A white haired man with a mane and careless beard, dressed in a crisp white shirt and red tie clasps his hands together before his face; the large rings on his knuckles catch the light and antique aviator sunglasses obscure his eyes. Billy Holiday shifts to Miles Davis. I’ve ordered what is, for South East Asia, an altogether decent glass of red wine and I have, at least, run a few errands today before sinking into this chair.
1. Have passport!
2. Am in Mae Sai; arrived last night from Chiang Mai, slept for 15 hours (it was beautiful but unintentional; I’ve got a cold and my body appparentlly needed the sleep) and am on my way to the Burmes border in a few hours.
3. Was convinced (by a grad student on the bus from Pai to Chiang Mai who is studying/working towards the application of DDR – disarmament, demobilization, and reintigration – alongside Burmese social leaders) and reassured by friends in Chiang Mai (who work with a school training Burmese refugees in civil rights action, and write/traslate textbooks for the refugee camps) that spending a few nights in Burma was not only completely safe but a good idea. Since the visa-money goes to the government, the only ethical way to do a border run is to support the local economy – so I’ll sttay at a guest house, eat at some restaurants and tea-houses, and buy something at a market. I’m only going to stay a couple of nights; I’m only allowed to stay a week, anyway, and can’t go farther than two towns (Tachilek and Ketung).
I have a new passport.
So I am told.
There is, in existence, a US passport with my name and picture on it. Sitting in Washington DC. Waiting for approval to be shipped here. The shipping process will then take between 7 and 14 days.
So I am told.
Of course, there’s a lot of things I’ve been told.
I wake at dawn to do yoga on a mountain top. Mist rises in the valley below as the clouds float into the sky above like a curtain peeling back. I sleep in a mud-and-straw hut with a thatched roof. Orange curtains, the same color as the monk’s robes, hang in front of the fine blue netting which covers the windows.
Cooking classes commence once we’ve all gathered in the Coffee Shop each morning. The Coffee Shop has, technically speaking, neither walls nor corners. There are a woven mats covering the floors, two long low benches molded from the same earthen clay as the floor and counter, shelves of books in both Thai and English, bamboo curtains, pillars made from whole logs (bark intact), dozens of pillows, and - somewhere (I can’t manage to spot it though I’ve tried) - an espresso machine. The cappuccinos are wonderful but the fruit shakes are amazing - as is the homemade bread, still hot from the oven that we eat for breakfast each morning.
[Various excerpts from my journal… Bit fragmented, sorry!]
I can’t manage to slip my gaze past the valley without it getting caught. I find myself staring off into the view, which is nearly omnipresent. (I find the other guests – even the other residents – doing the same on a regular basis; to say that the view is distracting would be an understatement.)There are more shades of green on display than I had imagined existed.
I was so, so, so very close to having a passport this morning.
Woke up at 6:40 to catch the 6:45 truck to town, threw on some clothes, stuffed my sleeping bag away, and set off to run through the rice fields to the road (toothbrush in hand, Theresa-style); ran into Caroline who told me the truck wasn’t coming due to the Chinese New Year; ran into Theresa who told me the truck was waiting. Due to the confusion I was the only one (of what should have been a large group of us from the farm) ready to go into town – but I went – managed to communicate with the driver, even, get off in the right place and orient myself in Chiang Mai. Found one of my favorite cafes (tiny place on a side street – amazing coffee, painfully-slow but ever-so-free internet, friendly dog) and settled in.
“Hey Noelle, yee’alright?”
Ruben starts all conversations this way – he says it’s the Isle of Man’s equivalent of “What’s up?” (He also says that he’s Manx, not British and not Irish) but it still startles me each time I hear it. Particularly this time, given that I’m calling because I’m not all right.
Playing solitaire for two hours accross the street from the US Embassy makes the guards incredibly nervous.
It wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and it was, indeed, one of the two days of the week that the Embassy was open to the public – but when I arrived the Embassy was, nonetheless, closed. I’d slept later than I’d intended to, slowly pulled myself together, asked around the hostel for directions (no one knew how to get to the Embassy or even the river, but I did get 100 baht – after having dinner the night before I was down to 60 baht – from two Canadian guys who took pity on me), tried to walk it, gave up and got a tuk tuk (50 baht).
They say (the proverbial they being, in this case as in all cases while traveling, Lonely Planet) that Chiang Mai doesn’t have much of a nightlife. And, to be fair, it might not have the shining neon, triple-story giant clubs of Bangkok or the endless dusk-to-dawn partying of the beaches in the southeast – but they have music here. And the music is wonderful. A good helping of classic rock (I hear “The Wall” at least once per bar any given night), enough reggae to keep the Caribbean happy, indie-alternative (with more bass) and the occasional hip-hop. A Norwegian music producer (ex-psychologist who decided to pursue a happier life) brings new cds to Bohemian’s every few days. Every third place has a live band or a dj, and from what I’ve heard, they’re all good. There seem to be a countless number of dread-locked Thai men who play a great guitar and – funnily enough – while the music might be western the musicians are Thai.
“I figure it out,” he told me. “Your next president is Britney Spears.”
He’d asked me, the day before, whether I thought Hilary or Obama would win. After explaining that they were both on the same side and that, in my opinion, neither could win a national election due to the American culture of repressed racism and sexism (not to mention the Electoral College), I’d refused to hazard a guess as to the next American president.
“Just remember not to smile,” the Canadian told me, grinning. “You’ll get bugs in your teeth.”
I watched the motorcycle driver balance my pack on the front handles and, with a pleading look at the man from the travel agency, made a complicated gesture that I hoped resembled a helmet (the only response was a laugh and a pat on the back), I threw one leg over the back and climbed on. I must have thrown a last dubious glance at the Canadian, because he continued with reassurances: “You’ll be fine. It’s a great way to see the city. And he’ll get you to your bus, no worries. This one time in Perth…” The driver throttled the engine and we took off before I could hear the rest.
The market was wonderful. Clothes, silks, flowers, food, seafish, fruit, vegetables, statues, gramaphones, antique bronze fans, endless displays of silver jewelry, chickens, singers, dancers… I shopped a little (despite myself – I’ve already bought everything that I needed to get and spent a week’s budget in two days), and wandered around until I hit complete sensory overload.
I had my day all worked out. I wanted to get a tuk tuk to the Moh Chit train station, buy a ticket to Chiang Mai, explore the giant market below the station, take the Skytrain to Siam Square, and get a Khlong (river taxi) back to Banglamphu. The tuk tuk driver, however, had a different plan.
I woke up last night to the Khao San I had been promised.
More accurately, it woke me, with the chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It was some unknown early hour of the morning (3am? 4am? 1am?) and the noise from the street below was so incredibly loud and intimidating it took me nearly an hour – and the realization that I had left my ear plugs on the airplane and going back to sleep was not an option – to convince myself to go down.
So I’m here!
17 1/2 hour flight, ridiculously easy time clearing customs (balanced out by the ridiculously complicated search for a guesthouse/hostel). Wandered around the airport following signs and taking advantage of any tout that tried to sell me something by asking for directions – and then following those directions before I could be given the sales pitch. Buying a bus ticket took a bit of work and I ended up on the air-conditioned airport shuttle (airport shuttles look identical the world over – Milan, Dar es Salaam, and Bangkok).