I kept a small travel blog over the last couple of years that was more or less a personal travel diary I wrote stories on to keep family and friends up to date with all our busy travels. But this afternoon I was spending some time privatizing all of my older posts when I came across one dated for 10.22.2013. Pinch me please because I cannot believe it’s already been a year since I was traveling Singapore, Bali, and Thailand for 3 whole weeks with one of my best friends.
This was a “turning 30 trip” and it was seriously the most epic travel adventure ever. We had more goofs and laughter than an episode of Saturday Night Live. I wrote a short story this day last year depicting the horror of taking a five hour Thai taxi in the rain in search of our treehouse hotel in Chiang Mai. I originally wrote this on my iPhone while in transit this precise day last year and have since re-edited it.
On the Road in Thailand
Last night we spent the night in a treehouse in Northern Thailand. And this was a rustic treehouse, with rustic serving as a euphemism for borderline livable for two first world yups. It’s called the Rabeang Pasak Tree House, located a far hour and a half outside of central Chiang Mai. Upon booking our lodgings last month, Lydia expressed a desire to stay in a treehouse. I concurred. It sounded like a fun enough idea so we found one with excellent reviews on Trip Advisor and decided to book one night.
Our hospitable resort in Chiang Rai set us up with a private driver to take us to Chiang Mai. Yes, there’s Rai and Mai, as Rai is north above Mai. The local bus wasn’t sufficient enough to get us to our treehouse located deep inside the jungle. But what began as only about a few hours drive, ended up taking almost five. It turned into a rather unpleasant ride through the winding roads in the tropical rain, as we faced remnants from a typhoon that passed days earlier in Vietnam. This made for a truly horrific ride. Very much aware of the fact that Thailand possesses the record for the country with the first or second highest number of roadway fatalities in the world, this was an experience I’ll never forget.
The rain only picked up while the road narrowed to a slim two-lane highway lined with ditches and unforgiving trees hanging around every curve through the mountains. Our driver, the silent type, offered no real comfort in the form of mere friendly eye contact or simply driving as if he cared one way or the other about getting us there alive. Cars passed us and we passed them in a relentless game of high-speed chicken, only to come within a hair of clipping the other vehicle. Thoughts raced through my mind like, “what if the car in front of us stops suddenly.” I dwelled on that scenario awhile and attempted to develop some sort of emergency strategy in my head. And I prayed there was at least some traction left on his tires to handle the heavy rain.
We witnessed two different accidents, one of them likely fatal with the car flipped upside down laying in one of those death ditches. And the thought of an inefficient and delayed rescue effort in such a situation only heightened my level of anxiety. It’s hard to believe this is the normal Thai tourist experience, but I’m afraid it’s often worse than this. Most young travelers probably curl up with a book on a bus and are probably blissfully ignorant of the statistics. Lucky them. We put our lives into the hands of this Thai driver yet I seemingly had little reason to trust him.
But I guess that’s the bargain you enter upon traveling to any country and particularly a developing country. Lydia reminded me “it’s ok, he’s a professional. He does this for a living.” I took some brief comfort in her words. I grabbed Lydia’s hand. She grabbed mine. We clenched our hands and held our breath upon every blind curve we passed. I was braced in a full alert position, hunched over on watch for the entire drive, watching car after car engage in an endless game of chicken.
Driving in Thailand is to be avoided as much as possible, at least for people like me who frighten from driving in general. More specifically, I fear the other people on the road. I grew up driving aggressively on Houston freeways which are certainly no place for a chicken shit. But over time, I became more aware of the madness of chaotic drivers and I think Houston and Thailand are comparable in this aspect. Funny a lot of people complain about the fear of driving and walking around Vietnam, but there’s a beautiful harmonious flow to the traffic there at least so you don’t feel like it’s flat chaos. In Thailand, there is no flow. It’s just very aggressive.
Typical of every hired driver you will meet in Asia, they all nod “OK,” to your requests, but speak very little English. You always wonder deep down whether or not they truly understand you. Most of the time, I think they just say OK to get the job. This is usually accompanied by the same self-assured expression that comes from pretending to know precisely where they are going at all times. Never admit defeat. It’s a kind of false confidence that’s reflected in their stern assertive expressions that compensates for a serious lack of directional knowledge.
We finally reached Chiang Mai’s city limits after a long two hours of hell. We were happy to drive inner city again and assumed the hotel was near. We asked the cab driver, though of course he had no idea, or GPS. I unfortunately also needed to pee. Believing the drive would take a maximum of two and a half hours, I put faith into my bladder of steel and decided to hold off on using the restroom at the one-stop we made before heading off into the jungle.
I will forever regret this, but I tend to limit my exposure to public bathrooms, especially in developing countries and most American airports. You’re lucky to get toilet paper, the stalls are often soaked from those splashy personal cleaning hoses and more often than not, the trash bins are filled with soiled paper. That doesn’t sound so bad now though. But drinking two bottles of water and a Gatorade during the ride in order to counter my travel dehydration was probably not the best idea.
My bladder’s discomfort exponentially increased in pain as the roads became bumpier and muddier; but I believed I could make it about another half an hour, assuming that’s how long we had left. We passed through Chiang Mai central, then turned down another road which led us through rural countryside and then eventually led us into the jungle. We passed cows, goats, local markets, misty green mountains, girls on motorbikes riding miserably bare in the pouring rain, typical second world sights, and more car accidents. Lydia and I looked at each other and felt spoiled for living in the first world where the roads are cleaner and even in the poorest of cities, people still have shelter to cover their drive in the rain.
But another hour passed and we headed deeper into the jungle. Raining just as hard, the road began to narrow as the green jungle started to flow over onto the pavement from both sides. We passed forests full of trees but not a dwelling or hotel in sight. Our cab driver looked more aloof than ever and the situation started to look more and more like one of Ted Bundy’s daydreams.
In the meantime, I’m in more pain than I can bear and my bladder is stretched to its limit. I can’t remember another time in my life when it hurt this bad. I tried squirming around in my seat, loosening my seatbelt, unbuttoning my pants, and doing whatever I could to ease the pain as Lydia looked at me with pity on her face as I whined in agony, unsure whether to laugh or cry. At this point we are clearly in the middle of the jungle and the rain poured harder.
I thought hard about going into the woods. The problem however was how to communicate this urgent need to our increasingly frustrated driver who spoke absolutely no English. I envisioned a wildly unsuccessful game of charades with this man only resulting in more delay and some disturbing confusion as I point to my lady parts. Option two was simply waiting until the car stopped and just bolting out of the car into the woods, Napoleon Dynamite style while leaving Lydia with the burden of explaining to our driver what just happened to the other white girl.
Shortly after, we stopped under a small sign in Thai hanging askew over another wet and muddy red road leading further into the woods. Our driver, impatient and tired, attempted to convince us that this was our stop – we finally made it. We arrived. We took a look around from the backseat but saw nothing but a dense jungle. His face grew more irritated as we joke about this crazy day he got himself into with us. He scanned the road ahead with much reluctance and timidity, not unlike a cat attempting to venture across an uncomfortable amount of water in its path. This man did not want to take his car through the dirt road any further and tried his best to pawn us off here to fend for ourselves. What a son of a bitch. Lydia and I refused to get out of the car.
Understandably the road was pretty wet and muddy and he was worried about getting stuck. But it wasn’t that bad, so at the worst his car just needed a little bath after all this. Still, he insisted that this was the entrance to our lodging, but we pointed down the road and demanded: “NO, further, more.” What a bastard this man, wanting to strand us in the middle of nowhere. Though we couldn’t help but die laughing at the thought of that particular situation unfolding. But I’m glad it didn’t happen. He mumbled something under his breath and then proceeded to drive us forward again slowly.
Deeper into the jungle, we reached a fork in the road – a three path split this time. The reality of finding a toilet now seemed highly improbable. But there was a small sign pointing to the right and we decided to take that route. Thank God! A few minutes later we reached some kind of lodging built in the woods, but by all appearances, it looked nothing at all like the treehouse we booked on the internet. Surrounded by small shacks that looked more like minority huts with straw rooftops, a local woman stumbled out to meet us with a flock of chickens following behind her.
I jumped out of the car, hunched over pleading “toilet! toilet!” As it turns out, the word ‘toilet’ is universally understood. She laughed and pointed to the left as I hobbled over like a hunchback, unable to walk right in the rain. At this point, those Eastern squatting holes I refuse to use in Japan would have made my day. But the driver for the first time cracked a smile at my misery. Moments later, Lydia slipped me a Kleenex. She’s such a good friend.
We arrived shortly after getting directions from the locals. We were greeted by the sweetest little old man who ran the property and an adorable little wet dog who enjoyed leading the guests to their cabins. It was a pleasantly warm welcome.
But our experience at this treehouse is for another story. The fact neither one of us took home malaria for a souvenir is quite noteworthy. Those twenty-four hours were rough but it’s safe to say I’m not a fan of camping in the jungle – particularly in the rain amidst insects and mosquitos. Experiences like these reveal how first world I truly am and I’m not ashamed of it. I won’t pretend otherwise. But the thought of all the men and boys who fought in Vietnam every day under these circumstances in the jungle seemed unfathomable to me. Living in a war-zone free area with clean toilets, running water, shelter, and clean sheets…why is it so easy to take these basic things for granted sometimes?