Groundhog Day

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I'm nostalgic, sometimes to a fault. Every now and again I catch myself maneuvering through the slippery slope of attempting to document [and, thus, remember] fucking EVERYTHING.

This is unsustainable, distracting, and defeats the point of living--embracing and appreciating each moment partly for being ephemeral.

"This too shall pass." The incantation that can render a sad man happy, and a happy man sad.

So, these posts are going to have to be shorter for my own sake [and, I'm sure, for the sake of anyone reading them].

We're leaving soon. Chiang Mai is starting to feel like a very pleasant, easygoing Groundhog Day.

 The loft coffeehouse I've sat in learning how to read and speak Thai; a local barista's been helping me.

The loft coffeehouse I've sat in learning how to read and speak Thai; a local barista's been helping me.

The merchandise in the night marketsday markets, and stores seem to all come from the same two or three suppliers—I've seen the exact same clothes and artifacts at a hundred different booths each day, and while I'm not here to buy shit, the perpetual feeling of déjà vu creeps me out. The heady music played at the backpacker bars consists of the same few songs every single night. On cue, I'll hear "Summertime Sadness" followed by "Give Me Everything" followed by Katy fucking Perry. 

The people are mostly repeats, too. We keep running into other westerners at cafes or food carts; initially we'll be happy to share a table and conversation with someone who is also traveling and speaks our language. Inevitably, we'll realize [sometimes not until after we've exchanged information and committed to spending a day together] that we have nothing in common and find each other's worldviews completely alienating.

It's so easygoing that not becoming a bit listless requires an active effort. I feel like Alex and I are Baloo and Mowgli, lumbering around the jungle eating ants and fruits at our leisure. Consequently, I'm beginning to bore myself.

Where to next? Deciding between Chiang Rai and Nong Khai [leaning heavily towards the former].

Tourist Binge

We decided to spend twenty-four hours doing standard "touristy" things, which we'd been avoiding. In general, I think tours are a way to preclude living: to be a spectator rather than a participant, and to possibly learn about other things in a very packaged way while making sure you don't learn anything about yourself. Tours are a way to focus more on taking canned photos that say "look how much fun I'm having" than on actually having fun.

However...when else am I going to get to hug a tiger?

After reading about several unethical animal tourist attractions in Thailand where animals are abused or drugged into sedation, we were wary of Tiger Kingdom and initially set on avoiding it. However, after scrounging around a bit online for information, and talking to a few people who'd gone, we decided to give it a shot. At least as far as we could see, the tigers didn't show signs of being drugged and seemed pretty healthy, and seemed to have pretty trust-based bonds with their caretakers. Additionally, which tigers were open to be pet by tourists seemed to rotate around, so that individual tigers would get breaks and days off; they seemed better off than many zoo animals, at least. For whatever that's worth.

Well, no regrets, we did it. Still not sure how I feel about it.

As Alex put it, "Well...they're definitely being patronized, which is kind of embarrassing to look at, but they seem pretty content and healthy."

I mean, we're guilty of patronizing them, too, as the photos above indicate [with the tiger trainers instructing us on how to pose, "Do mustache tail!"]...granted, the tigers didn't seem to give much of a shit, except for one adult female who either wanted to play with, or eat, Alex.

It was awesome but we left with a bit of awkward ambivalence.

The Siam Insect Zoo, on the other hand, was far less ideologically complicated [and also cheaper]. 

Then we went on a tour of handicraft factories. This basically consisted of being picked up by a quirky guy who'd drive us somewhere, then hang out while we poked around and asked questions [and, of course, were coaxed into gift shops]. The factory workers would go about their business, seemingly indifferent to our presence.

The cost for a group is 300 baht. So, $10 for the two of us to have a private driver for the morning take us to eight factories and an awesome and decently-priced lunch spot.

First stop: paper umbrella factory. A couple guys near the entrance asked to paint waterproof designs on our t-shirts for 50 baht, so we let them. I got a butterfly doohickey that went with the shirt I was wearing, and Alex got a couple of elephants humping, as per the artist's suggestion.

The factory itself was really impressive--every little part of the umbrellas is completely cut using hand tools. Little knives and so on. Nothing is mechanized. The umbrellas ranged in size from a few inches to over six feet in diameter.

Next we visited a jewelry factory, which was far more intimidating--a huge building flanked by really uptight-looking and smartly-uniformed employees, following us watchfully. We weren't allowed to take photos, which is a shame, as the factory and showroom were pretty impressive.

Third was a lacquerware factory, with all sorts of charming wooden doodads, all intricately hand-painted.

Fourth was a silk factory, and possibly my favorite. The silkworms are raised until they form cocoons, which are then boiled and spun to extract the silk--it takes 50 cocoons to make one thread, and each cocoon yields about 500-800 meters of silk. They're then washed and tinted with natural dyes before they get strung up on the looms. One of the women there showed us how to spot real silk from imitation silk [which is all over the night markets].

Fifth, a jade factory. In the display cases along with the jade pieces were glasses of water, meant to help regulate humidity. There was an enormous pirate ship complete with jade chains that I wasn't allowed to take a photo of.

Next was a silver factory, where we were shown how to test for silver purity in objects...

...followed by a couple "factories" that were mostly just shops. The first of these was full of Kashmir goods, including a really impressive teak elephant--all one piece, with a hollowed out interior containing sixteen baby elephants that had been carved through small holes in the big elephant's body--and hand-stitched tapestries made of silk and cashmere. A smooth-talking Indian salesman handed me a carved wooden box and told me he'd give us 1000 baht if I could open it [since it was a puzzle with a secret lock, which he didn't tell us] and I figured it out in about ten seconds, which left him pretty embarrassed [but not enough to stop trying to sell us expensive scarves].

The final stop sold leather goods, though the "factory" itself seemed to only focus on stitching the already-processed leather into items. I would've liked to see them actually making leather, but we were burnt out by then anyhow.

So, our mission complete, we put the camera away and resumed being regular humans.

Re: The Anti-Monk

I have become somewhat obsessed. This guy is everywhere.

We've spotted him again several times, a couple of them right by our guest house, which is on a rather nondescript little soi and not much of a destination unless you're staying there.

We spotted him at one of the vendor booths run by a couple of little ladies selling typical tourist trinkets [noise-making wooden frogs, wristbands bearing such tasteful phrases as up butt no baby and i heart rape], counting out cash. I was somewhat inebriated and, excitedly ran across the street and tried to get a photo, but was so nervous and ambivalent the whole time ["Man, it is really creepy and maybe a bit dehumanizing for me to be doing this right now...mm, they're all blurry...oh-shit-I-think-he-saw-me..."] that I dilly-dallied and not only failed to take a decent photo before running away guiltily [the grainy, unfocused piece of shit below is the best one I got] but seeing him there under the light, which gave his face a rather eerie glow [he's got an eerily calm look about him, anyway--like a Guy Fawkes mask, sort of serene and smiling and sociopathic--which is largely why I wanted a photo of him] made him look like some sort of mobster-of-the-underworld, and I started making up all manner of possible scenarios about what he could be doing with the ladies at the booth. 

The next morning, I was glad no recognizable photos came out—both in respect for the guy's privacy [really was kind of a dick move on my part but, hey, I got excited...and was possibly quite a bit drunk] and because my memory will embellish the image and make it seem more dramatic and exciting over time, whereas a photo would keep my memory in check and prevent me from over-romanticizing.

Sometimes it's best to toss out the empiricism in the name of deluded aesthetics.
  
Also, I've realized that I probably don't want to solve the mystery. He's probably just a scammer/street performer in a robe...but not having this confirmed as a fact allows my imagination to get the better of me, which is much more fun. Sometimes knowledge isn't everything. 

Disillusionment

Before heading on this trip, we'd read several warnings [on sites like Wikitravel that are supposed to serve as guides] about Thai people--to look out for scams, or possible threats.

Since we've been here, the only unpleasantness we've seen is from other tourists [and holy shit can they be nasty, especially to the Thai natives...probably because they've read all the same Doomsday propaganda about how Thais are all trying to fuck them over].

The other day, we went out on a scooter to find that flower restaurant again. We wound up in a strange back alley by a corner store that was closing up, so I went in and asked the old couple in charge if they knew where the place was. They didn't speak English, but the tiny little Thai man gave a huge smile and gestured for us to follow him--then ran out, hopped on his scooter, and led us there. It was a good mile or so out of the way, too.

When we got there, it was closed, even though we'd shown up at their business hours. The man gestured for us to follow him again, and took us through a shortcut to get back on the road for the Old City, waving at us from his motorbike when he figured he'd taken us far enough and turning around to go home and we continued on, grinning.

"You know...even though the place was closed, I've got this sense of closure. I think it just made my day how nice that man was."

"...Meh, the place was a bit pricey, anyway. Almost three bucks a dish!"

"Man, we're spoiled."

As another example, the lady who runs our guest house. She works seven days a week managing three guesthouses and a restaurant, and renting out scooters. Her English is good and we've also heard her speak to guests in French and Mandarin. When our scooter got a flat the other day and stranded us outside of town [a misadventure I'll get to in a second], she told us not to worry about getting it fixed or paying for it even though it was technically our bad, she's not a stickler if we pay after check-out time, and she's changed our sheets even though we told her not to worry about it.

Every day, we see several douche bags—usually young and trendy Americans, Australians, or Europeans—come up with an absolutely disgusting level of entitlement.

"I'm sorry, all the rooms are full today except our luxury suite on the top floor--it's 700 baht. You can look around and come back if you can't find another room--I'll be here for a few more hours. If you need a place to stay just for the night, you can always find a cheaper place tomorrow, since it's getting late."

"...And I have to go up fucking stairs to waste my money? Uh, yeah, no thanks, you've wasted enough of my time." And off huffed yet another pretty and wealthy-looking brat with a backpack. Incidentally, 700 baht is still just over $20.

Sure, a lot of locals will quote you higher prices, but worst case scenario just means you get duped into paying more than you might've gotten away with had you known better; the only reason they succeed is because even the "rip-off" marked-up price sounds cheap to westerners. If you don't know better, you might wind up paying $7 for a cab ride that should've been $3, big fucking deal.

It's understandable, too--even if you're a poor American, if you're in their country to begin with, you're probably rich by Thai standards. Their minimum wage amounts to the equivalent of $10 total for a full workday. If we had aliens coming to our country who were comparatively as loaded, we'd be trying to snag their money, too.

And even when they're trying to "rip you off", it's sort of a game--they do it good-naturedly, not with any true ill will. Alex and I have gotten considerably better at haggling, which is kind of a sport. You smile, you shit-talk, you act shocked and affronted, but always while smiling. A woman will pretend to be angry, turn to Alex, and point at me, saying, "She want for one hundred baht! She make joke for me--beautiful, but no very smart." A man will plead desperately that our asking price is lower than what he himself paid for an item...but eventually he'll budge, because, after all, he was lying, and knew that we knew it.

Another reason I want to get out of Chiang Mai is because I'm starting to become unfairly cynical towards the other tourists here--at least the ones I perceive as belonging to the same category of tourist as the rich kids pouring into our guesthouse lobby each day.

So many people here seem to want an experience that is "authentic", but also easy. We've met people who will complain of all the tourists, or how the hill tribe treks aren't "authentic" and are "commercialized" and designed to get you to buy stuff [...no shit, you're paying money to go point and stare at a bunch of people in their "natural habitat" like they're zoo animals]...and will then complain, "Yeah, I went to Myanmar, but over there there's like, no Internet and it's hard to find ATMs. And no one there spoke English.

Dude, fuck you.

Last night, after hanging out for a while eating chicken hearts and livers with Nathan [whom we'd met earlier] and a couple who'd recognized Alex's shirt from Burning Man, Alex and I got legitimately drunk for our first time in Thailand, which served as a good release valve for me to let off some of my frustration. I went around, sneaking up to trashed Euro bros pissing on fences, spitting beer into their pee streams from the other side, yelling "Bpen ngai bang?" and running away as they squealed in surprise, and otherwise fucking with people and being a twerp, albeit a harmless one. I predict something similar happening tonight.

All in good fun?

One conversation we had left me feeling a lot better about everything. Over kao soi we overheard a white guy [who may have been a Kiwi, but we couldn't tell for sure] reading one of the menus in Thai, and struck up a conversation [since I'm at the point now where I can slooooowly read pretty much anything in Thai, as long as the font isn't too weird]. He was an odd character: he seemed like he would've been in place in Silicon Valley, a mildly outdoorsy nerdy engineer type, but had spent much of the last couple decades wandering into random small Thai towns and hitchhiking.

He was very friendly, but avoided talking about himself. When we asked him why he was here, whether he was working or living or traveling, he'd said, "Oh, you know, it's easy to live here," and changed the subject.

But he took an approach to Thailand more simple and organic than any other travelers we'd met. "I haven't been on one fucking trek, I haven't ridden an elephant. I just talk to people, eat, and wander around, see what there is to do. I trained in Thai massage for a while and practiced at a couple temples. It's just living--like living anywhere else. This isn't some 'other' place--some fake world, or theme park, as many like to treat it."

After a long chat by the cart, he introduced himself as Matt, got up and went along on his merry way, matter-of-factly. It felt a lot more genuine than some of the awkward partings we've had with others, sprinkled with, "Oh, I need your contact info," or "Yeah, I'd love to hang out again," that aren't so much sincere as they are ways to make the goodbyes a bit smoother. Having one great conversation with someone can, but certainly doesn't always, mean you'll have anything to talk about given a "next time". Figuring out how to tell the difference between what should be a one-time encounter and what could be a life-long friend is a bit of a challenge, but I've been getting better at it.

 Spirit House in Your House's lobby

Spirit House in Your House's lobby

One of my favorite experiences so far has actually been of a completely failed plan to visit the quarry, a sort of obscure local secret-ish, supposedly a great spot for cliff jumping and swimming.

We rented a scooter, got about twenty minutes or so out of town, and got a flat. The next several hours consisted of us pushing the thing along the side of the highway, looking for gas stations, filling up with air, and driving another 3 k or so until the tire flattened out again, then continuing to push it.

 An ex-pat on a bike came by and helpfully went off to investigate where the nearest gas stations were [and check to see if any of the repair shops were closed--they all were], and we found a few cool knickknacks lying in the sidewalk, and had our antics laughed at good-naturedly by passing locals crammed in the back of pick-up trucks.

Eventually, we managed to spot, and hail, a songtaew that could take us back into town--though, knowing we were desperate, she wouldn't budge from 200 baht. We really had no leverage, though, so we shrugged and laughed this off.

It's the conversations and revelations we had, and the dumb shit we laughed about, during those few hours that I think I've gotten the most out of.

...Uh, so much for shorter blog posts.