After arriving home from Scotland, I was jet-lagged and suffering from the worst post-holiday syndrome I had ever experienced. I was to travel to Bangkok in a month to see my friend Harry for a week but after countless sleepless nights replaying the pure joy of wandering, I decided to leave earlier and wander around rural Thailand before our meet-up in the capital.
So… I packed stuff in a bag, got a backpacker’s guidebook to Thailand, and was off to the “Land of Smiles”.
Thailand is widely known as a backpacker’s paradise for its’ exotic beaches, fantastic cuisine, beautiful temples, and a hundred and one other exciting activities that will not burn a hole through your pocket (if you’re careful – elaboration ahead).
I decided to spend a day or two in Bangkok visiting the infamous Khao San Road before leaving the city in search of more off the beaten tracks. As I was navigating my way through the streets with my face in a map, I was approached by a tuk tuk driver offering a tour to 4 famous temples for (I can’t recall how much it cost but it was practically peanuts). I politely declined, knowing something was up, but he continued to pursue me until i gave in… I am usually not an idiot about these things so I can’t really explain why I said yes, but I did. If you don’t know anything about the tourist scams in Bangkok, it wouldn’t take much time or effort to do some research on the internet and find out about them. There are quite a few.
This one I fell for basically promises you a look at famous sites around Bangkok on your own private tuk tuk throughout the entire day. In the process of taking you from site to site, the driver will befriend you and recommend places that he then drives to where you can purchase fake jewellery and gems, tour packages, train tickets, etc. – all overpriced of course. I didn’t purchase anything but it was an absolute waste of time being stuck with this guy for hours, until I was abandoned at the last site. As I left the temple in search of my driver who was to take me back to the hostel, I bumped into another backpacker looking for her driver who had also just “showed her ’round town”. We had no idea where the heck we were so joined forces and ended up spending the rest of the day together getting drunk.
IN SEARCH OF GREENER PASTURES
I left Bangkok after a couple of days and headed to Chiang Mai on an overnight train. I was sitting across from a dude who had to be around my age and looked pan-asian but was dressed quite formally and spoke to the staff on board the train in Thai – odd but interesting. I thus started a conversation with him to find out more and learned he was a Mexican immigrant in America currently studying in Thailand on his own expense due to the ridiculous tuition fees in the US. We stayed up all night chatting and only caught a few hours of sleep before the train arrived in Chiang Mai.
This is an example of how making a conscious effort to talk to strangers can be rewarding and why you should always be annoyingly friendly to everyone when travelling – just say hi. Anyway…
Chiang Mai is a city in the mountainous region in the North of Thailand – and a very popular spot for many backpackers. I had met a number of travellers who highly recommended a visit to this city (for its’ character and charm), however I didn’t enjoy it at all. I found the city to be very commercial; geared towards tourists, and in my opinion: a smaller, younger Bangkok. I ended up spending most of my time there sitting in (very nice, modern) cafes with free wifi searching for nearby places to head to. After some research, I bought a bus ticket to Chiang Rai; a city further north that turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.
Chiang Rai is very much rural, and very quiet and peaceful. The city centre is small and busy, but still very much local (though it is a tourist destination to some extent) – and there isn’t much to do unless you venture out.
I stayed in a backpacker’s lodge just outside of the city centre and learned from my guide book that the surrounding rural areas are great spots for hiking and sight-seeing. I rented a motorcycle and headed out in search of off the beaten paths.
A motorbike is the best form of transport in such rural areas with vast land, no public transport, and no culture of hitch-hiking. It is no doubt a dangerous vehicle (especially if you have no experience – I almost died a couple of times) even though it is straightforward to learn and easy to pick up. Sure it is incredibly cheap, convenient (and idealised as cool and romantic) but do it only if you feel comfortable! I found that most other drivers in more hardy, less exposed vehicles, speed down narrow roads and don’t give a hoot about a two-wheeled vehicle.
I spent a couple of days wandering aimlessly around the Chiang Rai district on a motorcycle – memorizing every turn, junction, and landmark to get me back home safely every night (though my memory failed me at most times. Though I did, in the end, find a pretty foolproof way to wander aimlessly – more on that later.)
Besides chancing upon the odd cave and temple in the middle of nowhere (which I did not visit as they were always guarded by a pack of very rude and scary dogs), I usually found myself surrounded by endless rice fields; a sight to behold. The beauty of the rural country was on full display and I had the opportunity to meet many locals (who did not speak a word of English) but who were incredibly warm and inviting. These memories of aimless wandering remain one of my favourites.
Given that I am writing this post 2 years after my experience, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chiang Rai is now a busy, more developed, tourist-heavy city with businesses on every street selling tour packages into the mountains of Chiang Rai district (and other activities involving animals I would very strongly discourage you from supporting). While I was there, many referred to Chiang Rai as the new Chiang Mai.
Being an avid hiker and seeker of adventure and picturesque landscapes, I had to get up in the mountains of Chiang Rai. So I arranged for a hike through the staff at the lodge and spent 3-4 days in deep rural country with Katie, an American backpacker, (who flew in just for this – more on her story later) and two locals from the villages who acted as our guides.
It was the rainy season then (September) which worked out in my favour as I have a (rational) hatred for too many tourists in one place. There were 4 other backpackers staying at this lodge in Chiang Rai and besides Katie, the other 3 had just done their A Levels in the UK and were more interested in doing nothing. Throughout the hike, we were drenched from the rain and covered in mud and then offered to the mosquitoes to feed on – which I prefer to the scorching sun anyways.
After our first day of trudging through mud and finally getting to our hut for the night, Katie and I were chilling out and sharing stories which is how I learned that she had just flown in from West Africa where she was planning to spend her entire summer until the Ebola outbreak forced her to flee (which is of course what you want to hear from a fellow traveller you are trapped in the mountains with… but all is fine, we are both healthy and well and are still friends).
Through our hike in the country, we had the opportunity to see the way locals lived up in the mountains (thiswas extremely interesting to a city boy). We slept in straw huts in villages up in the mountains, learned about the tribes, their way of life, and even tried foods that we picked from trees and from the ground along the way (I learned that black or blue wild berries are safe to consume, avoid others).
Mid-trip, we had lunch in a part of the forest occupied by bamboos where our guides proceeded to use their machetes to carve cups, chopsticks and bowls for cooking from the bamboo culm as Katie and I tried catching fish in a nearby stream. Not only was lunch delicious, it was a pretty cool experience.
If you are into hiking, you are highly advised to not wander into rural country by yourself even if you have a map, compass, and a Bear Grylls attitude. There are tribes living in the mountains that might not like the sight of an outsider. I would definitely recommend finding a guide from the area, not just for safety but also a more interesting experience; they are more informed and educated to share and teach you cool stuff along the way.
After our trip, Katie and I visited the White Temple; Wat Rong Khun (worth a visit) before parting ways as I headed further North-East in search for more off the beaten paths.
WANDERING NO MAN’S LAND
I made a stop in Sukhothai to visit the ancient ruins before wandering aimlessly into neighbouring towns further East; I had a general map that showed the districts of Thailand and pointed at my desired destination in order to purchase a bus ticket at the ticketing office. As I travelled further East, I was getting further off the beaten path; signs were only in Thai, nobody spoke a word of English, I hardly met or saw any other travellers, and it was more difficult to find accommodation.
My time in this area mainly consisted of getting on a motorbike and searching for adventure. As the days passed and I continued the practice of aimlessly riding down roads and paths looking for paddy fields, waterfalls, caves, and mountains; it started getting lonely. There were no other travellers to meet and befriend, the locals did not speak a word of English, and the scenery blended in to look like the same thing everyday.
My decision to leave the rural country and head to a more civilised area was made earlier than expected, not just because I was bored and alone, but mostly due to my ‘run-in’ with a few dogs who were being very rude, loud, and unpleasant…
So, I had gotten into the practice of wandering aimlessly for awhile now, and more often than not, I would find myself lost in the middle of nowhere with no one to help me with directions. I subsequently acquired a way to find my way back home: at every junction, turn, or landmark (most times; natural), I would take a photo of it so that I had something to refer to (instead of my gut) when at a junction and confused as to which way I came. This however did not work one time as I was cycling off-road in the middle of the jungle when 3 stupid big-ass dogs decided to come out of nowhere and chase the hell out of me – I lost all sense of direction after cycling away as fast as I could. And as if things couldn’t get any worse, as I was trying to find my way out of this maze jungle, I encountered some weirdo amidst the trees dressed in a cloak (which freaked me out), a tyre on my bicycle got punctured, and it started raining cats & dogs. After a mini panic attack, more running from dogs shenanigans, and a heck lot of trial and error, I got out of there and was more than ready to head back to the city.
Being in Thailand almost guarantees a run-in with stray dogs. If you keep calm and continue on, they usually just continue barking until you are out of sight. I didn’t have any trouble with dogs chasing me except for this instance (which I assume was because of the bicycle) but I did some research online and found cases of travellers viciously attacked by dogs. I don’t really have any advise on this matter besides pray – they most likely have rabies and no one wants that.
NO MORE WANDERING
The next day, I left to Udon Thani and spent 2 days doing more aimless wandering before getting on a train back to Bangkok. Udon Thani was a surprising find as I had never heard of it but it was very much a bustling city like Bangkok but smaller; there were markets for street food, gadgets and clothes, and a big shopping mall. However, I was mainly looking forward to getting to Bangkok and spending the next week with Harry (where he proceeded to push my alcohol consumption level).
I am not going to elaborate on my time in Bangkok as it mainly consisted of us watching the Hangover and Inbetweeners movies, visiting markets, eating a lot, and going out and getting drunk. We did attend a cooking class which was quite fun as we had to go to a local market to get ingredients, and well… eating is one of my favourite pastimes.
MORE LONELY PLANET
Thailand was a different backpacking experience from the one I had in Scotland. As I explored the mountains and villages, I met children happy to have twigs and branches as toys and who experienced sheer joy from playing in the rain. It was incredibly humbling to see people who were living in ‘worse off’ conditions who were happier and more fulfilled with ‘less’. I had the opportunity to interact with them, and learned from their attitudes and outlook on life, that the small things make all the difference in finding true happiness and joy.
The numerous days spent wandering aimlessly alone in the paddy fields encouraged reflection and a new understanding of myself; my strengths and weaknesses, and my personality and character. I continued to fall in love with wandering during this trip and formed a new understanding and relationship with travelling, instead of just ‘visiting’ and ‘seeing’; and learned more about life, and myself through travel.
Keep searching, keep learning, keep growing.