When Friday afternoon came we were all itching to leave school. Jill, Danielle and I grabbed our packs, which we brought to school and headed out to the main road to catch a song tow. As I strained to stay perched on the bench seat with my pack on my back I realized I brought too much stuff. This was the first time I packed my computer on a weekend trip and I was already regretting it. After fifteen minutes we hopped off the song tow and got on motorbike taxis headed for Nokanchaiair bus station. We already bought roundtrip gold class tickets for the overnight bus to Chiang Rai. I had no idea what gold class meant, but for the next fourteen hours I was about to find out. My motorbike taxi man motioned for me to get on the back. It took me a minute to swing my right leg gracefully over the bike while wearing a long sundress and a twenty pound hiking pack. I was really glad I had the foresight to stuff everything into my pack instead of trying to balance with a pack and a purse. It was hard enough to sit up straight and keep my weight forward with only one bag. Once I got on the bike it lurched forward off an 8-inch curb onto a four-lane highway and we were on our way. My driver was really nice and we exchanged names and small talk on the way to the station.
I got there at 4:25 p.m. and our bus was scheduled to leave at 4:30. The man collecting tickets immediately approached me and asked where I was headed and if I needed tickets. I told him my friend had my ticket and that I was on my way to Chiang Rai. He shook his head and said, “OK, bus leave in five minute.” I looked around nervously for Saleem. He had come and picked up the tickets a few days before and he still had mine. I was getting worried that he wasn’t going to make it in time, but then I spotted him on the far side of the station. After some back and forth with the ticket man he convinced me to put my stuff under the bus. I’m always a little weary about doing this because the guidebooks warn that sometimes people go through the bags looking for valuables. This seemed like a reputable company though and we paid a lot for our tickets so I couldn’t imagine anything that shady going on. I repacked my bags and handed him my big backpack. We boarded the bus forty minutes later and once I sat down I was glad I handed over my big bag. The seats reclined and had footrests so it would have been impossible to sprawl out with my pack in tow. The seats also had speakers built into the headrests and initially I was really annoyed about it, but a couple seconds later I found the volume and turned them off. The buses always play bad comedy shows or movies. I didn’t want any part of that. After turning off my speakers, I put up my footrest, adjusted my headrest and reclined my seat. I snoozed for an hour or so, but then I woke up feeling really well rested. Only thirteen more hours to go. A bit later we were served meals in Styrofoam containers. I was expecting some concoction composed of 90% meat, but to my surprise it was mostly rice with some ginger and chicken on the side so I picked out the chicken and enjoyed the spicy ginger dish. After dinner we were given blankets. I was freezing even though I had on a sweatshirt and long dress. I’m actually typing this post on the way home and the bus is colder this time, my fingers and toes are frozen. After dinner, I still wasn’t tired so I pulled out my laptop and put on an episode of Seinfeld. My laptop came in handy after all; ten episodes later, not kidding, I was finally feeling tired so I curled up and tried to nap. It was going pretty well until the man behind me started snoring so loudly I was jolted out of REM sleep. He was a human foghorn. I put some George Winston on my iPod to block him out and I lay back down. Around 2 a.m. we stopped at a bus station for a more substantial dinner. I had a really spicy and delicious yellow curry over rice. After ten minutes we were back on the bus where I slept soundly until the lights came on full blast. We were in Chiang Rai and it was 5:45 a.m. We were greeted by tuk tuk drivers whom we bargained with for a ride to our hostel. The sleepy service desk woman at the hostel showed us to a temporary room until we could officially check in at noon. This was my very first time at a hostel and it was awesome. We were showed to a room on the third floor that had dark hardwood floors and white walls. The room had two twin beds, a long dresser and a TV on top. There was also a dark wooden pocket door in the corner that led to a spacious bathroom with a big mirror and separate shower. Usually the showers in Thailand consist of a small showerhead attached to the wall near the toilet so when you shower you get the entire bathroom all wet. This bathroom was enormous compared to all others and the shower was twice the size of normal bathrooms. There was also a big balcony and Internet access. I felt like I was at a high-end hotel. It had the most amenities of any place I stayed at thus far. The woman who showed us the room also opened the door connected to the next room and asked us if we wanted to rent that for the night. We told her no because some of us were going to stay in the dorm style room, but she left the door open for us anyway so that we all had a place to crash for the morning.
I was feeling a burst of energy so I put on my running clothes and went outside. It was only 6:15 so it was still dark out. I stretched for a minute contemplating what I was about to do. Was it safe to run in the dark in a city I had never been too? I laughed, of course. I jogged to what looked like the main street and made a left, making a mental note to remember where I had come from and which way I would turn on the way back. I ran by vendors getting their carts ready for the morning crowd, stray dogs some of which chased me for a minute or two and a lot of people riding bicycles. The street came to a curve so I followed it to the right and then made a left at the main intersection. The road opened up so I stepped off the sidewalk and ran in the street. The air was cool and it was nice to not have the sun beating down on me for once. After a half hour I turned around and started running back. I stopped in a patch of grass to do some other exercises. Everyone driving, riding and walking by was interested in what I was doing. They were probably wondering who I was and why I was actually sitting on grass that dogs surely shit on. By this time the sun had come up and I was hot, sweaty and tired so I walked towards the City Home Hostel. When I got back I took a hot shower and paged through my Lonely Planet guidebook. I wrote down a list of activities I was interested in and set out to find the morning market. One of the ladies downstairs told me the morning market would be over by now, but she directed me to a fruit and flower market instead.
We wandered through the market and then came across a vegetarian restaurant. It was only 10 a.m., but we were all starved so we pointed to various dishes of food all the while amazed at all the vegetarian options. I had a big plate of rice with curried tofu, steamed vegetables and three fried tofu mushroom balls. It was delicious; I inhaled it. I was pleasantly stuffed and it was a great variety of veggie food instead of my normal veggies on rice or cabbage and noodles. On the walk home I picked up an outlet convertor so I could charge my laptop and two new pairs of shoelaces. Do you ever see something in bulk and it instantly looks more attractive to you and it becomes a necessity? That’s what happened with the shoelaces. They were just hanging there, hundreds of them in all different colors and patterns so I had to buy some. For about a year now I wanted black laces for my running shoes so I got those and a bright pink and black-checkered pair.
When we got back to the hostel the woman at the front desk showed us the shared dorm style room and had us pick our beds. There were eight beds in the room and by the end of the day they were all booked. I picked one in the corner and immediately went in and took a nap. We were all waiting for our friends James and Josh to arrive from Nan so we had some downtime. I woke up an hour later and everyone was at the hostel, ready to go exploring. Saleem and I rented a motorbike and Josh and James took Jill and Danielle on the back of theirs. We all set off for the White Temple. We knew the general direction and about how far away it was, but inevitably we all got lost. Saleem and I left a few minutes before Josh and James, so we were on our own. After awhile we asked some people if they knew where it was, but they didn’t speak any English. I noticed that not as many Thais in the north speak English and it was also harder for them to understand the few Thai words we knew. Once again I realized how little I knew and how much I have to learn. We gathered that we had to turn around, but we couldn’t understand any other directions. We stopped at a small store and asked the man inside where the wat, which is the word for temple, was located. It took a few times for him to understand what I was talking about, but after pointing to a bunch of white things and repeating the word wat about ten times he got it. He drew us a little map and explained with a lot of hand motions where we should go. We bought some ice cream to boost our spirits and got back on the bike. After we made the left that we kind of thought we should have made the first time around, we were on a stretch of road that seemed like it went on forever and there was no sign of a wat anywhere. I almost wanted to turn around and go home and then we saw a sign for it. Once we made the right turn it was right there. Glittering in all its white glory. The entire thing was white, top to bottom, inside and out. It was almost hard to look at; I had to wear my sunglasses because it was so reflective. I took a few photos outside and then went in for about ten seconds before turning around to leave. I hate to admit it, but wats don’t do much for me. I have a slight problem with ornate, intricate, expensive buildings that serve no real function. I’m sure this is an ignorant viewpoint to some, yes, wats serve a religious purpose, but I find myself wandering where else that money could have gone.
After the wat I met the rest of the group inside the art gallery. This was the real gem of the afternoon. On the wall hung beautiful, intricate prints and below them was the price. I couldn’t believe it; they were selling large prints for only 500 baht. I had gotten my first paycheck on Wednesday, which meant I was allowing myself a shopping budget and I was more than thrilled to use it here. I bought a bunch of postcards, some prints for people for Christmas and a smaller one for myself. It was the cheapest and nicest artwork I had ever bought.
After a few more photos, it was time to head back to the hostel. I was eager to get to Chiang Rai’s craft market so I hurried everyone back onto their motorbikes. We got back to the hostel, regrouped and headed out to the market. Within the first five minutes I had already bought a handmade wood frame for $6 and a cloth calendar for $3. Then we passed by a row of food stalls where I got sautéed fish over cabbage and carrots with herbs and spices on top. It was really fresh and light yet filling. I also downed some coconut water and two scoops of homemade banana and mixed berry ice cream. The ice cream was the perfect creaminess and fruity flavor. The night market stretched far down the street so we decided to head to the closer end first and then wind back around. On the way back we ran into the rest of the group and we all continued shopping together. I was able to purchase a variety of goods in the market for only thirty dollars. I’ll post a more detailed shopping blog later in the week, but a few of my favorite items I purchased are a hand carved lamp by a Thai man named Nit, a sweet colorful fanny pack to keep all my belongings in one place when I dance the night away with my friends from back home, and some soft colorful hand dyed tank tops that were only a dollar a piece. The market was crowded with people and hand made goods. It was a nice switch up from the markets in Bangkok that mostly carry clothes, manufactured and imported items. Some of the vendors were even making their crafts onsite, like a young woman making belts and bracelets on a loom. After spending several hours in the market we wandered in search of a pizza place. We read about a brick oven restaurant, but we came across one owned by an old Italian man first. The six of us ordered three pizzas, a plate of ravioli, a pasta dish and bruschetta. We had a 3:3 ratio of vegetarians and meat eaters so all our dishes were veggie friendly. The pizza had a thin crispy crust and tasty cheese. The ravioli was filled with pesto and the bruschetta topped with mushrooms, I really couldn’t have asked for a tastier dinner. All day I had eaten like a queen for well under ten dollars.
After dinner we slowly walked back to our hostel, which happened to be only two blocks away. Everything in Chiang Rai was in such close proximity; it’s a great walking city. We bought some beers from 7-eleven and cranked up the iPod speakers as we all got showered and changed to go out. I was wishing I bought a long-sleeved shirt because it was a little chilly in the north. Since there was no long sleeve in site, I resolved to drink myself warm, I finished off my Leo and we all headed to the TeePee bar across the street. It was filled with mostly teachers, the six of us and four others that live and work in Chiang Rai. We also met a pair of cute, friendly Australian girls. The TeePee bar’s floor was covered in straw mats, the kind you take to the beach. I hiked up the really steep and not so stable stairs to the top loft. It was tiny and the roof was low, but it added to the funky teepee/tree house atmosphere. Mats covered the upstairs’ floor too. There was a small table on the floor and no one in sight so I snagged it and soon enough the Australians and the other teachers joined me upstairs. There was also a family of bunnies living up there and I soon discovered I was sitting near some of their poop. They were really cute so I couldn’t be mad, I just shook off my mat and plopped back down. After a beer or two we all headed over to another place called the Peace Bar. It’s a Jamaican inspired bar run by a Thai man named Han. Han was really nice and welcoming and we ended up having a good, long and sometimes confusing conversation. He loves Jamaican and Rasta culture, but has never been there so I filled him in on a lot of things, since I love all things Jamaican. He disappeared at the end of the night, I was kind of bummed because I wanted to thank him for the chill atmosphere. I couldn’t find him so I signed my name on the wall, like hundreds of other visitors and hoped that circumstances would allow me another visit to the Peace Bar. I’m not really a drinker or bar goer, but I really enjoyed both the Peace Bar and the TeePee bar. The music was loud, but not too loud. They were spaces meant for sitting, drinking, hanging out and meeting new people and I did that at both places. I talked to a man from London at the Peace Bar and he told me he’s been coming to Thailand for ten years on vacation. He works for six months and then takes six months off. He looked truly content with his life. I was envious. After the bars we all wandered to 7-eleven for munchies, said farewell to our new Aussie friends and then wandered to our different rooms in the hostel. I laid down feeling like I found another city to call home in Thailand. Now I knew what everyone meant when they said the north and the people who live there are chilled out.