This week’s entry is guest written by Amanda Gansfield, who trekked across northern Thailand all last week and generously decided to recount her adventures on this blog.
In the past week, I’ve traveled approximately 600 kilometers around Northern Thailand. I’ve been on 8 songthaews (a form of shared taxi), 4 buses, 3 pick up trucks, 2 tuk-tuks, 1 river boat, through 4 police checkpoints, and done 20 kilometers on foot. While I’ve been loving my comfy life in Chiang Mai – hipster coffee shops, wifi everywhere, and an international culinary scene – I was itching for a glimpse of life outside the city, so I set out on a week-long trip to see more of what Northern Thailand has to offer.
If you haven’t set foot on a form of public transportation in a country, you’re still very much removed from the everyday lives of the people who live there. You’ve also probably missed a lot of great scenery. Anyone who has ever tried to navigate a new metro system, sat cramped among luggage and sweaty passengers on a long bus ride, or tried not to lose their lunch on a rocking ferry can attest to the fact that this type of travel can be confusing, uncomfortable, and at times, frankly terrifying. In the midst of all this misery though, I’ve also witnessed incredible generosity and opportunities for genuine human connections.
As soon as I began my journey to Tha Ton, I was immediately reminded of why I love overland travel. At the bus station, without even asking for help, several people approached me and (after some vigorous head shaking and repeating of town names) helped me determine I was about to board the wrong bus. All I had to do was look a little bewildered and people were jumping in to help. Amazing.
Once I was safely on the correct bus, the breathtaking scenery began to reveal itself. I passed great stretches of land where the only inch not covered in green was the road and the sky. Date farms and roadside stands overflowing with freshly picked watermelon whizzed by. Rice paddies sat nestled against the base of limestone cliff-sides while thick clouds hung low in the sky among the trees. The phrase “bucolic Jurassic Park” popped into my head as I groped for the right words to describe the indescribable scenery.
The next morning, I woke early to the sound of roosters crowing and prayer chants. After walking down a street with monks collecting their daily alms in large brass bowls, I began the steep climb to Wat Tha Ton, the Buddhist temple overlooking the town. I could hear the electric buzz of cicadas, and the smell of incense wafted through the air. Spider webs as thick as cotton sat drenched in dew drops from the morning fog. At the summit, wildflowers surrounded a chedi painted in intricate patterns of pastel purples, blues, and yellows. In the arches, scenes of Buddha’s teaching were displayed in hammered silver.
A few days later, I found myself in Mae Salong, a small mountainous town surrounded by tea plantations and hill tribe villages, which is steeped in the history of the Chinese Civil War. Anti-communist KMT forces fled to Myanmar and then sought asylum in Mae Salong, eventually fighting for Thailand until the 1980s. Today, most of the people speak both Thai and Mandarin, and the Chinese influence is apparent in little details such as their famed Yunnanese noodles. No buses go through Mae Salong, so you must flag down a songthaew in a nearby town then wait to gather enough passengers to make the trip worth it for the driver. During this wait, I met Yoyo from Hong Kong, who would become my travel companion for the next 30 hours.
We were told that Mae Salong is best explored by motorbike, but the roads were made up of sharp switchbacks and steep inclines, so we decided our best bet was to walk rather than pit our novice skills against this backdrop. And so we walked. For 8 hours to be exact. After straying from the road, down into the deep valleys of the tea plantations, we found a small cafe with spectacular views of the hills. They offered us free tea and water without any expectation of us spending a dime – and later, as we continued down the road, the friendly owner of the cafe passed us in his truck and offered us a lift! As the scorching afternoon sun was setting in, we happily accepted his generous offer.
For hours we followed the undulating road passing lizards, snakes, a giant centipede, and more chickens than I could count. As we strolled through the small hill tribe villages, we saw thatch roof huts (complete with satellite dishes) and giggling children playing near the river yelling out “hello!” or sometimes just eyeing us shyly. We stumbled across a Rainbow Eucalyptus tree, which looks as if it has been painted in neon colors. In the morning, I had been disappointed that I’d be forced to explore on foot, worrying I wouldn’t be able to cover enough ground, but as the sun began to set, this disappointment was replaced by a deep satisfaction from a pace that allowed for the exchange of smiles with the people I passed and easy conversation between new friends.
After a week of travel, I was ready to return to Chiang Mai. However, my journey doesn’t end without at least one more exceptional act of hospitality. Returning to Chiang Mai from Mae Salong is an over 6 hour journey with multiple transfers (and therefore opportunities for confusion). A couple hours into my trip, I found myself in a town I had not anticipated stopping in. Having sprinted to catch the last songthaew after some frantic pointing, I hadn’t had time to ask many questions. Suddenly, a man who had not said a word to me the entire ride, instructed me in perfect English, “this is where you need to get off to go the Chiang Mai.” Before I had time to protest, he was already carrying my backpack all the way to the next bus where he loaded it onto a seat, told me how much the ticket would be, and opened the window next to me so I wouldn’t get too hot. His kind gesture took me so much by surprise that I waited to see what the catch was – was he going to ask for money in exchange for carrying my bag? I figured at the very least maybe it was a come on. But he simply smiled, said good bye, and left the bus to continue on his way. Later, as my bus drove out into the street, we pulled up next to the same man. He ran up to the window and handed me a freezing cold water bottle, which after sitting on a broiling bus while waiting to leave the station pretty much seemed priceless. Again, he simply smiled and waved good bye. I’m not sure what inspired this man to be so kind, but I’m fairly certain he’s my public transportation guardian angel. Of course, not all overland travel is so inspiring. Moments later, a woman plunked down next to me on the small bench, and I sat there wedged between her and my backpack, unable to sit up straight and sweating profusely for the next several hours. Strange as it may sound though, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Background image by Yoyo Wing
All other images by Amanda Gansfield