Northern Thailand

What are you afraid of?


There's a family legend which claims that I, at an age when I stood roughly knee high to a june bug, was dining with said family at a Shoney's [side note: it still exists] and suddenly screamed in terror upon seeing an elderly gentleman walking toward us, "Lil ol man gon' get me! Lil ol man gonna git me!!!!"

I can't imagine doing such a thing, but that is the allegation.

In the intervening years, many things frightened me. Things that went bump in the night. Heights. Fluorescent lightbulbs. Girls. Abandonment. George Plaster (who yelled obscenities at me during every commercial break the one time I ran the board for him at SuperTalk 99.7 WWTN). Money. disappointing others.

Worse than any scars I carry from fears confronted is the sound of my voice, echoing in memory, saying "I was going to ______, but [insert sound logic]." And people respond, "Yeah..." and I hear the unstated "but". Even if it's only me who can finish it.

"screw you, heights!" me, naked of face and with a man on my back in 2010.

"screw you, heights!" me, naked of face and with a man on my back in 2010.

The fear sucks. It's bad for you--unless you're running from cheetahs. I'm convinced it causes weight gain--because once I let go of my anxiety, I dropped 5 or 10 pounds in a few days.

But it's so hard to shake. We're programmed for it. My Grab driver told me she was scared to travel outside the country solo because "Thai women don't do that". The woman sitting next to me on the plane from Chiang Mai to BKK went into a near panic attack on our descent--so much so that she gripped my arm while I patted her hand to reassure her.

Which brings me to the day before, when I endured the most frightening experience of my time on the One Way Ticket so far: my visit to Doi Suthep.  

yup. another wat.

yup. another wat.

Seriously, Jamie--a wat scared you?

No, it wasn't the wat--rather, it was the way. The way I got to the wat [say that all out loud]. For when I asked the hotel desk clerk the best way to get to Doi Suthep, she said with certainty, "rent a motorbike."

The following is a list of things I'd never done before:

  1. Earned a motorcycle license
  2. Driven a motorcycle
  3. Driven in a foreign country
  4. Intentionally driven on the left side of the road

I've still not done the first, though that didn't stop me from handing over 300 baht and doing 2 through 4. This may help explain how Thailand leads the world in motorcycle deaths

As I tooled around close to the hotel, getting a feel for two wheels beneath me, trying to not crash into curbs and hinder cars (and having limited success with both), I eyed the highway I'd have to navigate--though not as pictured on this little app:

the usual traffic, which will get me usually killed

the usual traffic, which will get me usually killed

but a multi-laned, terror-inducing superhighway of death. It's not pictured here because fuck no I wasn't about to take an Instagram-worthy picture of it as I went flying over my handlebars and shaved my beard off with blacktop.

I debated. I vacillated. I pulled over to reconsider and I just might've turned back to the hotel. The voice was loud and insistent. Logical.

"This is how people die on foreign holidays--not getting kidnapped for ransom, but by being stupid."

"Psychologists ask clients if they're a danger to self or others, then if they hear 'yes' they can have the person locked up involuntarily--and you, my friend, on this bike you have no business being, are a danger to all in your path."

"Is it really worth it? Is it worth risking death, injury, or the expense of replacing this bike, just to see another wat?"

Maybe not. But it's worth it to ignore you, logical naysayer in my head.

And I won't lie--the highway run was somewhat miserable. Dirt in my eyes, helmet halfway off my head, drivers on my ass. It rattled my bones and ached my muscles. Then I got to the twisty-turny parts, slowly essing up the mountain. And that, while also harrowing, was equally a joy. I couldn't help but giggle at points, thinking "This is my life!" 

And again, no, I don't have pictures. That phone came out of my pocket only to check my maps and verify I was going right. One can survive only so much stupidity.

But I made it. Then I made my way up 330 steps to the aforementioned wat. Then out back, at the lookout point, I did capture the view for posterity.

the hills are alive, with the sound...

the hills are alive, with the sound...

Of course, I still had to get back down--and here is where I nearly died or did some real damage. My throttle got stuck open and nearly rode me into a deep ditch--and by "throttle stuck open" I mean "I kept the handle twisted because I forgot that's what makes the thing go."


But I threw a death grip on both brakes and pulled it up and stopped it just short of doom and total embarrassment. And the rest of the ride I got lost a couple of times, drove up on a bridge alley I shouldn't have, cut in front of oncoming traffic while turning twice, needed help to restart the thing after I'd parked by the ATM (thankfully Thai folk are friendly), needed help figuring out how to put gas in the thing (see above re: friendly Thai folk), and somehow, some way, brought myself and the bike back in one piece. 

Exhausted, hip abductors screaming, body vibrating from rattle and hum and adrenaline, I had a much-overdue lunch and chilled in the pool.

So, seriously, what are you afraid of? 

Finding temples, searching answers

Onto the last few days, which I've spent in the north of Thailand: I'll save Chiang Mai (the "New City", established 1296) for the next post, and concentrate on the first Lanna capital, Chiang Rai (and the north in general). There's lots of fascinating history in this whole area--for one, they've only been part of Thailand for about 130 years. That's just an eyeblink for these civilizations. The Lanna kingdom had their own language, as well, and its descendants seem to want to hold onto some of the old traditions. The Rama come lately factor may be why I hear "hello" and "thank you" at the shops and 7-11's much more than "sawadee kha" and "khwap khun khrap" (another possibility is this place is lousy with westerners, so the service folks here may just be accustomed).

if you'll look to your right, you'll see hell. if you look to your left, you'll also see hell. please stay on the path at all times.

if you'll look to your right, you'll see hell. if you look to your left, you'll also see hell. please stay on the path at all times.

Wat Rong Khun: The White Temple

Months ago, back in the states, thumbing through the guidebooks and looking online, nothing excited me more about Thailand than images and the story of Wat Rong Khun. I imagined coming back day after day, studying its intricacy and commentary to understand greater truths and, perhaps, get closer to enlightenment.

That didn't happen. One, we had just 45 minutes there, as our tour was on a strict schedule. But two, even with more time, the crowds, ever-present at these "most important" wats, meant the experience is more about shuttling through, pausing for a bit to observe perhaps, then making merit via the donation box.

True, there were unique opportunities at this wat: a gallery where artwork by Chalermchai Kositpipat was for sale, and the legendary golden toilets. Given enough time and peace perhaps I could have connected Iron Man to the Buddhist battle of doing right and wrong. Perhaps when his full vision is no longer under construction.

Don't get me wrong--my experience there was enjoyable. It was simply unable to meet my unreasonable expectations. I'm learning that all these wats, while incredible and beautiful and at times awe-inspiring are, at the end of the day, buildings. They don't hold The Answer any more than the Taj Mahal or the Chrysler Building.

The Golden Triangle

Not so long ago the gold in this triangle was brought to purchase opium in equal measure. Now they have a bunch of Buddhas to ward off ghosts of those killed in the no-mans lands (so the tour guide tells us) and tourism is thriving.

the countries are there--just blocked out by my beard. to do: buy comb.

the countries are there--just blocked out by my beard. to do: buy comb.

Standing where the Mekong River meets the Ruak, I again mused on how fortunate I am. I'm just a poor kid from Kentucky. I lived just a few miles from where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet--from the banks you can see the Commonwealth plus Illinois and Missouri. The tri-state area, the call it (as if there were only one in the US).

Yesterday I got to see three countries at once: Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (formerly Burma) [Sidenote: how long we gonna have to keep pointing out that Myanmar used to be called Burma? It's been almost 30 years, y'all--get with the program.]

Before the day was out I got to visit Laos for a bit to shop (sadly not at the casino they referred to as Laos Vegas), then we were given time back on the Thai side to shop. I didn't feel like buying anything, so I found another wat--this one dating from 759 or the 14th century (there remains debate). Guess I can't quit my habit yet.

Pics or it didn't happen. It happened: