Sunday, March 31, 2013

Transportation in Thailand

In the week and a half since we got off the plane in Bangkok, we have used a combination of trains, buses, boats, tuk tuk, songtaew, motorbike, and our own two feet to get around. We've touched on the local transportation in Bangkok before, when we used the local buses, sky train, and ferry to get around. We braved the motorbike in Pai. Here’s what we think of the other modes of transportation we have encountered.

Long-distance Train: We had always planned to take the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, but we surprised ourselves by deciding to go to Chiang Mai at the very beginning of our trip instead of later. That decision found us at the railway station trying to figure out how the trains worked. We had done our research about which train to be on (we wanted Train 13) and which class (we wanted 2nd class with Air Conditioning), but what we didn't count on was the big fat 0 on the screen at the ticket window. Trains to Chiang Mai were completely sold out for the next three nights. We briefly considered running back to our hotel to grab our bags and catching the train that evening, but that would mean forfeiting a paid night at a hotel and rushing through the afternoon. At a loss, a kind information desk clerk finally let us in on a secret – often, seats open up on the day of. If we came back at 9am the next day, we might be able to find seats.
We did as he suggested, and sure enough, there were suddenly 35 open seats in second class. We booked our tickets, went back to our hotel to pack up and check out, and spent the day wandering around Bangkok. At 6 pm, we loaded onto the train and found our seats.

Second class means that you have a bed to sleep in, but it feels like a hostel with beds lining the length of the train car. During the day, we had two seats facing each other. At night, we had top and bottom bunks.
It was actually quite nice. We were able to order dinner, which they brought right to our seats. And we woke up just in time to watch the countryside go by a bit before we got into Chiang Mai.

Long-distance Bus: From Chiang Mai, we were ultimately headed to Singburi, the town where we are doing our volunteer week. The train stops at nearby Lopburi, but lots of Googling had us thinking that there might be a bus that took us directly to Singburi. We arrived at the Chiang Mai bus station on our bus from Pai and started asking around about how to get to Singburi. We found a VIP bus that cost 800 baht each, but the guy told us to come back and buy our ticket tomorrow. Before we left the bus station, we tried one more time, asking at a ticket window that said “Government Bus.” They ushered us toward a woman who spoke English, who explained that the second class bus stops in Singburi bus station, but the first class and VIP class buses only stop on the side of the highway. Second class it is, then!

We made it to the bus station the next day on a tuk tuk. We learned our lesson from the last time we had tried to find it. When we were leaving Chiang Mai for Pai, we had the great idea of walking to the bus station, with our packs, to save a couple dollars on tuk tuk fare. At one point, we walked into what we later discovered was the District Court and asked if we could go to Pai. They, rightfully, looked at us like we were crazy. Fortunately, the words “bus station” seem to be universally understood, so we made our way after lots of gestures and pointing.

So, this time we went straight to the bus station on a tuk tuk, and he dropped us off around back, exactly where our bus was. We got out, showed the driver our tickets, and added our bags to the pile underneath the bus. Then I had the following conversation with the driver:

Me: We go to Singburi.

Driver: You sit in seats D and E.

Me: Yes. Then we get off at Singburi.

Driver: Seats there. [Pointing to our seats at the front of the bus].

Me: Ok. And we go to Singburi.

And that went on repeat for a couple minutes. Until I changed tactic and announced, “We don’t go to Bangkok.” Clearly confused, the driver points to the top of our ticket, where, printed in bold, it says "Chiang Mai – BKK". Bless that patient man. I repeated “Singburi,” and he took the tickets from me, carrying them closer to the brightly lit bus station. Apparently in small Thai print at the bottom of the ticket, it said “Depart – Singburi.” Thank goodness!

At this point, it seemed the entire bus knew where we were getting off. The conductor came to check on us twice to confirm where we were going, and when we pulled into the station, other passengers alerted us to the fact that we were finally in Singburi. It was 4:30 in the morning.

Fortunately the bus ride was quite pleasant, with extra leg room since we were in the front row, and blankets provided by the bus. They even turned off the blaring Thai soap opera after a while so we could catch some sleep. So for 4:30 in the morning, we were reasonably alert but still had no idea what we were doing. This story will be continued…

Tuk tuks: We have finally ventured into hiring tuk tuks when we need them, although the interaction still makes us a little nervous. We have heard numerous accounts of scams by tuk tuk drivers who tell you your hotel is closed or insists on taking you to a shop first. In Chiang Mai, at least, we have had absolutely no experience with this. Every tuk tuk driver has been nice, and they have all been fair. At our best, we discuss the price we are willing to pay before-hand, ready to haggle if they suggest a higher price. Every time except once, the driver starts at the price we have already decided on, so we grin and hop in the car. The one time it was different, we offered less and he met us in the middle. At our worst, we are distracted and undecided, so the driver announces a relatively high price, and we dumbly nod our heads and climb in. Fortunately, the former has been more common than the latter.

The funniest experience we have had was a driver who clearly had picked us up on his way to dinner. We were trying to get to the Chiang Mai bus station (always an adventure!) when he picked us up, and stopped again a few blocks later. We initially thought he was asking directions, but after a few apologetic glances our way, he managed to ask us what time we had to catch our bus. It turns out, he had pulled over to order dinner, so we were sitting there waiting on them to bring it to him! “Five minutes!” he promised (everything in Thailand is “five minutes!”). But we just laughed and told him we would be ok. For once on our trip, we were early for something, so no problem. He got us to the bus in plenty of time

Songthaew: In English, songthaew translates to “two rows.” That’s a pretty apt description, considering it’s two rows of benches down the back of a pick-up truck. Our common experience with these is when we are being picked up by a hotel or planned tour, so we just hop in the back and ride along wherever they take us. One time, we tried to hire one to take us somewhere specific, and we somehow ended up chartering it to drive us across town. Not quite how they are supposed to work…I think they act more like buses, stopping to pick up other passengers along the way while giving you a cheap ride ultimately to your destination. We have yet to really figure this one out yet.

Our own two feet: If in doubt, we walk, and we have been doing quite a lot of that in Thailand! Our feet were prone to blisters when we walked around Australia, back when I alternated between sandals and sneakers. It is so hot here, though, that we are firmly in sandals, and my feet are ugly enough to prove it. No more blisters for me! What I wouldn’t give for a warm bath to soak them in, but we have yet to find a bathtub in Thailand (or anywhere on our trip). I’m seriously considering going to that fish spa to clean them up before we head home, though. We will see!

Oh, Lady Boys

We left Pai with a plan to spend one night in Chiang Mai before moving on to our next adventure. We have to be in Singburi, a small town north of Bangkok, on the 28th, and we wanted to leave plenty of time to figure out how that was going to happen once we got to Chiang Mai.

On the crazy curvy bus from Pai, we met a couple from Australia who was just finishing their travels and headed back to Bangkok to go home. We swapped travel stories for a while, and they asked if we had seen the lady boys show yet. No, we had missed it! So they gave us directions and told us to look for the brilliantly colored head dresses that the stars would be wearing. They also told us to feel free to ask for directions, but to be warned that anyone we asked would laugh at us.

They were right! We made it to the night markets, knowing that the “Cabaret” was somewhere nearby, but we were turned around after getting dropped off by a tuk tuk driver. I decided to be brave and ask the first idle local we passed. Sure enough, we got laughed at, but we did get pointed in the right direction.

We still had about an hour before the show started, so we wandered back and forth among the markets, stopping to watch the silversmiths and fish therapy tanks. They were both captivating, but the fish were so intriguing. People would sit on benches with their feet dangling in a fish tank, and the fish would nibble at their feet. The locals would calmly sit there while typing on their smart phone, while the tourists would giggle and squirm and take photos. It was quite a sight.

Once we were tired of walking, we headed toward the show’s bar. Entry for the lady boys show is free, but there is a one drink minimum. A rather large man/woman sat us at a table near the stage and took our orders. For two beers and a bottle of water, we paid about 300 baht ($10). That’s ridiculously expensive for drinks, but a pretty fair price for a good show, so we sipped slowly and waited for the lights to go out.

I have to mention here that TJ was incredibly uncomfortable so far. We agreed that the muay thai fights were far out of my comfort zone, so this was him repaying the favor. As the audience trickled in, though, we started to realize what a tourist show this was. Seated next to us was an elderly couple, behind us was a group of friends, some of them clearly as uncomfortable as TJ, and in front of us was a gay couple that the waitresses (?) fawned over. Obviously, this show was meant for all kinds of people. We even watched someone’s grandmother get up and dance with a waitress.

This is TJ's excited face.

The show started with a flourish, with dancers dressed in bright colors and feathers. Each song featured a lead who lip-synced to every word of the song while everyone danced around the stage.

Some of the acts were very clever, like one where the singer changed from a woman to a man onstage, even removing his make-up and changing clothes. In another act, the star was a person dressed as half man and half woman. Depending on which voice was singing, he turned to show us one side or the other. It was very impressive!

At the end of the show, the cast sang happy birthday to a man in the back of the audience, and we headed for the door, waving goodbye to all the dancers that were gathering at the exit. What a show!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Life of Pai

TJ and I have been in Thailand for a week now, and we are absolutely smitten. Out of all the wonderful things we have experienced here, our absolute favorite has been the town of Pai. With the possible exception of Sydney, which will always be close to my heart, Pai has been my favorite stop of the trip so far. TJ predicts it will continue to be his favorite throughout the rest of the trip. We will see!

Pai is a small village in the northwest mountains of Thailand. It is a rough, winding, four-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai, the nearest city. The bus left us in the middle of town in a small, concrete parking lot that quickly emptied out of our fellow backpackers and even shopkeepers. Our only sense of direction was a large map which marked all the hotels in the area with their phone numbers. TJ hunted down a payphone while I kept watch over our bags. We were all alone, but our hotel assured us that they were on their way soon.

Fifteen minutes later, a truck pulled up with "Treehouse Resort" painted on the side. We slung our bags into the back and hopped aboard. We were on our way! We had booked a night in one of the resort's treehouse cabins. We didn't really know what to expect, but it sounded like something we had to try.

The truck driver ended up delivering us right to the base of our treehouse, and even picked my pack up out of the truck bed to carry himself. It turns out, that's because we pretty much had to climb the tree to get to our room. There were steps carved into and added to the tree, so it was a safe climb, but it was definitely no staircase.

After carefully picking our way up the tree, we arrived at our home for the night. It was so cool! Double doors, held closed with a padlock, swung open to reveal a small room with a low bed, small refrigerator, sink, and even TV.

The bathroom was around the back of the cabin and tiny, but all ours and everything we needed.

In fact, it felt like the entire resort was all ours. We saw two other guests there as we were leaving the next morning, but other than that, it was quiet and empty. It was actually nice after weeks of cities and crowded hostels.

We didn't have time to enjoy it right away, though! We were hungry, and we had a new town to explore! The same driver happily drove us back into town where we could find dinner and a new form of transportation - a motorbike!

Motorbikes seem to be a primary mode of transportation everywhere we've been in Thailand. We were dying to try it out, and with its lack of public transportation, Pai seemed like the perfect place. Our driver pointed us in the right direction, and we walked into the local motorbike hire. A few minutes later, we walked out with a motorbike. A little too easy.

After circling the village a couple times and finding a nice place for dinner, we made the drive back to our treehouse. I have almost no experience on any kind of motor bike, so I clung to TJ's back as he steered along the dark roads. Don't worry, Mom. We both wore helmets and the bike only gets up to about 60 km per hour!

We spent the night under the mosquito net with the windows of our treehouse open. It was like camping, and it's the first place we've been on our whole trip where we were actually comfortable without air conditioning. After a good night's sleep, we were up early to check out and off on our next adventure - elephants!

The night before, while wandering the village, we came across a sign for Thom's Elephant Camp, a place we had heard of online. After a quick breakfast at the treehouse - rice soup and fried eggs - we dropped of our bags at the reception counter and took off on our motorbike. Turns out, Thom's Elephant Camp was just a couple minutes down the road, so we were early.

While we waited on the rest of our group to show up, the staff handed us leaves and bananas to feed to the elephants. They showed us how to hold the food behind our backs so the elephants wrapped their trunks around us to get it. Their skin is so rough!

Soon, after I embarrassed myself by climbing up to sit on the elephant backward, we headed out on our trek. We spent the first half of the morning on a trail ride through the mountains, sometimes sharing our elephant, Pom Paem, with a mahout, and sometimes having her to ourselves. It was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be! We rode the elephant bareback, with just a blanket under us and a rope to hold onto. When we went downhill, especially, we would slide forward until we were almost on her neck. I was determined not to fall off, but my legs ached afterward from trying to hold on.

The second part of our trek was a loop down to the river, where we were able to play with our elephants in the water. Unbelievable fun! Pom Paem started it by spraying all of us with water from her trunk, then she would lay on her belly in the water so we could slide down her back (sometimes with a little "help" from her leaning to one side). The mahout encouraged us to move up to her head, where we could hold onto her ears while she tried to throw us off! I only tried it once or twice, but TJ was game a few times. The last time, he got head-butted in the chest and thrown into the water, but he surfaced unhurt and to a crowd of cheers and laughs!

After our fill of playtime, we rode the elephants back to camp and slid into the hot tubs to warm up. Pai has natural hot mineral water in the mountains, so this elephant camp had used it to fill a set of hot tubs. I was in heaven. I've been pining for a bathtub for the last few weeks to soothe my aching muscles and blistered feet. This was warm, soothing mineral water, and we got to soak as long as we wanted.

Eventually, we climbed out, showered off, and walked back to the main part of the camp. Our hosts had a delicious lunch of fried rice waiting for us. We took our time eating while we watched a slide show of videos and photographs from our morning elephant ride.

Our experience wasn't quite over yet! After lunch, we joined two other people from our group for a ride down the river on a bamboo raft. It was a lot like I imagine a gondola would be, with a guide standing at one end (in this case, the front) with a long pole that he used to propel and steer us. The difference was that most of our "boat" was just under the water instead of on top of it. Our feet were wet, but the rest of us stayed dry, perched up on bamboo seats in the middle of the raft.

Except for the occasional cow or fisherman, we spent most of the trip in quiet isolation. So peaceful, and so beautiful.

A truck picked us up from the landing point and took us back to the camp, where we got to play with the elephants one last time while we waited for a ride back into town.

We still had our motorbike, but we couldn't fit both of us AND our packs on one bike, so the elephant camp staff kindly carried me and our bags to our new hotel while TJ drove along behind on the motor bike. Our new destination was Baan Pai Village, a hotel we had noticed on our walks around town that offered private bungalows right in the middle of the village.

Our bungalow is a small bamboo and thatch hut that comes with a bedroom, "terrace," and full bathroom. The wall between the bedroom and the terrace - basically, a front porch - is made of windows that can be folded to one side to join the two areas. Mosquitoes are a problem here, especially because we're in an area with dengue fever, so we have a mosquito net on our bed and a mosquito coil on our porch. Someone comes by every evening to light a new mosquito coil for us. We love it so much here, we ended up booking two nights instead of going back to Chiang Mai like we originally thought we would do.

We spent our extra day in Pai exploring on our motor bike. There are quite a few national parks and waterfalls in the area, so we picked a waterfall that didn't have an entry fee and packed a picnic to take with us. We spent the afternoon laying around, splashing a bit in the ice-cold water, and laughing with the kids that braved the cold to slide down the natural water slides. Some people were brave enough to jump off the high rocks!

On the way back, we were running low on gas and had not seen a single gas station. Just as we were starting to get worried, we came across a small building with a hand-written "SAEL GASOLINE" sign hanging outside. Desperate, we pulled off the road and were greeted by two men who gestured at the bike. Yes, we needed gasoline! One man disappeared inside and came back with a clear glass bottle full of liquid and a plastic funnel. He poured the liter into our gas tank, and we handed him 45 baht. I guess it really was gasoline because the bike started up and got us into town with no problems.

The bike was due back to the rental place soon, so we decided to spend the evening exploring the village on foot. It really is small enough to walk from one side to the other in just a few minutes, so it was a pretty easy night. We stopped a small pizza restaurant for dinner. I think I was expecting "Thai" pizza - somehow, a different pizza from home, but instead, it was just delicious, normal pizza. A good sign you're in a tourist area, I suppose.

After dinner and another walk, we decided to listen to our achy muscles and treat ourselves to a massage. We walked into the place next door to our hotel and got a couple's oil massage for 200 baht each. That works out to less than seven dollars.

After elephants and massages, we almost never want to leave this place. We briefly considered renting a place and staying here for a while. We have less than two months left of travel, though, and lots of other amazing things to see, so we bought a bus ticket back to Chiang Mai for tomorrow. Back to the sticky heat, honking horns, and tuk tuk rides! We're already planning the next time we will be able to visit lovely Pai.