Day 101: Breaking free of Chiang Mai whirlpool
Back on the bike after nearly three and half weeks in Chiang Mai. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I'M NEARLY consumed by a deep drowsiness as I make it to the edge of Chiang Mai. It's been three and half off-record weeks since I arrived in the northern tourist town. Three weeks of steadily catching up on work and learning to give even more control over to the dice. By the end of it, I felt like a Chiang Mai expat: I had a handful of friends, places I regularly went on all sides of town, a bit of a routine and a place I called home.
Chiang Mai was my Cat Town – Haruki Murakami would understand. And there is a very real danger to lingering too long in such a place: eventually there is no way out. The roads close and trains no longer stop at the station.
I'm cutting it close.
It's past 3pm when I pull over at a 7-Eleven on the outskirts of town. Sitting down in the shade, I drink a water and try to wake up. It's nearly three hours to Chiang Rai from here, if I stay on course I'll beat the sun, but not at this rate.
I woke up early this morning, packed my belongings in the Saturday morning silence, sipping a coffee that Emma put on my bedside table, as she has done most mornings since I arrived. Though I'm mostly packed, it takes awhile to warp up some work on the laptop and get everything loaded onto the bike.
The motorcycle looks overloaded. The drone backpack I recently bought only fits in the top box – and barely – so everything has to be reorganized. Part of me wants to chuck the yoga mat, sleeping bag, tent and meditation mat to rein in the volume of the backpack strapped across the side boxes. But I don't.
I track down a broom, sweep clean the guest bedroom and make the bed.
Emma has given me a place to sleep; a place to work; a place to eat; a place to laugh and place to call home. She also came to the rescue when my phone – along with the majority of my drone footage from Bagan – fell from my pocket on the way into Chiang Mai and was never returned.
Phones, more useful than a laptop for an adventure like this, are not cheap to replace. In fact, the mistake was going to dramatically impact how long I was going to survive before Dice Travels was going to have me roll for a job. However, Emma – who has picked up the dice in her own life – made an incredibly generous donation that put a very good phone in my pocket and some cash in the coffer.
Cheetha, Emma's dog has run off into the neighboring rice paddy, so I don't get to say goodbye to the him, though he and I enjoyed the occasional morning snuggle after Emma kicked him out of her bed and headed to work.
Emma came to my rescue in so many ways. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Suited up and on the bike by 10am, I follow Emma out onto the main road. She's on her 40-year-old Honda XL. She's strapped a 200cc engine strapped to its small frame, giving it a lot more power than it use to have.
We arrive at Oasis Cafe, which right next to the Chiang Mai International Convention Center. It's Emma's favorite. It's where she rolled her first die.
It was a big roll.
She rolled on whether or not to dump her pack of cigarettes and quite smoking immediately or finish the pack. The die told her to dump them. So, she did. She hasn't smoked a cigarette since. Good on Emma, right?
This morning, she's on her forth coffee. A pile of dried red peppers is on the edge of my nearly empty pasta bowl, as we draw up the game plan for Dice Travels' next adventure.
Yesterday, the die was given two options: Go to Laos, do drugs; Go to Cambodia, drone Angkor Wat.
The die tumbled from my hand: it was evens, which meant I was headed to Laos for Vang Vien's magic shakes and opium tea – at the very least. Good on the die, right?
Drugs aren't my thing. I've been known to hit and pass a joint, as well as drink caffeine and alcohol. But that's it. Thirty one years and that's the extent of my drug use. However, I don't think there is anything immoral to using drugs. Yes, it's a complicated social issue when you start factoring in the impacts of heavy drug users on communities, as well as the impacts of the wars on drugs, but fundamentally there is nothing immoral about having a magic shake.
Though I'm not been dead set against drugs – in general – they've also had no allure. However, the die is supposed to take me outside of my comfort zone, which is why the bike is getting shipped to Africa after this next leg of the trip – a ticking time bomb in its own right.
Now though, at Oasis Cafe, Emma and are looking at the logistics of the Laos leg of the trip. There are ten international border crossings between Thailand and Laos – those are the ones through which I can legally enter the country. The dice gets the final say once we've weeded out crossings that won't allow the bike or won't issue a 30-day Visa on Arrival.
That leaves four options. Chong Mek is the best.“The Thai Chong Mek Thai staff always seems to be the best – friendliest, happiest, easiest, most efficient – border officials to deal with on the Thai border anywhere!” reports Golden Triangle Rider.
However, I hand the die to Emma.
“Where am I to attempt the first Laos border crossing?”
1) Huay Kon 2) Thai Li 3) Nong Khai or 4) Chong Mek.
Emma rolls. The die ends up under the rim of my coffee saucer.
“What is it?” I ask.
It's a one: Huay Kon – the only crossing we couldn't find when we pulled out my map of Southeast Asia or even on Google Maps.
We jot down the rest of the plan for the next big roll: where to work to keep myself afloat while the bike takes the slow boat to Tanzania. It's a blessing to have a fellow roller to hash out ideas and the pros and cons of why certain options make the cut.
It'll be another coin flip: teaching English in Vietnam or finding work in Kenya.
But that's a roll for another day.
Ship the bike to Africa mid-October, pick it up late-December, have $2,000 USD in the bank when I start the Africa leg of Dice Travels.
That's the plan we establish.
It is in fact the most detailed plan constructed since Dice Travels started months ago. I even commit to drawing up a budget when I get to Chiang Ria.
I'm in no rush to leave the Oasis Cafe, or Chiang Mai. Emma and I reflect on the decorator failed to balance the funk record collection hanging on the yellow-sponge painted wall in the cafe. In front of Emma are two Kurt Vonnegut books I bought her as a present: Slaughterhouse 5 and The Sirens of Titan.
It's past 11 by the time we leave the cafe.
I give Emma's Honda XL a quick drive around the block, just to get a feel for the squirmy little orange monster. It's fun, bit doesn't have the kind of body I'm use to slinging around. It's like going from a voluptuous XXL kind of woman to an anorexic teen. Though, with the dirt tires on her, I'm sure it would be a blast to get off-road and dirty with it.
I wrap Emma, who was already a friend for life, in a long hug, then mount my bike.
Heading out of Chiang Mai? Yes. Headed to Chiang Rai? No. Not yet. There's one more important goodbye I want to make, but Yuki is on the other side of town. I take the 121 around the outskirts of town to a trendy cluster of businesses under the umbrella of Kad Farang Village.
I know Yuki, okay her name isn't Yuki, but let's call her Yuki, from when I was working in Phuket. She ran a PR company that worked closely with the Phuket Gazette and was always over the top happy to see me when I was the managing editor of the newspaper. When I left the paper to start Dice Travels, I figured she'd blank me, as I would no longer be of use to her or her clients. I assumed it wouldn't be a personal thing, just a business thing, and I never held it against her.
I was wrong. I love being wrong.
Yuki is in the process of moving the majority of her focus to Chiang Mai, which I knew before I arrived back in town – so I dropped her a line to see if she could squeeze me into her schedule. It's always nice to catch up with people.
It turns out, behind our professional visages, we have a lot more in common than anticipated: a sense of adventure and spontaneity, as well as a love of gambling, cards, archaeology, museums and the list goes on. Bottom line, I now consider Yuki to be a dear friend; she's smart, adventurous, funny and always ready to take a risk -- she's a dice person at heart. This of course means that I'm pushing for her to join me in some Dice Travel adventure.
So, I make my way to Kad Farang Village to say goodbye to an unexpected, but precious, friend. The dice pass on sushi – because she's a part owner in a Japaneses restaurant, we've had sushi half a dozen times since I've been in Chiang Mai. Instead, we're going to have one of my favorites Khao Soi – a curry-style soup that is a specialty of the area.
As usual, Yuki is excited to share as much as possible with me, including nam ngiao, which a curry soup that originates from the Tai Yai people who live in northeast Myanmar. I've never tried it.
Yuki has a few questions for the dice before I leave.
I take the pearly white one from my necklace and hand it to her. She seriously thinks about it her question, then shakes the die between the palms of her hand like she's rattling kau cim sticks out of their cup at a Buddhist temple.
The die falls. She's disappointed. It turns out the die is on the side of her family, which is dead set against her traveling alone.
Later on, she asks the die another question, but refuses to tell me what it is.
“Crazy dice!” she says, looking at the number five. “Your dice is crazy.”
Though she's making a fuss about it, I think she likes the results. It's not until later that she reveals that the die has approved a trip to Vang Vien.
I should be on the road, by now, but I'm not ready to leave Yuki's company. She's been so gracious in making ample time to go on a few mini-adventures with me that it seems wrong to run off without her.
“Don't ask the dice: ice cream at McDonald's, circle thing at Dunkin' Donuts or cake somewhere,” Yuki asks.
She's already treated me to lunch, but has decided dessert is a must. Yesterday, she packed me a bag of several types of M&Ms, cookies and chocolate – I'm convinced she's trying to fatten me up. Sadly, it's working.
I roll the dice anyway. We pop into Dunkin' Donuts. I have another coffee.
Who can say "no" to another coffee? Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
It's nearly 2:45pm. I give Yuki a big hug, then climb onto my bike. It's time to feel the open road beneath my tires. Yuki's face is a grimace as she walks away, not looking at me – as she told me earlier, she really doesn't like goodbyes.
I'm instantly stuck in traffic. Kilometers of deadlock.
My headphones press hard into my ears. It hurts. The music is irritating. The traffic is irritating. I'm still in Chiang Mai, which is irritating.
With the bike swinging it's big hips between the cars, I edge forward. A shiny black vehicle honks hard as my bag, hanging over the edge of the side box, momentarily drags against it.
There doesn't appear to be any damage. The bike and I continue to wiggle forward. Finally, we make the right-hand turn and the traffic eases.
That's about the time I'm hit with the deep tiredness, as if Chiang Mai is making one last desperate attempt to hold me back.
The headphones get packed away as the water starts to shake me out of my caffeine induced comma at 7-Eleven.
A couple turns later and we're on the 118 to Chiang Rai. The road narrows to two lanes, widening to three lanes on steep hills.
The countryside gives way to modest, rolling mountains, layered like sandy ripples left on the beach by a retreating wave. The road peaks on one hill, offering a glimpse of forest in all directions
Patches of the forest are a dusty yellow from Teak trees going to seed. At this distance, it's a sea of shades of green, except for the Teak trees. It's like looking down on Brown County in Indiana as the first maple trees start to change color in the autumn.
Some of the Teak trees, hard and straight, stand erect along the roadside. However, their dusty yellow is easily outshined by the occasional Golden Rain Tree laden with radiant-yellow, blooming clusters of flowers.
A light rain catches up with me. Too stubborn to get out the rain gear, I pull over beneath a particularly well-endowed tree.
A rainbow bursts from the pavement of the road meters ahead of me and gracefully arcs into the sky. As quickly as it appeared, the touchdown point disappears, though a segment of the colorful display continues to lightly distort the forest colors behind it.
The rain eases, but I stay with the rainbow. A southbound truck comes flying down the road, water spraying around its wheels.
It sails over the spot where the rainbow kissed the earth. For a moment, in the wake of the truck, the rainbow flashes, again pressing its lips to the ground. Car after car come down the road, spraying the air with fine particles of water, offering a glimpse of a hidden romance the driver's will never know they happened upon.
Back on the road, with the sun on my shoulders, I pass motorbike groups out for a weekend rally.
After a leisurely break for coffee at Coffee View, which is settled above a stretch valley – a patch work of farm land -- I'm back on the road.
It starts raining again; a light rain as night approaches. The sun is setting somewhere behind a mountain of clouds hugging the tall hills to the west.
I'm torn between trying to find a campsite or just a cheap motel. A deep tiredness from three back-to-back late nights is clawing at me.
A sign catches my eye. Down the road, I roll the die to see if I should at least ask what the price is for a room. The dice turns down the option. Back out on the road, the sun paints the sky with washed out pinks, blues and purples as the drizzle continues.
I nearly track down a homestay, but turn around at the last minute. I'm in no condition to engage with a family and benefit from a homestay experience. I need a bed. Correction, I need to get horizontal, that's it.
I park in the field of a cute little place by a pond. A rotund, short haired woman shows me a room. It's a nice cabin-style place for 500 baht.
“Can you discount?” I ask.
She is not pleased with the question, but to be fair if I don't take the room, they aren't selling it tonight. Back at the bike, the woman's aunt, or mother, asks if I'm taking the room. I re-inquire about a possible discount.
They blank me, waddling back into the kitchen area of the empty restaurant. I remount the bike.
It's dark by the time I pull into the parking lot of a three-storey lavender colored motel with pink and green trim. I wobble about staying. However, the manager has found his way out to my bike. It's only 350 baht for a room.
If it was attached to a karaoke, you'd expect the place to rent out rooms by the hour, but it's not and they don't. It turns out that the room is exceptionally clean with nice sheets and a comforter. It's a family-run business.
Though I've only been on the road for a few hours, I've been in my gear since 10am this morning. It smells like it.
Stripping down, I make my way under the shower, cleaning up before passing out. It's 7:30pm. It's good to be back on the road.