Traveling can play tricks with the mind. There is an instinctual drive to make house, to feel as though where you are is home, even if you are a nomad. Even wandering tribesmen in Mongolia decorate the inside of their tents to a certain comfort level. And so we had noticed our habit of settling into a place after a while.
Arriving at a new destination always brings a sense of wonder and excitement and the drive to explore. Everything is so fresh and new, and it feels as though there would be no way to take it all in. The mind is in a constant state of distraction and there seems to be no end of beautiful things.
In Chiang Mai, this is so apparent, as there is so much to do. There are cooking classes, endless bazaars and street vendors, restaurants and coffee shops everywhere, and plenty of bars too. If you feel like getting out of town, there is white water rafting, bamboo rafting, mountain biking, rock climbing, hill tribe trekking, elephant trekking, and visiting the long neck tribes, although I don’t recommend this last one, as this barbaric practice would probably be extinct if not for its commercial value to tourism.
Then, after a time, you’ve seen and done all the touristy stuff, and life begins to feel almost routine. Things begin to feel as familiar as your hometown, and bam, you realize that you are no longer a tourist, you are a resident. And that is when it is your solemn duty as a vagabonder to leave town.
There are many things I learned in my time in Thailand, and not just in a metaphysical sense. There are so many misperceptions about the world and the people in it, so many great lies told daily to the public by the media all in the name of keeping them in fear, and thus easily manipulated for the sake of public and foreign policy, that when confronted directly with the truth, it becomes overwhelming. And, if you are brave enough to accept that truth, it becomes liberating.
Take Thailand. I had many misconceptions about it before arriving; I thought it was dangerous, thought that we needed to fear for our children, had heard that terrorism was rampant, and that violence was everywhere. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are a few states in the south of Thailand bordering on Malaysia that have the occasional bombing by extreme Muslim factions, but the rest of Thailand feels (and is) safer, and friendlier than most places in North America.
One of the harsh truths about Thailand, and Asia in general, is the pollution. For several months of the year, the ‘brown cloud’ hovers over much of Southeast Asia. It can’t be seen from the ground, but is visible from space as a brown distortion over the region, mostly caused by vehicle pollution and burning of forests and wildfires in places such as Borneo and Indonesia.
In Thailand, it is on the street level that you will experience the worst of it. Taxi’s (Song Thaews and Tuk-Tuks) are horrible polluters, emitting filthy black smoke that can hang above the street for moments before mingling with the general smog. Scooters and motorcycles, having two stroke engines, emit more particulate matter than most vehicles per kilometer driven. Roadside food vendors will quite often cook their delicious meals on open wood fires.
Chiang Mai presents a particular problem, as it lies in a long valley, with large fires being set regularly to clear fields for rice planting, which compounds the issue. Shortly before our arrival in April, Chiang Mai went 3 times above the World Health Organization safety limit for air pollution, prompting officials to deal with the problem by banning street cooking fires until the smog returned to normal (meaning at the upper limit set by the WHO.) It’s no surprise that Chiang Mai is the per capita lung cancer capital of the world.
On a less depressing note, I have realized that many of the idiosyncrasies of life in Thailand are things that, as I say, get overlooked when you have lived there too long. Some of the more memorable things are as follows:
Most houses and buildings have giant plastic or tin water tanks, to hold water in case of a shortage. They tend to dominate the skyline and provide a contrast to the temple spires that pop up between the buildings.
You cannot take ten steps in any direction without being confronted with a restaurant in some form or another. With food prices ranging from 20 Baht (66 cents CAD!) and up for pad Thai, it’s cheaper to eat out than to cook at home. Western style restaurants have similar prices to North America, but who comes to Thailand to eat a burger and fries?
Driving has its own rhythm, with a ‘just go and hope it all works out’ mentality. There are few stop signs. The general rule of thumb is that smaller streets yield to bigger streets, and if in doubt, slow down and honk. When you hear very loud obnoxious voices bellowing oiut down the street, it’s just an advertising truck. These trucks have giant speakers mounted on them and they prowl the streets at half the speed limit (oh, wait, there are no speed limits), um, half the speed of the other traffic, blaring their advertising messages about everything from cell phones to politicians.
If you see a man climbing up a bamboo ladder resting against one of the concrete electrical posts, don’t worry, he’s just doing his job. Presumably the Thais know something about the grounding properties of bamboo that we don’t. For that matter, all construction happens on bamboo scaffolding tied together with twine. There’s something unnerving about seeing a 10 story building flanked by bamboo poles, with people climbing all over them like agile ants.
Besides the delights of the occasional squat toilet, most bathrooms have a spray hose near the toilet, and frequently have the whole room hosed off by some enthusiastic person. I personally don’t like sitting on a wet toilet seat, which would prompt me to dry the seat off, which would lead me to another dilemma, namely that you are not supposed to put toilet paper down the toilet, as the sewer system can’t handle it. It goes in the trash bin beside the toilet, which poses its own health and safety hazards, or leads to having an immune system normally reserved for mutant Canadian superheroes.
Of course, if this whole experience leaves you feeling unclean, most bathrooms have a shower head on the wall, you know, the removable kind on a hose, and you can clean yourself and the bathroom at the same time. The water is even heated sometimes by a flash water heater, which eliminates the annoyance of needing a hot water tank (unheard of in Thailand.)
I’m sure I could make this list go on and on, but my point is, ultimately, that the experience you will gain by travelling in a foreign culture is something that far surpasses anything you can read about living in a foreign land. And I say this with just a touch of irony. The map is not the territory. Sometimes you need to just get out and explore the world for yourself.