Road Trip to the other Northern Chiang
02.05.2009 36 °C
Haven't written much travelwise of late as I haven't done much travelling. Arrived in Chiang Mai 2 and a half weeks ago and I'm not planning on leaving for another 3 weeks. I have been bitten by by both a metaphorical and a literal Chiang Mai bug. Actually, mosquitoes aren't bugs really, but lets not ruin things by being pedantic (it would be a first for me, I know).
The book is progressing nicely and I've fallen into a comfortable routine; notably, I haactually know what day it is now because I take the weekend off writing and get drunk on a Friday night, as per usual. I have a gym membership, am renting a motorbike for 3 weeks tomorrow and have an air-con room next to a small but nice swimming pool. And I've met some lovely people, so everything is sweet and lovely.
Jessie who I met in Koh Phagnan has moved to Chiang Mai with her Thai boyfriend Mek (not sure about the spelling) and together they've opened a small guest house called quite appropriately the 'Happy Hippy House'. Jessie speaks Thai and does project work with the hill-tribes in Northern Thailand, managing volunteers who come over, live in villages and teach them or help them build. She has been working in an Akha village near Chiang Rai. Last weekend, Mek decided to hire a car to go and collect her and bring her back to Chiang Mai, so myself and 2 other friends Dan and Carla decided to go with him. The plan was to stay for a night in the village and then spend another night in Chiang Rai.
Mek drove on the way there, and I watched him carefully as I was going to be driving us back and I was trying to work out the differences: what the 'rules' of Thai driving, whether officially or otherwise, actually were. Initaly Mek said 'Make up own rules'. It did seem like everybody was. Flashing lights definitely means 'I'm coming through' rather than 'go' like it often does in the UK. Lanes are merely a concept. Overtaking on blind corners is normal. And just assume that there will always be a motorbike trying to pass on both sides of you, and you should be fine. I didn't see many speed signs, but Mek said the speed limit was 120kmh. I've since looked online and discovered that there are only certain roads, that it's generally 90kmh, so I was generally breaking the speed limit.
We arrived in the village fairly late, about 8.30pm. There were about 12 western volunteers and numerous Akha tribes people welcoming us with huge smiles and warm greetings. Unbeknownst to us, they had all been waiting on us as the 'guests' to arrive before serving dinner: a huge range of tasty and spicy dishes served communally with sticky rice. I've eaten with Thai people a lot over the past few weeks and the whole sharing multiple dishes idea makes so much sense that when I go out with westerners it feels odd that people order their 'own' dishes. Communal eating provides more diversity, brings people together in a shared experience, allows people to eat as much or as little as they want, makes less waste, and is just generally more fun. No idea at what point in the history of Western civilisation we lost this important human experience, but it's worth recapturing. Think how much more fun barbecues and picnics are?
The food was lovely as were the bottles of Chang beer that swiftly followed; and the bottles of Lao Kao. I was despatched to the village shop (think more like a very small room in someone's house that you thenrealise IS the house). The shop was surrounded by about 9 Akha women all sitting round a television watching a Thai soap opera, as I approached them they all smiled welcomingly and one of tem vacated I seat so that I could join them in watching the soap opera. Whilst I appreciated the invitation, it was booze I was after and luckily 'Lao Kao' is the Thai and the English name so it wasn't a difficult negotiation. As I left though, after making broken small talk full of ridiculous gesticulations and much laughter, they tried to find me a girlfriend, dissapointed as they were that I was single. They did this by pointing at a series of girls some Akha, some Western and making a gesture with their fingers that could be fairly universally understood. It was quite embarassing, but I appreciated their help. They were also notably oblivious to the 15 year age gap between me and some of their spousal candidates.
The volunteers were made up predominantly of gap year students who were giving between 4 and 6 weeks of their time teaching and helping the villagers construct a new building before they headed off on the backpacker trail. Despite their young age, they were very articulate, well edcuated and had strong opinions; I had some of the most interesting discussions of my whole trip with the volunteers; and a few heated debates (I blame the Lao Kao). Most (not all) of the volunteers were educated privately, and I must say that private education seems to breed both a remarkable self-confidence and a breadth of cultural understanding that isn't always found with other people I've met travelling, regardless of age. (I'm reminded of a guy I met who was pissed off that they had a "fuckin' picture of a burger on the menu but they don't do no burgers; or even some bloody chips") If anything, it makese me worry that our public education system doesn't invest enough time and energy in building confidence and giving a broad, pluralistic education: more of a 'world' view. The focus in education nowadays is on achieveing specific and quantifiable 'learning outcomes' rather than producing rounded members of society. I understand the rationale, but I think it actually serves to deepen the class divide.
The villagers were just as entertaining, though not as articulate (in English at least, they might have been HIGHLY articulate in Thai). The volunteers had given them all English nick names as well as their Thai/Akha names. I can only remember a few of their names: Cheeky Chops, Akha George Clooney and Papa. What was very sweet about the villagers, and Papa in particular, is that they really worried about their guests safety and wellbeing. I was up tallking to one of the volunteers till late o'clock in the morning, and Papa had been lying in the shadows making sure we were safe. Apparently we were up so late that he fell asleep and we went to bed (we didn't know at the time he was there), when he woke and discovered we were gone he worried that something had happened to us, rather than that we had just gone to sleep (passed out might be closer to the truth). One of the volunteers had apparently been staying there for many months and made a point of drinking a whole bottle of Lao Kao every night. He got so drunk that every night the villagers would help or carry him back to his hut and sleep on his balcony to make sure he was ok. Of course they eventually bored of this after a few weeks and left him to sleep on his own. But the thought was there.
We had come on a particularly auspicious day as the next day was the day when the 'spirit gate' that protects the village was being rebuilt. This happens only once a year, and it was great to see their deft touch with a machete. Akha George Clooney was particularly skilled. I learned that if anyone touches the spirit gate then it will bring bad luck to the village unless a pig is sacrificed (or something...) so we all gave the gate a wide berth. Animism infuses everything in Thailand. The villagers belief system is based on Animism, but then Thai Buddhism is a fusion of Buddhism and Animism. The Buddha said nothing about having spirit houses outside your house so that the spirits don't live with you, but all Thai people have them. Don't question them on it though, they don't have an answer: it's just the way it is.
Was so taken by the hill tribe, and driving in Northern Thailand that I put a deposit down today for a hire of a pickup truck, so am going to drive all around the North for 2 weeks. I have a few meeting points along the way, and am picking up some friends at various locations, but mostly I'm on my own. In a big silver truck. Get in!
Revisiting the village I've just been writing about (I, ahem, don't know the name of it, but I will...soon and come and edit the post when I do) a few times, going to Pai, to Mae Hong Son to Mae Sai, Golden Triangle and wheresoever the whim takes me. Till then....