Christmas Eve (take 2): The First Songthaew

December 24, 2009 – 11:30am

I just got in the back of a covered pickup truck with plastic seats and no bed door. It has a sign advocating shooting things. Welcome to Chiang Mai?

–Filed under “Things you should only do in Thailand”

–turns out this is called a Songthaew and is not nearly as shady as it first appears. They drivers are easier to bargain with than tuk-tuk drivers (esp. if there’s more than 1 person riding!) and you make friends!


“I’m so excited to let fish eat my legs!”

There is a fish bath near the night market here in Chiang Mai. You stick your legs in huge tanks up to almost your knee, and the fish eat off dead skin. It supposedly feels peculiar (not surprising…) but afterwards your legs are super soft. We didn’t end up having time to try this out, but if you are ever in Chiang Mai – let me know how it is!

nearly 12am

Couples are amusing, especially from the outside. Today was… a day. I’m finally back at my hostel – A Little Bird Guesthouse – and for the first time in 48 hours, lying in a bed.

This guesthouse is 120baht/night ($4.50ish) – certainly not posh – but this bed still feels like a slice of heaven. It’s a decent place though – really helpful staff, free public computers with internet, hot showers, etc.

The train rolled into Chiang Mai an hour and 15 minutes late this morning. How do trains get that off schedule? Japan has spoiled me with its precise and punctual public transportation. I fought back irritation (not so successfully) that entire extra hour but was all smiles when we finally arrived. Food helped bring out the happiness, too.

When I planned this trip, I didn’t think twice about the plausibility of my itinerary. Now that I’m here and have been running on empty the entire time, I realize there’s such a thing as traveler’s fatigue (is there or did I just make that up? Probably.) I’m exhausted, and I took it out on Chiang Mai today when I neglected sight-seeing all-together. I’ll make it up, Pretty City – I promise.

Back to the train. It arrived at 11, and I had very loose, not-well-planned plans to meet up with JET friends Tiffany and Alex (engaged) at 12:30. First, I had to find my hostel. A tuk-tuk driver approached me – who turned out to be a songthaew driver (a pickup truck turned bus/taxi). That was an experience. After I got over the initial nervousness of climbing into the back of a random man’s truck and understood that this is an actual legitimate form of public transportation – it was fun!

60baht later, I made it to A Little Bird, checked in and promptly left again. Tiffany, Alex and I were meeting at the “Tourist Police Station” listed in my guidebook. This was a great plan until it didn’t exist. Correction: didn’t exist in Tiffany and Alex’s book. There is an old and a new tourist police station, but the old one has been turned into a factory. Of course, I was taken to the new one, and Tiffany and Alex were taken to the old. Of course – they are on opposite ends of the city – opposite outskirt ends of the city.

My hour of waiting for Tiffany and Alex, hoping they would find it (our phones don’t work in Thailand) was padded by conversation with foreign nationals who volunteer at the station. If you are ever in trouble in Chiang Mai – this is the place to be. These ex-pats are helpful, speak a little Thai and best – have made friends in the Thai police. They’re a great resource. Plus, they gave me a crossword puzzle, so my heart was, well, theirs.

Meanwhile, T&A (teehee) were at the old station/factory.

Another hour and 120baht later I had checked the old station and landed right back at ‘ole Little Bird. The guy working was amused.

Without cell phones, Alex and I communicated through stone age means – plain old email. He and Tiffany were at the pool at their hotel and I was to meet them there. Frustratrated, dirty and ever more exhausted, I sent an email pleading them not to leave until I arrived (in the hopes they’d get that if my urgent telepathic messages failed). Another songthaew trip and 2 new American backpacker friends later (from LA, no less!), I finally saw my friends, who were swanked out to the max at the pool.

Tiffany and Alex are staying at the Shangri-La. Its pool is in the shape of a palm tree, which comes off looking like a giant shadow from the actual palm trees that line the thing. Naturally, I threw on my suit and dove in. The prior 3 hours of stress floated away as quickly as I did.

We eventually clothed and meandered towards the streets for food. We went to a Lonely Planet mention – the Antique House. It is rustic, outdoors and entirely charming. The cheesy child-sung Christmas carols CD only slightly impeded the otherwise old-fashioned, naturalistic atmosphere. It is Christmas Eve after all.

The menu is full of Northern Thai dishes – many I’d never heard of. Red curry and chicken was familiar and tasty but forgettable compared to the delightful mango and sticky rice I devoured for dessert.

Ready to take on the famous Chiang Mai Night Market (it was a 4pm lunch…), we strolled towards the area until two of the many amiable masseuses outside the parlors lining the narrow street convinced us to come inside. One step from the noisy motorbike-filled streets into the serene, aromatic parlor and we were junkies. We gave in to full body traditional Thai massages. For 200baht for an hour – the price was right.

I’ve heard Thai massage is painful, but unless by painful they mean sinfully good – I’m not following. There were uncomfortable moments (read: they sit on you as they pull your leg towards your head), but for most of it I found myself lost in pleasure and my own disconnected thoughts.

Instead of falling asleep, my mind drifted aimlessly, borderlessly – until I was lost somewhere between past lovers and friends, companionship and relationships, who I am and want to be. It was all too much cognition and not enough peace.

The relaxation was so intense that my mind felt boundless, but the lack of control felt limiting instead of freeing. Suddenly, the thoughtless, translucent peace of mind taught in Buddhism made sense and even appealed to me. I understand now the allure in learning to control your thoughts and your mind – knowing how to find silence within. But the massage itself was a drug of which I couldn’t get enough.

After the massages, we once again headed towards the Night Market (many blocks of goods and food – awesome shopping). Once again, we got distracted. This time by monkeys.

Not real ones, though that’d make for a cooler story. These monkeys are the picture of a popular ziplining/trekking tour called Flight of the Gibbons in the jungles outside of Chiang Mai. Tiffany’s interest was piqued and we stopped at a travel information place for more information.

Here’s how that went:

  • Tiffany wants to zipline.
  • 2 minutes later – all 3 of us walk into tour agency and request information.
  • Tour agent makes phone calls – we have 10 minutes to make a decision
  • 10 minutes later Alex doesn’t want to go, Tiffany really does
  • Cyndi tells travel agent it’s, uh, going to be a few minutes longer
  • Alex and Tiffany are debating like it’s for a medal (Cyndi is seriously impressed with their skillz)
  • 20 minutes later – Cyndi looks into a trekking trip in a national forest. Before booking, she carefully tells T&A
  • 30 minutes later – all 3 walk back into the office to book the national park trip
  • 10 minutes later – all 3 book ziplining

The woman working hated us, I’m positive, but I used our indecision to negotiate the price even lower. Mostly, I was amused. Like I started this off with – couples are amusing.

Finally, we made it to the night market. I spent too much money – but relished the Thai bargaining system. I wish I could bargain for everything, everywhere. Most sellers won’t verbalize a price but instead hand you a calculator with the price typed in it. You type a new price. And on it goes. The best sellers and customers laugh the entire time. It’s good-natured, and when I learned that, I fit right in.

I bought knock-off Birkenstock sandals, a bag, 100% Thai silk scarves – all kinds of goodies that many of you will be receiving if I ever ship the boxes your way 🙂

We ate incredible food – pad kee mao, of course, and for the second time today – mango and sticky rice.

Tomorrow we will zipline over the jungles of northern Thailand and trek along waterfalls. Christmas flying like the apes in Chiang Mai will be unforgettable. It’s no Canasta, football and fried turkey – but it ain’t too shabby either.

I have to wake up in approximately 3 seconds.

Merry Christmas!

~ by C on February 18, 2010.

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