Friday, 14 February 2014

The Short Straw

When I landed in Kampot, I decided to dedicate a month to Cambodia, instead of the two weeks it was originally going to have.
That time had to come from somewhere, and as it turns out, it's come from Thailand.

Partly, this is logistical. I need a visa for China, still. My options were Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or Vientiane.
I didn't want to hang around in Bangkok for the election, which meant I didn't have time to get the visa there.
Next port of call, Chiang Mai...

Aside: Anyone reading this who doesn't know me may nevertheless be noticing a theme. Especially if you're here looking for travel tips. You may have noticed there is no post for Vietnam about Na Trang or Mui Ne. From Cambodia, there is a distinct lack of Sihanoukville or any of the islands. Similarly with Thailand. From Bangkok I headed north. The beaches aren't for me.

I took the night train, choosing to go for a reclining seat rather than a sleeper berth. Leaving Bangkok at 10pm, I spent the first couple of hours of the journey watching from the window, as progressively more isolated suburbs of Bangkok passed by, providing passengers who became steadily fewer and more tired-looking. I finally slept at about 1am, with 12 hours of the journey still to go.
The seats recline a reasonable amount, there is good leg room, and I slept until about 7am.

We got to Chiang Mai on time, and together with two other Brits and a couple of Canadians I caught a share-bus in to the city. The driver seemed to be a newcomer to the trade or the town or both, however, as he struggled with the idea we weren't all going to the same place, and he needed to ask directions three times once we got to the city. All in all, it took about an hour before I was finally deposited at the end of the lane leading to my hostel. It was still a 5 minute walk from there, but at least it was in the vicinity.

My plans for Chiang Mai were fairly simple - get a visa for China, and learn Thai massage. I'd seen a 5-day course, but asked about other options at the hostel anyway as it seemed to be one that actively tried to find cheaper and unusual options to the standard tours available in the area. Kai - the irascible, mercurial, and wonderful manager/owner of ThailandWow! (good name for a hostel, no?) was able to recommend a three-day option - better for the budget, and leaving me time to try to obtain a visa.
I arrived in Chiang Mai on the Sunday, the massage course started on the Wednesday.
Sadly, the Chinese consulate would be closed on Monday and Tuesday for Chinese New Year.
I would not have time to get the visa there, leaving me only Vientiane as an option.

In contrast to Bangkok, I didn't feel comfortable in Chiang Mai at all. Whenever I went out to look around or explore, I usually turned back to the hostel after an hour or so. I spent most of Monday and Tuesday catching up with this blog, and with the maths course I'm trying to do. Wednesday - Friday I had my massage class from 9 - 4.

Very bad photo of me, with Max and Nok, my lovely instructors.

This, I enjoyed very much (I do need to practice, though, or I may as well have not done it. I'll have to find volunteers in my hostels), and afterwards I would walk back to my hostel through the town. It was quite far, and I covered a lot of ground, but I still never really found anywhere there that made the odd discomfort go away.

A week spent in Chiang Mai left me with two options. Go to Lao as soon as possible and get my visa sorted; or go further north to Pai and Chaing Rai before heading to Lao, leaving me with less time in Lao before heading to China.
I booked a bus to Pai.

And then I cancelled it.

I would have liked to go - before getting to Thailand, many people that I'd met who'd already been waxed lyrical about Pai. The almost universal consensus was that it is a wonderful place. The new Chiang Mai. The new heart of the hippy trail. I was curious.
I was also a little short of time.
Going to Pai entailed spending a day getting there, then having only two days there before spending 5 of the next 7 days travelling to get to Vientiane. The alternative would give me longer in Vientiane waiting for my visa (weekends are strange impedances when you've been travelling a while) , but also longer after that to travel through Lao.

The decision was made by listening to travellers who'd just been to Pai and returned to Chiang Mai talking about it. Already, there seem to be more guesthouses in Pai than houses in the original town. There wasn't much to do in the town (although I have no aversion to sitting around and relaxing per se) - the best thing to do in the area is go trekking.
I would like to do that, too, but I didn't have the time. And while I could have made the time by trading off with another country, I didn't want to for several reasons - not least that I wasn't settling well in Thailand, but also because the options for trekking in China seem much more exciting. Which all seemed to make the trip a bad investment.
I decided to head to Lao early instead.

On Saturday, I got the bus to Sukhothai.
Sukhothai is really two cities, 15km apart. Old Sukhothai is the ancient Thai capital. The new city is where most of the guesthouses can be found. I was staying in the new city, directly opposite the bus station. Due to the vagaries of buses, after a couple of hours wait, I gave up on going to the Old City at all and instead cycled in to the New City. I'd be leaving the next day on a 7 hour bus journey to Khon Kaen - the next stop on the journey to Vientiane.

The New City, perhaps unsurprisingly, is like a ghost town during the day. The Old City historical park locks it's gates at 5pm, and until that time the New City was empty.

All in all, it was a rather odd place.

I didn't even spend a day in Khon Kaen. Although I did spend the night there. The last bus from Khon Kaen to Nong Khai (on the Lao border) leaves at 3pm. I have a suspicion this is designed entirely so that tourists will have to stay in Khon Kaen for at least one night, but I may be being cynical.

I would go into more detail, but I've really been moving too fast.
My feeling of discomfort continued as well. The towns all seemed nice enough, as did the people, but I slowly came to put my finger on what I think it is about Thailand that makes me uncomfortable.
It's a bit too familiar.

I mean, when do you not see JCBs driving through the night market? Come on!

I think it's a combination of how modern Thailand is, and how long I've been in Asia.
Vietnam is modern also - but it was my first stop. Everything was new, and the unfamiliar aspects of it caught my eye over and above the underlying similarities.
I'm more used to those, now. Street vendors are normal. Motorbikes driving on the pavement to avoid heavy traffic is a routine (if mercifully infrequent) peril. Tuk-tuks and share-buses are taxis. If you like, the novelty is wearing off. I'm noticing the similarities more.

In itself, that's not a problem. I don't demand exoticism. I'm happy enough walking through it and absorbing the atmosphere. Feeling the differences, even if they aren't always visible.

Thailand felt similar.
And I think that was the problem. If I'm going to be somewhere familiar, then I want my friends there. I want to go climbing with them, and go to the pub. I want to be able to go out for a hillwalk for the day, and go home afterwards.
It was frustrating not to be able to. To be somewhere so familiar and yet so far away from everyone and everything that turned that familiarity into home.
I won't go so far as to say Thailand made me homesick.
Actually, thinking about it, perhaps it did. It certainly made me question whether I want or need to keep travelling.
So I thought about that for a while. I haven't made a decision, really. Except that I want to keep travelling for now. I'm excited by the thought of the countries I have coming up - China and Japan. I'm excited to see my friends in Australia - it's been too long.
So after a final bus journey, and a night in Nong Khai (which is a nice wee town - I quite liked it there!), I left Thailand and I came to Lao.

 Nook Coffee shop in Nong Khai. Written on the window is "Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass... it's about learning to dance in the rain..."

Rear view of Thailand border checkpoint

Vientiane I'll give it's own post in a couple of days. Suffice to say for the time being that I feel better already.

I have no idea what the real issue was with Thailand. Whether I tried to do it too fast; or if I was concentrating on next steps too much and unable to relax there; whether I'm correct in my supposition that it's a disconcerting balance of familiarities old and new; or whether I just didn't do enough exploring there, didn't find the right places or the right things that would have made me love it. There is a certain amount of luck in travelling, in that respect.

My luck was out in Thailand. Perhaps that's all there is to it.

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