I have arrived in Thailand – ready to kick off the new year with some new countries to discover. My friend Emily from NYC has decided to come join me for a few weeks in Thailand! I’ve never actually traveled with Emily before, and in fact, we never really went out much in NYC together – however we had two major things in common…running and traveling. Emily is a part of my regular running group in NY and I met her through running many early mornings in Central Park before work. Through those runs I came to find out that she also shared a love of travel with me. She had traveled extensively when she was younger and had made many trips to South America. When I told her about my around the world adventure – she immediately said that she wanted to come meet me somewhere along the way. So – here she is – after a 20+ hour plane flight – ready to explore with me and build upon our friendship.
We met in Chiang Mai ready to be immersed in a new culture. Unlike many of my other friends, Emily was game for roughing it through Thailand – we both really wanted to get off the beaten path and see Thai people and country side. That’s why we decided to start with Northern Thailand. We had seen beaches before and we knew that the beaches of southern Thailand were supposed to be gorgeous – but we wanted to challenge ourselves a bit more. When Emily got to Chiang Mai she was fighting off jet lag – but we decided that we would go to see a temple for a little afternoon outing. We took a little Songtaew (Converted Pick up trucks with twin rows of seats in the back ply the main routes looking for passengers ) to Phrathat Doi Suthep and quickly realized that the Jewish girl from NY and the Lutheran girl from the midwest really knew nothing about Buddhism! We looked around the temple in wonder, watching the monks throw water on people, watching the people ring hundreds of bells – but had no idea why any of this was happening. We took note of all of our questions figuring that we would need to get them answered sometime during out trip.
Our hotel that we stayed at in Chiang Mai was big, clean, and lovely – then only downside was that it was outside of the town center. Of course we didn’t really realize this was a problem until we went to the town center and then tried to catch a taxi back to the hotel. We tried to flag down a cab NY style and asked them to take us to the Green Lake Resort. We received a blank stare. We also quickly realized that unlike all of the other countries that I’ve been to – not many people knew English. I showed them the address and they would say “too far” and leave us! After going through this many times, we started getting worried about how we would get back to the hotel as we didn’t even have a good map or the name of the hotel in Thai. Finally, a songtaew driver who had no one in his truck said ok – but he was going to charge us 5 times as much as it cost us to get into town. We agreed…after all – 5 times as much still meant that it was under $10…a bargain in NY cab terms! We should’ve known that it wouldn’t go smoothly, it’s not like NY where you just give them the address and the cross st. and zoom off. Even with the address and a very rough map he didn’t know where it was – so he made me sit in front with him to help show him the way. One problem – I had no idea where it was either! He spoke a small amount of English – so we tried to hack our way through a conversation about the location. I happened to have the hotel phone number so he called on his hand phone and after a 5 minute conversation with them he said “I know where is…no worry”. I was skeptical – but said ok feeling somewhat relieved. However, at this point I realized why he didn’t have any other passengers in his truck – he was a terrible driver!
I honestly don’t think the taxi driver could see – we’d pull out in front of traffic, we’d about hit the motor scooters, I tried not to look! The only thing that comforted me was that we couldn’t get hurt too badly because he was only going a max of 15 mph! About 40 minutes later, we made it to the hotel after many close calls and much nervous laughter. I had obviously been docile in Singapore too long – I forgot one of the main rules of travel in another country…always bring a map with address and phone number of where you want to go (even better if you can get this written in the language of the country!) . Needless to say – when we did arrive at the hotel – we needed a drink!
We had decided to do a hill tribe trek out of Chiang Mai. We hired a guide through Wayfayers Travel and did their 3 day, 2 night hill tribe tour. This meant that we would not only be trekking to the tribes in the mountains near Burma, but we would also be staying with them – in their villages for 2 nights! What a great way to really intermix with locals! We met our guide, Hay, and immediately fell in love with him. He was so kind and eager to answer all of our questions. During the 2 hour drive to the trekking start point – we peppered him with questions. We were able to get all of our questions about Buddhism answered – as well as learn about the tribes that we would be staying with. So – for the record – people ring bells at a Buddhist temple for good luck. We also learned about the monks and their lives in the temple. It was all quite fascinating and very different from any religion I had encountered so far in my travels. When we met Hay the night before to talk about the Trek, he asked us what kind of food we’d like to eat on the Trek. We enthusiastically told him “Anything that is local – we want to try it all!” His face immediately lit up – “Really?” He said. “Yes – we want to see and taste what the locals eat!” One of the first things I learned about Emily is that she’ll eat anything…put it in front of her and she’ll try it. A crazy combination of things – sugar, spicy peppers, pineapple, vinegar all mixed together – no problem. The spicier the better for her. I can only imagine that her stomach is made of Teflon or something!
We had planned on visiting a number of different hill tribes – each had a different religion and came from different countries originally. The trekking wasn’t necessarily extremely strenuous – but you certainly did work up a sweat as you traversed up and down hills and through the tall, dry grass that went above my head in some places! Luckily, Hay didn’t know what a tick was – so I felt that I was safe as I walked through the shoulder high grass!
Photo: Karen tribe girl
A porter, Chau Dok, from one of the Karen tribes walked with us and carried our extra food and sleeping bags – so there were 4 of us total. Hay and Chau Dok would sing Thai songs and we would stop for break and shoot slingshots…it was really fun! My sling shot skill had diminished since my childhood, however I didn’t do half bad when aiming at targets! Trekking also meant that I was also back to peeing within nature…or as Hay would refer to it “Going to Phi Phi Island” (there is an island in the south of Thailand called Koh Phi Phi pronounced koh pee pee). When we were close to the first overnight village, a teenage boy from the village passed by us carrying a long muscat looking gun of sorts. Honestly – it looked like something from civil war times! I was a bit surprised to see this and asked Hay why he was carrying a gun. Hay told us that the boy was going out to hunt rat…yup, rat. Apparently rat is a main food staple on the Karen Tribe’s diet. I told Hay that if he wanted to catch rat, he should come hunting in the NYC subway, however I don’t think they will allow the gun…at least that’s how it was when I left!
Our first overnight was with the Karen Tribe. They were from Burma and had been in Thailand for over 100 years now. They were Christian – which I found surprising since Buddhism was very strong here. Obviously some missionary got to them years ago! The village had about 150 people living in it. It had a very small school and I think the livestock outnumbered the people in the village! There were pigs, dogs, cats, cows, chickens and the ever popular alarm clock…the rooster. We were shown our accommodations – which were pleasant enough. We had a little hut to sleep in off the ground, there was a ‘toilet’ and a ‘shower’. I say these terms loosely because the toilet was a typical Asian ‘squatty potty’ and the shower was a bucket of water and a facet coming out of the ground. What made them a ‘toilet’ and a ‘shower’ was the fact that they had built a little bamboo shelter around them – so they were private for the most part. There’s nothing like taking a shower with cold water a bucket and a ladle…but of course I tried…brrrrrr.
Photo: Emily eating with the animals!
The family that was hosting us was very nice – their names were Mommy and Daddy…ok – these weren’t their real names – but that’s what they wanted to go by…fine with me as it was easy to remember. They lived in a one room hut with dirt ground as the floor. This was their kitchen, and bedroom (they slept 6 people in there!) and I guess their living room was really outside around the fire pit! Needless to say…this was simple living! Hay started to work away in the kitchen cooking us up a Thai feast, so we went walking around the village to take pictures and see some more of the tribe. As we walked around among the pigs and chickens, the people were out cutting up bamboo, getting food for the animals, weaving cloth, and the kids were playing with an old rice sack having a sack race. It was all pretty surreal to me. Most of these people never left their village – and they never planned to leave in the future…they were content. They did have a few modern things such as the pipes carrying water from the stream, one tv in the village, solar electricity (very little), and I saw one satellite hanging on the side of a bamboo hut…pretty humorous. However – I want to stress that even through they had some modern things, this was a very simple life – one that we are not at all accustomed to.
Hay called us for dinner and we sat outside among the various animals and were treated to a feast of wonderful food! It was so spicy that my sinuses were quickly awakened and left me wondering why I didn’t bring more Kleenex along! Soon Hay came out all excited, jumping around with a big smile on his face…he said “Do you want to see what the family is eating for dinner?” Of course we did! He took us over to Mommie who was preparing Frog Soup. Basically – all I saw was a dishpan of live frogs, and fish – not too appetizing – but they seemed pretty excited about it. Then he took us to another home and asked us again – do you really want to see this? Yes – we do! He unwrapped some banana leaves and there they were…rats, freshly roasted! Apparently – this was quite a treat, fresh rat…3 of them! They were actually quite small for a rat – they looked more like mice if you ask me. Photo: The rats
I told them that NYC had really LARGE rats and I showed them the size with my hands! Their eyes lit up and Daddie asked me in complete seriousness “Do they eat the rat?” “Uh…no” I said.
We sat around the fire that night with Mommie and Daddie and various other people while Hey told us about the culture of courting in the Karen tribe. This is one of my favorite things to learn about as I travel – relationships and dating. I always ask about how people met their spouse, if they dated, and how old they are when they get married, etc.. I find that it is so simple in other countries, yet in the westernized world that we live in…it is extremely complicated – then again…maybe I just make it complicated! A thought to be pondered at another time! The Karen tribe do not typically marry within their village – they marry other Karen tribe members in neighboring villages. They meet when they are young when attending a funeral in one of the villages. The elders first go to the funeral and sing various songs and go through various rituals around the funeral, and then the younger/teenager kids come and sing the same songs and basically flirt. Photo: Girls going to school
Hay calls it “giving the sweet eyes” – I call it flirting. The funny thing is that the girls make the first move (which maybe isn’t so bad) by giving the boys ‘sweet eyes’ and then the boys show if they are interested. They dance, they sing, they visit each others parents, and then they get married…all of this after maybe a month of ‘courting’. Cows are exchanged, vows are exchanged, and one of them moves into the others village…simple. Maybe I need to learn how to give ‘sweet eyes’.
As we were talking about this dating ritual – another person came up to Hay with a bowl and said something to him. He looked at us and said “They want to know if you’d like to taste the rat” Of course Emily quickly answered “Yes!” I hesitated a bit…wondering if I really had the guts to eat a rat. I thought of all of the rats I had seen in the subway in NYC, I thought about the guinea pig I ate in Peru, I thought about what my friend and family would think when I told them that I ate a rat. I knew that if I ate it, people would really think I had lost my mind, however, I slowly decided…you only live once…I’ll try it. They handed around the bowl and instructed us to take a leg…yes – a little rat leg to nibble on…how appetizing. I made sure that I had water nearby…just in case. I looked at Emily’s reaction – she didn’t die…so I tried mine. I turned off my head lamp so that I couldn’t really see the skin that seemed to be a greenish color, and I nibbled on the meat on the bone. Surprise…it wasn’t half bad. I can hardly believe that I’m saying this – but it was actually kind of tasty. Mental note – when I go back to NYC and can’t find a job – I guess I can always eat rat to survive. It’s always good to have a backup plan! That night I was a little on edge wondering how my stomach was going to like the rat – but it seemed at one with the rat – so I slept fine. Well – as fine as you can on a bamboo floor, a sleeping bag, and the sounds of pigs, and roosters underneath your hut. Just another normal day in my travels.
Day two trekking was much harder, we went through more villages, more hills, and finally stopped for lunch. I decided to simply eat what Hay prepared for us…no crazy stuff – I didn’t want to risk a terrible toilet story. However ‘I’ll-eat-anything-Emily’ decided she would have a beer to cool down. Next she tried sardines, raw chili peppers and raw garlic…yes – raw garlic, topping it off with raw lemon grass root. Not the combination of food I would choose – but she loved it – as she helped herself to seconds! That afternoon we didn’t have to trek, instead we were taken by elephant to the next village. We got up on the wobbly elephant and started down the trail. About 4 minutes into the slow, wobbly ride Emily said “I think I’m elephant sick” I said “No, I think you are sardines, garlic, and beer sick!!”. She made it through the ride – but it was rather touch and go.
As soon as we made it to the next tribe, she went inside the hut and took a much needed nap! I took my bucket shower and went out to explore the village. We were staying at a Palong tribe this night. They were from Burma and had arrived 27 years ago (rather recent in the scheme of things). They were Buddhist and there were about 200 people in the village. They had a much more distinctive dress and look to them. They were more plump and extremely jovial.
They mainly made money on agriculture and we came across many of them in the field harvesting their beans by hand. That night, I ate another yummy Thai meal that Hay made and Emily took it easy. We sat around the fire with our host, Pong, and his family. We laughed all
night as we shared stories in broken English. Pong wanted us to sing songs – so I was able to sing a few rounds of Jingle Bells and the Hokey Poky. He even gave us a flashlight to use as a microphone…we were the next Palong Idol for sure!
Photo: Teenage boys in the Palong Tribe – hangin’ out on the corner
The next morning we took off on our final leg of the trek and then got on a bamboo raft to float down the river for a while – kind of like a gondola in Venice! Hay picked us up with our driver at the end of the rafting and took us for our final lunch. We went into the closest town and he agreed to take us to an authentic Thai restaurant…a place where only locals go. He was so excited that we wanted to really experience real Thai food and not the European version that many of the tourists have (it’s Thai – but not nearly as spicy). He took us for sticky rice…yum! I have had sticky rice many times in NYC…however I never had the real Thai version before. Photo: Me eating with my hands
We got to the little roadside restaurant/hut and sat down. They brought us a number of soupy, meat dishes, veggies, and little individual containers of sticky rice. Hay showed us how to simply eat it as the locals do – with our hands! He showed us how to roll up a small amount of rice in a ball and then flatten it out kind of like a spoon – then you would pick up the meat mixtures with the rice and your thumb (on the same hand) and eat it! It was wonderful…and really had my sinuses going…it was hot! Hay drove us back to Chang Mai and we sadly said goodbye. We really developed a great relationship with him – he was definitely one of my favorite guides in my travels so far – he really made the experience for us. We could ask him anything…and we did. He was so happy that we wanted to really experience the culture and embrace our surroundings. I think he was most happy that we ate the rat that was offered to us! He even showed me his journal (in Thai script) where he wrote about us eating the rat. I think he’ll remember the women from NYC for a while!
Photo: Eggs at the market. Pink ones are 100 days old…a delicacy.
The next day we went to Chiang Mai to take a cooking class. We went to the local market with our teachers and learned about Asian produce and meat. It actually was great as I have cooked plenty of Thai food before – but I never really knew why you did some of the things in the order directed – now it actually made sense! We went to the suburbs of Chiang Mai to the chef’s house. It was a big organization – there were about 25 of us and the school was beautiful. The chef seemed to be the Emerel of Thailand…very famous and very full of himself! Regardless – we learned how to use the wok properly, make some amazing curries, soup, and salads. We ate everything we made and were exhausted by the end of the day! For all of my friends in NY – when I come back – I will cook you up a Thai feast…don’t worry – I won’t serve rat – but it will be spicy!
That night we went to see a Thai boxing match! This was one of the things that was a ‘must do’ for me while I was in Thailand. Since I have a love of boxing myself – I really wanted to see what this popular Thai past-time was all about. We got tickets to a big fight and went to Kavila to watch 10 different fights that night.
There were many local people there and there was no translation into English. We were immediately ushered into the Caucasian section…it seemed like there were other people with our desire of seeing a local match…however they sat us all together for some reason! The matches were intense…I can’t believe how powerful their kicks were and how high they could kick their legs! The fighters were really thin, they were extremely lean…a body type that you wouldn’t think was an excellent fighter at first glance – however you quickly learned that the leaner they were the better they were!
During the rounds they would play this crazy Thai music from a live band – it seemed a bit distracting to me – but I guess the boxers didn’t mind. My favorite part was watching and hearing the fans as they reacted to various kicks and punches – it sounded as if we were at a bull fight in Spain…Ole! You could easily tell though that this was their passion…forget Soccer…this country was all about boxing.
Our time in and around Chiang Mai was great – full of good food, new friends, and some authentic (and crazy) experiences!