trapped…

There a war of sorts going on here in Thailand. Its an urban battle fought house by house, corner by corner, street by street. Every man, woman and child armed to the teeth, ready to engage.

Pickup trucks full of masked combatants prowl past the safety of the hostel windows. The wail of ambulances echo through the streets which are starting to fill again after an uneasy ceasefire overnight. 

Here in Chiang Mai today, shellshocked Chinese tour groups wander aimlessly – all colorful dazed and confused – dragging large clattering suitcases on wheels over the rough concrete roadways looking for escape much like a gaggle of geese crossing a busy freeway.

Don’t panic.

It’s Songkran 2017. Thailand’s New Year Water Festival celebrating the end of summer and the start of Wet season – and the largest shit water fight on the planet. 

The only way to survive is to submit.

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Songkran is a 4 day party where most Thais head home to their families and celebrate a New Year. Tourist (and drunken asshole) numbers swell unbearably. Many shops are closed but the bars are open late. Alcohol runs freely even as hostels run out of fresh water.

Seriously, Thais take this water festival concept to a whole new level of batshit crazy.

The Moat surrounding the Old City drops a foot from the water consumption as the streets and gutters run ankle deep wet from the water fights. 

High pressure water cannons, fire hoses, bathtubs and garbage bins, massive 44 gallon plastic drums of iced water, blow up swimming pools, large eskys – anything that will hold/throw water – line the streets and are set up on most street corners and traffic lights where a pedestrian, scooter or Songtaew must stop. Then the flouro-coloured cackling crazies descend and a watery battle ensues.

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Riding in a Songtheaw (red truck)? Tough luck. the driver will pull up at a corner/traffic light/roadside and let his passengers get completely ‘blurged’ (thats my new word of the day). 

Riding on a motorcycle? Too bad – you will cop a thorough ‘blurging’ at 60km per hour . It’s deadly but hilarious to watch .

Chaotic doesn’t adequately describe the level of dangerous mayhem.

The papers post a Songkran daily death tally – last year over 400 people died (mostly in Chiang Mai area) and over 2,500 people injured in traffic accidents directly related to Songkran celebrations.

This year’s stats are in and its not looking great (although deaths are down. Yay less death!).

Sobering, you would think . Nah. Each year it’s about the same.
In Chiang Mai the entire Old City Moat several kilometres around – both sides – is filled with little booths and stalls selling food, drinks, water pistols, plastic bags and hats as everyone tries to make a quick baht and have a good time.

Roadside stalls sell huge blocks of ice to make sure the water freezing cold.

All the alleys and side streets are covered. There is absolutely no escape.

And this shit happens all over the country!

Amazing.

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What to do?

Firstly – Pray to your Gods.

Secondly – Prepare.

So Day 1: (quick cut ‘gearing up’ montage here)

Phone wrapped in cheap plastic bag. Check

Quick dry t-shirt, shorts and sunglasses. Check.

Wallet and cash in a cheap plastic bag. Check.

I head out onto the packed streets with the aim of my usual walk from Nimman down to the Old City, around the moat and then back, just to see what the fuss was about. Usually takes about 90 minutes there and back.

A few steps out the door of the hostel I was hit in the face with a bucket of ice cold water – and this kept happening for pretty much the rest of the day.

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2 hours later I stumbled into the Starbucks at Thapae Gate and gave up. It wasn’t even 1/3 of the way. Sunbaked, crowdshocked and soaked to the skin in a fruity cocktail of warm green mucky moat water and freezing cold ice water, my inadequate plastic protections leaking and damp, and feeling ill from the gallon of green moat water that had been forced into my nose/mouth/ears.

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I lasted 5 hours on the unforgiving streets and then retreated to the hostel, slinking back through alleys like a gunshy dog. Unfortunately, my sleepy hostel Bed Addict – Nimman ( 350 baht/night, close to Maya, my beloved cinemas, vegan eateries and some cool coffee shops) had been invaded by a group of loud party hard American students that had trashed it like a college dorm room.

With no dry clothes and no escape, I was trapped in my hostel kitchen – the quietest place I could find. Outside, the artsy part of town had turned into a techno-pumping foam-partying disco-lit aqua-nightmare.

Add to that the several competing foam parties, massive dance parties, and a dude in a tuktuk with enormous WHOOMP WHOOMP speakers parked just outside my dorm window and my night did not improve.

The walls of the hostel were vibrating as was my head. I jammed in my earplugs and tried to tune everything out – the thought of engaging and going out into this nightmare was unappealing. I wasn’t here to party.

But I’d finally figured out the main problem – I was resisting.

———————–

So Day 2. (slightly less enthusiastic quick cut ‘gearing up’ montage here)

Recheck my attitude. The key? – gotta get involved.

Upgrade the plastic bags to waterproof cases for phone and wallet (on sale everywhere). Check

Get a cheaparse sunhat for 25 Baht. Check

Buy a kickarse water pistol. Check Check Check.

Fillup, lock and load.

Lasting 6 hours on Day 2, I had a much better time of it. The best advice is rather than fight it, just go with the flow. Accept that you will be wet and hot and cold and covered in white paste for hours on end. Its all in good spirits and is actually a ritual blessing, so feel free to return it as often and to as many people as possible.

The lovely Thai people will (mostly) respectfully splash you or gently anoint your face with white powder or paste, the kids will love a waterpistol fight, and the littlest kids will giggle and smile like angels (right up til the point that their older siblings sneak up behind you and dump ice water down your back – after which everyone bursts into hysterical laughter). It’s so much fun.

It gets trickier with the tourists though.

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Usually some screaming psychotic tourist (see example above) with a massively expensive water cannon will run up to you and blast you in the face, knocking your sunglasses off or half drowning you before yodelling off into the crowd. Best to steer clear if possible.

But if you are up for a water war, then there are plenty of other soldiers here that will accommodate you.

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Day 3. Flick to Saturday morning and its an uneasy ceasefire – the celebrations are winding down but the odd water-pistol bearing straggler refuses to let go. Its still impossible to rent a scooter in this city as there are so many tourists, but the traffic to the airport is increasing as the tourists vacate.

The crowds are still there though and accommodation still hard to find. The mood is high but the celebrations are winding down from crazyassed to an almost manageable level.

*Still no sleep as the partying Americans have been replaced by partying Chinese students.

Day 4. Ahhh better. Now is the time to hit the Sunday Walking Markets, chill and explore the spiritual side of the festival as the craziness abates, with early morning happenings at the 50 or so temples around town, or better still up on Doi Suthep peacefully overlooking the city.

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Songkran 2018 – it was so much crazy fun, but next year remind me to be on top of a tall mountain, anywhere but here.

P.S

*so tired today I rinsed my glass in a sink and then drank a glass of tapwater today without thinking. Lets see how that goes.

**written over the 4 day festival but finished on Monday morning after no sleep for 3 days and totally stressed out by the frenetic pace of the holiday weekend.

***reminder to self  – never do this again.

Back to the present…

I’m travelling overseas more and more frequently now as my last real anchor to a conventional life was buried with Mum in February. 

All that remains now is a need to keep moving, and the notion of settling down and making do is vanishing behind me.

So… this ‘Travel’ thing eh? 

I’m totally lost to the addiction and it seems to be the only way to stay really connected to the present.  

When I’m “home” I’m unsatisfied/unsettled and constantly planning an escape but when travelling I can easily slip into the “now” of things. It effortlessly brings me back to the moment. 

Travel-based yogic mindfulness, maybe.

So another quick catch up – after 2 weeks of Svastha Yoga Therapy training in Bali, I came home and felt the familiar dip begin.

Luckily a good friend Shay was travelling into South East Asia for the first time (we’d talked about it for ages whilst I was in the US last year) , and she was so close to Australia – I made the call to take some leave (yes somehow I still have a job), bought my one way ticket to Chiang Mai, booked some dental work at my favourite dentist (is that a thing?), counted the hours, and then after several weeks of listlessness, finally left. 

Chiang Mai was instantly welcoming, smoky and hot – but no more so than a Dubbo summer. I caught up with a few friends here and settled in. Walked the familiar streets, caught a First Class movie ( Ghost in the Shell – really good actually),  found my fave coffee shops and vegetarian eateries, took a breath and finally relaxed. 

There was a brief window of opportunity to fly to Cambodia and meet Shay there instead – she had a girlfriend leaving and her partner coming over but there was a 10 day period in between that we could reconnect. 

So…easiest decision ever.

A quick flight to Siem Reap via Bangkok , and voila! 

Hello Cambodia!


What a fascinating place. 

I won’t go into the politics: Pol Pot, the genocide, Killing Fields, land mines and cluster bombs or the aftermath  of it all – it’s relatively fresh and has scarred this country deeply. I’d recommend you do some Googling before visiting if you aren’t familiar with these terms and get a solid dose of perspective on the horrors that occurred here in the 70’s. 

At first glance,  it’s an unusually weird amalgam of American icons and SE Asia. The US dollar rules the streets, prices are high (this is a real tourist town), scarred and limbless land mine victims haunt the tourist areas, cars drive on the right hand side of the dusty roads, tuk tuks and scooters “meep meep” and dash madly around confused pedestrians, trash and plastics cover the roadsides and floats along the sludgy surface of the Siem Reap river, mingling with the rainbow coloured oil slicked algae and water weeds. 

Parts of the city are charming but a lot of it is not. The amount of garbage is surprising, as is the dust and spotty internet. Neither the Hard Rock Cafe, Palacial 5 star resorts with plastic bag shanty towns, or the ubiquitous McDonalds and Starbucks improve things much, but the more you explore away from the tourist traps the more interesting it gets. I’d love to head to Phnom Penh, but Siem Reap is it for me this trip.

Someone asked me today about the food there and how was it different to Thai, but to be honest I couldn’t answer the question. I can say generally it is EXPENSIVE (all in USD$) and that the markets have a massive variety of dried, fried, fresh and absolutely toxic foods available – (like deep fried spiders, crickets and snakes). There are plenty of Western style coffee shops, quite a few French Boulangeries, and plenty of other upmarket options. 

We were railroaded into a small cafe at Angkor Wat for a $1USD soda and a $5USD fried rice with vegetables/Khmer sausage which we only survived by ditching the gelatinous weird pale red sausage pieces (whew!) but was otherwise yum. $1USD Draught Cambodia Beer was the drink of choice and wasn’t a bad drop at all. 

I tried a few traditional Khmer dishes at The Peace Cafe  (http://www.peacecafeangkor.org/ – an awesome vegan and vegetarian spot in Siem Reap ) that were amazing but I can’t recall their names…damn Draught Beer again. 

At dinner in the second night , there was a mango-like fruit that dropped from a tall tree with a SPLAT just near our table  – the waitress picked up the split pale yellow/orange splatted fruit but when Shay asked what is was, it didn’t have a English name but she kindly  offered us some to eat…it was yellow/orange flesh – sweet but chalky and totally delicious.  

The nicest food I’ve had so far : a simple stir fried Morning Glory Salad with some boiled rice. Next time I’ll explore the food side more for sure.

We’ve been travel buddying around for the past few days now though  –  Shay, Dick, Puk and myself – Angkor Wat at dawn, tuk tuk rides, Dr Fish Massages, Siem Reap arts, crafts and shitty tourist markets, off track Hare Krishna compound, smiling kids – always wandering and discovering, roaming the back alleys and secret nooks of this dusty city.

… and the temples. My God – the temples.  Stunning ancient ruins and a history lesson in one, swarming with tourists but somehow still accessible – allowing space and time to find a quiet corner and experience their ruined beauty.

*ditch the shoes and flip flops – climbing the treacherous steps and exploring the temples barefoot is both safer/easier plus the feel of the sandstone is incredibly grounding and connecting.


It’s not hard to connect to the places and the people here in this busy tourist spot, even though this city is a revolving door for tourists – the hostels turn over backpackers of all ages every few days. Last night was games night at the bar, which was a great way to meet and greet – then most people went out for a big night. I stayed in – boring but I don’t like to fly hungover.  The parade of arguing couples and loud rambunctious drunks returning at 5 am is always a bit of fun to watch though.

I’ve made many new friends in the hostel here and as usual HostelWorld recommendations are proving the best way to find a bed. (The Living Quarters in Wat Bo Road is excellent – No. 543, Wat Bo Road, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia )

Anyway I’m back to Chiang Mai today for the next week of two. Getting a wisdom tooth pulled and a crown done tomorrow so that should be a lot of fun.

Shay and her partner are coming up to Chiang Mai in a week or so – itll be cool to explore northern Thailand again, especially Pai.

Then I have to think about booking a flight back at some stage.

Oh !!! I’ve been fortunate enough to get shortlisted for an IT job working in Antarctica next season (with the Australian Antarctic Division) – interviews, psych tests and medical are in May. 

I hope I’m the right kind of crazy . Wish me luck!  

If that comes through for me, then I think I’ve finally won the Oscar for best  “Get Me The Hell Out Of Here” performance for 2017. 

I’ll keep you posted.

reframe…

“Whats Next?” is a big question that’s been driving me forward for a while now.

 Sometimes you can provide the answer, but most times you cant and the universe decides on your behalf. For me, circumstances back home have aligned unexpectedly to give me a small window to return and cut short my year of travel.

Its been 2 weeks of anxiety, sleeplessness and indecision but I’ve made the call to head back to Australia, even though I still have 8 weeks of “make a decision” time before the deadline to return to my old job lapses.

My reluctance to walk back into the cage of my old life and relinquish this magnificent freedom is manifesting itself physically and mentally. I’ve been sick, tired, happy, depressed – every emotion struggling for dominance. If it wasn’t for the planned 2 week safety net of Chiang Mai to settle my head down I’d be lost. Being able to prepare for reemergence into the real world is invaluable especially when you’ve been existing in an absolute freedom dream state, living for almost a year abroad. The comfortable calm that this city brings me is immediate.

Chiang Mai has been the place that I gather my strength after this rollercoaster year – get my chipped tooth fixed and some overdue dental work , a new tattoo, read a few good books, see a few films, catch up with friends, and meditate on lessons learned over the course of the year.

A friend asked me a few days back what has changed about myself in the past year, and I couldn’t really answer the question. It’s hard to pin down. I thought this would be a year of answers but I have only found more questions. The only thing I’m sure of is that I am not where I am supposed to be. 

What did surprise me is that when it was darkest, I found comfort and strength in a spiritualistic Faith I didn’t realise I had. 

*Notre Dame Cathedral minus Quasimodo.

Anyhow…I’m sure it’ll pass. 

Much like going to the dentist and distancing yourself from the pain, this week Ive completed the process of reentry in a numb,  detached state: contacting my old employer <shudder>, seeking accommodation, transport, flights, logistically getting from point A to point B etc etc ad nauseum. Inside I’m screaming at myself to stop this madness and head West again, but luckily the rational part is in control for a change and has made all the arrangements for reentry into what has become a new Global World Order in all of the worst possible ways.

I am extremely grateful to have had the chance to experience the world over the past year, meet amazing new friends and experience life fully but I am not ‘lucky’ as some have said. It was just good management. I planned and worked hard to save enough money to see me through the year, then tried to roll with the punches as they landed. It was a massive gamble, but it wasn’t luck.

Now for some reason my ‘live to work’ ethic has flipped to ‘work to live’ completely and I’m embracing the concept. We all only get one life and it passes all too quickly. It’s for this very reason I’m never going to be trapped in a meaningless job nor rot in an office ever again.

But as of today, unlimited freedom-wise, it’s done. At least for a little while.

This is my last Sunday in Chiang Mai and Monday afternoon I fly out.

In a week I go back to work.

There is a longer term plan however and this is a temporary means to an end. That has been the only thing keeping me on track. Rationalisation and reframing the negative.

It’s not all bad – I’ll get to see my Mum, my beautiful daughter Isabel, and some of the few remaining friends that I feel close to. But that’s about it.

2016 has been a trial run with a mix of success and failure but more importantly it’s been a year of exponential personal growth.

2017 will be my year and I’m getting excited already.

Reframe. 

 More about Paris tomorrow.

rain…

Its been almost 24 hours of solid rain here in Chiang Mai and my third soaking by traffic this morning alone. It appears inevitable that no matter what I do today, I will get soaked.

Just as well that I wore the fancy swimming shorts.

I hadn’t even had my first coffee of the day  – 9am standing at the flooded road crossing waiting for a break in the traffic, just thinking about the rain and  – DOOSH – Tourist bus got me…DANG IT  (or words to that effect) had just crossed my mind before…DOOSH, DOOSH, DOOSH, DOOSH, DOOSH – a stream of tuktuks carrying gaggles of excited Chinese tourists careered on through the same water, almost drowning me. I fully expected to find a fish wriggling in my pocket.

After the first DOOSH, I was like ‘Grrrr’…then after the third DOOSH it was funny, and after the 6th DOOSH it was ridiculously funny.  Certainly lightened the mood and set me on my course for caffeine (and a warm towel).

Thailand has been an experience that I am totally thankful for however. I’m loving every moment.

Thank you Big Green Bus, for drenching me at the traffic lights. It was a hoot. Thank you tuktuk drivers who delighted in hugging the curb to ensure I got more drenched  from the calf-deep rivers overflowing from the open drains, thank you waterproof laptop backpack for saving my phone and my macbook.

Thank you, immune system.

I’m house sitting another house here in Chiang Mai for 2 weeks before heading a looooong way West on the 21st of September. My days here are numbered. Flights booked, plans made. Bags packed. Affairs sorted.

This time its is closer to the old city, a lovely 3 storey family home, complete with 2 awesome cats and 2 not-so awesome snakes to feed and look after. Friends of friends have gone back to Europe for a time and needed someone to feed the animals. Its so good to sleep in a real bed again and have a place to come ‘home’ to , rather than a hostel. I’m so grateful and feel so lucky that these opportunities keep popping up. Sorta makes me feel I’m on the right path.

Chiang Mai is flooding and I’m now trapped in a cafe, so rather than wade through streets knee high with sewage, I’m determined to finish this latest entry, probably post it tomorrow or later today.

I do actually have some almost normal work to do – a while back I volunteered to be on a Committee as the IT Admin guy for Autismcarers.org back home – a wonderful organisation doing some great work but sorely in need of some assistance with their web site and content management. Time to step up I guess.

So I’ll finish that up then I’m going to hide at the local cinemas for the rest of the day.

And then maybe find an unbrella.

Later.

 

 

 

 

…Cows! Pt 2

With an apocalyptic crack and a blinding flash a bolt of lightning hit the town dead centre of the tourist district and everything went dark. It was like a bomb had gone off – all shop lights, neon lights, ATMs, music, even the streetlights blinked out: only the gas and charcoal cookers from the food stalls provided any light at all. What was a noisily buzzing market milling with people and vendors collectively recoiled and then froze, eyes wide, looking at each other nervously.

Then came the wind as the storm front finally hit, tossing the food cart areas into chaos and blowing the cheap t-shirts and thin thai cotton dresses off their hangers, sending the shopkeepers scrambling.

Finally came the rain. Driven almost horizontally by the wind it tore through town in seconds, stripped leaves off trees, and shocked people into motion, sending them scurrying into the nearest shop or under the closest awning for shelter.

It was freaking awesome.

My first REAL tropical storm since Ive been here.

By this time I was completely soaked, which was nice following the heat and humidity of the trip up here. So I ducked into a crappy tshirt shop and waited out the storm.

The whole affair lasted about 15 minutes – torrential rain, driving wind, and intermittent lightning. And then like turning off a tap, it was done.

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Slowly, the people emerged from the doorways, and the shopkeepers assessed the damage. One by one, out came the emergency lanterns, torches hung on string, oil burners and even yellow and red candles, until the street and storefronts were eerily backlit by the flickering candles or harsh incandescent torchlights.

For the rest of the evening, the township functioned on candle power. Food stalls quickly sold out of food as the restaurants closed up. Some soldiered on, lighting candles and reducing the menu, but the majority gave up for the night. No coffee machines, no blenders, no ATMS. Luckily I’d grabbed a handful of bbq’d pork sticks and something that looked like chicken balls (was soy as it turned out) so I was set.

So that was my dramatic introduction to Pai. All I had to do now was find my hostel.

Donning my trusty headlamp (don’t leave home without one, kiddies), I wandered over a rickety bamboo bridge that spanned a swollen muddy river towards what I’d hoped was my hostel – the Darling View (it rated well on HostelWorld.com)

Perched on a hill overlooking the town and the valley itself, this turned out to be a surprisingly awesome hostel – $10 a night for a private room, a mattress on the floor (comfy though) and an electric fan – LUXURY! It was the value-adds that made this place though. Firstly it was massive! Shared rooms and dorms and private rooms all mashed together over several wonderful old-school teak constructed Thai buildings. It was designed to bring people together with large common spaces, guitars and campfires, and amazing views over the valley from the verandah. Perfect reading spot and in fact that’s how I ended my first night (and the second), on the verandah reading while the other backpackers partied downstairs. Not exactly social but hey, i needed my peace.

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So Day 1 – over. An early night and a good sleep was well overdue. Earplugs in – ready, steady, sleep.

Day 2 brought a brilliantly sunny day so I got up early and explored – riding out through the hills towards a secret hot spring (that was on all the maps anyway) …

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…on to the many beautiful waterfalls scattered around the valley, and some more of the twisting and turning mountain trails. Perfect.

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That evening the hostel was deserted, so more than just a little sunburnt I grabbed a beer and enjoyed the empty hostel, restringing one of the guitars to left handed mode and spending a while just musically doodleing on the balcony until the drunks returned.

Pai was so lovely and the local eateries were amazing, but even after 2 days it was wearing a little thin – especially as the power was out for over 24 hours. Plus too many drugged up partying european tourists at the hostel was becoming annoying. I  must be getting old but I’d had enough. No hot water or wifi? I’m so outta there.

Surveying the damage from the storm the next day, I realised the extent of the damage and why it had taken so long. The lightning strike had nailed a transformer and the wind had torn down almost an entire street of electrical lines. There were police and utility trucks everywhere trying to repair the damage.

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Day 3 –  Still no power, so I bailed, leaving early in the morning to beat the storms and bike back over the mountains.

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I forgot!…

…this is where the cows come in. They are creatures of magic.

Lets backtrack again.

When Jen and I were driving after dusk in Kakadu last year (yeah yeah I know – I’ll run out of Jen stories eventually), she was driving really really slow and a goddamned buffalo appeared out of nowhere right in the middle of the road. It has been standing bum towards us on the centre line and was for all intents and purposes invisible. If it hadn’t turned its head and looked at us we would have hit it up the bum. It freaked us out and that was before the accident.

Anyway, back to now.

After the uneventful ride up to Pai a few days before, I was getting a little cocky (which happened to be my nickname in primary school actually, but I digress). Taking photos on the bike while going round bends, trying new video apps, basically being a dick asking for an accident to happen. My super carefulness had disappeared.

It was then that reality decided to send me a wake up call.

I’d just done making a little time lapse video on the bendy bits of the road, pulled over and put the camera away, and decided to try to make up some time. Let try to speed this trip along a bit, so I floored it.

Scooters aren’t road bikes – they’re meant for flat well constructed roads. But its easy to fall into the trap of believing they are safer than they really are. So falling into complacency is a real killer – like not wearing a helmet, like riding in flip flops, shorts and tshirts (which I’m constantly bitching about then OTHER people do it). Plenty of people have died on this road as evidenced by the many memorials along the roadside (which I’d stupidly thought were bird feeders)

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ANYWAY…i was zooming down some amazing hairpin turns, overtaking cars and minivans, dodging the piles of cow manure on the road (that’s odd), and generally going just a little too fast.

The I came around a blind downhill bend at 60kmph and came across these little fuckers…

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…just sitting there in the middle of the road.

Flashbacks of the cow in NT and the buffalo in Kakadu came back, I hit the brakes and the scooter slid…and slid…and slid… finally skidding to a stop a few meters from these stupid bastard buffalo.

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Who just looked at me and blinked like the bovine morons they are.

I freaked out more than a little – heart pounding, eyes wide, a real stress reaction – an adrenaline rush but not in a good way.

RULE NO 1 : Don’t speed downhill on a scooter. They don’t stop well.

RULE NO 2 : Don’t be a dick on a motorbike.

RULE NO 3 : Cows are transdimensional creatures and can appear suddenly out of thin air.

Anyway after that I scooted back a little to regain some composure, check the skidmarks both on the road and in my pants, and took a few snapshots – quietly hoping a semi trailer would fly around the bend and take these fuckers out. It was not to be and they wouldn’t move even for vans and motorcycles that slowly drove around them and tooted their respective horns. I calmed down after a bit, put on my helmet, and sloowly scooted around them.

Luckily I’d worn my brown shorts today,

The rest of the trip was uneventful and the trip back down the mountains was even more fun, with more temples and townships and tourist stops.

A perfect trip…except for those cows.

Bastards.

 

 

…Cows! Pt 1.

Lets backtrack a little.

Last year Jen and I had a car accident in the Far North of Australia, during our last Big Aussie Road trip in November. A cow decided to commit suicide and jump in front of our van one evening. Van was a write off, 100km from the nearest town – Halls Creek (where they set the horror film ‘Wolf Creek’ – I shit you not). Stinking hot. Isolated. Stranded.

Scared the crap out of me and Jen was lucky she didn’t have the damn thing sitting in her lap (at 95km/ph). Could have been so much worse and wasn’t a lot of fun. Flying Doctor Service airlifts, remote hospitals, rental van companies, challenges galore. Eventually worked itself out but ended our road trip around Australia and left physical and emotional scars on both of us. I’m still jittery at dusk.

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Anyway, something good to come of it was that I’m now extremely careful on the road – apparently I’d always drive like a conservative grandmother at the best of times, but that little experience made me super careful.

Which is fortunate as this week I got itchy feet again. Bear with me – there is a point.

There’s a place about 130kms north of Chiang Mai, snuggled deep inside a secluded mountain valley and isolated in a way from the relentless pace of the rest of Thailand. Pai is a little hippy paradise and sits right up near the Burmese border in far north Thailand, and is becoming a must see destination for travellers wandering through Thailand looking for something different.

My friend CB and SG back home had mentioned Pai as a place that I “have to see”.  I’d never heard of it so I looked it up. Yep…temples, mountains, big white Buddha statue, hot springs, hostels and hotels. Ok…so what was so special?

Hang on…getting there looked interesting.  Options ex-Chiang Mai are abundant  – fly, bus, minivan…motorcycle. Hey motorcycle! – I can scooter up! Something about the appeal of a 4 hour ride zooming through a National Park appealed to me. Anyone can jump on a bus or minivan ( 1.5 hours and 100 baht or so from Chaing Mai one way) but taking a 125cc scooter through the mountain passes, switchbacks and blind corners of this decidedly treacherous little stretch of road takes some commitment.

So after a morning coffee, checking the weather, and very little planning, I set off.

The trip up was both challenging and stunning.

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Once I scootered out of the mild chaos of Chiang Mai, and actually got out in the countryside, a whole new side of Thailand emerged. The regional aspect. In a way it felt a lot like regional Australia but without the bogans. Busy city streets gave way to rice paddies gave way to terraced hillsides gave way to lush tropical mountain forests. Roadside coffee shops, rest stops and little shack shops were everywhere. I hit the Chiang Dao turnoff and headed left, towards Pai. This was a breeze! Highway all the way and 60kmph was easy on the cycle.

And then the highway started to climb. And climb. And climb. The sunny day began to turn a misty grey as I rode up into the low cloud cover over the peaks of the National park.

RuhRoh.

My 60 kmph quickly became 40kmph became 30kmph as the grades and slope increased and the slippery curves and sheer drops took over. The mist thickened a little and spits and spots of rain spattered the pavement ahead. Luckily the road was build like a racetrack – all well cambered twists and turns and hairpins, swooping up and down the steep mountainsides. It was just as well as the streams of motorbikes, minivans and taxis crazily negotiated these steep mountain roads at breakneck speeds, ignoring the speed limits and road markings in the favour of a quick turnaround at the destination and another load of tourists.

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Fortunately the rain held off, the baking sun came back and the 4 hour ride became a sweaty but peaceful exercise in mindfulness as there was no time to let the inner voice chatter away – all focus was on the curves, the road ahead and the oncoming traffic.

As I got closer, the heat and humidity intensified until I was dripping sweat even with the cool breeze from the bike. Thunder echoed and rolled off the walls of the valley as I rounded the last few curves and began the final descent into the town, rolling over the WWII Memorial Bridge and past the health resorts and spas that were now peppering the roadside.

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The highway turned to streets turned to laneways filled with backpackers, street vendors and food stalls. Narrow alleys bustled with people. Dogs barked and fought. Overhead power lines sparkled and hummed, hung with glowing red Chinese lanterns. The air was filled with aromatic smoke and steam roiling from the street food vendors gas and charcoal cookers.

So this was Pai! Interesting!

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I’d made it in 4 hours without incident, not too bad at all!

I parked and took off my sweaty helmet, looked around at the chaos and then up at the threatening clouds just as the grumbling thunderstorm – tired of being ignored and desperate for attention- swept through town in an earthshaking tantrum and broke the sky.

to be continued…

 

 

Life rafts 

Chiang Mai is great but I’m craving a change.

As domestic flights in Thailand are relatively cheap, I’ve decided to head south – it’s more of a timeliness thing and goes against my “by ground” travel plans , but 12 hours in an overnight bus was just to risky, despite the price. So for the princely sum of $50 Australian, I was on the way to Bangkok for a few days via Air Asia ( God bless em). 

Sweet. 

Well hello Bangkok. It’s been a while.

I used to spend quite a bit of time here a while back, in a previous life . Working for the Australian government had its perks and I always got sent to Asia. Not that I’m complaining mind you. Love business class travel. I’d only been here once on holiday under my own steam –  for my honeymoon actually (that only occurred to me yesterday and man did some crap memories came flooding back – more on that another time) 

Moving right along…travelling on a budget really changes your perspective was going to be my point. Sorry . My mind is still a bit all over the place. 

Bangkok is a crazy beast that comes at you without warning . I wasn’t ready for it. Had forgotten. The energy got the better of me I have to admit.

Flying in to Don Meuang airport, catching the bus (40 baht) then the train (70 baht) was a super easy way to get to my Smiles Hostel ($19 AUD a night) in Silom. I’d picked this place as it was close to my old stomping grounds near the Australian Embassy. 

At first I thought it’d be fun, but I quickly realised that Bangkok had changed a bit,  nah a LOT,  since 2001.

There’s a bleedin’ Skytrain now that’s almost out to the airport, there’s Freeways and Tollways galore . The traffic is manageable (still crazy) and a run to the airport from Silom took 20 minutes!!! Unheard of.

But it’s definitely a different beast now. The streets where my favourite chilli eatery was located are now apartment blocks,  the roads where child mahouts rode elephants through the traffic selling bananas to the tourists to feed to the aforementioned elephants ( whom were trained to not eat them but to give them back to their handlers to resell) are now cluttered with Starbucks, fancy Japanese restaurants, 7/11s and Western style shopping malls. Where’s the old Silom alleyways and backstreets? At least Molly Malones and the Convent Road food carts were still there ! 

It freaked me out! I got lost many times trying to find my way without Google maps. Why was this all so alien? I navigate visually, using landmarks, but so much had changed. My brain hurt . But finally after an hour of wandering around in a grid pattern, I looked up to a familiar sight – the slim tower of the Westin Banyan Tree hotel. Finally the wildly spinning outdated map in my head locked on, updated, and voila – I was back. Knew every backstreet again … They were mostly still there, just hidden behind a fancy facade of Western excess.

 

Anyway I settled in, walked the street food alley of Convent Road, ate every interesting thing I could find : bag of pork and chilli? Sure! Brown soupy stuff with veges and a chunk of nameless protein boiling in it? No worries! All fresh, delicious and cheap!  (except the chicken feet – no way in Hell).

I was uneasy though, and wandered the infamous Patpong Nightmarkets, bought a cheap backpack, looked at all the tourists and market crap and knives and stun guns. Looked at old European bald guys with waify Thai ‘wives’ (yeah right) , groups of young guys (and girls) rolling into the girly bars and sex shows pulsing with neon, bludgeoned by clubnames like “Kiss Kiss Kiss” and “Pussy”.  Was deafened by the  80’s music that filled the air:  Def Leppard and techno and country ( wtf?) pounded out into the steamy Bangkok evening. And then it poured down – well at least that was the same.

I lasted an hour at the markets after watching them setup through a grey afternoon. It was my Vegas all over again. To much. Sensory overload. The crowds, the noise, the thumping of Duran Duran (I kid you not)

So I went back to the hostel, cancelled my second night, booked a flight to Surit Thani for 9am the next day, and watched Jurassic park on tv. Also had a hot chocolate and a biscuit. It was nice to chill in a hostels quiet almost-lounge room .

So as the hostel denizens wandered in and out, I collected Lucy; a Londoner only in Asia for a month after interning in Laos, and Marius; a guy from Amsterdam that’s doing the same thing as I: running away from life. We all shared our stories and our plans, chatted about Brexit, how to buy Pounds sterling, where not to go in South America, and alternatives to the Inca Trail. We got on famously and chatted for hours and then that was it!  I was leaving , Marius was on a budget and Lucy had 3 days to do everything she could in Bangkok before going home. So we parted ways only knowing each others first name, and that was enough.

I mention this as its one of the things I love about travelling that I’ve missed: to be able to meet a group of complete strangers, share your stories, gain insight and inspiration, and get a fresh perspective on your life and the lives and dreams of others. I really miss connecting to people and yet I seem to force myself away from them. 

It was nice to start feeling like a human being again, even for an hour: to make connections and to feel alive and just be acknowledged again with no agenda.

I forgot to keep punishing myself for Jen, and to feel sad. I forgot about my Bangkok fever and my negative voice shut the fuck up for a while.  I slept well right up til the 5am alarm for my airport taxi. I don’t do 5am easily. 

Bye Bangkok – we’re done.

Right now, I’m on a ferry heading to Koh Phangnan, just passing Koh Samui on my right. It’s blowing an absolute gale, the sky’s are stormy and the seas are choppy and I’m getting tossed around like a person on a boat on a choppy sea – and loving it. 

Oh the liferafts…I’m not going to say anything pithy or poignant about this trip being a life raft or some shit like that. In this weather I’m just thankful this rusty tub of a ferry has 15 life rafts and I know exactly where they’re stowed.

Right outside my window.

Beach time for me.