The mystery of Pai runs deep through the ever-flowing stream, chatter of the locals at the nightly market and the veins of minerals in the highest mountains. On the surface it seems like a normal mountain town, well at least in the realm of normal. I can say for a fact that I have never before met lazier people or been greeted by a town boasting a slower pace of life. The town has adopted the tag line, "Slow life @ Pie" which is plastered all over tee shirts, magnets, postcards and random signs along the road. Cafe owners greet me with, "come, relax, enjoy the laid back life. If you eat here you will never die." And somehow, I got suckered into all of it.
At first, it all seemed normal and I actually appreciated a relaxing break from traveling. However, the more time I spent wandering the streets of Pai, and the more locals I met, I got a suspicion that something was out of order. The women have a sort of giddy middle schooler temperament and when life gets hard, the men seem to submiss to the women and return to their hammocks for a nap. I stayed at Darling Viewpoint Bungalows, named after the owner Darling who consequently called everyone else darling. Her German husband Peter would yell, "Darling! Darling is here to inquire about a room, can you send Darling to show it to her?" Peter seemed to be running the joint, but when I asked him about anything remotely related to renting a room he seemed almost annoyed and threw his hands up in defeat instructing me to ask Darling.
Every morning I was greeted by a zealous Darling excited about one thing or another. Her expressions were so animated that I sometimes felt like I was watching a four year old going on and on about her new pony she got for Christmas. She told me all about her morning on the zip line, then taught me some Thai words and insisted that I make my pronunciation sound sexier. This behavior was the same for all the women of the village. They were so full of energy and inching at the prospect to be your new best friend, while the men relaxed.
I was fine with all the craziness of Pai, until one evening when I noticed that I had just spent the whole day doing absolutely nothing. This was actually a pretty impressive feat for someone who goes crazy if her schedule isn't jam-packed. What had I done, and how did all that time pass without me noticing that the day was gone? The answers to these two questions slipped my mind and left me baffled. I guess doing nothing isn't too hard when you're surrounded by fellow nothing-doers. Eventually guilt from my Western-ness gnawed at me from the inside screaming that this was not alright, and I knew I had to do something differently. I met two fellow nothing-doer girls seeking to put an end to this nonsense and become something-doers. We rented mopeds and spent a day zipping around the hills and through canyons in search of a waterfall.
I rode off on my scooter warily, remembering that almost everyone I had met had crashed their bike. I was sure to dress in the most appropriate motorcycle riding gear I owned and purchased all the insurance available, which consequently bumped the rental price from $3 to $6. Everything seemed to be going well. The Thais proved to be courteous drivers, the roads were well maintained and I even did alright driving on the left. Eventually, however, I noticed that none of my instrument gauges were working. I filled my gas tank halfway and my new friends-Lisa and Holly agreed to keep an eye on their gas tank and tell me when it got low, so we could all fill up.
We spent the morning driving through the windy hills in search of a cave which was supposedly a 90 minute drive outside of Pai. Halfway through the trip, my scooter suddenly stopped while coming around a bend. Out of gas-I instantly knew it! I had been thinking for the last few kilometers that we needed to stop at the next station to refuel. I frantically honked my horn to signal to the girls to stop. They quickly turned backed and we agreed that they would drive ahead for 20 minutes in search of fuel while I wandered into the bushes and waited anxiously.
They eventually returned without good news. The nearest petrol station was ahead-uphill 20 km or behind-downhill 20 km. My only option was to turn around and cruise back down the windy road. Holly and Lisa got a pretty good laugh out of my running Flintstones style with one leg on either side of the scooter to make it up the hills. Lucky for me, the majority of the journey was downhill.
We finally found gas from a small food shack, combined general store along the road. By this time it was too late in the day to return to the cave, so we settled on exploring a waterfall instead.
The next day, we got up early to make sure we had enough time to actually make it to the cave. The drive was gorgeous except for all the small brush fires along the road. Here, they still use slash and burn techniques for the crops, and it seemed like 90% of the countryside was on fire. No one seemed to supervise the burns, so apparently out of control wildfires are not a big concern here. The air was so thick with smoke that I had to wear a bandanna over my nose and mouth while riding, and visibility was limited to only a few kilometers.
Once at the cave, we hired a bamboo raft to take us along the river through the cave. Our guide brought a lantern and stopped the boat intermittently for us to disembark and climb through the caverns to view the different stalagmite and stalactite formations. It all seemed so surreal, I felt like I was on a Disneyland ride where you venture through a dark cave and mysterious animals pop out at you. Although the cave was only 200 meters long, the ceiling and walls extended greatly and we spotted quite a few interesting rock formations and even an ancient coffin! Unfortunately, no mysterious animals.A
Afterward, we all agreed: boating through the cave was indeed worth the two trips it took to get there!
A bungalow on the way to the cave. Notice the haze on the horizion?
View from inside the cave
Me, Lisa and Holly on our bamboo raft getting ready to ride through the cave
How do people make the decisions they do? I am convinced that absolutely no one in this world knows exactly what they want. Sure, I could give you two options, and you could choose the best, but when it comes to issues like what do you want to do for the rest of your life or what makes you happy we're all clueless dummies. Still not convinced? Consider our divorce rate, extreme dissatisfaction with jobs and debt. Where do all of us dissatisfied employees and lovers turn? I'll leave that for you to answer.
So what does this have to do with traveling, you may ask? Well, I somehow ended up in Thailand without a very good explanation of why I chose to come here. I have a habit of making these flash decisions when it comes to traveling and they seem to prove more rewarding than the well thought out ones. My alibi? The food.
Eight months ago the word "Asia" made me cringe. Then, some girl said Southeast Asia was a real hotspot for backpackers. I went home that night and looked up Southeast Asia on the map. Thailand! I like Thai food, I should go there! Books closed, decision made.
Ok, I lied a bit. I don't just like Thai food, I have an abnormal obsession, a burning desire in my gut for the stuff. Pad se eew, tom yum soup, pad Thai, passion fruit shakes, I see it in my dreams and wake up wondering when I will have my next bite of deliciousness. I used to joke that I would go to Thailand just for the food, and well, that's kind of why I'm here.
Traveling through Thailand is like an ongoing food safari. Mealtime excites me and I'm sure to always scout out the sketchiest looking food stand for a true Thai treat, but it's the little snacks in passing that really make me happy. Kebab grills outside of shops, boba iced tea, fruit stands and pancake carts are just a few that fill every street and alleyway.
A few days ago I finally gave into my Thai foodie appellation and set off to partake in cooking Thai cuisine. The first words out of my instructor's mouth were, "my name is Gaye, but I'm not gay!" I knew I was in for a real treat. She was a little pistol, taking us through the market explaining different Thai ingredients and making sassy remarks to the two smart alec boys in the class, all in her loud Thai accent.
Once we had gathered our goods, we went back to our outdoor kitchens and chopped, mixed and cooked our ingredients into a scrumptious feast of curry, pad Thai, chicken soup, spring rolls and mango sticky rice. Need I mention food coma?
In the end we all received "master Thai chef" certificates (that one is getting framed when I go home) and the best part? No dishes to wash!
Thai chef students hard at work
Me and my instructor, Gaye
“EMBER! Where you go? I be looking for you,” came a low voice in broken English. If I didn’t know better, I would have mistaken him for a fortune teller. He was a wise old man with weathered skin, always moving in a slow thought out manner. Long white robes draped from his bony frame, and an earthen colored turban was perched above his bushy eyebrows. All he was missing was a glass ball and a book of fortunes.
I met Hutyee Boat (pronounced Ha-jee Boat) the day before in a frenzy to find an available bungalow on Koh Lanta Island. I seemed to have misunderstood what “high season” meant and was in a bit of a housing predicament. “Come, come, sit,” he exclaimed and placed a glass of fluorescent green bubblegum flavored drink in front of my famished figure. “No bungalow now, I call bungalow down the street, they come pick you up in tuk tuk. Maybe you like and stay, I happy. If no, come back tomorrow, you can bungalow with Hutyee Boat.” And that was exactly what I did. As he yelled, “goodbye darling” when the tuk tuk departed, I knew I had a mission to return and befriend the old man.
Now he was motioning for me to sit at the lunch table with his family and placing a heap of rice and sun dried fish in front of me. English was not his forte—in fact, I could probably list off his vocabulary in a minute or so, and “yes” was not on the list. Instead, it was “can.”
“Hutyee Boat, can you show me to my bungalow?” –can, can! “Hutyee Boat, should I pay you now?” –can, can! He did put an exuberant amount of enthusiasm into his speech and it had a special animation that made up for the lack of vocabulary.
As I picked at my meal radiating intense fish fumes, I asked Hutyee Boat about life on the island and his bungalow business. An equal amount of Muslims and Buddhists make up the population of Koh Lanta, and Hutyee Boat and his family fell into the primary category. His name used to be just Boat, but upon making a trek to Mecca, the Hutyee part got added as an honored title. And now he had a whole bungalow settlement named after him.
The reception gazebo seemed to be a hotspot for the guests to hang out. It consisted of a dirt floor, wooden picnic table and hammock. Hutyee Boat listed the names of all the guests on a white board and when they came and went he would yell at them on their porches, “Monica! What you doing today? You want moped?” His enthusiasm was contagious and I always chuckled to myself a little bit at his exclamations.
My days were filled with runs along the beach, naps in my hammock, broken English conversations and a daily dose of street food sampling. Hutyee Boat would see me walking along the street and pull over on his moped just to say hi and ask where I was going. One night, I even ventured beyond my bungalow settlement for a pink Valentines party and live band show on the beach. It was a memorable night, but I realized the beach party scene isn’t for me, and reverted to my hammock and sloth like daily routine.
Eventually, the heat got to me. I could only visit the air conditioned 7-11 so many times in one day, and I realized maybe it was time for me to move on. I packed up, said my goodbyes to my new friend and headed to the northern province of Chiang Mai with hopeful visions of jungle trekking and meditating beneath ornate temples.
I had been wanting to get to know some locals and experience Thai culture outside of the tourist realm, and meeting Hutyee Boat was the perfect opportunity. Now, looking back on it, I cant help but smile each time I remember his booming voice and kindness.
Hutyee Boat and me
Enjoying the porch of my bungalow
...Seems to be my life these days. After a few busy days in Bangkok meeting the ladyboys and doing a couple of other things I never thought I'd do-like riding on a motorcycle taxi sideways in a dress and eating chicken foot curry-I was ready for some relaxation. Fellow backpackers raved about the ease and enjoyment of traveling Southeast Asia saying it was the perfect mix of sightseeing and relaxation and I was ready to put that to the test by visiting Thailand's famous diving island, Koh Tao.
One of my favorite things about Thailand is how easy it is to get around. I had already mapped out my plan of action: take train from Bangkok to Chompon, take bus to port, then catch ferry to Koh Tao. When I arrived at the train station to purchase my ticket they asked if i was headed for Koh Tao and suggested a combination train-bus-boat ticket. Being in the habit of figuring out my own travel plan and assuming they were trying to rip me off, I resisted. It wasn't until they said that the combo ticket was the only way I could get a sleeper cabin on the train that I caved.
They attached a yellow triangle sticker labeled, "Tao" to my shirt, and I was off. I was assigned a bench seat on the train and noticed that almost every passenger was a white tourist with a colored badge tacked to their chest. Pink circle-Panang, green square-Samui, red square-Surat Thani. It seemed like the Thais had the system down to a tee.
When the train lurched into motion, an attendant came through with dinner service and magically assembled a table between the two benches. This was now a dining car. An hour later, the attendant returned, and in three quick motions replaced the table, extended both benches and folded down a bed from the ceiling. Ta da! This was now a sleeper car with a row of bunk beds complete with individual privacy curtains. I couldn't be happier! This trip was off to a great start.
At four A.M. the attendant came through the cabin and shook me awake, motioning that the next stop was mine. Dazed, I exited the train to be greeted by the colored badge people once again. They sorted us into groups according to our colored sticker and we were herded onto our next mode of transportation-a bus that would take me to the port. The rest of the journey was smooth sailing.
Once I arrived in Koh Tao I signed up for a diving course. It was me and Nagaia, a German girl in the class. We would go out on the boat every morning, do our diving exercises and return to our bungalows on the beach just in time for a big Thai lunch. Of course being in Thailand it would be illogical to have a normal port or harbor where each boat could dock. Instead, the boats were tethered to each other in the order they came in from sea. The first one would be at the dock, the second one tied to the first, etc. In order for us to reach the dive boat we had to pass a series of boat obstacles. This involved walking onto the first boat, climbing through a window into the second boat, going up the stairs and jumping from the roof onto the third boat and so on. It must have been hilarious for an onlooker to watch the stream of divers playing follow the leader like monkeys climbing through a jungle of ships.
Our first two days were practice dives where we learned and demonstrated skills in shallow water. On the third day, our dive boat left port at six A.M. dropping us at the dive site just as the sun was rising. Air tanks on, we plunged into the blue for two hours of paradise. I felt like I was in a National Geographic video. Everywhere I looked colored fish were darting past in schools of hundreds and it was impossible to swim through the mass without bumping into a few. We saw angelfish, eels, stingrays, barracuda, clown fish and many anemones and sea urchins. My favorite part was watching the fish playfully chase each other and swim in and out of coral arches and crevices.
At night, restaurants along the beach would set out mats on the sand and light small fires along the shore. Dancers with fire batons made their way from one end of the beach to the other stopping at each restaurant to perform their routines. We would finish each day sitting in the sand watching bonfires and spinning fires glide through the air. Then, eat Thai food, lie on beach, dive, repeat once again!
Sunset on Koh Tao
The boat obstacle course we had to endure each morning.
Fishies in hiding! Photo credit: Alberto
One of Colorado's quirkier cities is Trinidad; a small town in the south alternatively know as the sex change capital of the world. Last time I drove through, I stopped to grab a coffee and the first person I saw in the cafe was a transvestite...no joke! I know they're around, but what the people bestowing this coveted title forgot is that there exists a little city on the other side of the world that blows Trinidad out of the water. It's called Bangkok.
Have you seen the Hangover 2? If not don't rush out to see it. If so, let's just say Bangkok is not over exaggerated. You name it they have it. Monks, fake passports and ladyboys are a few of the favorites I've come across. A ladyboy is pretty much a fancy name for a man who becomes a woman. It is a thriving industry here and there seems to be no shortage of them in Bangkok.
My recent expat Bangkok friend insisted that I see the ladyboys before I leave the city. I'm always looking for an adventure and up to try something new, so I agreed.
As we meandered the crowed streets he singled out ladyboys in the street. "See that one? With the red purse? Her voice is way too deep. That's surely a man." I just nodded and smiled completely oblivious to the subject or matter that the seemingly woman may indeed be a man.
We finally made it to the ladyboy bar. I would have never guessed the secret of these women if it weren't for my friend telling me. I was really more impressed than anything. They all looked so happy, confident and like they were proud of who they were. Weather woman or ladyboy I thought all the Thais looked gorgeous-not a trait that many cross gender white people can pull off well. I for one, know I would make a terribly awkward looking man.
I probably won't be frequenting the ladyboy bar again any time soon, but it was a cool experience and view into a counter culture that many people simply choose to ignore.
Oh the s-word. I cant even mention it without extreme anxiety and cringing visions of jingle bells and mobbed toy stores coming to mind. I purposefully go out of my way to buy everything possible online just to save myself from the soccer mom crazed parking lots and horrific smelling food courts of the mall.
With that being said, throw in some delicious street food, all the bubble tea you can dream of and ridiculously cheap prices and I could maybe deal with the s-word. Scratch that, I could happily go on a full day shopping spree!
My shopping threashhold is just about enough to visit one market in each country I travel to. For me, its not about Visiting markets in a foreign country is always an experience. The smells, unique goods and funky vendors always make for a good cultural encounter. For me, it's not about buying things, but rather a way to experience the local way of life by meeting street vendors and learning about unique foods and crafts. However, there is always a tourist element to each market and eventually they all mix together in a blur of "I heart (insert city)" shirts.
Bangkok markets have set a new standard for street shopping. Everything from trendy women's boutiques, hand designed and screen printed shirts, chandeliers and stationary shops can be found here. And all for 10-20% of the price you would pay in the United States.
My first day in Bangkok I woke up Dreary and smothered by the heat and humidity. I was tempted not to venture out of the air conditioning at all, but I read about a weekend market and figured it could fill an afternoon and be a fun way to see some of the city. After a heaping bowl of Thai noodle soup for lunch, I hopped on the sky train which took me directly to the market. I was immediately greeted with a boba stand (flavored tea with tapioca balls at the bottom) and had to indulge.
With boba in hand I was ready to tackle the alleyways of Bangkok's favorite weekend market. As I admired the local artwork and fingered through boxes of exotic Thai gadgets, I quickly realized I needed a wardrobe adjustment. My bermuda shorts and cotton tee shirt would not cut it. First of all I was producing enough sweat to fill a small kiddie pool and second, all the Thai women looked amazing in their sun dresses and perfectly put together outfits.
I found the styling women's clothes section of the market (actually about 80% of the market was women's clothes) and got to work. Each boutique I visited sported all hand made clothing being sold by the designer herself. The Thais were happy to see me and extremely relaxed which was a nice change from pushy street vendors in almost every country I have visited prior.
In the end, I came home with two new dresses and a new tee shirt all for under $20. No complaints here! If it weren't for my tiny backpack, let's just say it wouldn't be hard to develop a bit of a shopping problem.
I am utterly terrified of international travel. I know, this is a preposterous statement coming from someone who has been happily country hopping for the past five months, and still can't seem to get enough of it. With a slew of transcontinental flights behind me you'd think I'd be used to it by now, but no. I've established a freak out routine that is becoming tradition. It's not the foreign country part of even the plane itself-the airport is my second home and I would live in the air if I could. My paralyzing anxiety lies with the "oohhh shoot I have a one-way ticket outta here" realization and resides somewhere between the "I'm traveling alone to a foreign country" and "I have no idea when I will return home" sentiments.
I have been tempted to hide from airport gates or burst out of my plane seat, running towards solid land convinced this bird will crash, but somehow the curiosity of what awaits me on the other end always pulls me through.
Last time, I was sure my Qantas flight was going down somewhere mid Hawaii and Papeete and I would be forevermore a Pacific refugee grilling hand-caught fish over a fire. This time it's Asia. Everything about the place terrifies me and until a year ago I never fathomed a visit to the land of Eastern Exotics. Now here I am chasing my fears, enamored with the beautiful Buddhist culture, bare beaches and tasty Thai food.
The reality of it all hit me about a week ago. I was counting down the days until my Asian escapades. Then, the what ifs began bubbling up. What if I get stuck in Asia and can never return to the United States? What if I never meet anyone and have to travel alone through a new culture and new city? What if my finger gets chopped off like in the Hangover II? Haha just kidding! What it all comes down to is nothing but illogical rubbish. Of course I will make friends, the traveling world is one of instant BFF status-even if you don't try to make friends you will still have several people flocking to get to know you. It's impossible to get rid of them. And of course I will not get stuck in Asia that's just absurd. I've got the US government and six years of swimming lessons on my side. I keep reminding myself of the slew of pre-trip articles I browsed claiming Southeast Asia to be one of the safest places for females to travel. If the experts can do it, I can do it! So here I am finally fearless, halfway to Bangkok, completely exhilarated and ready for the world to bring it on.
What I planned to be a relaxing reintroduction into the travel life bopping around a couple of Australian cities turned into a jam-packed Australian adventure (much to my delight!). Here are a few highlights of my two weeks between Melbourne, Warrnambool and Sydney.
Long drives through the Australian countryside. Imagine the eastern United States 50 years ago. The ranch style brick houses and crops stretching to the horizon bring me back to a period well before my existence but somehow eternally romanticized in my mind. I feel like I should be wearing overalls or country dresses and running through the eternal rows of corn and grabbing milkshakes at the soda fountain on Friday nights. Towns are simply sparse and people are few and far between.
The funkily grungy side of Melbourne. It's full of artists, hipsters and culture. One of my favorite places was a gourmet style soup kitchen called Lentils Anything where you take your fill and pay what you feel like at the end. The experience is complete with table latte service, live music and a huge outdoor garden.
Yoga with Sam and excellent city views. We felt the double downward dog would be an impressive skill to master.
A trip to the outdoor cinema-one of Australia's favorite summertime activities. Not to mention, movies are always better on a roof.
Checking out the best Sydney has to offer. A fun and classy city bustling with up-there business people, swanky cafes and a laid-back beach attitude.