Teaching English in Thailand, Traveling, Bone-Dry Humor, Other Stuff Too

Weekend Excursions, “Impossible” Connections, Sentimental Drivel

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It took me a long damn time to find this trail head, but I’d been waiting so long to find a good hiking trail that I was willing to put in some effort. When I got here, I had swiped the last available seat on any train from Lopburi to Chiang Mai, taken said train for 13 hours, taken a taxi to my hostel, wandered the streets between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. because I couldn’t check in until 1 p.m., broke fast at a restaurant called Cool Breakfast, taken another taxi up the mountain to Doi Sutthep National Park, and slept inconsistently for almost three hours total in the last day-and-a-half.

DSCN0105National Parks in Thailand are different than in the U.S. because there are temples and highways all over the place. And where there are temples and highways, there are tons of people, souvenir stands, street vendors, interesting food, traffic cops, taxis, cars, and everything else you wouldn’t necessarily want inside a beautiful jungle teeming with life. At least that has been my limited experience so far. I always get the sense that the unadulterated nature and trails I’m looking for sort of exist, but you just have to be able to find them–which isn’t easy, and isn’t really what most people are looking for in the first place. I’ve often encountered attitudes like, “Why would you want to walk somewhere with your own two legs?” But when we took the time to figure out how to ask a few Thai people where we could hike, we were eventually dropped off by a road which led us to this trail. And I got my fix of Bamboo, dense jungle, broken steps climbing up ambitious grades, stream water I probably shouldn’t have drank, waterfalls, and scenic viewpoints.

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Some fellow teachers from our Chiang Mai group

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Travelling through Thailand on a tight schedule is a game of luck. Over the New Year’s holiday weekend, it is a triumph of the human spirit. Because I’d arrived in Chiang Mai at such a late hour, the ticketing windows were closed. So I waited until the rest of our group had come into the city on New Year’s Eve, knowing they also hadn’t booked a return trip yet. All trains going down the route we needed to take were full until January 7th, as were all government buses and all flights. We needed to be back at work in our respective towns January 5th. At the suggestion of a life-saving Thai friend, we ventured out to a bus terminal looking for a private bus company that wasn’t booked yet, and faced the choice of either leaving late, thereby missing three days of work, or leaving the morning of the 2nd, cutting our Chiang Mai trip short.

So we opted for leaving on the second, booking the last six available tickets on the last available bus. Even then, we had to go about 12 hours to Phitsanoluk, then take a taxi from the bus station to the train station, and catch a two-hour train to Bang Mun Nak. Our train pulled into the station as we were buying our tickets, and the final bell sounded as we ran and jumped inside. In another second, the train idled momentarily before lurching away. We parted ways the next day and I took a train alone back to Lopburi, which was also fully booked. With some persistence, I was able to purchase a ticket for standing on the train, a common enough thing, but usually not for someone taking the train as long as I was. I stood between two train cars, figured out how to unlatch the door, and sat on the steps facing the open air and countryside as it reeled past, disbelieving how incredibly lucky I had been to get in this grimy, sunny spot on a train back to my city.

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While difficulties like this occur often, not to mention the endless communication breakdowns at ticketing windows and with train conductors and bus drivers, travelling around like this is one of my favorite parts of being here. Especially travelling by train. People with trays of plastic-wrapped food and weird meat hanging on sticks will force their way past me in the crowded aisles, bugs will fly through the open windows and get trapped in my greasy arm hair and in my eyeballs, and I will cough up the fumes of burning piles of trash, controlled burns on the edges of farmland, and other fires that every train I’ve taken seems to pass, yet I somehow feel content. When there are other teachers around, we tend to have good conversations as we settle into the drowsy, aesthetic world of passengerdom. But alone the trains are good too.

There is something romantic about taking the train, listening to music, and watching everything flicker past: long-eared cows shaking off flies, dogs running into rows of sugar, tanned farmers in swim trunks and wide-brimmed hats riding by cigarette-in-mouth on motor scooters, people doing double-takes as a white person shuttles past on a train, people smiling and waving after doing a double-take as a white person shuttles past on a train, canals snaking through ivy-covered villages, shanty towns and wooden houses on stilts with tin roofs, vivid green rice fields, random clusters of trees, farmhouses, the ridges of distant mountains, and whatever random object or moment there might be to witness. It makes your life cinematic, and my thoughts usually follow suit.

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As a passenger, you have no immediate responsibilities, and the normal engagements and notifications of reality are suspended. I tend to reminisce and amble through random memories and whatever else surfaces in my head–which is what I do most of the time anyways–and find myself in a delirious cycle of processing brand new information in the form of the views from the open doors or windows, while at the same time turning over old memories, old views, internally. All the while, I’m choosing a soundtrack to accompany it. It’s one of the more definitive moments of travelling abroad for me, because I’m literally travelling and I have no choice but to sit back and take it all in, something I forget to do in the whirlwind of teaching, finding something to eat, trying to connect to the internet, and sitting by the fan in my underwear.

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These are all pictures from a few temples in Chiang Mai.

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