Chiang Mai is a much milder city than the torture chamber that Bangkok can be. (I mean, I loved Bangkok… But I’m not a fan of such large cities in general). For a good three blocks or so within the area of the train station, people were bugging me incessantly, asking where I was going and offering prices for a ride. It was only two kilometers to my hostel, so I swatted them away as one swats flies that have stayed too long in the vicinity of one’s face.
I can’t say I was pleased with the hostel I booked when I arrived (this will change; stick with me). It was only $3.50 a night, but listed air conditioning as one of its features and I was ready to spend a couple days adjusting to a new city with a bit of extra comfort. When I walked in, a Thai girl checked me in without saying a word and didn’t look very happy that I was there. It was off putting, but I’ve since realized that’s just her shy personality. But when we got up to my room, it was boiling hot and there were only fans for cooling down. My bed was still covered in the bedding of the person that had stayed before me (mind you, it was 11pm at this point) which she changed while I showered. I slept in my underwear without a blanket on and woke up covered in bug bites. The wifi did not work properly, meaning it was going to be disastrously difficult to upload posts for the next week. I was not having a good time.
That changed the next morning when I met several other people at the hostel; some of the most interesting, funny, adventurous, and laid-back travelers to cross my path thus far.
The thing about Southeast Asia, I have learned, is that aside from attracting a lot of sex tourism, it attracts a lot of drug tourism. In the south of Thailand, weed, as I’ve heard from others since I don’t smoke, is dirt cheap. I don’t know if opium is still commonly smoked here, but the north of Thailand is part of the “golden triangle,” where opium used to be manufactured. At the pharmacy, it’s incredibly easy and cheap to get strong pain medication like Valium, and I’m certain that most travelers here spend more on booze than anything else. Oh, and in certain touristy areas, especially on the islands and in the south of Thailand, you can buy shakes with pyschedelic mushrooms blended in. And in Cambodia, there are plenty of restaurants that will ask if you want to make your dish “happy,” which means they’ll bake weed into it for you. Not that it’s bad (I don’t think anyone should be judged for their personal choices unless they’re hurting someone else in the process), but it’s something you have to understand when traveling this area.
Chiang Mai offers a lot of things to do and is cheaper than Bangkok in almost every way. There’s a lot of international food, an all-you-can-eat sushi bar, and over 300 temples throughout the city. The city is quite old, having been founded in the late 13th century. A wall was built around the city center as dense against the Burmese empire but has since fallen and now only a few remains stand at the corners of a square where the most touristy and international restaurants and bars are found.
On my first full day here, I had no time to rest. In the common area, the other guests and I made quick work at becoming friends and making plans for the day. There were Josh, Tom, and Tara from London, Angie and from California, Muscly guy from Michigan, Igo from Brazil and his girlfriend Marie from the Netherlands, and Aidan from Singapore. A couple of them had rented motorbikes for the day and made plans to visit the “Grand Canyon” of Chiang Mai, a rock quarry that had been filled with water for people to go cliff diving in, and they convinced me to go with them despite my art of heights and knowing that people have literally died there as recently as 2014.
Only a few minutes out of the city, you can watch the mountains in the distance hovering blue and foggy over the city, completely covered in foliage and topped by a jewel of a temple (Wat Doi Suthep), and see the daily life of the locals spread out along the highway and little streets. After half an hour of hanging onto a bike for dear life (my first time ever driving one), we had made it to the Grand Canyon.
At first I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was some kind of secluded paradise. The water was emerald green and surrounded by high, carved, red-orange rock cliffs. It is technically private property, so the owners of the land have turned it into a business. It costs 50 baht to enter, and you’re given a coupon for a free herbal drink. You can dive as many times as you like and sit down at the cafe near the road which I believe is part of their home. There are bathrooms to change in as well.
If it were not for the people I was with, I would not even have been able to get up on the cliff. I. Am. Terrified. Of. Heights. And water, if I can’t see straight through it (despite my obsession with the sea and swimming).
Angie had already been traveling for ten months and had taken on a totally Bohemian attitude towards life. She had a fresh tattoo on her back and was explaining it to everyone.
“I got this tattoo from a monk just yesterday,” she said, turning her back to me to show it off. “It took me two weeks to find the information to find someone who would do it for me. I found this guy’s email on a forum from like, 2009, and I went to talk to him at this motor repair shop and he gave me the number of a monk who could do it for me.”
The tattoo she was talking about is called “Sak Yant.” Generally what happens with these types of tattoos is that you go to a monk who reads you in some kind of ceremony, determines what kind of tattoo is suited for you, and then in an excruciatingly painful 10-15 minutes, uses a bamboo or steel rod and nail to hammer a tattoo into your skin with a homemade ink. The monk then blesses the tattoo to give it magical properties (protection, fortune, etc), gives you a set of weird rules you must follow at all costs (no spitting in toilets, no pineapple, don’t stand under trees while slaughtering chickens, stuff like that) and tells you to return every yea to replenish the magic.
“But since most monks won’t touch women,” she continued, “the monk just put the tattoo on a piece of paper and blessed it for me, and then I found an ex-monk who would do it. But sometimes monks will do it on women by putting cloth on the skin so they don’t touch. I got mine but I really want to get it blessed and I want another, because the guy told me my next one has eight different temples pointing different directions to protect me no matter what direction I’m traveling in.”
I was really surprised to find that her tattoo looked extremely crisp, was huge, had cost her only about 500 baht, and wasn’t bleeding at all.
“It hurt like a motherfucker, and I’ve had tattoos before. This shit was painful. I was a little freaked out, because they use the same needle for everyone. They say it has a ton of energy because of all the tattoos it’s been used for,” she finished.
I couldn’t believe how brave she was to do something that to me sounded entirely crazy. Cool, but crazy. I kind of wanted one of my own, to be honest.
Muscly guy, Josh, and Tom were all doing their best to convince me to jump. When I’d reached the enge of the cliff and looked over at the water, my courage completely failed. I stayed there for a while filming people jumping, until enough people had done it that I felt somewhat okay making a potentially dangerous decision. Muscly guy had already jumped twice by the time I was ready to go. It didn’t help that a Korean woman was standing at the top with me crying and saying, “So scary! So scary!” over and over again, but Angie was there to cheer her on. Finally, I made the decision to jump.
As soon as I saw the water coming at me from below, I couldn’t breathe. I tried to scream or take a breath or anything, but all I could do was scrunch up my face and count the seconds I had left until my life was over– and then, I hit the water like a rock, bruising my ass but leaving otherwise unharmed. Tom had bitten his tongue pretty hard and Angie’s butt was really sore, but we survived and were better for it.
We left feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.
That night, the owner of the hostel told us we could go to an art party where there would be free food and drinks, and we could hang out with an artist who was making sculptures. We added a couple new people to our team including two Canadian French women and some other people I didn’t really get a chance to know, and ended up making it to the party long before it started. The house had a slide and was beautifully decorated, but apart from that I couldn’t remember how we got there because we had gone in so many circles looking for it. I thought to take a picture of it using my phone, which will be important later…
After we were done eating, we tried making our way back to the house but were incredibly lost. We tried street after street but could not find the stupid place we’d all parked our bikes. Then, it hit me.
“Guys! Stop! I took a picture of the building so my phone probably recorded the location. I can just look at it and map out where we were. Gimme a sec.” Despite all the issues I’ve been having with technology on this trip, it actually worked. I opened the picture and it had the address right there, attached to it: “Chiang Mai Insect Museum and Art House.” It was only a block away, but by the time we made it, it was all over. So we moved on to a bar called the “Corner Bistro” where V, the hostel owner, promised us free French fries.
It was fun for a bit, but at one point V came up behind me, slapping my ass and touching me way too much for me to be comfortable. I left his grip to use the restroom and avoided him for the duration of my stay in Chiang Mai after that.
We eventually made our way back to the hostel as a company of motorcyclists, following Tom (which was terrifying– he’s an insanely fast driver), weaving through traffic and speeding past cars and other bikes like it was nothing. Angie had decided to call us “The Sons of Chiang Mai” after the Sons of Anarchy, and nicknamed Tom the Death Rider. We were up late listening to him serenade us with a guitar, and I went to bed completely content with my day.