Thailand, Year of Travel

Someone Else’s Paradise

I learned a lot about myself the last few days. On Monday, when we were organising hiring a car to drive up to the mountains from Chiang Mai, I was nervous. Nervous because I have seen people drive in Thailand, and though I’m used to driving on the left side of the road (UK, oh hey), I’m not used to the tailgating and hundreds of scooters.

(Side note: why didn’t we rent a scooter/motorbike? I don’t know who needs to hear this but if you don’t ride a scooter in your home country you shouldn’t ride one in Thailand. Thailand has the second highest road traffic fatality rate in the world – if you drive a car, get a car.)

Driving in Chiang Mai was a little stressful, but once out it was fine. Tackling the Himalayan steepness of Doi Inthanon meant a heavy right foot, but, we made it. We took a side road on the giant mountain, around 40 minutes from the summit, and headed into a mountain village to camp.

We love camping. Being close to nature – bla bla bla – skip to the end, we like it. We arrived at this campsite to hear that as we were the only guests, we had been given an upgrade from a tent, to a bamboo hut with three walls, a futon, and an incredible view. It was quite an amazing place to be inside, and we sat with our legs dangling over the edge of the floor, staring into the majesty of the mountains. It was spectacular.

The owner of the campsite then arrived with two rice whiskeys (this is a homemade whiskey that is drank in rural areas. You can tell the level of homemade by the fact it’s kept in old coca cola bottles, and sold ‘under the bar’ in various small shops for around 30 baht a bottle). We tried it, and though it’s not to my taste (think raki), it was okay. The owner loved it, and indeed, carried a bottle with her most places over the next couple of days.

The owner of the campsite then said ‘We are going swimming!’

‘Okay!’ We said, before awkwardly trying to change into our swimming costumes with only three walls, one of which has a huge open window. The owner, her son, and a family member took us to a rocky, deep, stream further down from a waterfall. It was an amazing, though painful, experience. I am not what you might call a graceful person, and dragging yourself over rocks in a swimming costume has to be one of the least graceful activities in the world. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun.

We headed back to the campsite to change before dinner. The owner told us that as we were the only ones staying we would be eating in the town, which was fine by us. ‘We are vegetarian’, we told her. ‘No problem.’ She said.

We ended up having a sort of Thai cooking class at the owner’s family home, in which we made papaya salad (having earlier plucked the papaya from a tree). There were quite a few moments over the few days where we were completely unaware of what was happening. For example, we shared the papaya salad, believing this to be our dinner. The owner’s son and his friend (around eight years old), kept eating the salad too. Here is where a difference in culture can cause difficulty – we are British, we use cutlery. We enjoy eating with our hands but we wouldn’t share a ‘wet’ meal with other people unless we were all using cutlery. Eating a papaya salad (full of sauce) from one plate, with people we don’t know, who are using their fingers, is a little close to eating out of a strangers hands.

But, then we were taken to a different table for a big spread, with the family sat around. We hadn’t expected that at all! We were very touched that we had been invited. We asked what the food was, and the owner assured us that it was vegetarian, aside from one dish, which we should avoid. Great! We tucked in. Daniel watched me take a bite. ‘Is that meat?’ he asked. Yep. Pork. It’s very challenging to explain to someone who eats meat how it feels to eat an animal when you’re vegetarian. It’s like a physical sickness that springs from your stomach, filling your mouth with a clacky, thick, form of saliva. It is a form of repulsion. I quickly swallowed the meat and tried not to think about it. We asked the owner, ‘Is this meat?’ She said something in Thai and then laughed. ‘Yes! Oh well, you’ll have to pray to your god to ask forgiveness for one day. I forgot to say.’

Ah, if only. Unfortunately we don’t have a god. We smiled our atheist smiles and worried that we might cause offence by picking around the dishes as we usually would, so did the classic vegetarian ‘pretend you’re tucking in, but really you’re eating rice and mixing up just enough sauce to make it look as though you’ve had other stuff too’. You plant based diet fans know exactly what I’m talking about.

We headed home after the meal, and everyone went to bed. There we sat, in our three walled hut, with a small lamp, watching the mountains in the darkness.

Note: We are fully aware that people live in housing without walls, without ceilings – we understand all of this. We understand our privilege, we understand that we benefit from it. Neither of us have ever lived in a three walled hut, and so, this is an experience and reaction born from that fact.

Nature turned up its various noises, and we tried to chat. It was only around 8.30pm, but the light was too dim to read, and as Daniel set up various long exposure shots on his camera to catch the stars twinkling, I watched the room in an ever growing panic. I had seen a rat crawl three times down from the ceiling and back up again, and the noises of various creatures were beginning to sound like they were coming from the walls. Eventually, after some coaxing from Daniel to please try and relax, I put in my ear plugs and we turned out the light. I sat up twice in a sweat. The first time I asked Daniel to turn on the light so that I could detail all of my sleeping options – I could sleep in the car, or what about the tents that were set up? Perhaps they had futons in them. When we left the mountains yesterday Daniel told me that the first time he switched on the light that night a mouse was halfway across the room. He decided not to mention it. Probably for the best.

All in all, I lay squirming and stressing for around an hour, eventually giving myself a migraine. I just couldn’t cope with lying in nature in the Thai mountains – even though I told myself that all cowboys have to sleep in nature sometimes (that’s my go to comfort technique. I want to be a cowboy – more specifically, I want to be Arthur Morgan). I realised, as I lay, that there are many dreams that people wish for, that actually don’t appeal to everyone. (Note: swimming with dolphins, for example, has always sounded terrible to me. I don’t want to swim with a dolphin. You’re on the dolphin’s turf.) I was lying in another, much braver, person’s dream. I turned on the light again and told Daniel that I was done. I couldn’t do it. I could have cried with relief when I found that the two man tent nearest to the hut had a futon in it. I lay down, zipped away nature, and slept away my head pain.

Early the next morning I went back to the hut and found a tired Daniel, who hadn’t slept very well. In the daylight I was able to see the beauty of the hut again, and the views were outstanding. The fog lay heavy over the mountains, their tips just visible in the swirling mist. It was breath-taking. We managed, amazingly, to sleep for a little longer (so essentially what I’m saying is that technically, technically, I did sleep in the hut so you can give me my prize now).

So far, we were happy with our trip. We had gotten to swim in an amazing place, eaten with a local family, and we were excited to wake up and visit the hot springs under our own steam. We were discussing our plans sleepily when there was a knock at the door. It was the eight year old son offering us coffee, and something in Thai, but as we don’t speak Thai we just said yes to the coffee. However, when the coffee arrived, the son got into our bed. What? Yes! He got into our bed. The bed that we were in. He started going through our stuff, rolling around, and generally being a pain. We tried to look up things to do in the local area, but he wouldn’t stop grabbing our phones and trying to see what we were doing. Just annoying. It would have been different if we were his au-pairs, but we weren’t. We were paying actual money for a private room. This sort of set the scene for the rest of the day I’m afraid, and got us off to a grumpy start. The owner told us that we were going with her today. She said that she would take us to see the rice fields, and that then we could go and see the hot springs. This sounded good to us (albeit, we weren’t sure that there was much of an option to say no) – a trip in the morning and then doing something alone later. After all, this was the reason we had hired a car, so that we could go where we wanted.

Into the back of the van we piled, and off to the rice fields with the owner, her son and his best friend, and their uncle. It was a beautiful and incredible sight. The owner had prepared food for us to eat in one of the huts, and it was a lovely experience. Without the uncle driving his truck, I don’t know that we could have made it that far up the rocky terrain, and we may never have seen those incredible views.

Next, we were taken to some natural springs (note: not the hot springs, which is a different place). We swam in the cool water, and though this sounds calming and lovely, do bear in mind that we had two eight year olds screaming in our ears (I don’t mean screaming near us – I mean actually screaming in our ears), splashing us repeatedly, dive bombing us, and at one point climbing on Daniel’s back and not letting him up. This did ruin the calming, cooling effect of the experience somewhat.

This is where the day took an odd turn. It went from a sightseeing experience, to just sort of running errands with a Thai family experience. We went to a plant shop because they wanted to buy some plants. We went to pick up whiskey. We visited a few people’s houses and awkwardly stood in the doorway, unsure why we were there. I think they were unsure too. We went to visit a baby, where I was repeatedly told that I must have a baby very soon as I am in my thirties – a subject that was brought up again at dinner that evening (note: In any country, in any language, you should never comment on someone else’s reproductive situation. I don’t care if you mean it in an ‘it would be so great if you have kids’ way. Whether or not a woman chooses to have a baby is nobody’s business but her own).

Eventually, I started to feel unwell. Spending all day in the Thai sunshine is not easy, and the relentless series of visiting places without being told where we were actually going was really annoying. By the time we got back to the campsite it was around 5pm, and we were exhausted. We went to lie down in the hut for a minute, needing respite, and talked in hushed tones about how today we couldn’t visit the hot springs, not now, it would be too much. When we heard a shout of ‘Is anyone alive in there?’ around ten minutes after we had got in, it was all I could do not to shout back, ‘Please just give us a second! We’re INFP-T!’ (we our two of the 4% of the population that share this introvert personality type – it helps to explain why, at no point in the above trip, we were able to say that we wanted to go back to the campsite so we could take some time to refuel and head to the hot springs).

After dinner, some Brexit chat (even in Thailand, I know), and witnessing a giant tokay (big gecko) take up home on the huts front door, we both snuck to the two man tent, Daniel included, and slept.

We got up early the next morning, packed our bags, and left for the Doi Inthanon summit. We visited the rainforest in the mountains, two incredible waterfalls, the two pagodas for the King and Queen, and generally stood in awe at various points of the mountain. Expect a little ‘things to see here’ post soon! Once in the car and headed home (by this I mean back to Chiang Mai), we felt sort of strange. The experience had been undoubtedly a ‘real Thai experience’ and had been amazing at times, but we felt conflicted by it. I suppose this is highlighted by the bill that we paid at the end – we knew, and the family knew, that we were paying for the experience. The trip, the food, the sleeping. So why did we feel like children without autonomy while there? At the start of this post I wrote that I had learned a lot about myself in the last few days. That’s true – I’ve learned that my British reserve is deeply woven into who I am. It’s amazing to witness yourself in a totally different culture, and see how you struggle to adapt. I’ve been learning to speak up my whole life – it doesn’t come easy to me to rock the boat, even slightly (hello INFP-T), and I still have a long way to go in saying what I want, especially when I’m paying for it. Maybe the first step should have been ‘Hey kid, get out of my bed, I don’t know you.’

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