Day 36: Re-framing authenticity in travel
Travelers dead set on discovering 'authentic' Thailand, missing the fact that everything is authentic. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
MY ASS unnecessarily shifts on the seat, the left cheek suspended above the road as I lean into a tight turn on Route 1096.
I woke up early this morning to have a Skype chat with a good friend of mine, who joined me on my first – and only other – long-distance motorcycle trip. With no experience driving manual motorcycles, we spent three weeks carving through the back country of Vietnam from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min. Since then, Rob bought a 650cc Verseys and has put a lot of miles on it in the Americas. He's the one that gave me the most valuable advice before I left: never rush. Never rush on the road, never rush packing, never rush fixing the motorbike, never rush whatever you're doing.
There is a reason it takes me nearly an hour everyday to pack the bike and suit up: I'm not rushing. And thankfully, there is no reason for me to do so.
This morning, I was leaning on him for some thoughts about Dice Games, how to continue to let the project evolve in a way that prevents it from becoming trite: how many times can I roll for a coffee without the roll itself becoming a mind-numbing pattern?
After an exquisite catch-up, I pack the the bike and pop over to Nature's Way House.
Before the receptionist shows up, I start unloading my stuff in a corner; check-in isn't until noon. However, the guy appears and lets me check in early. Climbing the cement, outside staircase the place is suddenly very familiar.
Though it wasn't called Nature's Way House, or at least I don't think it was, I've passed out here before. The images are surprisingly clear, it's amazing how many dark patches our imaginations are willing fill. The memory is from several years ago: I was in town for Songkran, buckets deep in booze and separated from my friends, asleep in a defunct telephone booth – even a drunk me knows to seek shelter.
Too drunk to open my eyes, I could hear voices.
One group of foreigners brings me a water from the 7-Eleven. Another group of good Samaritans carry me back to my hostel, whose name slips from between my lips like a muffled crow of a well-drugged rooster: Little Bird. Outside of my room is a mattress. One of the South Africans I had been out drinking with is passed out on the naked mattress.
“He was supposed to take care of me,” I say accusingly.
So to say I remember the hostel well would be in accurate. However, the white cement walls with brown trim, outside staircase and creaky bunk beds all stir memories from the dregs of my mind.
After check-in, good traveler would grab some cheap meat on a stick throw it in their bag and head out to the Hill Tribe village, which the die had decided was the point of interest for the day; it turned down the options of taking Thai Chi or Chi Qung lessons.
However, the health nut in me, nurtured through the 6Week6Pack challenge via PGTV, is craving all the yummy healthy fats and oils that are bountiful in Chiang Mai.
The Blue Diamond, which was closed yesterday, placates the yuppy, middle-class man in me. The open air restaurant is walled and decorated with jungle flora, fountains provide the music of flowing water, and smell of freshly baked, whole grain breads waft through the air. The restaurant also houses a health food shop with spices, supplements, seeds and nuts all packed in brown bags.
The die remains in my pocket as a I order an avocado omelet, no bread, a coffee and a Kombucha tea, which apparently is packed with enzymes, probiotics and detoxifiers.
My face twists as I choke down the first sip of the cold tea. If the taste is anything to go by, it's been fermented long enough to have plenty of probiotics.
On the road, the bike feels brilliant without my backpack slung across the panniers. I'm surprised to find myself in lush jungle as a slice through the Mae Sai Valley. I give the bike more and more gas as I coming into each subsequent turn, focusing on the feeling, tuning out the usual chatter in my head.
Signs for a number of attractions appear on the scenic route in an attempt to funnel tourist to the Siam Insect Zoo, the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden, the Maesa Elephant Camp.
It's also strawberry country. Large red-and-white signs for strawberries farms appear on the side of the road, as do lovely, child-sized, concrete versions of the berry. However, where the roadside vendors should be pushing piles of strawberries on passersby, there is nothing. It appears that it isn't strawberry season.
Ironically, I found myself wander how the tourists felt about being in my photos. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
There is no pretense that I'm off the beaten track and avoiding tourists traps as I pull off the main road, sandwiched between two silver minivans of Asian tourists, who are also here to visit the Baan Tong Luang Hill Tribe village.
For the sake of convenience, five very different ethnic Hill Tribe groups have been drawn into a small half kilometer area orbiting a few muddy rice paddies. The fabricated village, established as Eco-Agricultural Tourism Project to preserve the old traditions of the people, houses Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Karen and Padaung.
“Authentic” is to travel writing what the word “delicious” is to food reviews. It's a sloppy word to be avoided. Travelers in “distant lands” discretely go toe-to-toe with others to see who has had the most authentic experience. But often what people want, at least when it comes to cultural tourism, is a moment lost in time. They want to see people still weaving silk textiles in the same fashion they did a 100 years ago, but they don't want it to be a Disney Land, they want these people to really still be going about their lives in this way.
However, this fabricated village is authentic, I remind myself as I re-adjust my expectations. This is how these people are authentically living, as part of a living museum to tap into new economic potential that didn't exist before tourism.
With the village now sitting comfortably in a new frame, I pay my 500 baht to stroll through and have a gander at the colorful costumes of the Karen and Lahu at the entrance. The old women sit cross legged on the porch of the stilt houses, an array of bright textiles and handcrafts on sale in front of them.
Sticking to shooting with only a 50mm lens, I avoid taking photos of people at first. When I do, I find myself taking pictures of tourist taking pictures, which I guess wold be – sigh – the authentic experience.
It's easier to hold eye contact and smile at the older generation, their fingers going through the motions at hand from route memory, their voices chirping back and forth to their neighbors, never looking over to who they are talking to, but smiling and laughing when appropriate.
The girls in the Karen Long Neck part of the attraction are harder to look at. The beautiful children already have a number of brass rings pressing their collar bones down, elongating their necks. Their sullen faces, heavy with makeup, seem resigned to being gawked at.
On the way back, I stop next one girl, perhaps 12 years old, who is pulling fuchsia thread.
“What's your name,” I ask in Thai.
Her mother, sits not far behind her on the steps, also working some thread with her bare hands. By browsing the items for sale, there is less guilt in silently starring at these people – imagine people watching at cafe, but in a situation where everyone knows your watching them specifically.
Saying hello, also helps, though it doesn't seem to provide a complete antidote for the symptoms.
Crouching next to this girl, I pull out the magic foam balls, which have become my go-to trick, though I do need to start incorporating others. I then do the linking rings trick, but my magnetic ring kills the flow, causing me to flash a number of times.
The girl politely watches. Fairly unimpressed with myself, I move on.
I engage an elderly Lahu woman after walking through the rice paddies on my way out, having paused briefly to examine a rack of the tiniest dried frogs that I'd ever seen. Hundreds of the little Kermits could have easily been mistaken as grasshoppers without further inspection.
I practice what little Thai I know with the Lahu woman, asking about the tea she's drinking. She encourages me to have a sip.
Is it Ooling? I couldn't say.
Back on the open road, I decided against further attractions, taking time to just enjoy being with my little beast. We get stuck behind some trucks, then find a moment to pass and are on our way again. For awhile the road follows a small stream.
A number of little restaurants are set up along the edge of the water.
I pull off the road onto a narrow gravel strip designated for parking at the grungiest of the places. Down by the stream, a number of bamboo floored salas are setup with low tables at the center. The plants and mud beneath them show signs of having recently been consumed by the stream after a hard rain.
Out of my boots, I lean against the bamboo corner pole, listening to the stream talking its nonsense as it rambles over a section of rocks – truly a babbling brook. The thick jungle on the far side and the wordless voice of the water would be enough. However, to keep things authentically Thai, a single speaker is blaring the soundtrack of a Thai game show into the jungle.
The sounds of the game show are only interrupted by the pings of Facebook messages coming through on the phone that is plugged into the speakers.
Instead of fighting the experience, I relax, closing my eyes, letting the tension fall away from my body and between the cracks of the floor that I've spread myself out on.
In an attempt to coax an intelligent, beautiful Tinder match who is practicing music therapy in Chiang Mai out for a little adventure, I review my options. In general, it's best to be specific and put something out there that's more interesting than a movie.
Sunset on the mountain past Doi Suthep is a glimmering option, which could possibly be followed by dinner at Blue Diamond. Despite my best attempts, the young woman turns down the offer. She wasn't feeling well yesterday and today feels as if she's been run over by a bus – notably, not as bad as being hit by a train, but far worse than being popped by a scooter.
So I'm riding solo. It's been a full day. I consider just skipping the entire mess, but I can't really justify doing so.
Past the Chiang Mai Zoo, the wide mountain road snakes up the granite pinnacle. Dozens of cyclists battle kilometer after kilometer of steady up hill travel. Without my pack on the bike, I play out the turns more and more.
A pair of scooters come zipping by me. They take excellent lines on the sharp curves ahead. I continue on at my pace, trying not to get to worked up about being passed by scooters – they clearly know the road much better than I do.
I pull over below Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a temple adjacent to a jade factory on one of the two peaks of the forested massif. The 1,685m peak casts a long ominous shadow over the city below, splitting it between night and day, bringing the sharp contrast one sees as an alien mother ship prepares to attack New York City.
The air starts to cool, the road is now wet after elevation wrings the clouds of what moister they have. For the entire day, the peaks of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui have been blanketed by a gray-blue comforter of clouds. Though the rain didn't make down to the Mae Sai Valley, it's been very active at this altitude.
Past the bustling chaos of temple-goers, tourists, minivans, tuk-tuks and craft stalls outside of the temple, the road begins to narrow, stretching up to the Bhubing Rajanives Palace.
A clearing in the forest makes room for a helicopter landing pad, not much further up is the royal residence, which is surrounded by groves of Angle Trumpet's in full bloom.
The woody shrubs, with wide leaves, are heavily laden with enormous yellow, pink and white flowers.
The intoxicating sweet fragrance from the Angle Trumpet's fills my helmet, tempting me to stop my bike and wonder into the jungle – a nymph's perfume.
Deeply breathing the smell, I continue to weave upward, still on the east side of the peak, which is making it very difficult to catch a sunset.
The road splits. The path going upward is a narrow, single lane more fitting for golf cart than anything else. Piles of debris sit on the road. Section of the perpetually wet tarmac have developed a thin coat of bright green moss.
Though listed as extinct in the wild by the IUCN Red List, the occasional pocket of Angle's Trumpets stands along the roadway, their fragrance mixing with the wet earthy smell of the rest of the woods.
I blast my horn several times, then take another blind curve as I continue driving upward. A yellow sign ahead requires me to give the horn a few more beeps before taking the next curve.
I'm in no rush, so I take the road slowly, enjoying being alone; happy that Leah didn't join me. I would love the company, but at this point, I would have started to worry about my image developing as the creepy guy you meet on the internet who takes you deep into the woods.
Suddenly, I'm on the west side of the peak. A viewpoint as been cleared away, with plenty of parking on the hard-packed, red clay. A number of bikes and people are already there, soaking up the stunning view.
Tourist drink beers as I drink in the view. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Forested ridge after forested ridge ripples out below us, like waves in the sea. The sun battles with a set of low-lying clouds, who are unwilling to let their grasp on the mountain trees go. Directly below us is a small community of several dozen houses, a dirt football pitch is visible, the players are specs bouncing around the field.
A scooter with a young French couple and one with young Spanish couple pull up.
“Perfect place, perfect time,” one of the men says in a thick French accent. The boys lean against the railing and pop the caps off two large Leo beers, which they share with the girls.
A small group of younger Thais come roaring in on their miniature motorcycles. One pair remove their fullface helmets with fluffy animal ears stuck to the top; the young man pulls out a cigarette and lights up.
I take pictures, waiting for the sun to go down.
The sun seems determined not to go to bed, lingering high in the sky, despite the time.
The French guy is talking with the others about how French people try to speak Spanish.
“We just add an 'o' or 'a' to the end of French words,” he says, which doesn't actually work. “For English, I just try to say the French word with an English accent.”
Though apparently this works sometimes, other times it completely fails.
Tired of eaves dropping on the four Europeans, my restlessness becomes too much.
It's best that I don't drive the wet, steep, curvy road after dark I tell myself, justifying an early departure.
On the way down, the air begins to warm.
A bit disappointed with my decision to bail early, I realize I should have simply consulted the dice – they are so much easier to blame than myself.
There is a commotion at the hostel when I arrive. A stocky man with a man bun is scrambling out from the back.
“Kill it, kill it,” he yells.
“Man, it's a butterfly,” says another guy who works there. The pair are building a bar area at the back of the hostel.
“It's not a fucking butterfly. It's a moth. It's huge, just kill it,” the guy with the man bun says, completely freaked out.
Nick, Mr Man Bun, suffers from mottephobia, perhaps the only person I will ever meet who both knows exactly how moths and butterflies are different and finds one of the two frightening.
Sharing a sly smile with a thin, dark skinned girl at the bottom of the stairs, I slink to my room to grab my laptop and return to the commons area to get some work done.
A younger guy, with scraggly facial hair, who works at the hostel bends my ear about motorcycles. He spotted the CB500X, which he was considering buying at one point. He knows his bikes and launches into what should be a fascinating conversation. I put my work aside and humor him, but don't find myself terribly engaged.
He warns me off part of India, though has glowing reviews of the rest of it, apparently one of the tuk-tuk teams that was racing through the country with him – literally a tuk-tuk race – was held up at gun point.
Five minutes later, I can't remember which section of the country he told me to avoid.
The dark skinned girl, who looks Sri Lankan, is lounging nearby. We start chatting once the motorbike boy heads out, replaced by a gaggle of unattractive foreigners guzzling beer and munching on 7-Eleven tosties.
The young woman, whose name went in one ear and out the other, has spent almost her entire holiday in the hippie paradise of Pai. I've heard about Pai since arriving in Thailand five years ago, but haven't been there yet. It's a place where time stands still as the rest of the world keeps ticking along. People go for a couple of days and resurface weeks later.
The girl, who is Dutch, also needs to grab a couple things from the night market, so we decided to team up. The die is cast for dinner, I would have ordered khao soi, but she suggested rolling. At first she tables the idea, of khao soi or no food. I temper the odds in the favor of eating and make it a 50/50 split between khao soi and 7-Eleven tosties, which she hasn't tired yet.
Feeling slightly disappointed and still hungry, I polish off my tostie and we head to the market.
Open to midnight, the market is nothing special, just standard souvenirs, t-shirts and junk that can be found at most market stalls in any Thai tourist destination.
I'm looking for flip-flips, shorts, headphones and a tripod. She's looking for a framed butterfly.
Ironically, it was only last night that I joked with Andrea about how often people in markets sell butterflies. (We were pondering the profit margins of vendors at the Sunday Market.)
About 24 hours later, I find myself elbow deep in buying bugs. I hold up a large florescent blue butterfly with nearly invisible eye markings along the edges of its wings next to other butterflies. The Dutch girl already has the blue one, which cost her about 70 Euro back in Europe. We spend the next twenty to thirty minutes going through frame after frame of exotic butterflies to find a good match. The closer you look at each butterfly, the more the details in the texture of their wings, the subtleties of the colors and patterns become clear.
We settle on lovely green and black one. The Dutch girl bargains hard to get a price she's happy with: 16 Euro. However, she hadn't brought enough cash, so I lend her 500 baht.
I borrow back 100 baht to by some dirty flip-flops that fit me, as well as a pair of running shorts.
Earlier she mentioned how she hates pulling out money in front of vendors after having claimed to only have “X” baht during the bargaining process.
I notice that she's suddenly being very careful with how she extracts money for the the taxi back to the hostel and water at the 7-Eleven.
Though it seems entirely unlikely, I find myself wondering if she's thinking about making off with 400 baht she owes me when she catches her flight at 3pm tomorrow.
Back at the hostel, she heads to her room and I climb the stairs back to mine for another restless night of sleep.