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On the road in northern Thailand


The following document is intended as a reflection of my thoughts, feelings and experiences during my 3-week journey through Thailand.

There are some things you should know before reading. First and foremost, I came to Thailand to spend 26 days in a Buddhist temple – following their harrowing schedule, depriving me of all external pleasures while I practice Vipassana, or Insight meditation for up to 10 hours a day. It was intended to be as much of a personal challenge as a learning experience. I didn’t end up doing quite what I set out to do, however, but I did learn some tremendously powerful lessons along the way. What follows is my attempt to share some of them with you – comments that are added later are written in [brackets].

In order to keep with the spirit of the journey, I gave myself a couple of rules: (each in stark contrast to the life I left behind in Singapore) no alcohol, no music, no parties, minimal technology and minimal luxury. Theoretically, that’s a recipe for the cheapest, and most boring, trip in the history of man – for better or worse, it turned out neither.

30/4/2012 [Bangkok]

Bangkok. A full 29 hours after I intended to write this very first entry – Thai trains, unfortunately, have proven unsuitable for handwriting [in spirit of rule number four, I opted to handwrite this journal].

So far, the trip has been far more social than I expected. I met a 29 year old Spanish woman named Sophie, who shared the 24 hour Bangkok train with me before continuing to some town in the north to teach English, a fellow Dutchman intend on scouring future cities to work at (courtesy of Unilever) and a retired American fellow named Jeff. It’s funny to note how interesting you can get lost in the backpacker community. I felt like I had been fully initiated, a mere day after I left Malaysia for Thailand.

I have to remind myself that I’m not here for fun in the traditional sense. I felt no different on that train than on my previous trips to Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia with my exchange friends. And I should feel different. That is the point.

Right now, sitting at a desk in an empty hostel room, I once again experience the kind of freedom that I felt nearly a year ago in Nigeria. The kind reminding you that you can do anything in the world. No repercussions. No judgments.

And no one to hold you back.

I do feel rather unprepared, though. Once more (It always seems to go like this), I know next to nothing about the country that I’m visiting. I know – for a change – the name of the currency. That’s about it.

Uncharacteristically, however, I have no computer or anything to inform me either. It seemed like a good idea at the time, to leave all things technology behind, but its drawbacks are now quickly coming into view. For one, I dislike handwriting as it’s usually reserved for exams only. And I now have to find out things the old-fashioned way. You know, asking people. Thankfully English is more widespread here than the rest of Asia.

I’m excited. I have no idea what the future holds, and I love it.

01/05/2012

As it turns out, picking Bangkok as my first destination had been a poor choice. The city’s care-free, hedonistic nature is as inviting as ever – it doesn’t help that my hostel is on Kao San Road – backpacker party central. The music I hear outside reminds me of my life in Singapore. Just what I’m trying to avoid.

Thailand stands out among Asian countries; it avoids the sometimes blatant lack of civilized behavior in China or India, yet escapes the rigidity of Singapore and the dangers of the Philippines – it’s easy to see why the country has a near-monopoly among tourists. Its people are some of the friendliest I have ever met [a recurring theme throughout the trip].

I have spoken to a bunch of other backpackers, and felt a little off-balance to order water. It is difficult to keep with the spirit of this journey, but I can only remind myself that the old ‘no pain, no gain’ adage holds. At the very least, it forces me to keep picking up the pen.

People seem to come here for all sorts of reason, but it all seems to boil down to either a search for escape or a search for a new experience. I land in the latter category. Nevertheless, I increasingly get the feeling that it is all in vain. The more people I meet, the more I get the sense that nothing changes. A year-long trip turns into a decade, all in the hopes that things, or people, eventually change. They rarely do.

Here’s to hoping that I prove the exception to the rule.

03/05/2012 [Chiang Mai]

I visited the Temple today, to get the final preparations in order. It quickly dawned on me on just what kind of challenge I elected to take on. The manager of the hostel I was staying at said he would be impressed if I could last even seven days, based on his experience with foreign meditators.

I have to last 26.

I expect to have the most difficulty with the sleeping schedule – 10:00 PM to bed, up at 4:00 AM. It is going to take extraordinary willpower to make it through this. I am not deterred. The more that I get into the mindset of what I’m about to do, the more I feel that this is exactly what I’m looking for.

The differentiating factor may be that I am not looking to end suffering in the way that Buddhists are. I have always found it among the most valuable, if unpleasant, of experiences. It shows you at your worst, and prepares you for the future. It lets you know just how far you can go. [In hindsight, I was wrong. Buddhism does not neglect suffering – in fact, it makes up a very large part of the philosophy. What it teaches instead is very much in line with my previous beliefs].

When I first visited the Temple, I managed to maintain a masterful degree of tact. I had, by this time, read all about Thai culture, including their unhealthy feet-phobia. I carefully proceeded to neglect any and all social customs, barging into the office with dirty boots, helmet in one hand, asking something along the lines of “where do I sign up?”. They must have thought I was kidding, making a 26-day commitment like this while ignorant of possibly every Thai custom in existence. They were, of course, too polite to mention anything, but it quickly dawned on me when I noticed all heads in the room glancing down at my boots, pointed squarely at the head monk in the room.

Oops.

On a different note – driving on the left [I rented scooters for most of my time in Chiang Mai outside the Temple] seems to go all right. It’s a little weird initially, but you get used to it fast. Probably not in any small part because any mistakes are swiftly punished by, well, everyone else.

04/05/2012

I’m getting more enthusiastic about this. I spent the entire morning driving around (getting the hang of this whole ‘traffic’ thing pretty well!) and it was a blast to get out to the countryside away from tourists.

I’m genuinely having fun, wondering ‘where should I go next?’. It’s one of those moments where you realize you still want to do so much, yet have so little time left. I’m kind of hoping that I have another week or two before I need to make my way to Shanghai to visit my family. It’s not that I don’t want to go – but hell, this place is so fun! It’s hard to resist the clubs, the motorcycles, the national parks and the beaches of Thailand.

I should though, by now, start collecting some of the prerequisites for the opening ritual. Besides the usual passport/photocopy/photo antics, they need 11 white lotus flowers, 11 yellow candles, and 11 incense sticks. The latter two are easy enough, but where the hell am I going to get 11 lotus flowers from?

Lastly, I’ve been drinking tap water this past week. The Thai government insists that it’s safe, although no one seems to believe them. I thought I’d put it to the test; it tastes like shit (the 3-ct water bags in Africa beat it squarely), but I’m still kicking. Also, my shit is still distinctly solid. We’ll see .

06/05/2012

Tomorrow, I begin. Today, actually, seeing as its 12:56 AM right now. I’m looking forward to it – the time for discussing and preparing is done. It’s time to see and learn firsthand what it’s all about.

I am torn between the certainty that I can finish and the uncertainty that I might fail. After all, I have never done anything like this, and it is no easy task to find a less patient person than this writer. I have no basis for my self-confidence, although I am completely, 100% determined to make it through this month. I suppose the date for the next entry will let us know.

11/05/2012

Yes, this entry is dated a mere six days later. I sit here, in the same hostel as before, fully aware and at peace with my failure. Because, in the literal sense, that is exactly what it was; I did not do what I set out to do. Before, such an acknowledgement would have been devastating. Now, it is nothing more than an acknowledgement of reality.

For, regardless, what an experience it has been.

I can say that the preceding five days were among the most miserable, by far the longest but probably also the most rewarding of my life. It feels as if I spent a month inside the Temple. I have so much to write about, yet I am unsure of where to begin. What follows is an attempt.

I walked in the sixth of May filled with confidence and armed with all the willpower I could muster. Preparation lasted until evening (lots of patient waiting involved), when the opening ceremony was conducted by a man they called the Teacher, the abbot of the temple. During the ceremony, there were an incredible number of insects fluttering around – turns out, that was a rarity. The ritual lasted perhaps 90 minutes, all the while I and two others (a 36 year old Italian guy and a fifty-something mother from Belgium. Although we never spoke until the end, I developed a great bond with both) kneeled, hands together, repeating the Teacher’s words in Pali while insects, large and small, crawled on almost every part of the body. I reminded myself of what the monk in charge of foreigners, Pra, had often repeated that day: ‘accept, accept, accept, action’. I was not aware that this was to be the least of the challenges to await me over the course of the next five days.

After the ceremony, Pra (a man for whom I have developed the utmost respect) taught us the basics of Buddhism and the two forms of meditation we were to practice. I will try to outline both methods, and Buddhism 101, below:

Buddhism teaches that there is suffering in all external, earthly things. Suffering such as pain, or anger, from externalities, but also pleasures such as ice cream, sex or a new house are included. These desires stem from craving, and the joys are thus but temporary. After satisfaction, the craving for new, other and more continues – we remain suffering. In order to remain above such weakness and reach an eternal state of bliss (Nibbana, or Nirvana), we rid ourselves of these ‘defilements’, as they are called. Through Vipassana, or Insight meditation, one tries to observe and acknowledge ones’ body, feelings, and mind (actually, mind and mind-objects are distinct, but for simplicity’s sake). Through such self-awareness, and living in the present moment, one is able to observe, accept and move on from these cravings. It is through meditation, the constant awareness and acknowledgement of ones’ actions, that one is able to realize three fundamental truths: non-permanence (everything, including suffering and external happiness, is temporary), non-self (there is no you or I, but only we) and suffering. Through intense meditation practice, one moves through several stages of holiness to ultimately reach Nirvana. Or, for one such as me, simply a higher sense of awareness, peace and self-knowledge. In these areas, the practice did not fail to live up to promise.

This all would have sounded arbitrary and strange to me a week before. Now, I understand, and have grown to have an immense respect for the philosophy and those who make it their lives’ work. The path to Nirvana is not for me; I’ll take the earthly, with suffering and happiness and all. There are so many things to be experienced, felt and done, and no amount of boring, otherworldly bliss can make up for that.

Nevertheless, there are a great many aspects that ring true, are practically applicable (Buddhism is clear, transparent and direct. A manual, rather than a story. None of the messy, muddy shit found in Christianity and Islam. Buddhists will, for that reason, never mount a crusade or rise a jihad) and contain insights I wish never to forget.

The meditation (steps that I got to know extremely well over the course of 25.5 hours of practice over the course of little over 4 days) is divided in two: walking and sitting meditation. The walking meditation is least difficult (note that I abstain from using the word ‘easiest’), and I reached stage two out of six during my time at the Temple. Key is that one should constantly acknowledge what one doing, thinking and feeling. Also vital is that one should continuously try to live in the present – not an easy feat during such a miserable exercise. The walking meditation, of over about two meters, goes thus:
‘standing-standing-standing, entering to walk-entering to walk-entering to walk, right-go-thus, left-go-thus, right-go-thus, …, stopping-stopping-stopping, entering to turn-entering to turn-entering to turn, turning-stop, turning-stop, turning-stop, turning-stop, standing-standing-standing, … ad infinitum!

This all goes on inside the mind (you get to know your inner voice pretty well. Mine tends to crack jokes during moments of concentration. Not helpful.) and initially continues for 15 minutes (30 minutes on the day I left, and ultimately up to an hour at a time) before one initiates sitting meditation immediately after. Note, however, that I left out the preparatory rituals and steps that precede and supersede the meditation.

Invariably, the mind gets distracted. When feeling impatient, acknowledge ‘feeling-feeling-feeling’ before returning focus to the feet. When desiring something, acknowledge ‘desire-desire-desire’. I reached a point (and practitioners are intended to) where all my actions were automatically acknowledged. ‘itch-itch-itch, drinking-drinking-drinking, hearing-hearing-hearing, chewing-chewing-chewing’. I still do that, my mind silently informing me that I am ‘writing-writing-writing’. I suspect it will fade in time. [This, now 10 days later, largely disappeared, with the exception of ‘rising, falling’ during moments of inaction].

Sitting meditation is similar in that aspect, the difference being that one sits cross-legged in the meditational pose, eyes shut while acknowledging the ‘rising, falling, rising, falling’ of the abdomen during breathing. During sitting meditation, pain is a problem. You sit motionless in the same unsupported pose for 30 minutes on end, constantly acknowledging ‘pain-pain-pain’ while trying to return focus to the abdomen. It is far from easy, and truth be told, I now find myself rather surprised to have lasted even five days.

To be honest, it is difficult to recall exact moments of the past five days, as most were the same. All, however, were 40% suffering, 10% happiness and 50% neutral feelingless-ness. I can state this with such accuracy because we were supposed to acknowledge our feelings at all times – you develop a mental record, of sorts. Most of my learning however, and incidentally also most of the misery, occurred within the first three days. On average, I did around 7.5 hours of meditation per day, excluding the first and last.

I will instead outline the daily schedule and a few of the most significant rules that applied during my stay.

-4:00 AM: Wake up bell. Walk straight to library (where I did most of the meditation) and meditate, alternating walking and sitting.
-6:00 AM: Breakfast. Before everyone had gotten their vegetarian meal and the chanting was done, 40 minutes would have passed. I would often continue meditating. There was no talking, or even acknowledging, of anyone. After, 30 minutes of sweeping and a shower.
-10:00 AM: Lunch. Same procedure as breakfast. After, 30 minutes of sweeping and perhaps 15-20 minutes of rest. No sleeping was allowed. This was also the last food I would consume for the day (once I missed the bell – that cost me 24 hours of food).
-4:00 PM: Reporting. I would go to the Teacher’s office, where I was allowed to discuss meditation practice for some 10 minutes.
-10:00 PM: Sleeping. Sleep was not a problem; if you’re only allowed six hours, you tend to make the most of them – even when confined to a wooden board with a foam sheet.

The gaps in between were filled with meditation and the trips for water and the bathroom. Those would take 20 minutes, even though they were a normal 40 seconds away from the library or temple and each other. When mindful, life goes really, really slow.

During these days, I was covered by the following rules, or the Eight Buddhist Precepts (monks have to follow over 250 of them):

1. No killing (as evidenced by my excessive mosquito bites, I tried not to break this one)
2. No stealing
3. No erotic behavior (perhaps surprisingly, one of the least of my difficulties)
4. No lying
5. No alcohol or drugs
6. No eating at the wrong time (normally at 2PM, but I never ate after 10am)
7. No music, perfume, cosmetics, singing or dancing
8. No nice beds

In addition, the following rules were observed:

1. Always clean (Buddhists are super neat freaks)
2. No discussing of meditation experiences (I might have broken that one here)
3. No physical contact
4. No one may enter your room
5. No reading, talking, or socializing of any kind
6. No eye contact (your eyes had to look downward at an angle of 45 degrees at all times)
7. No technology of any kind, with the exception of a simple timer to keep track of meditation
8. No sleeping before 10:00 PM or after 4:00 AM

Those were really the most noteworthy. As you may be surprised to learn, I had no trouble with these rules. Almost none at all. To my knowledge, I did not break any, either, with the exception of possibly one or two ‘illegal’ spoken sentences during the day and the exception above. What I had been expected to be the most difficult part of the experience, really turned out to be the easiest. I never felt lonely (thanks to that awesome voice in my head. We’re great buddies now.) or felt like I needed to talk, and women were the farthest thing from my mind.

No, my pain stemmed from the meditation itself. The feeling of idleness, the constant pain, the struggle with your desire to leave and your conviction to stay. Mostly, the incessant acknowledging of both before returning focus were the hardest.
‘impatience-impatience-impatience’

The focus on the present made things more difficult, as it forced you to be aware of everything that went on. Normally, your mind would soften whatever present discomfort by diverting attention to the future, or the past. Now, it was forcibly taken back to that awful present. Daydreaming is an absolute no-no, so every time your mind would take you to a better place, you’d yank it right back. It was immensely difficult. I went through massive mood swings in short periods – constantly having to remind myself of why I had come and why I couldn’t give up.

There were times when it seemed difficult to remember who I was before entering the temple. How I would react to what already seemed like a distant ‘normal’ life. What it would be like when I would finally ‘get out’. It was as if it was suddenly far easier to see life from an objective, top-down point of view.

I came to understand the Buddhist philosophy on a deeper level – the constant search for status and materialism from my largely Western and Asian-influenced life suddenly seemed incredibly petty and pathetic. How weak the aim for instant gratification. How little self-knowledge was valued. How ridiculously little self-control people possessed [myself, in this case of course, included]. There were so many larger things at play.

Now outside again, however, I have not abandoned these desires. I suppose at least now I can view them in their proper context. I understand their value, and their danger. After all, a world filled with Buddhist monks would be a stagnant one.

When I told Pra of my intention to leave, his demeanor towards me changed. At first, he tried to dissuade me, for I had to be stronger, I couldn’t let my weakness get the better of me. He asked a fellow student, a Belgian national who spoke my native language, to answer any questions I may have that he could not explain due to less-than-stellar English pronunciation. And that while no talking was allowed! When he realized that my mind had been made up, he turned as cold and calculating as he had been when we met. I had grown to like and respect him as a teacher, and for him, I guess that changed when I wanted to leave. A shame, but I’m afraid that such is the Buddhist way.

The Italian who came with me had left after the first day. I do not fault him in the least. He spoke to me for some two hours after his closing ceremony, while I remained silent, nodding occasionally. I imagine it must have been a comical sight.

I also spoke with the Belgian woman for a bit after my own ceremony. I suppose she decided to temporarily suspend her no-talking pledge. It is interesting to observe the bond you find between people, even though you have hardly spoken.

To my great surprise, a good friend from Singapore turned up at the foreigner’s office with a friend of his just when I had been returning my bed sheets. I knew he was in Chiang Mai for a few days, but I never told him where I was staying. Additionally, to his knowledge, I was supposed to remain in the Temple for another 21 days. It was fun spending the evening as a tourist around Chiang Mai, before saying our goodbyes as he leaves for Singapore later in the day.

I adjusted quickly to my new surroundings. The world that at one point seemed so strange and foreign rapidly became familiar – although not without the mandatory ‘everything is going so fast!’ and ‘why is everyone so loud?’. The instant gratification I craved for inside the temple quickly showed its value. My Burger King dinner nearly came out as rapidly as it had come in (guys, you cannot call it ‘food’, for that would imply nutrition). I noticed that a certain calmness had developed within me, though – a hatred for suffering, and a certain empathy towards everyone. Where there had first been competition and comparison, there was now cooperation. I had never understood the value of that, but it now seems so abundantly clear.

I started out calling this a failure, and according to the dictionary definition, it has been. I did not last nearly as long as I had intended to. But I do find myself having found some measure of what I was looking for. An understanding of the culture, a respect for the people and a higher sense of self. It has, short as though it was, proven one of the most powerful lessons in my life. I understand that I have written much of such a short period, but I reiterate: it truly felt like a month. I merely hope that I do not forget the lessons that I have learned here, but in the words of Pra: ‘accept, accept, accept, action’.

13/05/2012 [Near the top of Doi Inthanon]

Fast forward two days. I now sit in a tent some 3 kilometers from the top of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand. I got here through a combination of walking (not an easy feat with all that water) and hitchhiking. The Thai are extremely kind and helpful; I need not even ask.

I am not scared, but I do have some concerns. First, it is illegal to camp here. I have met three groups on the way with guides urging me to go back – apparently walking around the park is also not allowed without a guide. I am not much concerned with large animals. The national park does have its share of tigers and Asiatic bears, but they are by now few in number and I am only a short while into the forest from the footpath. My largest worry stems from the rains and storms. Judging from the damp environment (a fire is out of the question), they are rather frequent. My tent-construction skills are also rather unproven, and the whole thing feels like a feat of Chinese engineering. A bit of rain or wind, and I go tumbling down a rather steep hill, costing the world another risk-prone university student.

Lastly, no one knows I am here, and no one will come for me. A disheartening thought.

I will write more about these two past days tomorrow; it is getting dark fast, and I wish to preserve my flashlight batteries.

14/05/2012

It is now approximately 10:00 AM the next day. I say approximately because I keep taking the battery out of my phone between photos to conserve energy, and I took the battery out of my backup timer for the same reason. Little did I know that it won’t remember the time when you turn it back on. Silly me.

Anyway, backtracking two days. It felt good to be able to talk and live again. I quickly returned to my former self – much faster than I had anticipated – although hopefully a bit wiser and less selfish one.

Yesterday I left early for the town nearby the main road to the top. Little did I know that it was a single, 50km paved road straight to the top. So much for hiking there – the trip would have been about as interesting as the thought of meditating for another hour. I walked about 5km before I got picked up by a guy on a scooter on his way up. A guy around my age stopped before on his scooter, offered to leave his girlfriend, drive me up and come back down later to pick her up again. In light of this being my own choice, I didn’t want to extend him this much trouble. Still, it shows how far the Thai are willing to go to help strangers.

During this first hike, the cable supporting my backpack (one of those two important ones that should really never ever break) snapped a plastic thingy holding it all together. It’s the umpteenth thing that breaks on this damn thing. Anyway, I tied the ends together and continued. I recall a friend from Germany telling me that when he spent a year hitchhiking around Australia, the two things he didn’t skimp on were his backpack and his boots. I followed half his advice – should have followed the whole thing, in hindsight ;).

The guy on his scooter dropped me off at the base of the mountain. Not three minutes after I sat down for some water, a guy I came to know as Joe invited me to drive with him to the top (even before a taxi driver did!). He and his two colleagues, Jar and Jothom, were electrical engineers from Bangkok who came here to escape city life for a few days. So nice of them – and that while, after the four-hour hike with an additional 25 kg strapped to my back, I probably smelled and looked like I haven’t showered in a week. Who knows, maybe they later regretted their decision!

They drove me all the way to the top. It had been disappointing – the trees obscured any view (Literally couldn’t see the forest through all the trees!). But I didn’t come here for the view. Determined, I set out to walk 5km downhill to a trail, itself spanning an additional 4km. I was hoping to be able to walk off the path at some point and pitch my tent – two tasks that proved more challenging than I expected. Some 4km downhill, the same guys – who happened to drive down the same path – laughed at this silly foreigner, took me the final kilometer and said their final goodbyes. Good, because the long hikes had left me exhausted and my feet in pain. The trek was initially nothing special, until I happened upon a view that was absolutely breathtaking. I had never before been up a mountain this high (though only some 2.5km, still modest by comparison to its Himalayan cousins nearby), and standing all alone like that on the edge, I felt on top of the world. An amazing moment, after half a day of exhaustion. Especially the hikes up were tough – my meditation training helped, but I often had no choice but to stop and rest.

I assume that I must have walked off-trail some 2/5ths of the whole thing [this turned out to be 4/5ths], right after a section on the mountain edge.

My positivity and rationale of the previous entry faded as fast as darkness fell. A silence accompanied the dark, which let me hear every footstep, every broken branch. It dawned on me that I neatly put myself back into the food chain that man had been trying to escape for so long. The sounds of a dog-like creature (I estimate by sound and volume) twice pierced the night, some 100m away. Thoughts flew through me: Why had I not bought that knife? What if that wasn’t some dog, but a big cat? The thin plastic sheet separating me from whatever was out there provided naught but the illusion of protection, a fact that became increasingly clear. The illusion, however, was far better than nothing at all.

I heard the sounds of large mammals throughout the night. You could hear everything. In essence, anything larger than half my size and I had a problem. Anything poisonous and I had a problem. Anything human and I had a problem. Snakes, attracted by heat, could find me a convenient source (it was pretty damn cold, so high up). Why had I not thought of this before? Why, again and again, do I feel the need to take these risks in search of a new experience?

It is morning now, however, and the forest is every bit as enchanting and beautiful as it had been when I walked in 24 hours ago. I slept maybe three or four hours. After some rest, I will pack up camp and hike back down (until someone hopefully stops to take me the rest of the way!). A valuable experience, but I have learned my lesson: I will stick to parties and videogames, like the rest of my age group, and leave the forests up to people who get paid for them.

14/05/2012

I feel as if my journey here in Thailand has concluded. I have done the things I wanted to (though perhaps not in the original measures), and to some degree I got what I came for. I am finished here (until after the motorcycle trip, of course!).

Unfortunately, I am not quite ready to leave. I applied for a Chinese visa today, and get to pick it up on Thursday [four working days later] (I opted out of rush service, a decision that saved me 1200 Baht and cost me my current state of regret). I am not certain how to fill the following days; renting the motorcycle is complicated by the fact that the embassy has my passport. It sucks, because now would be the ideal time to do it.

Instead, I spent the day driving around my scooter, restarting my speed reading course while my inner voice continuously maintains that insistent ‘rising-falling’. I thought I’d be rid of that by now. It’s rather frustrating, to be honest. Less bothersome is the constant awareness of my thoughts and feelings. The reminders make me a better person, and inform me that those hellish five days had not been for naught.

I will probably, and despite everything, continue my meditation practice. I have the time, and even though it’s objectively, genuinely horrible, it does provide some measure of peace and awareness.

Lastly – I haven’t let myself use my phone to play music. I have, over two weeks after I left, been insistently listening to all kinds of music that my mind decided to play for me. It’s like a personal jukebox, but you can’t choose the songs. It’s funny – a friend from Singapore once told me it’s called LSS – Last Song Syndrome. This doesn’t apply to the last one I heard anymore, though, but to the last 1000.

20/05/2012

Two days ago, it was time. My passport came back, my flight to Shanghai had been booked and I was done with everything. Except the motorcycle tour, of course. I picked the most powerful sports bike available; the Kawasaki Ninja 650 (although still modest by motorcycle standards, it has over twice the power my license allows me to drive back home). I have had four days to plan the trip, so everything was nicely planned out. I bought a paper copy of the Mae Sa Valley loop – my trail – from GT rider.

Little did I know just how excellent Thai roads were; how picturesque the jungles, or how challenging the ride. This was what I had been dreaming of since I was a kid. The same sense of freedom I experienced when I first sat down in Bangkok crept through me. This was it.

The loop was in total 100km. I had never done any tours like this before, so I had no idea how long it’d take. Advertised as a day trip, I assumed it would have been enough to last me the whole day. Guess I didn’t factor in the fact that I had done waterfalls, temples, snake farms and tiger kingdoms to death on my other trips throughout Southeast Asia, and didn’t stop for any of them. It lasted somewhat short of three hours.

The ride was one of pure speed, marred only by my own inexperience and the occasional truck parked squarely between you and that next perfect curve. My adrenaline, as well as my patience and that inner voice occasionally reminding me that 170 km/h will kill me just as fast as the next guy were pushed to the limit.

After the Mae Sa Loop, I picked a road and stuck to it – as I had done so often before in Africa. It had been a good decision – the Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai road was every bit as excellent – and beautiful – as the Mae Sa loop. I estimate to have driven some 300-400 kilometers total. I now know why people complain so much about fuel costs – and here, it’s half the price it is back home.

I stopped about halfway to Chiang Rai in a small town as it was getting dark fast. I asked around for a guesthouse, and found one not long after. The eccentric owner, who added to the already remote, creepy small-town feel of the place, wished me ‘good luck tonight’.

Why on earth would I need luck for? What a strange thing to say. What could he possibly mean?

Unfortunately, it soon became clear. I was put squarely in front of an entire farm of livestock, who don’t seem to need as much sleep as I do. Lovely – a second sleepless night. It was a small price to pay, though.

What wasn’t a small price though was the one waiting for me when I got back. I, uhm, dropped the bike twice, instantly reminding me of my own lack of strength (or the bike’s excessive weight. I prefer that reasoning) and the fragility of the mirror, license plate and fairing. I managed to break and lose the first two respectively, and scratch the latter. Everything combined, the ride had cost me some 3200 Baht.

Still worth it.

As I now sit in a Seoul – Shanghai plane, I contemplate what to write. What to think. After all, this marks the very end of exactly three weeks since I left off on my own and over a month since I left my life in Singapore.

Besides succeeding in pushing my bank account to a fresh low (along with the Euro, it seems. Lucky me), did I achieve what I came here for? Can I call this a ‘success’, or should I even define it in such terms?

If we entertain the notion that I should, I find myself, in light of my intention of coming to Thailand, not leaving with a sense of regret. Everything I had done, everyone I talked to, all the difficulties – they all had contributed to a wiser, more aware and more worldly me. It had been worth it.

But I reiterate; it will only remain so if I do not forget the lessons and experiences that this place has given me. That would be unforgivingly wasteful.

I look forward to seeing the family again. It has been a while indeed.

As valuable as it all turned out, one thing cannot be overstated. I do not want to make a habit out of all this. I might not be so fortunate, next time.

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