A Travellerspoint blog


Easy Rider moment of the trip

sunny 84 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

Pai is a not so secret town about 150 kilometers northwest of Chaing Mai. It sits about fifty kilometers from the Burmese border, sheltered in a valley, surrounded by green mountains and divided by several local rivers. As so often happens, the ex-pat hippies took one look at the surroundings around Pai, and before you know it, Pai was the not-so-secret secret enclave of hippie backpackers and permanent nature loving ex-pats. Between Pai and Chaing Mai are various small villages but mostly wilderness. The road winds up and down with s-turns and switchbacks galore. I decided this would be a good road to motorbike through and got myself what amounted to a zupped up scooter. It was a semi-automatic, so I had gear control, something I felt I needed for the mountains. The drive was tiring, but at the same time liberating. I also had the motorbike while in Pai, which allowed me to get out even further to the Burmese tribal villages that dot the border lands.

A quick note, Burma is in the midst of junta control. The regime has existed since the mid sixties, and the reports I have received are of religious and social oppression. The tribes I saw along the border in Thailand are emigrees who are left in a purgatory type position. They want nothing to do with Burma, but they have no real identity and certainly can not obtain Thai citizenship. The roads in the north are controlled by the Thai army, I went through many checkpoints. They do not care about me, they care about Burmese heading further into Thailand. The situation for these people is not great, but honestly, the villagers are really established towns and they have existed for generations for this has gone on for over fifty years now. Its just that they are more or less stuck in this little corner of the world with no real country to call home.

So I spent one day biking through the villages, trying to do the National Geographic photo op thing with villagers. I snuck in a kayaking trip down a swollen river, remember this is the rainy season. The great thing about this was the spontaneity. I wanted to visit this giant cave and I knew they held kayaking trips down the river which went into the cave and back out the other end. Not only was the river rapids more intense than anything I did in New Zealand, I was alone with a guide whose only word of english was 'paddle'. I doubt the 'company' had much insurance if you know what I mean, but alls well that ended well.

I also got lucky in that my weekend in Pai coincided with the end of the Buddhist three month Lent. Im not sure exactly what happens during those three months, but I know that certain monks must remain inside the temples and there are various restrictions on alcohol and food consumption. So the end is marked by a big street fair, I got to see free Muay Thai boxing, something I had regretted missing in Bangkok, and I got to see a giant beetles fight each other....dont ask, I have pictures.

Pai also brings a strange social element. It was filled with Thai nationals who vacation there, but also has a vibrant ex-pat and backpacker scene. The scene is strange in that its one of those towns where you end up developing packs and cliques. Lots of ex-pats own natural food shops or bars or herbal remedy stores and I got the sense that I was a stranger in their community. On some nights the conversation was easy and the mood was relaxed and all was well. On others, the bar scene was everyone sitting down around tables, subdued reggae playing, not exactly the best place to insert yourself into a conversation. I should add that Pai sits within an infamous opium trade around the burma border, and the effects of this location are evident within the ex-pat community.

Still, the overall impression of Pai is immensely positive. I would have stayed for many more days and will definitely be back. Its a beautiful place with a great mix of Thai culture along with the comforts of western civilization should you need them.

Posted by efstein 03:04 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The benefits of traveling alone

stories from the road

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View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

As I mentioned a few posts back, I am, per the norm, divided on the concept of the travel buddy when on the road alone. Obviously its nice to have a partner in crime to eat or drink with, but after these social occasions I find myself generally regretting my decision to take on a travel mate. I should add that I meet many backpackers who consider the act of finding traveler partners as an integral aspect of independent travel. To each their own, some people see the random act of pairing with a stranger as an added adventure. I normally see it as an inconvenience.

With that lead in, I took the overnight train with Blake from Bangkok to Chaing Mai. We had by now discovered that in our heads we had very similar itineraries for the upcoming weeks. Unfortunately, by the time I boarded the train my immediate itinerary was finding away to 'break up' with my travel partner. He took it well, I think he could sense I was itching to get out on my own, so it was a fond farewell and we parted ways when we got off the train. He is a nice guy, an independent traveler, and its not as though he was holding me up or required a dependency that bothered me. Its just that we were looking for different experiences. Additionally, I got used to enjoying afternoons by myself reading a book at a restaurant or planning a walking tour of a new place. With Blake, an afternoon meal meant more redundant conversation where I would have preferred reading my book. I have traveled with a good friend of mine from home and it went great. I am not against traveling with people, its just that the odds of finding a backpacker on the road that gels with me is evidently hard.

But a great example of life without a travel partner occurred these past few days in Chaing Mai. Blake was heading to the first listing in Lonely Planet (sigh). I took a taxi into town. I ended up viewing several rooms before staying in Libra Guesthouse, a family run place with english speaking hosts in the old city, a neighborhood I had previously researched. As I was perusing the neighborhood that evening a guy in a local bar complimented my t-shirt, a new one I had just purchased in the Bangkok market. And just like that I met a group of Chaing Mai residents, both expat and local Thai who turned out to be my social companions for the next four days. These were not backpackers and the experience of meeting locals and/or permanent western residents is far and away different from going to the Lonely Planet touted hostel and making the usual small talk. Dinners, drinks, motorbike rides to neighborhoods I'd never have found on my own and stories about life in northern Thailand with these people are the types of experiences I enjoy because it is never sought out, it just happens.

Speaking of which, today, I awoke with the intention of getting a bus ticket to Chaing Khong, a border town and gateway to Laos. At the bus station I am told the tickets are sold out. Back to town, I am agitated. I love Chaing Mai, but with less than a month to go on this trip, a wasted day is a bitter pill to swallow. I head straight to a travel agency and book a minibus that will get me to Chaing Khong at two in the morning. More expensive and terrible time, but it gets the job done. The booking agent is a guy named Noi. I walk up to him at 1230 in the afternoon. He is passed out on a chair with no shirt on, and he has an impressive collection of tattoos. To me, the perfect guy to get me a ride out of town. We start talking and before I know it I spend the afternoon in a bar playing pool with him, he takes me on the back of his motorbike to the local thai only market for lunch, and I am given a Tibetan necklace as a memento of our day together. He is a great guy, a serious Buddhist, a former Muay Thai boxer, a father, and now, on most days, he is a hungover tourist agent.

This is what I will remember. Days of traveling with another guy from America, going to western bars and having the same conversation over and over again - where are you from? Where are you going? How long have you been traveling? --- shoot me in the head, I dont need this conversation anymore

Mr. Blue, one of the characters I met in Chaing Mai advised me that the questions you can not ask on the road are the 'where are you going' where are you from varieties. Open ended questions, as all lawyers know, are much better if you want to get someone talking. Again, to each their own. There is no one way to travel, and no right way to travel. If my tone is condescending, I apologize, but its simply my attempt to celebrate what I enjoy on the road and should not be misconstrued as criticism of how others live out their travels.

Posted by efstein 02:23 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (1)


a tiring city

sunny 93 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

I arrived in Bangkok in the evening off a flight from Phuket. Blake, my then travel partner was quite adamant about staying near the backpacker haven of Koah Sahn Road. My friends from home had all advised me against this neighborhood as its a bit shady and definitely not Thai for it caters to westerners. That being said, I liked staying there.  Its definitely a scene, basically its a nightly carnival of public drinking, cheap eats, and touristy markets.  But the sheer enormity of Bangkok makes it inherently easier to head for the masses of backpackers rather than go it alone.  As a fan of big cities I really wanted to appreciate and enjoy Bangkok. This is not an easy thing to do. Bangkok's streets are a maze of confusion. I would set out with a destination in mind and would within minutes be lost.  Add to this an oppressing ninety degree heat, and lastly, and most depressingly, dozens and dozens of annoying scam artists offering to be your friend and take you around the city in their cars.  Scam jobs thrive in Bangkok and I can see why, its a place that makes even the most self-assured independent traveler gulp and struggle.

The details of my time there are not really that important.  The highs included going to the famed Sunday weekend market, the largest in Thailand, and finally learning how to navigate the city on the river ferries. By my last day there I was comfortable walking around various neighborhoods and I could get around confidently by taxi or ferry. I found the locals distant in a way that locals in big cities (NYC) can be distant from tourists, and really, Bangkok was enjoyable within the confines of the backpacker world that Koh Sahn provided. Blake and I met some guys and girls we had previously met on Koh Phi Phi, so there were some social evenings.  

Now that I have had the benefit of a week in the northern province city of Chaing Mai, I can say that any future trips to Thailand will not emphasize Bangkok any more than I have to. I enjoyed Bangkok and would have stayed longer if I had the time I think you would need a long period of time there to truly begin enjoying the city, or a local to help your out. But even so, with the air pollution and general difficulties one encounters with all large cities combined with the benefits of traveling in the less visited north its just not worth it unless you have ample time.

Posted by efstein 02:04 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Thoughts on thailand

From my iPhone so excuse typing

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View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

1. Coming from New Zealand the contrast in the way the Thais treat the environment is to be expected. When a country has a high quality of life for most of its people, the initiative can then turn to preservation and conservation. Kiwis now think of their country as a special place partially because it is and partially because they profit from the tourism. In yesterday's Bangkok Post the op-ed discussed why it was not in the
Thailand's best interest to adopt more restrictive emissions standards, to curb deforestation, or to increase the national parks. The Thais still need to exploit their land for self interest. In New Zealand only 15 percent of native forest remains in Thailand it's closer to 30 percent. Although I agree that the people need to provide for themselves before any sustained enivironmental initiative will work, it's still crazy to go scuba diving here and see the local boat captain fishing on the very reefs we are enjoying for their beauty.

2. You think a country of Buddhists would be, I don't know, kind and calm. In chaing mai where I currently am, I've been humbled by the earnest kindness the locals have shown me. Yet if you go to the islands and Bangkok only you are greeted to -- generalizations such as -- liars, cheaters, and scam artists...all one big group, more prostitutes and the culture they create than you ever see in western society, and sadly a terrible disconnect between native Thais and foreigners. It was important for me to see that the whole country is not like that.

3. Things are cheap, apart from actual time to get here, whatever airfare cost you pay, the food, lodging, shopping discounts make Thailand cheaper than a Bahamas vacation.

4. New travel partner. So on a boat to one of the islands about 10 days ago, I met Blake. Blake is from Oklahoma, 27, and has been on the road for 8 months. He lives in Texas but tried his best not to carry himself as one of those Americans. We ended up sharing rooms for about 9 days on koh phi phi island and in Bangkok. Why this is worth mentioning is that I'm now quite certain that I simply can't travel with people, at least not with complete strangers I meet on the road. It is me, not them. While Blake and I parted harmoniously and although we had good nights and some fun over all, I ultimately feel as though I am forced to tolerate a fellow traveler when I decide to team up with someone. I want to walk that way, he wants to go another. He wants to stay out late, I want to go home. The key in these situations is to let each other do as they wish, Blake, despite being an experienced backpacker, still wanted a partner in crime with him at all times. I'm clearly not nearly as dependent on having someone to hold my hand, and thus I initiated a very awkward backpacker break up. Awkward because we both have the same itinerary the next few weeks so in theory we should have just kept going down the road together, but I needed some time to myself.

5. On a similar tangent, Blake represented a type of backpacker that thrives in Thailand and southeast asia - the frugal kind. In these countries you can easily eat three meals a day and find a bed to sleep in for about $15 a day. The food would mostly be street food or local thai cuisine and the beds would be in shabbier guesthouses with fans and not a.c. Its all well and good, and I mean, I am currently staying in $6 a night bungalows and try my best to eat locally as its much safer than eating the western cuisine which the Thais dont know how to cook as well. That being said, you can sleep with bedbugs and with a fan for $5 or sleep in a three star hotel with A.C. for $10. I often verge into what the traveler world calls a "flashpacker". Basically backpackers with more than shoestring budgets have spawned accommodations that are still backpacker hostel type places but now also have wifi or nice cafes and cleaner facilities. It became a problem with Blake, for where I see the benefit of spending three extra bucks for comfort, he sees the cheapest room as an easy way to save three dollars. One reason we are no longer traveling together.

6. The food here is amazing. All of my preconceived fears of peanut oil and peanuts in my pad thai are more or less unnecessary. Most places put peanuts as a condiment on the table. The street food and general locally thai restaurants provide roughly a dollar a plate for a nice portion of noodles or rice dishes. Its true that my diet is rather uniform as I choose what I know, but Ive really been enjoying the food here.

Posted by efstein 23:34 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Thailand....two weeks in the southern islands

sunny 90 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

Well, its begun. It really is amazing to have a trip like this that has stops and starts and ultimately a continuation, albeit in what feels like a whole new experience. I left Melbourne and travelled via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Phuket, Thailand. The trip itself was unremarkable, with a five hour layover in KL and an arrival in Phuket around 1 pm after leaving Melbourne at midnight.

With New Zealand and my time with Jess occupying most of the summer months I really had little to know idea about Thailand and have henceforth mainly winged it since I got here which has its merits and its disadvantages. The first disadvantage was that I went from Phuket airport to Patong for two nights. In Patong you witness a scene that probably plays out in various spots around southeast asia. Touristy hotels, streets packed with dirty bars, prostitutes outnumbering regular Thai women....if Dante were alive, Patong would probably fall somewhere in his 8th ring of Hell. My Thai friends back home advised me against going here, but it is an easy spot to immerse yourself into traveling around the islands. I spent two relatively quiet nights in Patong before heading about 10 kilometers south to the beach town of Kata. Much nicer, more upscale tourism, but ultimately everywhere on Phuket gave me the overwhelming feeling that I did not belong there. Sex tourists, European families, and honeymooners vacation on Phuket. Backpackers do not, and while I got in some nice beach days and rented a motorbike for an adventurous driving day around the island, the five nights on Phuket were not really ideal.

I say that because from Phuket I took a ferry 40 kilometers to Koh Phi Phi island (said Koh Pee - Pee). To be honest I did not hear great things about Phi Phi either. As you have about two dozen options when it comes to islands in southern Thailand you can more or less pick your poison. Partiers head some places, nomads go elsewhere, families, reggae stoners, divers, rock climbers, --- each island has its own specific attraction and over all vibe. Phi Phi is kind of a mixed bag of options.....you have the beach parties that go till dawn, you have diving, and there were quite a few family type areas also. The island is very small, and easily walked in a few hours. No cars and only one town add to the feeling that you are away from things. I came for two nights and ended up staying a week.

I thus missed the opportunity to go into the Gulf of Thailand to Ko Phang Yang the infamous full moon party island and the nearby chiller island of Koh Tao. But my feeling on Phi Phi was that I had everything I needed and my desire to relax and not move every day simply meant that I was going to sacrifice a few islands. Phi Phi is a special place, but its that much more special in my opinion in the off season. We are presently in the height of Thailand's rainy season which runs from June to October with the rain increasing toward the end. Lots of people questioned why I was coming this time of year, and before arriving I adopted the fatalistic attitude of just hoping for the best and expecting the worst.

Now that I'm here you realize that the monsoons you expect are really non-existent. Of my twelve days in the islands we had 3 non-beachable days, and by that I mean occassional rain all day and or clouds all day as well. All other days I saw the sun and most of them were downright beach days. It is true that the sky is clouded this time of year and even our clearest days had some clouds drifting in and out and a generally overcast sky was the norm. The sun was out but you do not get those picture postcard crystal clear days which make the tropical bays shine turquoise. If the very good but not great weather was the downside, the upside is no crowds and prices 1/3 of what they are in high season. I found Phi Phi busy, and could tell that in high season what seemed busy now would pale in comparison to what happens in December when everyone comes here. The parties were a little less rampant with most everyone on the island spreading out early in the night before converging on one or two beach bars for the midnight - 4 am final hours. Isrealis were the most predominant nationality which was unexpected.

And lastly, I stayed extra long because I chose to do my scuba diving certification course on Phi Phi. As I mentioned earlier, the dive operators on Koh Tao issue more certifications than anywhere in the world. Seemingly most backpackers and tourists go there to learn how to scuba. The Phi Phi people sold me on the idea that their operations allow you to see more and almost everyone I talked to confirmed this. I wont get into the specifics of the four day course, but can say that it was a worthwhile experience. I am not as naturally comfortable in water as I am hiking in the mountains, I struggle with swimming and still can't dive into a pool! Scuba really has nothing to do with swimming or surface diving, its much more about learning safety skills under water and then just controlling your breathing and staying calm but alert. My instructor was a 40 something ex-pat from California and was great throughout the process. After my first day of training at about 15 feet underwater my ear was really messed up and I had trouble sleeping as the pressure really got to me. I was forced to take a day off before I went out for my first dives. You need to complete a fifty question test, four dives, reach 18 meters (55 approx feet), and perform about twenty skills to get certified. In the end it was'nt all that difficult. I really enjoyed diving and hope to continue building it as a hobby.

The biggest disappointment and first real mistake I made was with the diving company I chose. There are probably three dozen companies on Phi Phi, all promising the same thing and offering a fixed rate for the course. I was talked into doing the course on Phi Phi by a laid back guy at one of the lesser known shops, and ultimately went with one of the larger shops whose exterior facade just seemed more professional. Turns out, the week of my course, our companies main dive boat broke. Of the dive sites around Phi Phi, the most famous one is called Bida Nok. The promise of seeing harmless black tip reef sharks and leapord sharks is why people dive at Phi Phi. Well my terrible choice cost me the opportunity of going to this site because the company's secondary boat was too weak to navigate the channel. I gave the owner a mouthful and demanded a reduced rate, I got a free t-shirt and the unfortunate obligation to write negative reviews to Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and other online information sources panning the company I chose.

After the course and after seven nights of constant socializing I was ready to leave the islands. I bought a plane ticket to Bangkok via Phuket for about 70 bucks the day before the flight. Check my next post for general thoughts on Thailand, and I'll summarize Bangkok shortly.

Posted by efstein 04:01 Archived in Thailand Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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