughter…I appreciate it immensely. I’m grateful for you, and I’m grateful to you. And I’m so excited about the exact life I get to live, in part because of your steadfast support, even when you don’t agree with my decisions (i.e. dropping out of university, hitchhiking, moving to the complete opposite corner of the country…) I think so often it goes unacknowledged, but it absolutely doesn’t go unnoticed. Parents have a certain role to perform, but you guys carry it exceptionally well. I couldn’t imagine a better set of parents, and I wouldn’t want them if they existed. You guys are just right. I love you immensely.

Thank you. 

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forays in incongruency

My final day in Myanmar was a challenge in stomach capacity. After a small tea and toast breakfast at Myint Myat, I went for second breakfast at a tea shop called Lucky Seven. Here I tried the famous Mohinga, as well as a couple of bean paste steamed buns. I love steamed buns. The first few times I had them I was unimpressed. But I love how soft and fluffy they are, how the bread sticks a little to your teeth, and how they just smoosh ever so satisfyingly when you bite into them. P5242436_iiI would return to Lucky Seven later with the Canadian sharing my dorm. I had a Myanmar tea, and she had her first proper Myanmar meal. We walked down to the market afterwards and wandered the streets there. We found a Biryani place I had heard about and stopped in. It was superbly flavorful. When we went to leave, however, the rain that had been forecast had finally arrived. A few hours late, but compensating with its intensity. Molly agreed that making a run for it was the best option. We were about twenty minutes from the guesthouse, so when we finally arrived, we were both well soaked. I knew this was bad. My trousers, as great as they’ve been, do not dry quickly. True enough, they would remain wet until after I arrived in Bangkok.

Green Elephant is the fancy restaurant I chose. I went with the degustation menu, which allows you to choose from several options for appetizers, soups, salads, vegetables, curries, and desserts. I had spring rolls, tangy Myanmar soup, herbal leaf salad, tempura tofu with bean sprouts, pork curry with lentil rice, and banana fritters with honey. Every item was excellent. I really love the spices here. And I was very impressed with my meal. Although, I have to say, I get exactly as much enjoyment out of my street carts or tiny cafes as I did at this fancy establishment. I’m glad I had this experience. But in general, it just isn’t worth it for me to live extravagantly. I’m satisfied with very simple things.

But after my lavish meal, just as the security officer was arm-raising-ready-to-signal-a-cab for me, I removed my glass slippers, abandoned the ball, and discarded my pretense of sophistication. It was 9pm in Yangon, and I would walk the seven kilometers back to the guesthouse. It was an interesting walk. The area I was in was Naplesesque – designed for the wealth laden. So walking south became progressively more and more grungy, and additionally changed from this strange, impersonal facade, to a very three-dimensional atmosphere of liveliness. I’m definitely more comfortable staying among the impoverished than the wealthy. I was glad to be back home.

leaves painted like miracles

While not the loveliest place as viewed from the window of an airplane, Yangon becomes charming once firmly rooted in its calmer-than-other-places-in-Asia streets. I arrived in the evening to a barrage of seemingly fourteen-year-olds with keys inquiring did I want a taxi? I have a routine with this. I absolutely refuse to be hassled into one of these rides upon arrival in a place. So I shake my head firmly until I clear the insistent crowd, give myself ten minutes to get my bearings, and then make a decision from there. Usually I ignore that crowd of hustlers in favor of the almost always cheaper lifts a street or two away, or sometimes I return, with a clear head, and insist on a non-outrageous price. I wasn’t sure what to do here, in a new country that is not quite as fixated on tourism as where I’ve been previously. I went to the tourist information desk and asked about the distance to the city. Twenty kilometers, was the reply, about one hour. Taxi was the only option. At this sentence, the hovering fourteen-year-olds returned, keys swinging, with a new volley of ‘do you want a taxi?’ The equivalent in my mind of ‘Mine?‘ I refused and walked away again, settled myself against a column, and kept my eyes out for the numerous tourists that had arrived with me on my plane. Within minutes I spotted two girls following a uniformed man. I matched their pace and inquired whether they were going to the city center, and might I join them. They agreed and off we went. The twenty kilometer cab ride did indeed take a crawling hour. Mostly spent at two of the slowest intersections I’ve ever encountered. I tagged along with Becca and Anneka of Birmingham to their guest house. The dorm there was the same price as the one I had looked into, so I decided to just crash there instead.

Before my much needed shower, we all went for an equally needed dinner. Down the street we found a tent crowded with locals. Local men, that is. My companions pointed out the incredibly low ration of women to men. As in maybe 1 to 30. It was unshakeably disconcerting. Anyways, we weren’t too sure how this particular food stand operated. Upon glancing around at other tables I got a basic idea that we would each receive a plate of rice, and then point out which of the spread of dishes we wanted scooped into small bowls. We chose mostly randomly and took our small plastic seats at our small plastic table. Our table rapidly became filled with an array foods. In addition to what we had chosen, we were given a bowl of soup each, a plate of fresh garlic and chillies, and two plates of tomatoes and red onion. Everything was very different and very delicious. Since it was our first meal in this new country, I asked for wagers on what this spread would cost. I placed my estimate at 5,000 kyat, $5. When we asked, the answer was, in fact, 2,800 kyat. $2.80 for six meat and vegetable dishes, three plates of rice, three bowls of soup, and tea. None of us really said anything in our astonishment. And such was my introduction to Myanmar.

The guesthouse included breakfast. One floor up on an enclosed porch overlooking the city. It was buffet style, which was new to me. As it goes with buffets, I ate more than necessary, but it kept me going until dinner time. My first-day-meander along Myanmar’s streets was enchanting. I’ve been told over and over about how now is the time to go to Myanmar, it has just recently opened for tourists, go now, it’s great, whatever. Obviously I took this advice. But I didn’t quite expect what was in store.

Myanmar is centuries and kilometers different than the rest of my itinerary. Tall dirt-and-age stained buildings drip with drying laundry and blue satellite dishes. Sidewalks stand at about kneecap height, which I would soon learn is likely due to the oceans of water that gather in the streets when it rains. These tall, uneven sidewalks resemble a drop cloth from the splatters left by Burmese men who are especially good at expectorating the rust red juice of the betel nuts. On almost every street corner (no hyperbole!), and often in between you’ll find stands specifically dedicated to this betel nut business. Plates stacked with rounds of fanned leaves ready to accept a smudge of white paste and a sprinkle of betel nut pieces. Spitting really is totally acceptable and frequent. It looks like blood. Another disconcerting thing is the right side steering wheels on the cars that drive on the right side of the street. Women’s faces are painted with a golden yellow paste from the thanaka tree. It is used as protection from the sun, but it doubles as an artful makeup. It’s funny, the amount of times I have found western makeup to be attractive can be counted on my fingers. But I love this yellow adornment to their faces. You’ll find perfect circles, sweeping rectangles, careful lines, or even full faces. I think it’s beautiful. Men and women both wear long, shapeless skirts. I can tell I would be so frustrated wearing one, because they are constantly being adjusted. I’ve been the recipient of even more staring here than elsewhere. Which was already a lot. Every other block or so the guy ahead of me will glance behind him and see me. He will then proceed to walk more and more slowly until I pass him. I don’t know if they think they are being inconspicuous about this method of staring, or if they just don’t care. The other thing that happens is I’ll step to the side of the too-crowded sidewalk to let someone pass, and they’ll stop at the bottleneck and stare at me. It’s uncomfortable. I’ve kind of been okay with the whole westerner curiousity thing until Myanmar, but I am not a fan. Men here are quick to call you beautiful in the street. Female monks dressed in pink are not uncommon. Indian foods are everywhere. There is a surprising amount of English signage. Even more surprising is the proper grammar and spelling. Numbers seem to be important here, and the majority of businesses have some numbers tacked onto their name. Graffiti is sadly absent, except for some sloppy, unintelligent words and tags.   I wasn’t sure whether Myanmar would have been introduced to pizza yet. After all, it is new to tourism. And the majority of Easterners I’ve met are not impressed by Western food. Not even pizza. Especially not pizza. So when I googled ‘Yangon’ and ‘pizza’ and found five results, I was a happy girl. The pizza-in-every-country-except-for-Luxembourg tradition continues! My pizza was pretty decent. It more than sufficed for my purposes. After dinner I walked the kilometers back home by way of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, the so-called ‘most important holy site in all of Myanmar’. I walked the many stairs of the grand entrance, but I didn’t actually go inside. I can’t think of any temples in the world I would pay $8 to see. And especially not after three months of seeing hundreds of thousands of temples. It would have to house Buddha himself for me to be interested enough to pay an $8 entrance fee. Maybe I missed the most life changing experience ever, but I’m pretty comfortable with that fact. I also accidentally passed through this lovely park with a wide and hazardous boardwalk.  I witnessed a lot of…intensity during my time in Myanmar as well. That first day walking along the streets I passed by a dead puppy, it’s mother and littermate wandering nearby. Skip a few hours and I see a dead man in the street. He has been hit by a car. I heard the sorry sound of it. A police car pulls up, unhurriedly. But otherwise nobody reacts to the lifeless body lying just beside the road. I find it disconcerting, and it will affect the rest of my day. A few days later, on my train to Bagan, I awake in the middle of the night to a man shouting at his son. This goes on for some time, until we reach the next stop. Both depart the train, but the shouting continues, intensifies. Finally, all of the right side of the train, as well as all of the people waiting at the station are audience to this boy getting beaten by his father. I’m not talking cheesy Batman tv show slaps and punches and silly sounds. I’m talking Watchmen heart stopping pounding thuds that shake the ground. The boy holds his folded hands in front of his terror filled face, but his father is lost in anger and doesn’t relent. I turn my eyes from the scene and survey the passengers around me. We are all paying attention, and I am not the only horrified onlooker. The motherly woman across from me looks like she would save the boy from his punishment, if it were possible. I am infinitesimally relieved by the reactions of the crowd. This isn’t an entirely normal and acceptable situation. But still, Myanmar hasn’t been the harmless, unassuming destination like the cities and countries from my past. Fortunately this trio of disconcerting events was the extent of Myanmar’s dark offerings. The rest of my time there returned to the light hearted journey I am accustomed to.

agoraphilia 

It’s 5:30 in the evening, just past the heat of day, and I am strolling down Chiang Mai’s Wua Lai road. A few flashbulbs of lightning and a few explosions of thunder politely preceded the current state of sprinkling rain. While I do enjoy a good walk in the rain, that is not my current purpose – I have expensive electronics in my pockets, some which can take a nose dive off a waterfall and survive, but others which, decidedly, cannot.

No, the reason I am out tonight is to peruse another of a diverse smattering of markets I’ve been to in these past months. I love markets. I love them. It doesn’t matter how many I’ve been to, I am always exuberant about the prospect of a new one. Some of them are unimpressive and don’t beg for a return, but mostly they are such a pleasant way to spend an evening. Or morning. Or afternoon. 

I like arriving while the sellers are still in the midst of setting things up. Men meticulously lining hundreds of tiny silver and gold statues just so. Women gently folding soft, beautiful pashminas. Young girls helping to lay out colorful and loudly patterned elephants, giraffes, and monkeys. Young artists displaying their thin canvases of extraordinary paintings, and eventually settling ever so casually to paint several more over the course of the evening as easily as if they were merely writing their name. Anyone working at a food stand will occasionally be seen chewing contentedly, no inhibitions about sampling their product in front of customers. Usually the market scene seems a very social event. Everyone chatting to their neighbor, or flat out abandoning their stall to go giggle over some recent happening with a friend. 

There is a lot of repetition and similarities with items across cities and countries. Soda and beer cans repurposed into planes and automobiles; bamboo iPod speakers; plush elephants which I swear are all the same; simplistic and vibrant paintings of monks; the never ending parade of elephant pants. But without fail there are always new and fascinating handiworks and clever inventions. I rarely buy anything other than food, but I like just seeing everything. And as for foods, I am becoming more and more of the mindset that if I have no idea what it is, I’ll have one, please. 

I love when the day goes dark and all of the stalls with their different lights glow, reflecting the billions of colors and shiny, dangling objects contained on the rows and rows of tarps. 

The noises are more pronounced, too, with the awakening of the night. The first thing you notice is the human factor: the approach and retreat of conversations in at least twenty languages; oohing and ahhing over trinkets and displays; a constant stream of bubbling laughter; the shuffling of feet; the whole spectrum of haggling, from quietly timid to loudly insistent, and usually in a broken and lilting English on either side; the beautiful and sad music played by mostly handicapped musicians. The sizzling oil of hundreds of cooking dishes; the scraping of woks; the whirring blades of overworked blenders liquifying mountains of fruit and ice (and sugar, let’s be honest). Chimes and bells and whistles performing their little sounds in the hopes of being taken home. The clinking of coins as they change hands. All of this is gently folded into the mix of preexisting city sounds: the armies of motorbikes; the gangs of tuk-tuks; the rapidly filling bars; the crowded plastic tables at the usual suspects of the street food scene; and ordinary people going about their usual lives. 

The aromas come layered in surprisingly distinct waves: strong soaps, usually made to resemble fruits in this part of the world; smoky meats accompanied by a fiery heat that reaches you just moments after the scent; pungent jackfruit prevailing over the other fruits at the numerous shake stalls, usually some rotting rubbish odors making an appearance here and there, sweet crepes and roti that tug temptingly at every sugar addicted cell in your being, heavy clouds of jasminey incense, spice saturated noodle stalls, human perspiration and perfume. Normally I’d find such a cacophony of scents overwhelming and offensive, but in this setting it somehow completes the atmosphere. 

I love that here, if nowhere else, people take the time to stop their motion and really look at things. That is so rare these days. It isn’t conducive to efficient and flowing walking patterns, but then markets aren’t for the hurried. It’s like a lively museum of things you can own for very little money, and where you are allowed to actually touch things and interact with your surroundings.
I always walk through at least twice. Once to take everything in, and again to actually make my carefully calculated purchases. A noodle dish here, a new or favorite sweet there, a tiny sample of juice from some fruit I’ve never heard of before…
Despite my propensity to be overwhelmed and overstimulated, I love the muchness of the market scene. It is a perfect immersion for my usually quiet self. And it remains one of my favorite ways to interact with a city.

double standards by any standards

My last night in Pai I stayed in a different guesthouse, just for a change of scene.  However, I didn’t depart from my usual dinner at Na’s Kitchen. I was so tempted to try her pad thai, but finally caved and repeated my first night’s perfect meal. In the morning I woke at six and headed for Mae Hong Son. It was a relatively quick and easy drive. There were still loads of curves, but as I was one of only a handful of drivers for the entire hundred and change kilometers, and the road quality was overall improved, it was much less noticeable.elephants

I encountered elephants. Freaking elephants on the road! These ones were being ridden, but the first one I encountered was just there. On the side of the road. Hanging out with some dude. I pulled over and just stared. Stared. In shock and happiness. In hindsight, I ought to have asked if I could, like, touch it. Hello. But, shock. Logical thinking isn’t really a part of that state of being. So instead I continued on. Which, also in hindsight, was really an unwise decision. It took a good hour before the fuzzy giddiness of passing by an elephant in the middle of the Thai countryside wore off. Driving on two wheels was definitely not the safest choice. But, no harm came. Speaking of unsafe…

truck I didn’t do much in Mae Hong Son. Checked into my guesthouse; used my super senses to track down a market, and there purchased a magnificent bunch of lychees that would constitute my breakfast and lunch; had a milk tea in the midst of supposedly 104° heat; and found the cutest tiny happy elephant sculpture that ever existed. I also made the decision to not continue on to Mae Sariang, as had been my original intention. Instead I would go to Doi Inthanon National Park, home of the highest mountain in Thailand. I found out camping was an option, and it was an easy decision from there. P5141926

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Just as I was arriving at Doi Inthanon it began to rain. And not just a Pacific Northwest mist, but a real, raindrops-in-my-eyes-at-fifty-kilometers-an-hour rain. I pulled off and donned the cheap poncho Huyen had given me in Da Nang. I had saved it for weeks, knowing it would come in handy at some point. Indeed. I wish I’d been wrong.doi inthanon

Due to said rain, and the overall grey state in general, being on The Tallest Mountain in Thailand proved rather un-boast-worthy. There was little in the way of a view. Still, the park is expansive and there was plenty to keep me occupied. Camping turned out to be much more expensive than I had anticipated. Or maybe there wasn’t camping at that time of year? Or perhaps I didn’t have enough money? I dunno. Stupid WordPress deleted most of this post at the time, and I haven’t been able to get past my frustration in order to re-write it until now, nearly a year later. I don’t remember the reasons. But I decided not to camp there. For some reason. Instead my plan was to return to Chiang Mai and stay for one more night. Which meant I had another hundred kilometers ahead of me, in addition to the two hundred I had already traveled that day. A long trip. Needless to say: my butt was ready to be done with this scooter adventuring business. Still, I took my time exploring Doi Inthanon. It rained on and off, but I didn’t mind. I sought waterfalls.doiII

doiIII

The final span of driving to Chiang Mai was okay. It was dreadfully hot, due to breaking my only-drive-before-noon rule. But it was a good last day of my ten day motorbike adventure. I am so glad I took the opportunity. I’m afraid I’m forever ruined for waiting for trains and buses and boats, now that I have a taste of getting myself where I need to go…motorbikinBack in Chiang Mai, I had amazing roti for dinner. Who needs real food?

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limits like crosswords

The night before there had been a heavy storm in Mae Salong, and the electricity was once again lost. I wasn’t able to charge my electronics, and I had no access to Internet (dtac finally realized thirty days had passed ages ago). This left me without a route set into my phone. But, I refused to be deterred. I pulled out the map of Thailand I had purchased in Chiang Mai and plotted my course the old fashioned way. I am not exceptionally skilled with directions, but I felt an inexplicable confidence in my ability to reach Pai. When I awoke at six there was still no power, so I paid my bill and set off.

The air was still cool when I left Mae Salong at the hour of 7am. The sun was just barely overcoming the mountains. Fog was still pooling in the valleys beside my winding road. It was an exhilarating ride. The road quality on this motorbike expedition wasn’t always optimal. Littered with holes and cracks, I didn’t always have smooth riding. But every so often I would think about the fact that I wasn’t on a bus, and it made me smile. This section between Mae Salong and Pai took longer than I had anticipated. Another five hours, nearly. The last sixty or so kilometers claimed the majority of this time – composed entirely of sharp curves and steep elevation gains and losses. Whereas most of the trip was effortless, this section was work. Upon arrival I started to see the number ‘762’ scattered about, come to find this is the number of curves between Chiang Mai and Pai. Would’ve been nice to know beforehand.The second complication of having no internet was not knowing where my intended accomodation was once I reached Pai. Somehow, somehow I drove exactly to the place I was looking for. They had one bungalow available, but upon inspection I rejected it due to a hole the size of my head in the roof directly over the bed. No thanks. Beyond that I had no ideas. I took to the road again, and once more just so happened to come across exactly the place Michael had been telling me about the evening before. Two bamboo huts, sixteen beds apiece. Outdoor showers and toilets. There is nothing lavish about this place, but it all came together for me, and I was keen on staying.  My first experience in Pai was taking a cold shower under the warm sun and blue skies. One aspect of motorbike travel that is not optimal is the buildup of dust on your skin, in your eyes, and in your lungs. Showers are an easy remedy for the skin, but I have yet to declog my lungs of their weeks of dust clutter.

I took a long stroll through the city and ended up at a gorgeous and chill Indian flavored cafe called Art of Chai. Whereby I savored an iced chai and delved into Siddhartha. Somehow I always read the Hesse book that correlates exactly to my life at the given time. I’ve not read them in any particular order, just whichever falls into my hands. But if I had read any of his volumes a year sooner or later than I did, they wouldn’t have had the same relevance. I always forget about this phenomenon until I pick up my latest Hesse tome and feel the familiar, yet new chords being struck within me.

I felt exhausted by my hours of driving in the Thai sun, and so I spent a chill evening with the various people involved with Roots Bar (where my guesthouse was). Two of the folks disappeared for awhile and returned bearing a feast of pasta, to which I was welcomed. The five of us eagerly tucked into the simple and yet, so exquisite meal. A few people came and went before I finally gave in to my body’s pleading for sleep.

Early morning is the time to peruse the streets here, if you want to see the bare bones of the place. Only the long-term residents are conscious and busily preparing their city for whatever will befall it that day. Tourists lend as much character to a place as any other contributing factor – and their presence is a very defining part of Pai, in particular – but there is something endearing about catching a place in its unrehearsed and unadorned state. This is why I start my days with the sun. 

I had a watermelon shake before traipsing off on the motorbike to find a waterfall. A waterfall in dry season is less than inspiring. But while I sat there pondering my life after I return to the States, a throng of bounding children led their young mothers to the waist depth pool beneath the water trickle and commenced to enjoy their morning as if they had all the pleasures of a full on water park. Nothing like perspective to shower in appreciation, and nothing like perspective to calm your unknowns. I left eventually for the land split. Basically this guy’s land just started forming canyons over relatively short periods of time. Said landowner is very friendly and offers fruits and rosella juice which he has grown on his land with only a donation box in terms of his compensation. He also enthusiastically showed me his baby chickens and the various edible plants around his property. I took another sun shower before heading back to Art of Chai.Na’s kitchen is easily the best food I’ve had in all of Asia. I ate there every night I spent in Pai. My first dish consisted of wide, silky noodles in a spicy sauce with mushrooms and tofu. I’ve almost never eaten anything so perfect in my life.I headed to Pai Canyon, loaded with numerous cautions of its underwhelmingness. So-armed with low expectations, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wouldn’t throw it around in the same sentence as the Grand Canyon, as people seem to do frequently, but it’s a worthy attraction in its own right. 

I didn’t know how I would spend the rest of the day, so when I hit town and saw a sign for waterfalls, I thought why not. The Morpaeng waterfalls were much more impressive than the Pam Bok falls from the previous day. I ignored the signs about not climbing to the top. I’m perfectly happy to follow rules when they aren’t applied to nature. Nature is mine, thanks, and I’ll interact with it how I please. I walked for kilometers along the falls. The river was shade covered and the water pleasantly chilly. I slipped only once, but the orange mud on my clothing betrayed my misstep. No matter, I found a nice place with a deep pool of clear water and walls of rock on either side. Here I washed my clothing and set them in the sun to dry. Meanwhile, I commenced a cycle of swimming and sundrying for hours.At some point I noticed a spot of mud still on my trousers. It was only small, so I didn’t bother emptying my pockets. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I watched as my camera plunked unceremoniously over the waterfall and into the pool of water about ten feet below me. After assessing whether or not I would be able to get either back up or further down (difficult, but not impossible) I followed its trajectory, ungracefully. I felt around in the deep, quickly moving water, with water pounding insistently on my head, for maybe ten minutes. With no lack of amazement, I finally grasped the wrist strap. It was still whole and functioning, and I was grateful, adrenaline filled, and unamused. I had clearly forgotten the sign I had seen earlier.Waterfall with caution, kids.

like trails of dust

I had an exceptionally productive morning  before spending various parts of the day hunting street art, which had all of the sudden started appearing again here in Chiang Mai.      I woke early on the seventh after a very poor night of sleep. First bad dorm experience of the trip. I was admittedly nervous about renting a motorbike. Almost every foreigner I’ve met who has done so has been in an accident, albeit only minor incidents. But still, those aren’t favorable odds. Also, in addition to possible injury or death there was always the possibility that the rental place would claim I had damaged such and such and proceed to charge me a fortune. I did as much research as I could about reputable rental companies, and made the leap. I was renting the bike for ten days, and I had five stops roughly planned. Even on my way to the rental shop I was second guessing my decision. I suppose I felt okay for three reasons: 

1. I consider myself a much safer (in other words unreckless) driver than other foreigners I’ve ridden with or met. 

2. Driving a motorbike is probably about as dangerous as riding in a local bus (you can argue that fact with me once you’ve ridden a local bus in Southeast Asia.)

3. I was going to be driving mainly on rural roads rather than in the city, which I was personally far more comfortable with.

Anyways, as soon as I took off on my 125cc scooter, all that worry dissipated into the wind. I’m not an amateur scooter driver, and while the driving rules here are lax, and the driving is done on the opposite side of the road, and the road conditions aren’t always optimal – it’s really not that scary. Despite the often quoted numbers of vehicle related deaths, I reckon drivers here are much better than in the States. Since everything is in a constant state of light chaos, drivers are always aware and know how to react quickly. In any case, once I started driving I never felt uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean I lost my cautiousness. Death happens, yo.The drive to Doi Mae Salong took five hours including stops for lunch, water breaks, and plenty of gas refuelings. It was a really beautiful drive, and it was so exciting to have the wind in my face.  Even more exciting to have freedom. The first half of the route was through small cities and towns, but eventually they became more and more infrequent. By the final third of the journey I found myself on mountain roads with almost no other traffic. I had been concerned about my petrol options along the way, but there was no cause for such. There were normal gas stations at regular intervals until I hit the mountains, and after that the smaller villages had little two pump systems. Still, I refilled whenever my tank fell below three-quarters, just to be safe.  Mae Salong is as small and quiet as I had hoped. It’s a town known for its production of oolong tea, which was my reason for visiting. It’s beautifully situated in the mountains, with many mountains in sight filled with orderly rows of tea bushes. The numerous tea shops – readily offering samples of their products – perfume the air with wafts of tea coming from every which way. In addition to this, the village is covered in bushes brimming with fragrant trumpet flowers. Mae Salong really engages all of your senses! Here the busy advertisements of the larger cities are replaced by Chinese lanterns and tall banners with Chinese characters on either side of the doorways. Even though I’ve never been to China, it’s quite obvious that it really is more of a Chinese town than Thai. That also means the food here is all Yunnan dishes. Which has been like eating crappy Chinese food – that isn’t crappy. Everything I’ve had has been nice enough, but it doesn’t quite excite me like Thai and Vietnamese food. I’ve been hesitant to use my few Thai phrases, because it seems like people primarily speak Chinese here, but I can’t always tell.I went for my first meal in a quiet, out of the way restaurant, and was quickly invited to join a huge group of fellow foreigners. The multi-national table was a tour group just passing through. So I spent the evening with them. The morning market produced my breakfast of fried dough sticks (sort of like unsweetened doughnuts) and warm, sweet soy milk. In the afternoon I indulged in some teas. And for dinner I once again joined forces with some other travelers – a French couple and a Spanish guy – from my guest house. The power was out for most of the evening, so we ate by candlelight.    My final day in Mae Salong I thought I was the only farang in town. I made the 700+ step journey to Santikhiri Wat and there I found perfect solitude; the only soul in the temple on the mountain. Finally a quiet temple! It’s difficult to find a temple the world over that actually has a vestige of sacredness. I roamed the marble floors in my socks. The interior was pretty sparse, but you could visit all three levels. Despite being perhaps the least extravagant of the wats I’ve seen, it was definitely the most pleasant experience.      I took off on my motorbike and found a tea plantation to explore. The air was fragrant with those sun-warmed tea leaves, and I hung around for a few hours.       I found myself once again with a dinner companion. Michael is an Irishman teaching English here in Thailand. We talked for several hours, exchanging hitchhiking stories and other life tales. I like these conversations much more than the current affairs conversations (how long are you traveling? Oh hmm, two weeks to two months just like everyone else. And where are you going? Oh right, to a selection of these seven countries just like everyone else.) We had a superbly garlicky fried rice across the street from our guest house, and stayed chatting long past when most of the lights in the town were shut off and doors were closed for the evening. So long, in fact that we got stuck there because of the sudden, massive rainstorm. I giggled at the situation with the two teenage girls of the house, and finally made a run for it when the rain lessened ever so slightly.