The Bus that Wasn’t

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This could have been a story about a 36 hour bus ride. I could have recounted how I had to transfer buses twice, once at 2 in the morning where I had to get off my bus in the middle of the jungle in Laos and wait 2 hours for the next one. I would explain how this bus never stopped for food, didn’t stop for bathroom breaks, and then expressed my theory that the driver must be a robot because surely a human being would have to stop to use the toilet during this time. I’d tell you all about the poor quality of roads from Hanoi, Vietnam to the border with Laos and how the quality somehow got even worse once crossing the border. Maybe there would be someone sitting next to me on this bus snoring keeping me from getting any sort of decent sleep. I would tell you all about how the AC would not turn off and I was freezing the entire time. Maybe the bus would even break down for a few hours in the middle of nowhere. I would have titled this post something like ‘Bus From Hell’ or ‘Hell Bus’ or ‘WORST BUS RIDE EVER’. But fortunately these titles exist already, when googling info on the bus ride from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, Laos the search results are littered with titles like this. A clear warning sign.

It was at this point that I decided that trips like this are exactly why air travel was invented, 24-38 hours on a bus, or 1 hour on an airplane. Sold. Instead of recounting a day and a half bus ride from hell the only “tribulation” I have to tell about is that the Popeyes in the international terminal of the Hanoi airport wasn’t open yet and I was really craving some subpar western food. So I was stuck eating pho again, a real tragedy, and using the free airport wifi. Rough life, I know. If I had an address I’d leave it here so everyone could send me sympathy cards. ‘Thinking of you in your time of need, of Popeyes’

Instead I had my hostel book my flight and a taxi to the airport, walked right up to check in, no lines, waited maybe 2 minutes to get through security. I waited for my flight to board in a largely empty airport with Internet quick enough for me to download music. Walked out to the Tarmac and hopped on a bus that took me to my tiny little airplane. I found my seat on the plane, a window seat, with no one else in my row. Graciously accepted the clementines and pastry that were handed out to each passenger. I listened to a single album and filled out my visa on arrival application for Laos before it was announced that we would be preparing for landing. Easy peasy.

Now you might think that this all makes for quite a boring story. And it is definitely a boring story, but I’d take an hour of uneventfulness over 30-something hours of hell any day.

So instead here are some pictures from the day that I would have been stuck on a bus if I had chosen not to fly,

IMG_1990-1.JPGThe lower level of Kuang Si waterfall outside Luang Prabang

IMG_1997-3.JPGKuang Si

IMG_2221-0.JPGView of Luang Prabang from Phousi Hill

IMG_2225-1.JPGSunset from Phousi Hill

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Myanmar: A Beautiful Assault on the Senses

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The plan was pretty straightforward, but with it being our first day in Myanmar we were too naive to realize a plan in this country actually takes a little extra effort to execute. Eight of us, loading into 2 taxis, we were to go view the sunset at Shwedigon Paya in Yangon before heading to the bus station to catch the night bus to Mandalay. Easy enough we thought.

As tends to happen in the chaos that is Yangon rush hour traffic our taxis lost each other, the 2 groups of us were dropped off on opposite sides of Shwedigon Paya, just as the sun went down. With no means of contacting the other group, no nearby wifi available to sit down and steal for a moment as would be the case in a place like Thailand, and rather than walk the giant perimeter with our giant packs on our backs we decide, quite sensibly that we’ll hop in another cab and head to the bus station which was still another hour away. Surely this is the same conclusion the other group would come to under these circumstances. Head to the bus station, meet up there, grab some food and wait for our bus to depart.

This decision was made with a certain idea in our minds of what a bus station should be. A fairly well traveled group, we’ve seen bus stations all over the world. One thing all major bus stations in cities this size have in common is some sort of terminal, some main central point, this is where in our minds we would meet up, surely even in a large terminal a group of 4 tourists would be able to spot another group of 4 tourists.

This was not that kind of bus station. In fact I wouldn’t call this a station at all. After turning off the main road which was littered with buses and taxis on both sides we entered what could only be described as ‘Bus City’ where we quickly realized this was not going to be as easy as we thought. This was a series of dimly lit dirt roads with buses absolutely everywhere, the scene outside the window of our taxi was absolute chaos, people, taxis, buses, all moving frantically. We still held out hope of a main terminal we could be dropped at until our driver asked us what company we were booked with. Good question. Fortunately I was in the same taxi as Tim, who had all 8 of our tickets, Tim always has the important things, keep him close when traveling. He shows the tickets to our driver, JJ Express is the company, he takes us deeper into Bus City to where our bus will be. All we can think about is how in the hell will the other 4 have any idea what company we’re booked through, how will they ever find us?

Worst case scenarios start running through our heads. They won’t find us, they’ll have to book another bus. And what if there’s no decent wifi in Mandalay and we can’t reconnect!? Our group of 8 has now become 2 separate groups of 4, we can’t get split up on day 1 of our Myanmar trip!

So we did the one thing that if you saw it in a movie you’d scream at the TV “No you idiots! Bad idea”, we split up, 2 groups of 2, better chance of finding them, and at least we all kind of know how to get to our bus. We wait at the “main” entrance in hopes of seeing them come in in a taxi. I only say it’s the main entrance because it’s the first one we entered, in reality it was no different than the other countless entrances and exits.

Taxi after taxi turned in, with each one we perk up and try to peer in through the dark. Of course this leads to the driver stopping, rolling down his window and asking “you need taxi?” The way we stared down every single taxi we must have looked like we were desperate for a taxi, sitting anxiously by the entrance/exit, giant backpacks next to us, so when we’d decline some would respond with a very confused “you sure?”.

Trying to lighten the stressful mood we try to come up with a best case scenario as we have already come up with and rehashed repeatedly what the worst case scenario would be. The taxi driver asks them what company, they’re absolutely clueless. But maybe this particular driver speaks some pretty good English, at least enough for them to explain that their friend in a different taxi has their ticket. This driver might also be quite helpful, as most people we had come across in Yangon had been, he might offer his phone for them to use. Maybe they’d have the hostels phone number somewhere and think to call the hostel that we booked through and see if they had record of it and they could get the company name that way. Yes, that’s what would happen, and we’d all be reunited just in time to board our bus. Positive thoughts.

About 20 minutes before we were required to be at our bus we decide to head back to our bus to see if they did in fact manage to find it. We would all head down different roads and make our way back, hoping one of us would find them somewhere in this mess.

Walking down the alley where we were to board I near our bus and as I do I start seeing dark, yet familiar figures. Could that be them? As I get closer, yes! It is them! Waiting at our bus, now nervously looking around for the 4 of us. The first 4 of us slowly show up one by one, each with a huge sigh of relief from all the others. Turns out our best case scenario turned out to be the reality. All 8 of us, at the bus, with enough spare time to sit down next door within plain view of the bus and enjoy a beer to calm the nerves. We are going to sleep like babies on this ride.

IMG_9092.JPGThe Myanmar crew!

Putting my time in Myanmar into any sort of narrative has proven to be quite difficult. It’s been over a month since I left the country and I have now put 2 entire counties between me and it. Myanmar was unlike any place I’ve ever seen before, the people unlike any people I’ve come across, and the food, from the traditionally Burmese curries to the heavily Indian and Chinese influenced dishes, absolutely incredible! The unique experiences came at us rapidly, not leaving a whole lot of time for reflection or to allow it to sink in. It was 3 weeks of sensory overload. As I’ve told all my fellow travelers who have inquired about my time there, it was one of the coolest experiences of my life.

So here is my attempt to put some of those experiences into words. Warning: rambling thoughts to come…

YANGON

Starting in the chaotic streets of Yangon, colorful sidewalk markets on both sides of the street, spread out block after block after block, spilling into traffic lanes. The smells of fresh fruits, grilled seafood and meats, and incense. Random passerbys walking up simply to engage in some basic english conversation, “Hello! How are you!”, “I am fine, my name is John. Where are you from?”, “Ah, America!? Obama!”, “Have a good day. Bye bye!”. The yelling and honking of the packed streets, as all traffic laws appear to be ignored yet somehow this works. This place is loud, it’s dirty, it’s dusty, it’s humid and it’s beautiful. Sweat dripping down your forehead as you wind through these markets in the scorching heat, winding from the sidewalk to the street, into traffic and back to the sidewalk before coming across a tiny stand with a few small plastic chairs. You sit down and enjoy a cup of yogurt and tamarind juice over ice. It feels like a cool wave splashing over you. The stand with the hotpot full of pig parts behind you ceases to exist. The guava stand to your right is now a hundred miles away. The traffic just 10 feet away goes silent. at this moment this is the most refreshing creation ever put on this earth.

MANDALAY

After a morning spent strolling along the banks of the grand palace we decide to go grab lunch before checking out a few of the other major attractions in Mandalay. We decide to turn off down a random road to try to find some cheap local food. This takes us down a road that quickly turns into a dirt road, receiving looks as we pass by that seem to read “they must be lost”. We pass a a school where at the sight of us the children all run to the windows screaming “hello!” We finally settle on a small roadside restaurant to enjoy our lunch. Choosing a restaurant was the easy part, choosing a meal would prove a bit more difficult. Our goal was to be delivered a variety of dishes to share, what dishes really didn’t matter, which we thought would make this process quite simple. Bit the menu being entirely in Burmese and the lack of any understanding of English by the staff combined with the fact that our phrase book apparently was lacking in accuracy made for quite a frustrating back and forth for both sides, which judging by the laughs of the other patrons must have been quite entertaining to watch.

Eventually our waiter disappears for a few moments, he returns with what appears to be a menu from some other restaurant, this one with english translations. Somehow once we have this menu we are finally able to communicate that we would like to be surprised with a number of different dishes. We watch as dish after dish is delivered to our table, the waiter enthusiastically pointing to the item on the menu as its delivered. The entire staff is now surrounding our table, ensuring our beers stay full and serving more rice when needed. We must have been served at least 6 dishes, all but one of them being widely approved by our group.

To think, just an hour prior we were wondering how we would ever get food to come to our table and now we’ve just eaten the best meal so far in this country and we’re laughing and joking with the staff, at least the best we can considering the langauge barrier.

Over the course of lunch we decided on our next destination, we will take the train from Mandalay up to Hsipaw in the north. A journey we’ve heard is as beautiful as it is bumpy, and none of us are quite sure how a train can be bumpy. We set off to find the train station to buy tickets. Based on the map we had we thought there should be a station nearby, but evidently our map was either outdated or just plain wrong. In yet another example of the incredible hospitality shown to us by the people in Myanmar a woman noticed we had walked past her shop a few times while looking for this station, she came out to ask where we were going. She informed us the station was actually quite far but then invited us all into her home behind her noodle shop for drinks, water and orange soda, both a perfect treat on a sweltering day like that. Her daughter practices her English with a few of us as we drink down our orange sodas. As we prepare to leave after learning of our further than expected trip to the train station we’re told by the daughter, “oh no don’t worry, my dad will take you all on his truck”. Once again a stranger is going out of their way to help us out, beginning to see a trend in this country.

HSIPAW

IMG_2565.JPGFour am, ready for adventure!

We board the train to Hsipaw at 4am for what will be a bumpy 12 hour journey through the countryside. Shortly after departing the station the train has already come to a stop. With all of us still half asleep we start hearing what sounds like goats. Definitely goats. Quite a few of them. No, a whole lot of them! It’s still dark out so we can’t see much but we here the terrifying human-like screams of about 50 goats, as they are rounded up and one by one loaded into the car directly behind ours. We were half asleep when we stopped, but half an our later when the train got going again we were as awake as you can get, listening to 50 goats scream bloody murder will do that to you, those sounds can haunt your dreams.

Shortly after the bumpiness we had heard about starts, I don’t know how the train remains on the track at all. It was so bumpy that a 40 pound backpack flew off the luggage rack and crashed onto the head of the person beneath. We all scrambled to strap our bags onto the luggage rack to avoid any further flying bags crashing onto people.

IMG_9295.JPGCountryside outside Mandalay

Eventually we start to see the sun come up over the mountains, illuminating the small villages we’ve been passing and the endless rice paddies and farms. After spending our first few days in Myanmar’s 2 biggest cities getting to see the countryside is breathtaking. Children are running from their houses to wave at the train as it goes by. The 12 hour journey was the perfect introduction to the rest of Myanmar.

BAGAN

It was the morning after thanksgiving and for me it was slightly similar to the day after Thanksgiving for many people back home. Waking up long before the sun comes up, putting on warm clothes and heading out to beat the crowds. Only I wasn’t heading to Best Buy to get in line to buy a half priced TV. We head out from our hotel around 4:30 am, walk down the street to the ebike rental. (ebikes are electronic bicycles, they have pedals but you don’t use them. It sounds really lazy, and it is, but they are wonderful, especially in a place like Bagan. No one wants to be pedaling a bicycle once it gets to 95-100 degrees) We all get our bikes and start riding towards Shwesandaw Pagoda. After a chilly 25 minute ride we arrive, park the bikes and ascend the giant, incredibly steep staircase and scope out our perfect vantage point. And then we wait.

IMG_0623-0.JPGLight finally starts to show on the horizon

After a while the horizon starts to glow, outlining some of the larger pagodas in the distance. Everyone sitting upon the pagoda is silent. Watching as slowly you start to see a glimmer of the sun itself, more of endless expanse of pagodas gets illuminated before eventually the sun is sitting above the tallest one in the distance. Then the finale. One by one hot air balloons appear, rising high into the sky and then traveling across the horizon, over pagodas and through the sunrise. Nearly 20 in all. One of the most mesmerizing, beautiful sights any of us have seen, and a better reason than most to wake up at 4am.

IMG_2568.JPGThe sky fills with balloons once the sun rises

DAWEI

IMG_0261.JPGThe final 3 after starting our journey with 8. Time to relax.

Our last stop for the final 3 of us in our group was Dawei, a city on the coast in the southeast portion of Myanmar. One of the more recently opened regions for travel, international tourists were only allowed in this portion of the country beginning August of 2013. From Hpa-An it was to be a 2 or 3 hour bus to Mawlamyine and then about 9 or 10 hours on a bus to Dawei. Our first bus was of the $1 variety, meaning when you get on theres a good chance there’s going to be a sack of vegetables in your seat, or containers of fresh fish. Our seats were moved at various times as the driver tried to best to fit all the cargo and passengers in the bus. This part of Myanmar also has significantly more police checkpoints than the rest of the country. We go through many with no issue before about half an hour outside Mawlamyine we seem to be stopped for longer than usual. The 3 of us are the only non-Burmese people on the bus, so although we are sitting in the front right next to the driver we can’t understand a word that’s being exchanged. After about 10 minutes it’s communicated that everyone needs to get off the bus. Everyone and all luggage, all except the styrofoam containers that we were guessing were full of fish.

IMG_2566.JPGThe contents of these containers seemed to be of interest to the police

Asking what was going on was of no use as no one seemed to speak more than a handful of words in English. Eventually 2 officers board the bus again, and off it goes, our bus and our driver to who knows where as we sit on the side of the road with our bags wondering where the hell we are and if we will ever make our connection. Eventually someone was able to communicate quite simply “taxi come”. Perfect. When? Who knows. After a little bit of waiting a taxi does come to pick up many of us on the side of the road. We get to the bus station with enough to time make our connection and get on the bus for Dawei.

Around 6am after a 12 hour ride we arrive in Dawei where our patience is about to be rewarded. It being my last full day in Myanmar we decide to fight through the exhaustion that usually accompanies the day after a night bus. We get to our guesthouse in a small village outside of Dawei and rent our motorbikes. We’re given a map of the various beaches around the area and set off. Our ride takes us through numerous small villages, and it still being a novelty having tourists come though children are sprinting into the street screaming “Mingalaba!” which is hello in Burmese. This also creates a fun moving obstacle course as we try to respond so as not to be rude, but also to avoid hitting them as they run in front of our bikes.

IMG_2564.JPGMy bike for the day. Also our beach for the day behind it.

IMG_0160-0.JPGYet another empty beach just for us.

After an hour of riding we find the beach, a long curving stretch of sand, with clear blue water, and not a person in sight. Paradise. On the other side of the peninsula we find yet another empty beach, this one smaller but with some shade. There’s about 10 colorful fishing boats out in the water, a small restaurant on the pier and nothing else. We decide on some lunch at the restaurant where we are brought into the kitchen and shown what fresh seafood was just caught that day. We decide on prawns and squid. Both are delivered to our table in delicious stir-frys. We eat within sight of the exact boats that caught our lunch just earlier that day. After lunch it’s naps on our own beach, swimming in the crystal clear water when it gets too hot. Just before sunset we make our way back to our guest house where we arrive just in time to see the end of the sunset at the local beach.

IMG_2563.JPGStir fried squid, essentially straight off the boat.

IMG_0321-0.JPGOne of these boats caught our lunch.

IMG_0200.JPGSunset on the local beach by our guesthouse. The last of many amazing sunsets seen in Myanmar.

By the time we’re ready for dinner it’s dark and we head down to the beach which is lined with small restaurants. You walk down a poorly lit dirt road, on your right are the restaurants, on your left is the beachside seating for the restaurants and then then the beach itself. Aside from 1 or 2 tables of locals the entire stretch is totally empty. We place our order and find a table on the beach. It’s easy to see how this place could change drastically over the next few years as more and more people start finding out about this wonderful place. But for now it’s absolutely peaceful. It’s too dark to see the waves but we can hear them crashing behind us. Aside from the waves and our conversation it is absolutely silent.

After 3 amazing but exhausting weeks of bouncing around this country, amazing experience followed by amazing experience this was the perfect way to end the journey. Not a care in the world, empty beaches, and the freshest, most amazing seafood. By the following evening I would be back in Bangkok, paved roads, western fast food chains and 7/11s, but for now it’s crab curry and the ocean.

Adjusting to Pai-time

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One of the better pieces of advice I’ve heard on this trip so far is don’t be hungover for the trip from Chiang Mai to Pai, or on the return trip. The problem with this piece of advice is that your last night in Pai feels like an occasion worth going out and celebrating. Add to this the fact that it’s also a friends birthday on that last day and a hangover is going to be fairly tough to avoid.

So armed with whatever precautionary plastic bags we could get our hands on we all filed into the 12 seat minivan and prepared for 3 1/2 hours of winding, climbing and descending mountain roads from the picturesque valley town of Pai back to the city of Chiang Mai.

Looking down a sharp cliff to the left of the van the driver quickly takes a sharp turn right, your stomach rolls to the left, and now you’re looking out at endless jungle covered mountains to the right. A minute later a sharp turn left, your stomach crawls further up and rolls to the right. More mountains. Right. Left. Up. Down. Right again. For 3 hours. Plastic bags in hand. Quick left. Crashing into those next to you with each turn. Left again. Your stomach crawls higher. Right. Still turning right. Finally left again and looking out you finally see nothing but straight road ahead. The worst is over, and professionals that we are, everyone’s breakfasts stayed put.IMG_8822.JPG
It would have been just as easy to never leave Pai. I arrived there for 3 nights, stayed 5, and could have stayed well past that. In Pai the entire outside world seems to vanish. You must adjust your watches to Pai-time, which is to say, take it off, you don’t need it here.

My guesthouse of choice was the Darling Viewpoint Guesthouse, located on a hillside above the town, a short motorbike ride into town by road, or a short climb down the hill and across the bamboo walking bridge by foot, easily connecting you to town. A spread out complex of bamboo bungalows and balconies, littered with hammocks just begging you to climb in and take a nap and not a bad view in the whole place.

IMG_8976.JPG Riding through the countryside here feels like you’re riding through a postcard.

Hot springs, waterfalls, breathtaking canyons at sunset and wide open country roads for riding, in those instances where you feel you should be doing more than lounging around all day there are many options, although no one will judge you for just sitting back and admiring the view for the entire day.

IMG_9088-0.JPGSunset over Pai canyon

In the evenings the temperature cools down considerably, a welcome change from the rest of my Thailand experience. As people start filling the streets after returning from their day’s adventures the town begins to be filled with the sounds of the many talented musicians playing in the bars along the main strip. My evenings were primarily spent at 2 particular clubs, Edible Jazz and Be-Bop, featuring both local musicians and those just passing through.

After many of the bars close for the evening you can choose to keep the party going into the early hours of the morning at the rasta bar or retire back to the guesthouse, where on a nightly basis the hosts will set up a bonfire and inevitably there will be a DJ of some sort staying at the guesthouse happy to play their music. Sitting around that bonfire at 3am with 30 something other people from every corner of the world is a true ‘where the hell are we?’ experience, it’s something I’ve never before witnessed in my life.

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At the end of the night, or as the sun is coming up, you can collapse onto your mattress, or climb into a hammock and get some much needed rest before the next day, surely to be filled with more naps, motorbike rides and live music.

An Unanticipated Holiday

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It may have been as I was sitting amongst the ruins of ancient temples eating an assortment of fried flowers out of a banana leaf bowl. Or perhaps it was earlier while being greeted with a chorus of ‘hellos’ as I’d pass a group of children on my bike. Or maybe it was the endless sea of smiles I’d see on the faces of every person I’d pass at the annual Loy Krathong festival. I don’t know when exactly it was, but at some point in my 2 days in Sukhothai it happened. I saw the Thailand I had always heard about. The Thailand that I came here for. People eager to share their town, their country, their lives. That I happened to be here on one of the biggest days of the year was by complete chance.

Gone were the tailors and the gurus, the just-a-little-too-pushy tuk-tuk drivers of Bangkok. Replaced by groups of school kids eager to practice their English skills by interviewing you and bar regulars ordering fruit plates for the group of us foreigners.

From the various groups of interviewers I was able to get all the insider tips on the nights festivities. Get there early to see the sunset over the temples. Find a good spot for the fireworks. Watch the light and sound show. Eat food, lots of it, because it’s all delicious, the papaya salad especially. That one proved to be spot on. IMG_8666.JPG
Walking through the festival that night I realized how lucky I was to have ended up here on this particular night. This being a largely local festival, not overrun with tourists, I felt like I was getting an intimate look into a special moment for these families. It was almost as if I were invisible, going unnoticed by the the families and groups of friends as they lit their lanterns. I watched from afar as their lanterns began to rise, casting a glow across all their faces as they stared up at it while it slowly ascended to join the hundreds of other floating lights dotting the night sky.IMG_8782.JPG
There was nothing manufactured about any of this, nothing catering to tourists. I feel this was my first authentic Thai experience, finally away from the fast moving, big city feel of Bangkok I was able to relax and truly enjoy a new place, through the food, the people and its culture. And all 3 of those things made their impression.

Where Are We?

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Waking up from a nap on the 7 hour bus ride from Bangkok to Sukhothai it’s easy to forget you’re half a world away from home. Looking out over the landscape at the passing farms, lush green fields and trees, it doesn’t look so different from Oregon. With the sun barely peeking out from behind the clouds, the mountains on the horizon might as well be the coastal range back home. I could just as easily be sitting in a bus heading down I-5. But as we continue on you slowly start to see little reminders of where you are, a cluster of palm trees on the side of the road or a road sign in a script that still looks completely foreign to me.

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That brief experience reconfirms one of the main reasons I came here. No matter how familiar some aspects may be, there are going to be differences. Experiencing and appreciating those differences, no matter how glaring or subtle, is what I’ve come seeking. As we continue down that highway, passing the familiar and unfamiliar I instantly go from groggy and confused to being full of excitement, only 3 more hours until Sukhothai, and I have no idea what may await there.

Down the Rabbit Hole

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“Here you go, Khao San Road!”

Pointing to the guest house I’d be staying at on a map, located a few blocks off the Khao San, I ask if he could get me closer, to which my taxi driver replies, “I don’t know there, here you go! Khao San Road!”

While hopping out of the taxi I quickly tear the map pages out of my Lonely Planet guide book and stuff the book back into my bag, so as not to make it completely obvious I have no idea where I’m going. Too late.

Welcome to Bangkok.

Khao San Road.

3am.

Many would say any great Thailand adventure should start right here on Khao San Road, the center of the backpacking universe. I throw my bag over my shoulders, dodge the oncoming taxis and tuk-tuks and start making my way down this rabbit hole.

At 3 in the morning the liveliness that I would come to see on this road on future nights has died down considerably, though there is still an energy in the streets. All along the road are pockets of late night partiers still sipping on giant bottles of Singha and jet lagged travers whose bodies haven’t the slightest clue yet what time it actually is. Giant plates of Pad Thai noodles still being served up and from the night’s last remaining curbside stands. Tuk-tuks, everywhere, and their drivers, eager to take you wherever you’re trying to go, if not some place totally different.

IMG_7783.JPGA much livelier Khao San Road than the one I first encountered.

“Where are you coming from, my friend?”

I would come to realize that it doesn’t matter how lost or confident you appear, there will be tuk-tuk drivers eager to find out where you’re coming from, where you’re going and then let you know how they can help you get there. In this particular case, I look absolutely lost. Easy prey. I had been warned previously, by nearly everyone I know who had traveled to Bangkok, of many tuk-tuk driver’s reluctance to take you directly to your destination without a detour to their favorite gem shop, tailor or bars. Exhausted from flying and knowing I’m just a few blocks from a shower and a bed, this is a gamble best saved for a later night.

Walking down this street, giant backpack over my shoulders, small, wrinkled map in hand, I’m transported to a different world. The countless languages and accents heard just walking down the street confirms that yes, at this moment, this is the center of the universe.

Eventually, after some directional assistance from some truly friendly tuk-tuk drivers, I make my way down one final alleyway, past some final few open air bars and food stands to find the Wild Orchid Villa, it’s red sign and big white letters hanging over the alleyway like a beacon leading me home. Exhausted, and now covered in sweat after my evening stroll through the muggy 80 degree heat with a 40 pound backpack on my back, I came to the realization, I’ve made it, I’m here, it’s time for my adventure to begin.

Thailand awaits…