I may be the last Aussie on Earth to have visited; but now, at the grand conclusion of my world trip, I've finally visited Thailand. And let's face it: Thailand is the no. 1 budget travel destination in the world, and no true round-the-world backpacking trip would be complete without it. The Land of Smiles is home to sunny beach paradises, steamy tropical jungles, curry that redefines curry, a Buddhist religious heritage of great richness, cheap shopping to please anyone... and more. The only thing that remains a puzzle: what took me so long to get here?
I bought it because I'm going to be lying on the beach for the next three weeks, and because I need a nice big hat to shade myself while in the sun. But it's a cowboy hat: and so, despite my intentions, it does plenty more than just give me some extra UV protection. A cowboy hat is a fashion statement. People see me wearing it, and they know I'm an Aussie (if only they could witness me wrestling with some croccies :P). They see me wearing it, and they know I'm a seasoned traveller. They see me wearing it, and they know I'm tough and ready for anything. And all that, just from a little piece-of-junk shmontse, that I picked up at a market stall today in Khao San Road. Oy, how people think!
It's 6:30am, and I've just pulled into Bangkok, tired and hungry after a night on the road. I'm wandering around the streets near Khao San Road, looking for a quiet café where I can grab some breakfast and read a book, while I wait for the city (and for myself) to wake up. I'm armed with my hefty backpack, and perusing the menu of an early-bird café, when a scantily-clad Thai girl runs up to me (out of nowhere), drapes her arm around me, and starts caressing me. I pretty much literally had to run away from her, before she gave up on offering herself to me, and left me in peace. For heaven's sake: if a bleary-eyed backpacker at the crack of dawn isn't safe from assaults by whores, when who and when the hell is safe?
My brief stint up in northern Thailand is now complete. Trekking and elephant riding are all well and good for a time — but let's face it: romping through tropical jungle is bollocks, when compared with lying on a gorgeous tropical beach. And if it's beaches you're after, then the direction to go is south, and the place to find (and there are plenty of them to be found) is a nice, idyllic island. My destination is one such island: Ko Tao. And after the overnight bus that I caught last night, from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, I'm now halfway there.
Mark's a chatty bloke whom I ended up sitting next to, during this evening's long bus ride from Chiang Mai down to Bangkok. Mark's an Englishman; and like myself, he's also a seasoned traveller of South America. So the two of us had a good ol' chinwag on the bus, sharing our (all-too-similar) stories and reminiscences of backpacking in the Latin World. Sadly, from Bangkok Mark's headed out of Thailand: his plan is to gradually make his way home over the next few months, by way of India and various other countries.
He was with me omnipresently, during my sojourns in hippie-thronged Mexico and South America. He abandoned me in North America and in Europe, where nobody can fit so much as a pony-tail into their hectic modern lives, let alone a daily dose of stoned inner peace. But now that I'm in Thailand, I can most definitely say that my old friend Bob Marley is back, and that he's bigger than ever. Bob is, of course, the undisputed king of all Reggae, the mascot of all hippies, and the master of all chill-out music. His red-yellow-green, dreadlock-infused banner flies tall and proud, everywhere you may go in Thailand.
These two girls, and myself, all met each other randomly (and all at exactly the same time), in the staircase of my guesthouse in Chiang Mai today. Adi is an Israeli girl who works full-time for a non-profit organisation back home (and who lives on that organisation's kibbutz), and who's currently volunteering here in northern Thailand. Maria's a physiotherapist from the city of Graz, in south-east Austria — I didn't make it there back in December, but by Maria's accounts I should have. Maria was volunteering in a remote community up in Nepal, and now she's cruising around Thailand on a motorbike.
After a quick brekkie, this morning I jumped on the 8:30am minibus out of Pai, and headed back to Chiang Mai. For the third time. I'm getting to know this city quite well: too well, in fact. But what can you do? It's the gateway to northern Thailand — there's simply no avoiding it. I was pleased to find, upon my return, that all my old haunts are still alive and well in this city: I found the same good-value guesthouse that I stayed in last time; and I returned to the same cheap Internet joint that I previously frequented. There wasn't much left for me to see here: although I did meet Adi and Maria, so I spent a bit of time with them today. I also booked the package ticket, which as of tomorrow night will get me started on my long journey south, direct from here to Ko Tao. Chiang Mai's a nice enough place; but I think I'm just about over it.
I really should stay longer here in Pai. It's such a nice place. Anyway, despite the great friends that I've got here, and despite the urging of said friends for me to linger, tonight was my final night here: what can I say, except "the south is calling"? This evening, I enjoyed a delicious Thai curry for dinner with Sonny (can't remember the name — but it's one I've never had before), while the two of us engaged in our final heated political debate. Then, it was back to the sewer bar: it left such a good impression on us last night, that we just had to return for more.
Roti isn't a Thai dish as such — at least, not as far as I'm aware — but they've got plenty of it on the street here in Pai, and I hear that they have it elsewhere in Thailand as well. It's a very thin pancake, cooked in about 30 seconds over a hot stove (from a small handful of dough), and commonly offered with such fillings as banana, chocolate and pineapple. As well as being delicious, roti is also the perfect dessert to fill that gap in your stomach, which seems to so annoyingly form several hours after dinner. The street vendors are well aware of this magical property that their pancakes possess, and as such, they can be found flippin' and sizzlin' every night, well into the wee hours of the evening.
As of today, Marie, Claire and myself have moved out of Mr. Jan's Bungalows (cosy though they are, and nice though Mr. Jan is). Following Sonny's example, we've moved over to the Unicorn I bungalows, where we are privy to what is possibly the deal of the century. For a mere 100B/night, the Unicorn I offers quaint little bungalows (albeit rustic), in a gorgeous grassy field — plus, they let you use all the luxury facilities of the nearby (but much pricier) Unicorn II resort! The newer and flashier Unicorn II boasts such freebies as a private swimming pool, a sauna, and free Internet. If you're heading to Pai anytime soon, be sure to check out the Unicorn thing.