Tag Archives: adventure

Status Update: Wake Up From Reality, Your Dream Awaits

This morning I woke up from a dream within a dream. The steady hammering of nearby construction—a familiar alarm from the past two weeks that I stayed here in Chiang Mai—lifts me from slumber at exactly 8:45am. What a lovely dream think I, wistfully reminiscing on the week-long lovefest that was Shambhala In Your Heart festival, a music and art gathering at the Doi Luang Youth Camp in Chiang Dao, Thailand. But Chiang Mai is still a dream, and one that will continue for the moment.

Prior to the festival I had been in Chiang Mai for two weeks, staying in a palatial apartment in the posh Nimmanhaemin neighborhood. After a week and a half of blitzed travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, a taste of [temporary] home was much needed and much appreciated. I had ideal roommates, a regular sleep schedule (strictly enforced by the time-clocked start of morning construction, albeit), local friends and climbing partners, an exotically bohemian city to explore at leisure, and a dreamscape climbing crag within forty minutes motorbike ride.

I have put down soft roots here, right down to my routine:

  • Wake up early, read a bit, then eat a breakfast of coffee and duck eggs fried with garlic and fire hot chilies.
  • Engage in caffeinated waxing with Taylor about politics, culture, and whatever else comes to mind (women, mostly).
  • Pick a few songs and jams on Alice, occasionally to cheers and clapping from the nearby construction workers.
  • Read a bit more.
  • Walk a few blocks to my favorite organic Thai restaurant, where a smiling Thai woman serves me a vibrant plate of pad kee mao gai.
  • Walk a few more blocks to Play Cafe, where I write my blog on Miranda and converse with the Korean couple that owns the place.
  • Take a Song Tao to No Gravity climbing gym, and project a few routes and shoot the shit with Simon (the Swiss owner), Marco (a Swiss friend of Simon’s), Muat (a Thai champion climber), and Duan (a Thai boy that works and sleeps at No Gravity and plays a mean game of street badminton)
  • Eat dinner, and move on to the rest of the night’s activities.

On the note of writing, I have finished Bangkok Pt 1 here in Chiang Mai and am awaiting the precious moment when I will have time to compose Pt 2. My journals take me ages, even when I’m furiously typing for hours straight to the driving cocktail of espresso and German trance. I will perhaps need to shorten my future journal entries, and include more status updates such as this one. We’ll see.

Pure honesty: I am trying my absolute darndest not to bliss the hell out right now. Life in Chiang Mai has been nearly perfect in that commercially renowned 99.99% sort of way. But Chiang Mai doesn’t even compare to my beautiful dream within a dream at Shambhala. In the shadow of the Doi Luang Chiang Dao mountains, the youth camp sits in a broad meadow near a murmuring stream. At this blissful site, I passed seven days under the inflamed sun—dancing, singing, grooving, jamming, crafting, and connecting with wilderlings born of earth and fire from across the globe. I am working on a longer journal on Shambhala, but it will have to wait for now.

Though the festival dream is over, Chiang Mai is still quite blissful. I have climbed in otherworldly limestone caves, scaling moonscape toufas of melted rock. I have eaten a mountainous spread of halal Pakistani curries while watching a nearby group of tourists sit with their legs submerged in a tank of cleaner fish. I have ridden a bicycle through twisting traffic that knows no painted lines, and a motorbike down a pothole scarred highway through rice paddies and bamboo jungle. I have dined with Thai villagers, who gigglingly pass you fried unknowns and pop the tops off glass beer bottles with their teeth without blinking. I have rapped on the microphone with a Thai jam band (admittedly to a forgiving audience of three friends) at an art studio/bar, and played guitar with a gorgeous massage therapist in her bungalow studio. I have sustained several slaps and punches from a Thai biker gang who mistook me for a local Thai. I have seen that the world can be quite small, and that home can be anywhere you decide to lay down roots. My two short weeks in Chiang Mai have taught me a lot, in an experiential sense. I would live here, definitely, but I will continue my travels so I can be doubly sure.

I have met an incredible cast of characters in Chiang Mai. I will describe the major characters with unjust brevity, and hope to not insult the minor characters with their absence from the list (y’all are wonderful and you know it):

The Roommates
Taylor: an intellectual adventurer and fellow DePauw alumnus. He’s thoughtful and kind and has a comical tendency to laugh at pretty much everything, from my ribald stories to his whimsical purchase of a $6000 mountain bike. His mind cuts to the core, yet that critical gaze and ready retort that I recall from college has been tempered by a dream life working a dream job in the dreamy city of Chiang Mai (though he would still intimidate the typical bread-and-butter graduate student). Humble—will happily state that he hasn’t climbed much but then powers his way up a 6c+ grind—and talkative—will willingly discuss anything from the Paleo diet to American hip hop.

Barry: an expat Welshman and Crossfit coach. Regimented and driven (partly by his signature “bulletproof coffee:” an epileptic (by which I mean, it would render me inoperable) blend of coconut oil, raw butter, and jet black coffee. Barry has a smile and friendly demeanor that disarms your wary thoughts about whether the guy could crumple a steel barrel. Also thoughtful and smart as hell, though he never flaunts it. Definitely a dude I’d like to count among my friends..particularly at a dinner party and in a dive bar brawl.

Pui Pui: a dazzling Thai femme fatale, ex-climber goddess and current Olympic weightlifter. She is gorgeous, sweet, and fun–she got that diva style and none of the priss, you know? She’s the kind of beautiful woman that I’m genuinely glad is dating a rockstar like Barry; otherwise, I fear that I would be hopelessly fresh with her. In all seriousness, I find the pair incredible and their relationship inspirational [someday I’ll be mature enough to stop there] and I think Pui Pui would nonchalantly send me to the hospital if she was single and I was acting a fool [end joke].

The Friends
Karim: a world citizen climber with conversational language skills from his many past homes. A bit of a professional bullshitter—during the introductory exchange of asking where he was from, he replied “I’m from the moon” and I had to roll with it (“Ah! Heard it’s cold there. Light side or dark side?”). Easily one of the best climbing partners that I’ve had in a long while; the guy is damn charismatic and can persuade you to climb harder than you ever thought possible and without grievance. In all fairness, that charisma is a double-edged sword occasionally, particularly when paired with that damn bottle of Myanmar rum that he manages to produce in the decisive moment when you’re splitting the fence between reasonably going home to bed and joining him on his escapades.

Jennifer: a true Chicagoan and long-term traveler. She describes herself as Type A, but I think that does her a bit of injustice. She’s definitely driven, but in traveling with her I found her genuinely happy to wander and explore without definitive plans. Woman definitely knows her way around a schedule though, and was likely a hellofa school administrator back home. I enjoyed her company as a fellow US traveler—it was nice to remember a taste of my own culture and furthermore not be repulsed by it. I will fondly remember her company at our apartment’s Great Gatsby themed birthday party for Pui; Jennifer and I had a comically difficult time finding ingredients for Manhattans. The end product was pretty good and a colossal favorite, but really only resembled the true cocktail in the Kentucky bourbon and orange slice.

Stefan: an Austrian climber and yoga enthusiast from Vienna. His personality matches the circular Hari Krishna knot of hair on the back of his shaved head: calm, positive, and energy-aware. His activities represent the range of possible pursuits in bohemian Chiang Mai: acro yoga lessons, massage therapy school, and shamanic breathing sessions to name a few. I joined him and a dynamic band of merry backpackers when I moved back into the transient hub of Old City. Together, we floated to Chiang Dao for Shambhala, which I hope to describe in full detail when I have the time.

Jan: a[nother] South African with dynamic personality. He has been teaching English in Korea and Vietnam for the past few years, along with generally enjoying life in Asia. Jan has the same metabolic blitz as Julian, the other South African with whom I traveled with from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I met Jan whilst sampling the succulent array of food carts near Mun Mueang Soi 6, and indeed his exuberant attitude toward life can be best described in accordance with his signature exclamation about the food: “The food here is incredible! And so cheap! I f*cking love it! Is that pad Thai? It looks amazing, I must have some..no wait, better make it three! Here, you must try some, please you must!” Jan was also a merry participant at Shambhala, and I plan to see him again in Vietnam for continued adventures.

That is all for now. Bangkok Pt 2 will be coming along shortly, and many other thoughtful ramblings besides. Cheers and love!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


….Stays On Khao San Road (Bangkok Pt 1.1)

Bangkok: “Sawat dee ka, farang.”
[Worn wonder, told by Western backpacker thrown immediately into the fire]

Bangkok. Hectic city that never sleeps, or sleeps restlessly. A leisurely-chaotic cultural haven plagued by gawking and griping tourist rats, or farang (ฝรั่ง pronounced “falang”) as the locals say. But the Thais have mastered the plague, learned to channel it literally into their open and waiting pockets. Smiles and scams, as a Thailand veteran once told me. And it is quite true. Let me start at the beginning, though.

It is Thursday, January 16, 2014, and I have landed at Savarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. My reality shifts the moment I exit the plane. I trudge into the airport, still weak from traveling halfway across the world on the dregs of stomach flu and prescription Valium—a muting cocktail, to be sure. But context switch is a healing art, and I quickly ascribe to the practice by drinking in my surroundings. And what novel sights, even in the familiar setting of an airport! The curly squiggles of Thai signs and posted directions, the images and figures of Buddha and ….the vast sea of short, wiry Asians with jet black hair and matching eyes! It is my inaugural experience as part of the superficial majority and I will expound later, but for now I will simply state [mild sarcastic relapse] that it is quite refreshing to be one of the taller people around [end relapse with stomach grimace].

The novelty wears off quickly, as I must become business-like and handle step one of countless: get through customs. I bought a one-way ticket, which poses a slight issue. Often times customs officials will check for proof of onward travel, which on principle I do not have [2]. Instead, I had “purchased” a one-way flight itinerary from Chiang Mai (Thailand) to Phnom Penh (Cambodia) in early February, printed off the confirmation page, highlighted my personal and flight information, smudged out the “you must purchase this itinerary within four days of making your reservation” with an ink pen and eraser, and crossed my fingers that a young and bored customs official will let me pass. I had also retrieved a couple bank account statements—my way of saying, “Look look! I have money! I won’t stay! Promise!” Now at the airport, I prepare my documents and winningest smile, find the youngest looking customs official with the longest line in front of him, and enter the queue feeling a bit anxious.

Mission: Unclassified Adventure

I am positively let down, like a young cop witnessing neither crashes nor explosions on his first high-speed chase. The customs official, a cropped haired and boyish Thai whose half-smile states “I know why you’re here,” glances at my passport, then looks back up at me and asks laughingly, “who is this?”

“It’s me!” I laugh, muscles relaxing and immediately at ease, “that picture was taken in 2007, I was much younger then [cheesy tourist smile].”

“Ok” says the official, shaking his head. And that’s it. No further checks or questions. A stamp and a smile, and suddenly I’m in Thailand.

[Brief reflection] In truth, I do look very different from my picture. Then: Beatles-mopped hair; thick glasses covering shallow, shy eyes; a thicker body from six years of playing football; and of course no smile—it wasn’t cool to smile back then, or something idiotic like that. Now: true long hair pulled into a tight bun; glasses gone and [vain moment] eyes that pierce and challenge and engage [end vainglory]; body thinned by the grad student budget and a full mustache that the right people love and the best people hate; and always smiling—especially for customs officials. Reflecting as I moved past the booth, I’ve come a long way and grown quite a bit. My personality and demeanor carries a great deal more experience now, and perhaps a wink or two of wisdom…perhaps [end reflection].

There is only a small hiccup in the enjoyable saga of the first day. At the airport taxi counter, I am confronted by my first labeling of faranghood. I greet the two Thai ladies at the counter and engage in the “please talk loudly and slowly and gesture frequently” to get to my hostel: Suk 11 on Sukhumvit Soi 11. They jabber with themselves about where the place is, and say, “OK! Taxi! 500 baht.”

I know this is a gross overcharge meant for unwitting tourists, so I ask, “Can you have them run the meter please?” with a smile that drips sweetly. “Meter. Kob kun kap [thank you].”

The reply I receive is a narrowing of eyes and “[rising crescendo] Whaaat?! No! 400 baht or no taxi!”

So much for fitting in (though I will talk later about the wild experience of being an Asian foreigner here). I know that the confrontation is a show, but I’m tired and not willing to fight, so I fork over the cash and take the taxi to Suk 11 [3]. A note for those reading this and following in my footsteps: brave the BTS public transit. It’s a very cheap, very clean and well operated sky train with ample announcements and postings in English. Next time.

BTS transit map–in English!

The joy of travel resumes at the hostel, a uniquely quaint wooden and bamboo complex operated by friendly but informative Thais. Suk 11 is a multistory complex; the ground level composes the main room and office with a stairway going up to three floors of rooms and dorms. The public area walls are festooned with decorations made by employees and guests alike: drawings and paintings, strings of prayer flags and thank you notes, colorful bits of recycled flair, and pictures of the Thai king. Upstairs, long bamboo planks passing between lantern-lit shrines and art installations form the hallways between rooms. The rooms are clean and cared for, though I still put my own padlock on the outside door after I stash my backpack. Don’t want my stuff to be stolen at the first place I visit.

At around 6pm, I go downstairs to talk to my fellow backpackers. What a United Nations we are at Suk 11—United Nations +1 even! In the six short days I spent there, I spoke with people from China, Japan, Sweden, Britain, Australia, US, Germany, France, Estonia, South Africa, India, Italy, Spain, Israel, Iran, South Korea, and of course, Thailand. The Asians all ask me curiously about my background, and I alternate between saying I’m from the States and from Korea to test the difference in reactions [4]. There’s also a wide range in age—from the young high school age backpackers to the graying early retirees—and socioeconomic backgrounds—ragged longhair dirtbaggers all the way up to the collared business elite vacationers. It’s a scene from my traveler’s dream: meet and engage the entire medley of backpacking culture.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Canadian friends inside Suk 11, the guesthouse rooftop grotto, Sukhumvit Soi 11, and the guesthouse restaurant by night

Tonight, however, I am tired and hungry and so I begin to speak earnestly with a pair of mid-20s Swedish backpackers. Their names are Anton and David; I soon learn that they are fellow climbers and following the continental European practice of working hard to take some time off. The three of us hit the streets, hungrily window shopping the rows of Thai food carts boasting seafood and fish (fried whole, not a scale missing), chicken and unidentifiable skewers, noodles, brightly colored vegetables and other fantastic edibles. I haggle my way into some pad Thai for 30 baht (less than one US dollar), and it is beyond delicious. The three of us sit on the concrete stoop of a 7/11 behind the cart, eating greedily and sipping beer, all the while lightly discussing our respective countries and listening to the cart owners banter with each other in their tonal language. It’s all quite a trip—the new sights and smells, the loud and hectic bustle, and the jet lag make me feel euphoric, and bewildered.

At 9pm, the jet lag wins. I feel like I’m back in college—bleary eyed and watching the sun rise out the window of an academic building. I bid my new friends a good night, promise them that I’ll join them on Khao San Rd (more later) tomorrow, and head to bed. In what must be the shortest time on record falling asleep, I smile contently and think to myself, This will be epic. This will be irreversibly mind-altering. I have arrived.

Footnotes for the Curious Reader

[1] Thank you Anna for the heads up on onward travel, though it was not needed. Thank you Ashley for the drop on Suk 11—incredible place to stay!

[2] This is probably to ensure that you are not some poor or bankrupt urchin hoping to make it in Thailand but more likely destined to drink and dine your dwindling money away and end up grovelling in the streets, fatefully gripping the country’s philanthropic dress hem and contributing nothing but needs. Also, I feel that this is my dad talking through me, but I mostly agree with him.

[3] I do not begrudge or scorn these women, or any Thai working the farang thing. From one angle, Thailand is practically raped by tourism (not exactly my views). I will continue practicing Thai and watching how the Thais do, so to speak, and hopefully will have better experiences in the future.

[4] Admittedly, I get a better reaction when I say that I’m from Korea—comments on my English, questions about whether both my parents are Korean, and many smiley greetings of “annyeonghaseyo!”