homecoming…

I’m back where I started 11 months ago and the only thing that’s changed is me.

Leaving Chiang Mai on Monday was just another flight, just another airport and I guess didn’t really even register as a “this is over” moment as far as my travels for 2016 was concerned. I’d tried not to dwell on it but the shadow of real life was a threatening figure looming over my sometimes forced positivity.

Fake it til you make it, remember?

So my AirAsia X plane out of Chiang Mai was 3.5 hours late, which gave me about 15 minutes to make my connection to Sydney at Kuala Lumpur International – just enough time to run to thru the transfer hall, 2 security checkpoints, and quite literally to the opposite end of the terminal. I made it without breaking a sweat. Settling into my economy seat, surrounded by young families and crying babies, it occurred to me how lucky that I made the plane. It also dawned that there was no way my bag would and so I had a 7 hour flight to prepare myself for the inevitable.

Arrival in Australia was a bleary, early morning red-eye experience as I was jolted awake by a dazzling dawn over Lake Ayre and its tributaries, which was either full of water or deathly dry (I couldn’t tell), reflecting the early morning sunlight and melting my corneas as I yawned and glanced out the window.

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Drifting in and out of snooze mode, I was aware of the aircraft coming to life around me but tried to imagine I was elsewhere – back in Chiang Dao listening to the morning rain, or in Tunis listening to the 5am call to prayer. Here the 5am call was a crying baby and a hawking cough from my neighbor. 

Something inside me was off but I didn’t catch it at the time. 

Flying in over Sydney I usually get a patriotic buzz about seeing tiny Botany Bay, the miniature Harbour Bridge and the toy Opera House sweeping by, but this time it left me cold. Flat. Nothing was coming through and I was completely numb. 

“Weird” I thought, gazing out at the city below and wrote it off to lack of sleep. Sydney grew larger and more substantial, until finally the wheels hit tarmac and with an anticlimactic puff of smoke I was back.

Sydney Airport was as bad as I’d remembered – expansive, crowded, unfriendly; efficient but largely uninteresting. Smiling photoshopped Australians glared at me from the advertising posters, inviting me to come and swim with dolphins, or climb a mountain. Customer service, politeness and good manners vanished. Anonymous Uniforms yelled rudely at people.  Airport security, black domed cameras and warning signs were everywhere. “Don’t do this – Don’t do that. Don’t stand here. Warning Warning Warning. Fear, Fear, Fear…The terrorists are coming”.  I could already feel the doeskin jackboots of fear and oppression that New South Wales wears proudly pressing down on my throat and chest.

Why so much paranoia? So many rules and regulations? After the freedoms of the road, this was becoming stifling already.

As some aussie ex-pat army guy told me in a dentists waiting room in Thailand a while back,  “We are a nation of laws and need all this to safeguard ourselves from the terrorists.”

No dude sorry Australia isn’t a “nation of laws”, that’s stolen from America and you are confused. Australia seems to becoming a backward nation of ignorant, drunken, racist fools masquerading as “aussie larrikins”, of slow expensive internet, extraordinary taxation, human rights abuses, poverty, homelessness, corruption,  overpriced real estate, and rubbish overrated food. Of course I didn’t actually SAY this to him – but I thought it at him real hard while smiling politely and trying to disengage.

Fingers crossed, I waited in the baggage area for my backpack. Who knew? I might have gotten lucky and the bag made it. A waify Japanese lady had the gall to take out her phone in the baggage claim area and a pompous slicked-back-hair uniformed guy (who could’nt even be bothered to go over to her or check that she spoke English) screamed at her across the hall to “put the phone down” like it was an automatic weapon or a knife and he was Supercop. She of course ignored him which further fueled his rage, and so the saga continued.So rude and unnecessary.  The carousel stopped, the passengers for the next flight started arriving. Still my bag didn’t appear.

Dang it.

Naturally the airline had lost my bag somewhere between Chiang Mai and Sydney.

After 11 months of travel through countless dodgy airports and several dangerous countries, it took an Australian crew to lose my bag.

Coming in through Immigration/Customs was easy (electronic passports make it a 5 minute thing) after which I had to do the mandatory “lost my bag” reporting at a desk where the Aussie “larrikin” (who couldn’t be bothered to tuck in his shirt or brush his hair) barely smiled, nor glanced at me or even said “G’day Mate”.

So feeling strangely calm – numb – I wandered through the airport, caught a train into Central Station, and listened to the sudden clutter of English conversation that invaded my headspace. It’s amazing how much you tune in and out to other peoples conversations. The luxury of not hearing English spoken everywhere was gone and the Aussie accent was like a powerdrill boring painfully into my brain.

It still didn’t feel real. I was in a homecoming state of denial and culture shock.

Of course Sydney started picking my pockets immediately : $20 for an Opel card, $4 train fares, $3 for bottled water, 2 bananas and a takeaway coffee $10. My last $100 was disappearing fast. 

I picked a dirty cheaparse hostel ($34 a night) close to Central, went into Police Headquarters in Parramatta to pick up some gear for work next week (meeting my new managers and doing some schmooze groundwork for my return to work)  and then wandered into the city to meet my good friend Kate for a drink at some inner city bars.

Walking between the bars I realised how pretty Sydney can be, especially at night. This time of year is lovely and for a change the city didn’t disgust me. It was a fun way to end the evening but after 3 drinks  ( $30+ – thanks Kate) I was slightly hammered.

The next morning, after stepping over a few random backpackers on the hostel floor, a 7.18am (what an odd time) train to Dubbo – 6 hours – would give me time to reframe all the negativity that I’d been projecting over the last 24 hours. It was time well spent.

Some meditation, reframing, read my books, peace. ahhh.

6 hours later.

Alighting from the train at Dubbo train station just after lunch was very, very strange.

As I walked down to Church Street Cafe to get my regular Americano, nothing had changed:  the streets, the smells, the sounds –  all instantly familiar. Little gangs of aboriginal kids roamed the streets on bikes and scooters, a few scattered drunks were camped under the shady trees in Victora Park, a young kid called me a “white cunt” before I’d even made it to the main street.

Ahhh. Now it felt real. Too real.

It was like the past year hadn’t happened.

I bumped into many people I knew and they seemed genuinely happy to see me, which was a welcome surprise and helped. But I’m struggling. Everything reminds me of Jen here. So far, at least. I wasn’t expecting it to hurt so much. The last few years came flooding back. The house, walking past Jens old work, then my workplace, my normal walking path home. Magpies. Jasmine. Hayfever. Cats Eye burrs and stickers, familiar and painful. Sorting through all this and discarding what will hurt the most is going to be hard. It was good to see the housemates though and the weather is great.

I went to see Mum in the Hi Care facility and she recognised me at least, but the dementia now has upped its game and robbed her of coherent speech – her tongue is constantly flicking in and our making everything messy – communication is hard but I think she understood I was back.

Coming back has been harder than I’d imagined and I’d drank myself to sleep last night with the last of my duty free Jamesons, feeling adrift in the world.

This feeling is still with me today, and its Thursday. A deep detachment and numbness that I can’t shake. I don’t belong here.

I know now that this place isn’t my home, Dubbo and Australia.

I am not where I’m supposed to be.

This isn’t a homecoming: its just another stage of a larger journey I’d never realised I was on.

Early days yet I guess. Lets see how work goes on Monday.

 

**airline found my bag!!!!! shipping it to Dubbo from KL “in a few days”. Fingers crossed eh?

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

nothing is something…2

Yesterdays post was a blomit, (apologies) but today’s will be a little more considered, interesting and hopefully not so meandering.

After Chiang Dao, we decided to head up towards the Golden Triangle – that opium soaked corner of Thailand where Laos, Burma and Thailand meet. It seemed suitable remote and mountainous enough to satisfy our call of the wild.

We’d need to head up though Fang via Thaton, but I also wanted to go via Mae Sai and Tachilek  – to cross into Burma via the land crossing there – and then head across to The Golden triangle and back down to Chiang Rai before heading down again to Chiang Mai.

Its basically a big Northern loop and we only had a few days to get back before heading down to the Gulf of Thailand for Meg’s birthday scuba experience.

Before we’d left Fang for Thaton though, we wanted to do a day trip and get out of the city . Again the guidebooks weren’t a lot of help, but we’d zeroed in on some interesting things nonetheless.

We decided on a day trip to the Royal Agricultural Project at Ankhang. It sounded interesting as it wasn’t a Westerner tourist spot but extremely popular with Thais.

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Set up by Royal decree by the King, and used as a training facility for local Thai and Burmese farmers to develop modern agricultural techniques and practices. The primary aim being to move away from slash and burn land clearing, and to reduce their reliance on growing opium poppies (and hence reduce the drug trade that has historically ran rampant in the area).

I thought it sounded a little bit shit.

It wasn’t.

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Taking a “special tour” arranged through our hotel (which turned out to be a red taxi truck and a driver that cost a stupid amount for the day) this was easily one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in Thailand. A social experiment and research station set right up alongside the Burmese border, we wandered virtually alone through the massive site, through orchards and lush farmlands, greenhouses and gardens, all immaculately set up and maintained.

Burmese workers picking chrysanthemums or poppies.

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We wandered around for hours, taking in the silence of the hills and the beautiful countryside. Then our driver gave us the hurry up as the rains were coming and we quickly moved on up to the nearby border crossing at Ban Nor Lae to look over the battlements, as it were, into Burma.

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Borders make me nervous. Bad shit happens at borders. Border guards with dirty great machine guns also make me nervous.

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It appeared to be closed at this point, and standing at the border gazing across I couldn’t help but wonder if some bored Burmese border guard was sighting in on my face as I gazed absently across no mans land.

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The best thing about this visit was the small Hilltribe market there – a group of wonderful little ladies in traditional Akha dress that were expert weavers, ruthless marketers and consummate professionals. We ran the gauntlet  – a row of stalls piled high with clothes and trinkets and whatnots, both of us slowly being passed of to each successive lady as we were moved along the market rows (make no mistake, we we being expertly handled) politely looking but refusing each offer (strangely enough EVERYTHING seemed to be 100 baht here).

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(not my photo – i wasn’t game to take a photo as it would have cost me a fortune)

Then as we neared the last stall, they delivered their coup de grâce. The last stall was owned by a teeny tiny grey haired old lady, dressed to the nines in traditional Akha dress with an enormous toothless smile and a personality larger than Tony Robbins.

I never had a chance.

Quickly convinced to buy a 100 baht handwoven scarf each (it was 34 degrees and 90 percent humidity), she turned the charm up to 11 and like a grandmotherly black hole, began to hoover the money our of our wallets.

I managed a brief hug and got the Hell out, but not before almost buying several bags of fruit. Pulling out a massive pair of rusty dressmaking scissors, she insisted on hand peeling the raw fruit and then practically forced it into our hands. We had to eat it or appear rude. Mmmm dirty potentially fatal raw fruit.

Time was against us though and the sun was getting low, so we jumped back into the back of the truck and headed back down the mountain (narrowly missing herds of mules that seemed to roam free along these steep curvy mountain roads). We headed back into town as the road became treacherous at night and our driver was getting anxious.

Settling in for dinner and an early night, after fixing yet another flaky shower heater, it was welcome to hear the rain on the roof, the barking geckoes on the ceiling, and to sleep in a comfortable bed.

And so another day ended, but from the next day onwards, the mood changed slightly.

After week or so schlumping along together in cramped overheated buses, tuktuks and taxis, sharing shitty hotels and run down resorts, shonky meals and bad coffee,  despite the beauty and wonder of this amazing country, there were small hairline cracks starting to appear in our merry traveling twosome. It was only a matter of time really and to be completely honest I’m not the easiest person to travel with (I can almost hear the nodding of heads).

We developed a case of the niggles.

Long silences. Many “Hmmm” moments. Lots of staring off into the distance. There may have been some frowns at times and possibly more than a little frustration. Mostly from me as I tend to project my own issues onto others, then provoke a discussion but hey – its that restless mind of mine creating its own faulty reality again.

It was easily fixed though – after a few days of an odd growing discomfort, she basically called me on it – several times. Kudos actually as its the perfect way to snap me out of this – a quick slap and I’m back in the room. So after an open and honest chat (or two) and some alone time, we established some groundrules, fell back into the rhythm of travel and got on with having fun.

So early the next morning we headed for the bus station, with a relatively short but interesting journey ahead of us up into the mountains again, this time staying at a traditional Akha village in a adobe mud house high in the mountains.

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To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

a little less drama…

Time for a change of pace and a little less drama.

(also I’m playing with WordPress formatting so please be patient)

Due to a happy coincidence, Jason Bourne and some lovely people, I found myself early Tuesday morning bouncing along in a black Suzuki Vitara once again, traveling North towards Chiang Dao.

Today’s project was something out of left field that once I heard about it had to get involved in. Helping out on a project to build mud brick and traditional Thai HANDMADE houses for a new center providing a refuge and respite for aid workers in the region.

Our task wasn’t going to be too challenging though – at least on paper. Most of the backbreaking hard work had already been done and the adobe house was standing proud in the mango fields. Today – some concreting and stone mosaic works on the floors and entrances. I’d had an absolutely vicious Thai massage the day before and my body still felt like it had been pummelled, punched and severely stretched by several small fisted ninja-monks. The hope was some manual labour would loosen things up. Anyway…

Have a quick read – saves me explaining about the scope and purpose in detail as I’m basically lazy ( and yes we’ve already established that)

http://womenforpeaceandjustice.org/be-part-of-our-dream/san-santi-weaving-peace-retreat/

and the organisation at —> http://womenforpeaceandjustice.org/

Their vision for the retreat:

‘Our current vision is to put out a call (by the end of 2016) to activists, well-being practitioners and facilitators, artists who would be in residency at the retreat for a certain amount of time. The “residents” would enjoy their own retreat, and also help to host and provide a minimum amount of structure for other activists seeking retreat and refuge. Activists could then select times to come for retreat, either based on what a particular resident is offering, or whenever fits in their schedule (and ours, until we are running year round, hopefully by 2018)”

And they are building this retreat by hand so not a lot of time. Just quietly, these women are amazing.

So nice and early (at least for Thailand) I met my new french friend Aure, Natalie and Sam outside the Ibis hotel as they were going to be my crew for the day. I was to be the token male although in my own defence I did actually come in handy at one point: providing a hopefully serious masculine presence when Natalie was stopped at a Police checkpoint, taken over to a table in the shade and fined 400 baht for not having a current tax sticker on the car. Luckily they didn’t notice the Kbar clipped to my pocket which I’d forgotten about (thanks Sean – best gift ever  🙂 )

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**Its near end/start of month here – that’s Police payday and they ‘supplement’ their income by increasing their presence at this time every month and fining as many people as they can – quite a bit of it ending up in their pockets. There are roadblocks, traffic stops and motorcycle police EVERYWHERE.

On the 60 minute or so trip to I realised that I hadn’t been in a car for about 2 months  – mostly motorcycles and pretty much alone so having a real conversation was almost a novelty. We shared our respective stories and chatted about the project and life in general. Aure, formerly a french Proof reader for a publishing company back home, had decided to relocate to Chiang Mai; Natalie formerly in banking back in the UK was now finally home with her Thai family; and Sue, Natalie’s neighbour, teacher and motorcycle fanatic (sorry Sam its true) was interested in building her own Adobe house and wanted to know more.

Aure and Natalie had completed the Natural Building Course earlier in the year,

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http://womenforpeaceandjustice.org/courses-we-offer/womens-natural-building-workshop-2/

.. and had been part of the team that really put in the hard yards on the mud brick and wooden house  – Sam and I were Adobe virgins but keen to learn.

Pulling off the road close to the Chiang Dao caves, we bushbashed through muddy trails and massive towering bamboo stands, splashed through muddy puddles axle deep in dirty water, and carefully turned into the barely-a-track entrance to the Retreat.

Clouds of mosquitoes attacked as soon as we got out of the car – although this time they went straight for the women and left me alone.

This was an old mango farm gone back to nature, all overgrown and heaven for what I supposed were the millions of Pit Vipers and Monocled Cobras hiding in the long grass just waiting to kill me. Actually there are about 223 types of snakes in Thailand that all are waiting to take a bite at me, I’m certain.

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I don’t like snakes. Period.

Since Lonnie (my American neighbor here) told me there were Cobras everywhere around this part of town, Ive been quietly shitting myself every time I go off the beaten track. Hence today the stomping around, solid leather boots and thick socks – although I couldn’t quite bring myself to wear long pants in the heat – rookie mistake but hey – its hot here.

Anyway, looking at the building site I couldn’t believe how much work the project team had already done. An adobe and mud brick house, with the frame and roof of the wooden house up but not walled in yet. Apparently the wooden one takes much longer due to the amount of cuts and the shape/condition of the reclaimed Teak hardwood.

I didn’t fully appreciate the scope of the task until they started to explain – “No power tools, no gadgets…all hand tools, hard work, teamwork and traditional Thai methods”. All the woodwork was chisel cuts and handsaws, hammer and nails. The only powered item they had was a cement mixer but that broke down the first time they tried to use it so all the concrete was mixed and spread by hand using tubs, buckets and mattocks.

Amazingly, the bones of the Adobe house had gone up in 10 hours, using only a plumb bob to keep the walls vertical, mud mortar, and more sweat. The tiled roof a little longer. What stood before us today was essentially an almost habitable Adobe 2 bedroom house located on an old mango farm, with million dollar views over the nearby mountains.

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Anyway…after my snake paranoia calmed down, we got into our teams and started on the task at hand. Today was going to be simple – make some concrete and using simple formwork to shape entry steps and then make them pretty. Easy!

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After the first 5 minutes of even hauling the stones bags into the house, I was covered in sweat. The humidity here was skyrocketing under the low cloud cover and even the slightest activity made us bleed water.

Once the formwork was tacked into place and the concrete was mixed, we poured the steps, sorted our stones, and then the fun part – creating some nice stone mosaics for the entry area. This was surprisingly relaxing and loads of fun as we could do pretty much what we liked.

Natalie was an artsy crafty type and gave us a few tips, and then we were off. Aure and I went for a Romanesque design, which was a challenge for me as my brain refused to recognise exactly what a herringbone pattern was (I’m blaming the heat) but I got it eventually and the next few hours were spent chatting and creating.

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Personally I think we won, even though it wasn’t a competition (secretly though everything is a competition and ours was awesome)

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So we mosaic-ed and chatted and chilled out. It was a prefect way to spend a perfect day out in the bush around Chiang Dao. We finished up around 1.30pm, quite chuffed and proud of our work and luncheoned at a ramshackle roadside food place just near the site. It made THE hottest chili dishes, and even caught Sue (a chilli afficionada )**is that the female form of afficionado? I’m not sure : Spanish speakers?**  by surprise, and she spent most of dinner bright red, hoarse voiced and had to delicately pick the superhot thai red chillis out of her food.

The afternoon was getting away from us and we still had a wall to put up on the wooden house. Maybe. Well Maybe not. Next time. Yeah next time. It’ll wait. So we decided to clean up our mess, pack up the site and head back before the rains came. This was actually a safety thing more than anything else as the roads in this region are notorious deathtraps in the wet apparently – turning into rainslick wetpans and easily sending speeding trucks, vans and buses spinning and careening into your windscreen.

So we doodled home slowly in the rain, happy about the progress we’d made, and the girls made plans to continue the work. I unfortunately will be moving on, but if I do come back to Chiang Mai I’ll definitely be helping out and doing a bit more than making a tile mosiac.

So today I made some new friends, learnt a new skill, got sweaty and got involved in something extremely worthwhile. Mission accomplished and not bad for a Tuesday.

6th best day ever so far and I’ll sleep well tonight.

McGaw out.

🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…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.