I have been in Thailand for thirteen days. Those days have been really nice. My Mother, Susan, is visiting me right now for the next week in Chiang Mai – this has been a fabulous surprise to hav occurred, especially after my father George visited me at the end of July in Cairo. There are certain places that you do not quite imagine you will wind up, and Cairo with my father, and Chiang Mai with my mother might be two of them. Although, after having been in those places, they both feel natural and great. The journey to get to Chiang Mai has also been very nice – revitalizing.
The Thai revitalization process actually began in India on Kingfisher Airlines as I was flying from Kolkata to Bangkok. Kingfisher is an Indian carrier that does everything right…simply an amazing way to travel. There seems to be a bit of murmuring going around in the world where people say stuff like, “is service gone from the airlines forever…?” and “Will the golden age of air travel never return?” and so on. If you are one of these people, then perhaps it is time for you to fly Lufthansa (I hear they are nice… will probably never experience it myself) to Delhi, and then see what your options are for airlines in India and S.E. Asia. This is the part of the journey where service resumes – and not just in the airline industry.
I counted eight flight attendants on my Kingfisher flight. Men in pale blue button down shirts, women in bright red…flight attendant outfits I suppose they are called. Walls on both sides of the cockpit door were used to advertise liquor, and carts were used throughout the flight to distribute the liquor at no additional charge. This made me wonder why there was advertising, but sometimes the world is a strange place. I actually did not even drink any liquor because I was still feeling a bit nauseous after several days of fighting food poisoning in Kolkata. But it was comforting to know that I could have had it. A large meal…bright smiles… This all seems like, “Okay, I’ve had this kind of stuff on my Southwest flight from Phoenix to Denver last week…” But no. You haven’t. At the risk of sounding like a wide-eyed child who has never seen an airplane, I will continue to describe the flight.
Ten minutes after take off, a message from the Chairman of Kingfisher Airlines began to speak to the passengers through a video that played on the screens in front of everybody’s faces (and also behind everybody’s faces if you know what I mean….or if you don’t). In the message, the Chairman walked toward the camera as he said this (paraphrased): “Welcome aboard. I hope that you have been enjoying the Kingfisher experience. I have personally chosen every flight attendant on your flight today to ensure that you will have the best experience possible. If there is anything that we can do to improve the quality of your experience, please email me at my personal email address (I have since forgotten the personal email address of the Chairman of Kingfisher Airlines…Dammit…was thinking that I could have added him to the Seize The World Foundation email list and gotten him involved in the Seize the World Experience…) with your concerns. Now, please relax and enjoy the Kingfisher Experience.” I did.
About four hours later, I woke up at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Suvarnabhumi is a gigantic, silvery grey, brand new airport. All concrete, glass, steel, and tiles. Fluorescent lights, light displays, and neon-lit shops add flair and interest. A quick run through passport control and customs got me to baggage claim. A woman with a radio and a neon shirt with reflectors working at baggage claim laughed when she saw my bike roll in from outside. She handed it to me, and went back to talking to her friends as I took a few minutes to load he panniers. On my last two flights, one from Cairo to Mumbai, another from Mumbai to Bangkok, I have not bothered to box my bike. People have not bothered to make me find a box or to make me pay extra fees for the bike…load the bike into the airplane, fly the airplane to where I am going. Simple enough, right? Unfortunately, it rarely is. But on my trip to Thailand, it was!
I was liking Thailand already. The airport was the best I’d seen since Amsterdam (Yes…I connected through there immediately before my seizure in Lisbon) and things were fast, quiet and comfortable after dealing with floods, noise, vomit, diarrhea, mud, and general discomfort in Kolkata. I wheeled my bicycle to the information counter, picked up a few free maps – Thailand, Bangkok, and something else (why not?)- and learned that the shuttle to my hotel – the Thong Tha Resort and Spa – was waiting to pick me up just a short walk from the info desk. I had booked a “hostel” in advance through www.hostelworld.com and found the closest place to the airport that I could. My plan had been to get a taxi to the hotel or to ride my bike there. Turns out there was a free shuttle…great!
It has taken me a little while to figure out this system for arriving in major cities, but I have used it for the past two cities (Mumbai and Bangkok) and it worked beautifully. Sometimes I can be stubborn when it comes to modifying my approach to doing things, and sometimes I can be a slow learner when it comes to life. Other times, I am open-minded and fast…but in the case of making a hotel reservation in a city before arriving there, it took me a little while to figure out that this was my style. I have another friend, George The Cyclist
. He has been touring the world for years, and he can tell you stories about camping at Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris, among hundreds of other arrival points during his travels. Simply amazing! I have managed to swing several arrivals by ferry and by bus and to subsequently find camping. But I have now landed solidly in the camp, speaking figuratively, of booking hotels after airplane arrivals. It is too tough to find camping when you are jet lagged, exhausted, confused by language, frustrated by baggage issues, etc. I had a negative arrival experience in Lisbon with a seizure that may have been preventable if I’d had a non-stop flight and a hotel reservation, so now I am careful with this stuff! Spend one relaxed night in a hotel, get on the bike the next day to begin the ride toward your first campsite. Well…depending on the airport. Maybe you are arriving in Billings at 6a.m. It is all situational. SO – arrived in Bangkok, and shuttled over to the hotel.
I spent two days at the airport hotel in Bangkok working on a story for the Coloradan, a magazine published by the Alumni Association of the University of Colorado. The article will be released in December, so be on the look out. Of course, you can expect updates from Seize The World about where to find the article and how to get the magazine.
After that was finished, I got on the road – the incredibly high quality road – moving north out of Bangkok toward Chiang Mai. I never entered the city of Bangkok proper, but skirted the highways on the perimeter in favor of avoiding traffic and population madness. I was barely holding onto my sanity after India, and was in search of as much calm as I could find. Accounts of Bangkok
led me to believe that calm might not be what I would find there. I have also seen movies featuring big Southeast Asian cities such as Sniper 3 and American Gangster to corroborate my fears. Interestingly, a few minutes of IMDB research are now indicating that Sniper 3, which was set in Ho Chi Minh city (and which made it look big, bustling, dangerous, and full of criminals) was filmed in Chiang Mai – my present location. Oh God.
You get the idea though – I had experienced a lot in India, and seen and read enough stuff that had little or nothing to do with Bangkok to convince me that I had no reason to go there. So, I hit the road for Chiang Mai (filming location of Sniper 3…not nearly as good as Sniper) and was, for the first time in nearly three weeks, on a bicycle tour. India had kicked me on my ass, and it felt really good to pedal, slowly, out of the parking lot of the Thong Tha Resort and Spa on a warm, cloudy afternoon, once again not sure where my next destination would be, not sure where I would stop, where the road would take me.
45 seconds later, I was stopped at the first of Thailand’s nearly 3,000 7/11s. Or at least, this was the first 7/11 I encountered. 7/11 in Thailand is awesome. I have only begun to discover what it has to offer, and what its secrets are. There are many great foods there such as hot dogs with fresh-cut tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, coke-flavored slurpees, sweet green tea, cocoa bread, Nescafe, glue sticks, and envelopes (not food – office supplies those last two – but an important part of this project). On my first 7/11 visit, 50 yards from the hotel, I learned about pre-packaged banana bread and iced coffee, two staples of my Thai adventure for sure. I stocked up on Banana Bread – 25 cents U.S. (10 Thai Baht) for one banana bread muffin. Before I knew it, I was hanging out on a bench next to my bike drinking coffee, eating bread, and taking in the scene outside of 7/11. Hanging out, drinking coffee, sitting next to your bike. That is what 90% of cycling is all about.
Twenty minutes later, I was considering getting on the road for Chiang Mai…It was probably time to get rolling. I knew that there would be more 7/11s to help me get there, and I was hopeful that the road quality would remain good as I continued on my way out of the city. As it turned out, the chain of good pavement remained unbroken all the way to Chiang Mai, and the chain of 7/11s at 1/4 mile intervals only broke once or twice during the entire eight day (or so) journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. There were a couple of Tiger marts to fill the void, so it wasn’t as bad as you might be imagining right now. It was a beautiful, beautiful ride. Thailand really helped me to recover.
The riding itself in Thailand is fabulous. There are bicycle/motorcycle lanes all along highways 32, 1 and 11. These were the three major roads that took me from Bangkok all the way to Chiang Mai. I camped on my first night outside of Bangkok, and had a somewhat negative experience due to very high humidity and heat levels as well as a destroyed Thermarest pad which could not be inflated. I spent the night sleeping on hard ground, and was wakened by rain. When I got out to put on the tent fly, then re entered the tent, I was accompanied by 20 mosquitoes who took me so many minutes to kill. After they had been dispatched, my insanity level and body temperatures had risen through the roof, neither of them benefitting from the fact that the tent’s rain fly was trapping humidity and keeping the air absolutely still. Using the rain fly during hot, humid conditions led to a sort of runaway tent warming effect in which I found myself fighting against mosquito bites, body odor, noise, and other distractions that were all more frequent and violent than they would be in a normal tent climate.
After having stayed in only six hotels during three months of travel through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt and India, I had finally encountered conditions in Thailand that had me afraid to stay anywhere else. As I ride along from campsite to campsite, people often ask me whether I have problems at night with sketchy people…not so far. But I am personally sketched out a lot by the combination of heat, humidity and bugs that occurs in the tropics during this season. Whether or not the conditions are themselves sketchy is a matter of taste. But I do not like the taste of heat, humidity or bugs. Served in combination, they terrify me. So I decided to avoid camping with them.
It is ironic, then, that my efforts to avoid bugs led me into a hotel room where I met the largest spider to have ever walked the face of the earth. If you are a person who is sensitive about bugs – either in the sense that they make you jittery, or in the sense that the idea of fighting them makes you jittery, then it might be best to avoid reading the next paragraph. If not, then simply click your mouse on this part of the screen and drag down to highlight the text below. Or click anywhere on the screen and push “Ctrl-A” to highlight everything (Apple-A if you have one of those…) Sort of like reading a website where they publish a lot of information that might contain spoilers…I spent most of middle school at one such website
. I’m glad I did not spend most of middle school at middle school. That would have sucked.
After a long day of riding to get to the city of Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand, I pulled off the highway and made my way toward the city itself, about 5 miles from the highway in search of a hotel. This was my new routine: pull into a city, search for a hotel, check in, sleep, watch TV, roll out the next morning. New, luxurious, cool, clean, free of bugs. I checked into the room for $8/U.S. and entered a big room with wooden walls – really nice. Tapestries with Thai letters and pictures of boats. I was happy. I took a quick shower while my SPOT device was outside in the parking lot sending a signal to my family, to twitter, and to Facebook to update people on where I was. The process takes the SPOT device 20 minutes to complete – normally I simply turn on SPOT from inside my tent and turn it off when I remember it an hour later. Lately I have been putting it in parking lots, terraces, rooftops of hotels, etc. and setting my watch alarm for 20 mins. Once a signal is sent, an email goes out to family, and a message goes out to twitter that says something like, “I am in Bangkok, Thailand.”
While SPOT transmitted from the parking lot, I took a shower. I noticed a huge hole in the drain of the bath tub and thought to myself, “wow, after the mirror on the ceiling at the hotel last night, there are times at which I feel like I am unwittingly starring on a reality TV show…” The low shower head forced me to lean close to the hole as I showered, and I was thinking that any second some creature would jump out. Nothing did. I turned off the water, covered the hole with a towel to guard against attacks, and breathed a sigh of relief as I dripped with water. I opened the door to go back into my room. SPOT device had now been going for 10 minutes or so.
A strong shot of adrenaline coursed through my chest and veins when I saw the biggest spider that had ever been witnessed by a human. The spider measured two inches in total body length and the distance between its legs was 6 or seven inches at the furthest point – roughly. About as far apart as my fingers will go when I make the “shaka” symbol.
As I opened the door, the spider was making a quick swinging rappel from the ceiling onto the floor, half blocking my exit from the bathroom. At first I was a bit frozen. Then I was just like, “F***!!” Thinking that there was no way that this guy just appeared after my thoughts of a creature suddenly appearing in the bathroom – he just did!
Fortunately the Spider decided not to make a stand, or to attack, but rather, he decided to make a run for it, and fast. For those of you who have seen the movie Spider man, you will have an immediate idea of how this animal moved. This is the kind of ease with which the spider was able to navigate through the three dimensions of my hotel room, first rapelling from the ceiling, then pausing to make an intense dramatic pose, then running fast in one direction, up the side of one wall, down to the floor again, and up the side of another wall, just to the right of my bed, where he stopped at the height of 4 feet. From the moment when I witnessed the spider until his move to the spot next to the bed, ten seconds had elapsed. He had taken time during those ten seconds to make a dramatic pose as well. For a person who is afraid of spiders – me – it was unsettling to watch the Spider move so quickly across so much of the room. It was as though every surface he touched was immediately contaminated. I also knew after watching him move that the spider could, if he chose to do it, access any point in the room – including me – within a period of four seconds. As I stood watching him from fifteen feet away, both of us completely still, I knew that this was a creature must be killed. These are not the kinds of animals that can be allowed to peacefully co-exist with me within my hotel room. There was not enough time, good will, patience or understanding on my part to consider any course of action other than attack. There was not time for the spider to do anything other than to perch next to my bed and to be evil. The spider had shaken my nerves to a core level. But I had enough nerves left to visualize plans and to carry out actions such as killing giant spiders.
I did not want to get anywhere near the Spider. I searched for some kind of weapon to use from afar – a stand lamp with a broad base perhaps, some RAID, a flamethrower, a bow and arrow…nothing. I opted to use bath towels. I quickly soaked them in water so that they weighed about five pounds each (roughly half as much as the spider). My hope was that a wet bath towel might cripple the spider or at least immobilize it so that I could safely approach it with other weapons to make the kill. I threw the first towel at the Spider in the way that you might throw in a soccer ball from out of bounds. I missed, 6 inches left. The spider moved 2 feet to the right. I picked up the second towel and carefully threw it. Another miss, 2 inches off, the spider jittered back left. He was right back where he had been in the corner of the room four feet from the ground, seemingly unaffected. Frustrated and out of ammo, it was now time to take this fight to the Spider directly. I ripped the Ortlieb Dry Bag from the back of my bike – MAJOR THANKS TO BIKE TECH FOR GIVING ME THIS THING!! – put on shoes, socks, t-shirt, gloves, and shorts. I felt a bit better about the idea of attacking the Spider clothed. I have no idea if the Spider was poisonous, and it was never a pressing concern. The thought of a 7-inch wide spider crawling around on me naked spinning webs around me was a thought that weight on me much more heavily as I planned my next attack. So I got dressed. I would also have shoes and gloves as last resort weapons if things got nasty.
I took a few practice swings with the dry bag, visualizing the manner in which I would connect with the largest spider to have walked the face of the earth, battering ram style. After a few seconds of this – needed to strike before the Spider made another move – I took three fast steps toward the wall and smashed the wall. Hard. I saw the spider fall out from underneath the dry bag as I made a quick retreat – he was falling in what looked like a controlled rappel. “Sh**.” It was at that moment I discovered that I had forgotten to remove a small plastic light from the back of the Ortlieb bag. I pulled the light off and turned it on to look under the bed…nothing. Ten minutes of moving the bed around revealed that the spider had made one last ten inch rappel and was hanging, dead, from a strand of spider silk against the wall. He was hidden from view behind the bed. The spider looked smaller after he was dead because his giant legs were crumpled up. I gave him several more smashes with the Ortlieb bag, and then used a tea cup and saucer to carry him outside into the bushes where he has, hopefully, become a good meal for some sort of less-terrifying creature. While I was outside, I picked up the SPOT device, which indicated that it had finished transmitting. “I am in Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand.”
So…my effort to use the hotels to take me away from frightening bugs had, in fact, brought me into contact with the most frightening bug to ever exist. However, if that thing is what you find in a hotel room in Kamphaeng Phet, I am doubly glad that I did not camp in the trees and grasses of the Thai countryside. I would have died for sure.
The following morning, I awoke at 1p.m. to housekeeping staff smacking keys against the window next to my bed, and then knocking on the door, then back to the window, then back to the door, and so on until I could scramble to the door to let them in. I guess the Spider had really taken it out of me. 15 minutes later I was on the road again, 7/11 hopping toward Chiang Mai.
The tour to Chiang Mai was one of the most enjoyable segments of the entire tour. It feels as though I write similar things on this website often. I am happy to write that, because it gives me the sense that things get better as this trip moves along.
As I continued along the road North toward Chiang Mai, I noticed a few things in addition to the 7/11s. Lots of pictures of Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is the 81 year old King of Thailand, which is a constitutional monarchy. In other words, Thailand – like England, Japan, and other places – has a monarch, but they also have a parliament, a prime minister, etc. It can be difficult to determine who has real power here… When the last coup d’etat occurred in Thailand in 2007, the King was not in command of either side, and sort of gave his blessing to the victorious party several hours after the coup ended. Today, you would have to come up with your own definition of “power” to figure out where it lies. I do not know the name of the Prime Minister of Thailand – you probably do not either – but you are reading about the King. Thais love the King. When he fell ill this past week, there was a race between the top members of the Thai Government – Defense Minister, Prime Minister, etc. – to be the first to sign cards to wish him well. The cards were later signed by something like 20,000 people. In short, one could say that true power does not lie in the hands of the king, but it seems fairly important to show that you have his favor and that you love the King more than anybody else in order to maintain favor with the Public. And without that, you cannot have power. Right? I don’t even know. Constitutional Monarchies… Bhumibol Adulyadej is the longest-reigning monarch in the world today.
As I rode along, I also saw a huge number of Buddhist temples with spectacular gold statues of Buddha with monks walking around them with shaved heads clad in orange robes. From a Buddhist’s point of view, a sacred sight. From my point of view a picturesque sight, and very interesting. 94% of the population in Thailand is Buddhist according to Wikipedia.
Now I have arrived in Chiang Mai…a thriving ex-patriate community here, with a thriving tourist community as well. In the surrounding hills, there is a thriving Elephant community which my Mother and I plan to visit tomorrow. It is generally a wonderful place with a lot of really nice stuff to do. Chiang Mai might be like the Kona of Thailand. Although I have never been to Kona. Or…have I? Perhaps I have. Yes, actually, I am pretty sure that I have. Berkeley? Maybe it is totally unique. Chiang Mai is totally unique, but there is also a lot of familiar stuff like coffee shops, movie theaters, restaurants where waiters speak English, etc. to make you feel at home. All of it is all insanely cheap. That is the general vibe here, and I can understand its magic.As you walk around on nice streets, there is a huge, or tiny, or medium-sized Buddhist temple wherever you look, and there are monks walking around everywhere. Tourists are common. You can get a massage or a manicure or a pedicure anywhere. Prostitutes are not an uncommon sight at night, though it is not the kind of thing that overwhelms you by any means, not even when I was walking around by myself at night.
My Mom and I went to a Yoga class with our friend Esther from the Telluride Film Festival. Esther lives in Chiang Mai for ten months each year because she loves the quality of life here. She teaches and attends Yoga classes multiple times each week and can tell you all about the temples, religion, and culture of Chiang Mai. She has made a home of this place and has integrated completely into the community here that exists of people from around the world after being here for 14 years. It is interesting to visit such a place and to get a peek into a community that exists of people from different parts of the world who have made Thailand their home. I met another traveler in Cairo named Brian who was also on a ’round the world tour going the opposite direction, having just come from Thailand. Brian came up with a single word to describe each country he visited – “Crossroads” was his word for Egypt, but I do not remember the others. “Pleasure” was his word for Thailand. Perhaps that is the draw for so many people who have decided to settle here. I can certainly understand it – Thailand feels good. And I surprise myself to write it, because I hate bugs and humidity. I can’t stand the bugs. But it still feels good. I will keep you updated with more info as my Mom and I explore Chiang Mai and as I prepare to hit the road for Laos, Vietnam and China. Stay tuned… Pictures coming soon!