When you go to Thailand
(Also featured on the Matador Network)
When you go to Thailand, go North.
When you get to Chiang Mai, rent a motorbike from an Englishman named Tony. He’ll tell you to bring it back any time. He’ll use the words, “when you’ve had your fill.”
Commence readying your bike for your trip. It has gears, naturally, but by no means is the thing the last word in motorcycle excellence. It’s a scooter and you must resign yourself to this.
If you like, you can test the elasticity of your tie-downs or the perkiness of the brakes or make sure it has gas in it or walk in a circle around it pretending to be looking into its road-worthiness.
When you’re ready to start, drive up highway 107 to get out of town. Soon, you will become soaked, cold, and blinded by rain. Find a thatch-roofed restaurant in the middle of nowhere and decide that you have located paradise itself. The waitress is so friendly! The dishware so attractive! The small buddha statue in the corner is virtually the greatest work in all of Thailand!
At some point, the skies will clear. Pull onto highway 1095 and keep going north.
Before you reach Pai, congratulate yourself on your chosen mode of travel. Become entirely wrapped up in your superiority to other travelers and their buses and their clean faces and their inferior photo opportunities. You are privileged. You are forging your own path. You are really beginning to understand Thai culture in a meaningful manner, despite having been here for only two days.
You are almost hit by a pick-up truck while rounding a mountain corner. You are a lonely, arrogant moron.
Drive to six guesthouses in Pai looking for a room. Notice the horde of tents pitched on the other side of the river and reevaluate your accommodation search strategy. Park your bike, cross the bamboo bridge away from the center of town, and find a platform and a thatch roof for rent for 50 baht a night.
Drink tea. Sleep.
When you’ve woken, attempt to do yoga on your platform. Ten minutes into the session, while settling into a downward facing dog stance, shove your foot through the wood and create a giant hole. Confess the deed to the proprietor. He’ll think you’re an asshole but will tell you his son can fix it.
Once he does, keep going north. Drive your motorbike 40 kilometers more to Soppong. Find yourself in a small market town and see only one other tourist. Rent a cabin from a Thai woman and her German husband. Eat streusel cake.
When you go to Thailand, ensure you have timed your travels such that when you wake the next day, it will be the king’s birthday. You’ll be informed that gas stations are always closed on the king’s birthday and that everyone knows this.
Use the last of your gas to follow a Swiss traveler 17 kilometers through the mountains to a small town where there may be some fuel.
Ask him before you leave where the gas is in case you get separated. He’ll reply that it’s “at the store in town.” Ask him which one. He’ll reply that there is only one store in town.
Fill up your bike.
Because of the manner in which you’ve come to be where you are — you’ve rented a motorized vehicle with no credentials whatsoever other than Tony asking you if you can handle yourself, you’ve driven for days on narrow highways and through villages without seeing even a hint of something that might suggest a speed limit — it’s easy to become convinced of a certain lawlessness to this place. You will begin to think of yourself and your backpack and your bike and your rain jacket as its own republic, with its own customs and laws and disposition.
Your republic could be accused of being socialist. It welcomes immigrants but does ask that they fill out a bit of paperwork first. It places a premium on areas of the land where petrol can be obtained. It stops anywhere a hot sweet potato is being roasted on the roadside.
When you go to Thailand, meet an Australian named John. Stay in his guesthouse and meet his Thai wife and their one-year-old grandchild. John will tell you about the time he came to Thailand when he was 22 and didn’t leave for 30 years. He’ll tell you about trekking in the north during the ’80s and watching Burmese villagers flee across the border with their belongings perched on their heads. He’ll tell you about the time the Thai government accused him of murder.
When you go to Thailand, drive as far northwest as you can. Drive until a Burmese soldier tells you not to anymore. Spend the night in Mae Hong Son. Spend another one. Drive on to Mae Chaem and wonder, on getting there, why it is that you have done this.
Begin attempting to speak English in a way that you believe even people who don’t speak English will understand. Use sentences like, “you give bed” and “I take food.” This won’t work, but, unfortunately, that fact won’t stop you.
You will begin to be defined by movement, your destinations merely excuses for a progression through the terrain. Stay anywhere too long and you will have to move on. You will have no real concept of the next town, but you’ll be driven by an intense need to get on the road. It’s what you do.
Passing the last evidence of towndom each morning, into the unknown of the mountains, you’ll be overcome by a sense of reverence for the road. At the end of each day, you’ll hope for a town that believes in the liberal dispensing of electricity. The most satisfying entrances will be made at dusk, when you can still see the road without your headlight but when the lights of the town are visible from the road before you get there. You’ll wonder if they sell cold beer there. If someone will make food for you.
As you make your approach to the most remote villages, you’ll be met with immediate acceptance. They will smile curiously at your otherness, your patience and skill at getting there an automatic ticket of entry into their town.
For the night, you will be a resident. You’ll walk the main street and peruse the market looking at fruit. Later, you’ll go to the “bar,” if there is such a place. You’ll listen to conversations you can’t understand. You’ll look into people’s faces and try to understand them that way instead.
Early in the morning, you will put the belongings you’ve unpacked back into your drybag and strap it to the basket on the front of your bike. You’ll put your money pouch and camera around your neck, two layers of pants on your legs, and your backpack on your back. You’ll sneak out of town before too many people are on the streets.
One morning, you’ll end up back in Chiang Mai.