Thailand was in some respects the primary mission of this trip. Specifically, I wanted to eat the best Thai food in the world, and that meant heading to the source. Now, I recognize that this is a silly reason for a trip, but remember I was twenty-two and had just earned a chunk of change fishing in Alaska, so any ol’ reason would do. Many other people wax philosophical about travel; they claim that discovering the world is really about discovering yourself. And this may be true. However, my main, surprising discovery was that the best Thai food in the world is found in Seattle, Washington. That’s right, soggy Seattle has better Thai food than Thailand. You see, the curry dish in Thailand typically consisted of rice, curry, and bamboo stalks, while the curry in Seattle boasts a variety of meats and tons of fresh vegetables. It turns out the greater wealth in America allows higher quality ingredients and that, coupled with the large Asian population in Seattle, propels good old Thai Tom’s to the top. USA! USA!
But the food there was pretty good, and Bangkok impressed by demonstrating that fast food can be delicious and relatively healthy. You can just walk up to a street vendor and they will cook some noodles and sauce on a skillet right in front of you that is ready to eat in under a minute. Take that, McDonalds. Apparently Thai people are in a hurry, because in addition to the fast food the whole city seemed to be frantically racing. Just spending the day there is exhausting. The iconic symbol of this frenzy is the tuk tuk, Bangkok’s go-cart on speed that careens dangerously through traffic. While on board I thought I was going to die, literally, a number of times, and was nearly reduced to prayer–although I wasn’t quite sure Jesus was the man calling the shots in Thailand, considering the country is overwhelmingly Buddhist. That, and, frankly, I haven’t believed in the Big Guy since around the time I lost my first tooth. (A sentiment reinforced when the Sonics were allowed to be stolen from Seattle in 2008).
So Bangkok is a large, bustling city with pretty good Thai food. What else? Well, did I mention that it is home to Muy Thai boxing, perhaps the world’s most bad-ass martial art? The main fights take place in a coliseum in the northern part of the city. The tickets aren’t expensive, though they’re getting more so as time passes and the UFC popularizes martial arts, and you get quite a show. One fascinating element to the matches is the role of music. A band in the stands play drums and other instruments to correspond roughly with the tone of the match; when the fighters are circling the music is suspenseful, and when they are connecting kicks and elbows the drums are pounded loud and fast. It really adds to the experience, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much it influenced the fighters as well. The matches themselves were brutal. For quite some time I figured they fought until someone was knocked unconscious, because the first five fights ended with one man being carried off in a stretcher. I found out there is scoring and all that, it just happens that the loser usually gets knocked the f*#k out.
After Bangkok I took a trip to islands down south before heading north to Chang Mai, an ancient city still surrounded by moats and medieval walls–two forms of protection made necessary by the threat of the Burmese and Mongolian empires. In the 1200s it was the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna and only became part of Siam (Thailand) in the late 1700s in exchange for protection. Clearly this was a different era. Imperialism was naked and raw; no need to manufacture consent among the public through smoke and mirrors. Today, thankfully, the scene in Chang Mai is more laid back. Most of my days started with some curry and a delicious fruit smoothie, followed by an hour of Thai massage. For those unfortunate souls who have not had a Thai massage the best way for me to describe it is saying it is like passive yoga. You get all the stretching and good feeling of yoga without doing any of the work. Instead, a tiny Thai lady climbs on you and contorts your body into positions that hurt oh so good.
Songkran festival. The moat supplied the water.
After my morning routine I would hop onto my motorcycle (okay, I confess, it was a scooter), and head out to the local climbing crag, Horse’s Head. I was still traveling with the climbing shoes I had bought in New Zealand, so I went to the local climbing shop where I met a buddy from Austria name Jurgen and we had a blast dangling from the rocks for a good week. I also had the good luck to time my stay in Chang Mai with Songkran, the Thai new year’s festival that happens in the middle of April. Although it is a national holiday the biggest celebration is in Chang Mai. Traditionally the holiday was a time to visit the elderly and cleanse Buddhist statues with water. Nowadays the “cleansing water” aspect has gone wild and Songkran is a week long water fight in the streets. Everybody gets soaked. Monks, kids, tourists, all free game. And, amazingly, due to the peaceful nature of the Thai people there is almost no fighting amidst all the chaos.
But time was ticking and even I have my limits of getting drenched, so I went farther north towards the Burmese border and began a village trekking tour. It was amazing. My guide was this super friendly rural Thai guy who barely spoke English. He took our group of five to different villages throughout the area, where we stayed in huts at night. At one village I was able to meet with the leader and ask him questions. When I asked him about theft he didn’t know how to respond; the word, the very concept was alien to him. Due to the language barrier I wasn’t able to learn whether he meant nobody took anything or there simply wasn’t the same perspective of ownership, but the fact that theft was absent in his way of life was incredible.
Every rose has its thorns, and the seemingly utopian village existence in nowhere Thailand had its weakness, too: the food. There have been studies that show the foods we like are imprinted in our brain during our time in the womb and infancy. If that is true, it is certain that my mom went nowhere near this place when I was a bun in the oven. The pounds shed off me fast, as I just couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the delicacies of congealed blood, bats on sticks, and baby bird embryos. This was the point in my life when I realized, “Nope. Eating strange foods ain’t my bag, baby.” To be fair, we eat some things that gross out Asians, too. When I mentioned to an English-speaking Thai that I couldn’t get into the food he laughed and asked me about cheese and yogurt. “Don’t you let milk go bad and then eat the fungus?” Good point.
Laotian “bus” station
In Laos I wanted to continue exploring village life. I chose Luang Namtha, a small town near the Chinese border, as my destination. To get there I took Laotian public transportation: pickup trucks on dirt roads. At one point we had to stop for hours due to road contraction. About ten minutes into the wait I noticed an Osama bin Laden sticker on the side of the construction truck claiming Bin Laden was “The King of Afghanistan”. I should have got a little nervous considering we were in the middle of nowhere and these guys apparently supported Osama bin Mass Murderer, but, again, we return to the theme of my youth and assumed invincibility, so I just took a picture and read my book.
In Luang Namtha and the surrounding villages I was again struck by the contrast to modern life. Here in the jungle the men seemingly spent their time either sleeping or hunting, while the women casually cooked or took care of necessary chores. Children of varying ages played in a pack just within sight of the women. Conspicuously absent was the look of stress and exhaustion on the mothers’ faces. Most of the parents I know back home are two dirty diapers away from infanticide, and I think the reason is Laotian child rearing is more “natural” in the sense that their method is more closely aligned with how humans have evolved to raise children during the past 100,000+ years. Being the sole caretaker/entertainer of a child in an isolated home is an example of modernity taking a wrong turn. It would be interesting to learn where and when this approach began and to explore ways to improve it.
Water Buffalo, chillin’.
Before heading to the sleepy capital of Vientienne I wanted to stop in Vang Vien, a village known on the traveler’s circuit as a bohemian destination (side note: I have been there since and Vang Vien is now obnoxiously full of hostels and tourists). The road to get there has a history of violence due to the Hmong insurgents, an ethnic group located primarily in the mountains who oppose the communist Laotian government. Apparently, the West has tired of fighting for democracy, and we are letting them fight the good fight on their own. The village itself is surrounded by beautiful meadows and is tucked alongside a lazy river that has large numbers of even lazier water buffalo cooling off in its waters. The perfect place to….party?
Now, I didn’t really “party” that much this trip. I was in a fraternity in college and had a “been there, done that” attitude towards being inebriated, however, Vang Vien was famous for its “special shakes” of ganja and who was I to refuse a local custom? The first night I ordered one shake and had a great time walking trails under a clear, moonlit sky. The second night I figured I would do the same thing, but when I went to pay he asked for 10 baht instead of 5, which was what I had paid before. By this point in the trip I considered myself a pretty savvy traveler, so I haggled a bit and then just left him a 5 and walked off despite his protests about a “special, special shake”. Then the drugs set in. The hard drugs. Later I realized I had accidentally bought a shake filled with mushrooms instead of marijuana, but at the time all I knew was that the world was melting around me. Not prepared for Fear and Loathing in the Laotian jungle I headed back to the room, where a sympathetic Jurgen took care of me while I temporarily departed from reality.
We kayaked out of town on our to the quirky capital of Vientiane, where the French heritage blends with Asian culture. And from there it was a hop, skip, and a jump through Bangkok and back home to a new chapter as a wilderness guide in Bend, Oregon.