|Subject: Chiang Mai
Date: 27th of September, 2002
|I can never get over how no matter where you go things remain the same.
That's even more shocking in Thailand. It SEEMS like everything should be
much more exotic. But then exoticism is best left to package tours, where
it is carefully cultivated, and the patrons are carefully shielded from
the banal realities of living in the place.
I've practically moved in to Chang Mai. I'm a regular at the Apocalypse Cantina and have been adopted by the social scene there. Every day I spend several hours there, mostly because of Ann, of whom it would be inappropriate to elaborate upon in this context. Please write me personally if you're interested and I'll apply spin as appropriate.
I've been struggling for the last several days about how to describe a place so foreign to the American understanding. I guess the best place to start is Starbucks. Every day, as a ritual, I get my morning coffee (sometime in the mid-afternoon) at Starbucks. Faithful to the franchise ethic, It is actually EXACTLY the same. 7-11's here don't carry twinkies, and have mini-snickers. McDonalds offers culturally relevant cuisine. But starbucks offers EXACTLY the same coffee at close to the same price (one dollar for a small coffee) and exactly the same menu and exactly the same ambiance complete with smooth, tasteful jazz courtesy of miles davis, john coltrain or that ilk. So far, Starbucks is the only direct import I've seen. Its even located geomantically in the same damn place it would be for a comperable city anywhere. Okay, true, there is only one...
I'm starting to pull back from Comparing Thailand to india. Its simply unfair. The landscape, climate, and general feel of the (unpopulated) city is the same. The storefronts, merchandise, markets, and backpacker culture are the same. But all of this is masked by the surreal (to me) experience of everything actually working as advertised. Of ATMs readily available, of beggars who ask once for money and then go away. Of vendors, rickshaw (touk-touk) drivers, restauranteurs who are polite. What really drove home that I wasn't in india anymore was when I took the train from Bangkok. Backpacker standard, second class sleeper. The station wasn't crowded, there was little to no harassment. The platforms had controlled access, the train was there waiting on time. When I sat down in my seat there were half as many seats per car, the aisles were wide and clean. Then it really got surreal. They have full meal service available for like 3 or 4 dollars a meal (12 hr trip, 650 baht / 15ish bucks). But even that was understandible. The rift in comparison to India began when I declined dinner and he then offered coffee, or tea or beer. I took the beer. When dinner was finished in the car, they actually prepared it for bed, two seats facing eachother became the lower bunk, and the upper bunk folded down from the ceiling like an overhead storage bin on an airplane, was big enough for me to stretch out (past six feet and yer hosed though), and... if that wasn't enough, they provide sheets and actually make your fucking bed for you. It was all over then.
So I arrive in Chang mai. I study the map (the only "guidebook" I ever use), deducted where the tourist area might be (hint: "night bizarre", "old city") and wandered in that direction. I was off by about 1/4 of a mile, but kept watching. My geiger counter for this operation is to monitor the cost of a cup of coffee. It gets less expensive around the fringes. Then, right when I'd found a definable edge to the tourist zone, I saw a sign for a vegetarian buffet dinner. It was (of course) at a guest house; Gap's Guest house. And it was PLUSH. For seven bucks, A/C, a lush garden patio bespeckled by orchids, mosquito netting (irrelevant, really) hot and cold water, Clean towels, daily maid service, and breakfast included. luxury. I could only stand it for a couple of days before I had to find a shittier place.
for half the cost, I'm now staying in a larger room with ample windows, no A/C and you have to ask special for towels and a top sheet for the bed. You know, in all of these years of travel, it never occurred to me to actually ASK for a towel. I alwaysed asume WYSIWYG. Now I am spinning in a revisionist history wondering about all those meditaranian guest houses, nepali guest houses, indian guest houses where these were not initially provided. Where I got into the habot of toweling off with a bandana, where I became adept at sleeping in curious combinations of sleepingbag or clothes or benieth my lunghi and/or shawl (in india)... Now I've been clued in. Now my travel ethos is forever changed. My architypal backpack altered along with my mind toward third world service....
Sweet Jesus I can run on... I'll try to wrap this up... I'm reading Dave Eggar's "A heartbreaking work of Staggering Genius" and the Samyutta Nikaya. Not a combination that influences one with prosaic concisity. Not that I could be moved thusly by even Hemmingway, though.
So my new friends, three work at the Apocalpyse Cantina (yes it actually offers a mexican menu). They are now my portal into Thai Culture. Through them I am studying the inner working of the Thai mind. Its especially convinient that Eing, Ann, Nuy, are all 27-29 years old (what's that in metric?). Also, there is Od, an overtly gay boy who is their best friend. And Chevon, an expat brit I met last night. And Jenny (thai) and her boyfriend Tim (dutch). And the last few days two Danish boys, Christopher and Martin. (Nuy reeled in Martin for his last night in town... god I hope none of them are on this list yet :-) And lets see, there's also Ann's ex, Phil, an expat Canadian her two year old Tara, and his 14 yr old son from a previous marriage, Grant, who are around briefly every night. Add to this mix a handful of Tribal trinket dealers, Flower peddlers and their 6 year old spawn, who are also selling flowers till 4 in the morning (I assume they work in shifts) at the after-hours bars, um, the random Tourists and backpackers who come and go, and Britney Spears and Emminem on the stereo. (Thanks Beth for Outcast, Tara and I danced up a storm to that)...
So you see, its getting increasingly difficult to understand why I'd leave Chang Mai at this point. I'm struggling to learn Thai, but there are several sounds that fall between j/k and ch/sh and so forth that will just take time before I sound like anything but a moron. My English is growing progressively broken as I alter my syntax to match the Thai english in order to be understood. More often than not, I serve myself at the bar and fetch Ice for Eing, who's maybe 4'1." Which means I'm about fifteen minutes away from having a job, and forgetting where america is. I still get confused when people ask where I'm from. I don't know whether to say the Central District, Belletown, Capitol Hill, Seattle, Colorado, Boulder, North Carolina, Charlotte, the south, the Pacific NorthWest, USA, United States, "America", or just, "from my momma" or my personal favorite, "over there". besides that, I still look the wrong way when stepping into traffic.
speaking of traffic. They don't seem to use streetlights here. Which means traffic moves in an unending flow. Which means that the first few times you try to cross a street you end up standing there for 15 minutes wondering what to do. Eventually someone walks up with the same intention, waits for a break in the nearest lane, then, with purpose, steps into traffic. Its like playing Frogger, only the stakes are higher. And there really is no other way to cross the street other than simply to cross the street. Somehow that's become a metaphor in my day to day living here. "why did the backpacker cross the road? Because it said so in the Lonely Planet..."
Thailand is by far the easiest place to travel in the third-ish world. Exceptionally user friendly. I would let my 12 year old daughter walk through the market at night alone. I would suggest a solo woman traveller wishing to see the third world to start here. Everyone is polite to a fault. Everyone is good natured. Everything works. The climate is not unlike the Southeast of the USA, hot and humid, but then it rains and cools everything off. It doesn't quite rain everyday. I have been stung by a mosquito exactly once. Now admittedly I haven't left the cities yet, but as predictable and well managed as this Buddhist kingdom has been, I think you'd better go to Laos or Cambodia if your looking for anything resembling adventure. The package tours are even all the same. 1 hr elephant "safari" riding on a wooden platform, about two or three people, plus the handler on the beasts shoulders. This is followed by a trek to see the Karen "long neck women" people and another tribal group or two. Wrapping it up with a visit to a waterfall where everyone swims, a cave that has fish in it (ohhhhh) and a rafting trip where you stand on these bamboo rafts and ride over some class 1 rapids or so with a pole in your hand to fend off the rocks and otherwise, well, play with a stick. I haven't yet gotten up the stomach to do this yet. The one, 2, and 3 day treks are all strangly similar. Some you ride in a jeep, some you have to walk yourself. Most of the peaks are around 6000' feet (1600m) placing them at about the excitement value of the Appalachians, only steeper, with wider flatter valleys. Its a younger range after all. None of this have I done or seen yet. I'm still too busy getting drunk with my new found friends, hanging out, flirting, talking shit till 4 in the morning, when they Close down the Apocalypse Cantina (where everyone's drunk) and go to the after hours bar (where everyone gets drunker). Same-same as Seattle, except with alcohol served all night at a few bars. Overall, I can't see any noticable difference in my lifestyle other than now I'm unemployed and have nothing to do but read and write all day. Joy of joys.
The other night I was discussing computer networking and how one hacks computers. It all seemed so far away. Like something that had happend to someone else once. Like a funny story I overheard on a train. I can't keep track of what day it is, and every time I try to guess I get it wrong. Starbucks is my Anchor. Without that, I would quickly loose track of Home.