border states

orsolya anna tóth
Mar 3, 2017 · 14 min read

I wonder if the seduction of travel is really in the in between places. The excitement of a new you day after day after day. The long boat or bus or tuk tuk rides between hills and banana trees, no reception, nowhere to be, nothing to control.

It’s close to magic, knowing you can pick your bag up and leave any hour of any day, if something doesn’t feel right. Sometimes it’s just an itch, longing, tiny whispers in your ears that it’s time. But am I really looking for those new streets and forests and people? Are you? Maybe it’s the peace of wind in our face and the world slowly gliding or wildly rushing by. Then of course there is the vast echoing freedom in the few days and hours when no one knows you and there are no expectations to live up to. For a while anyways. Then you start running into the same people along the way.

A few dear friends asked whether I’m going to write a blog, if only for fun, (or for them to know where to go next year) so here it is, sort of. I’m sitting on a boat that gently rocks on the waves of the Mekong. We’ve boarded hours before it’s scheduled to leave, partly thanks to a whole lot of roosters diligently doing their job from 4am, partly because it’s definitely overbooked and no one wants to sit in the back engine room. I look to the right, I see more long, colourful boats, baby chickens pecking in the tiny harbour and a handful of goats looking over it. I turn left, and there are two elephants grazing on the opposite bank’s sanctuary. One pound is about 10 000 kip and we are lugging a motorbike with us in the front too. I’ve been in Laos for 4 days now, but it feels like I’m mostly in between. Waiting in a dusty (though cute) border town will do that to you, and zip lining and hiking over gorgeous jungle valleys isn’t about the constant either. Do not skip the Gibbon Experience — the reason for my wait — if you have the chance. Not low budget, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever forget flying over those trees and flowers and rivers, the rising sun in your face and thousands of birds singing around you. Or the sunset, from a treetop house, with nothing and not a soul anywhere nearby.

(Oh, our guesthouse’s lady has just came after us on the boat, insisting we show our bags to her, since we must have stolen her towels. Needless to say we’ve never got any. Rather bizarre and funny.)

So how did I spent this last month you wonder? It’s been the month of Thailand for me, something that I don’t actually regret but may have organised differently if I’ve known better in advance.

Chinatown in Bangkok

Bangkok is huge, crazy, all-engulfing, hot and difficult. Rarely friendly of pedestrians, the little pockets of indescribable beauty are hidden between a constant flow of fuming traffic, concrete and street vendors. Chinatown was an excellent home base for us, as colourful as quirky, the riverside hotel a peaceful place to return to every day. Sukhumvit not so much, a bit too sleazy, crowded and covered in concrete to be lovable, but I was grateful for all the Japanese restaurants, a welcome change from pad thai by then.

Thonglor for our last night has been perfect. More expensive then the rest of the city we’ve encountered, but really fun bars we’d instantly feel at home in and way more thai than foreigner customer. Just any old Friday night in a big city, young people hanging out, playing their games.

Those of you yet to visit, do use the boats on the Chao Praya to move large distances. Even full of people there is magic in them. Don’t get into taxis without meter, though if you get a bit swindled arriving with a massive jet leg, just shrug and don’t get mad, it really doesn’t worth it in the end. Walk around Wat Arun and Wat Pho and be enchanted by all the tiny pieces of porcelain decorating the temples. I preferred the Golden Buddha to the Golden Mount and felt enchanted by the Loha Prasat Wat Ratchanaddram, the last buddhist metal palace and it’s geometrical peace. Khao San road was enough for us to walk through a couple of times and make fun of all the drunk people — probably less entertaining albeit more grosser closer to the morning.

There is an erie feeling in leaving those colourful lights, buckets of beer with fried scorpios on sticks and step into the rivers of mourners dressed in black all around the Royal Palace. If architecture is your thing and you’d wish to know how traditional thai buildings looked, aside from the temples, then the Jim Thompson House is your place. 6 traditional teak building from all over the country assembled into one grand estate full of art and the gardens will shelter even from the midday heat there.

Ayutthaya was sweltering and in my mind, all shades of terracotta, stones and sand. Our hotel’s garden a cool island in the middle of it, but also a stark reminder of the differences between local and traveler life, with a row of decaying flats right next to it.

The ruins and temples are fascinating and they are absolutely everywhere, stupas peeking out of even some back garden. I hear Thai people try to see 9 a day on their visits to the city, to get their wishes granted — however many monk stresses that Buddhism is not a religion — and I can’t imagine that not being an absolutely exhausting endeavour. We have seen 5, thanks to an unexpected opportunity to go boating around the island, that included 3 stops. I enjoyed the strange shapes and destroyed walls of ruined ones somewhat more than the ones in mint conditions, where it’s hard to distinguish after a while and you can never really tell if it had been raised a few years or centuries ago. My favourite must have been Wat Chaiwatthanaram, but descending into the crypt of Wat Maha Tat lends you strange sense of descending back to the past too. You are alone in a tiny painted cell, the tonnes of soil and the building weighting on you like all that time passed turned to stone.

I’m not sure I understand people who just stop for a night there, though the city itself is not much, there is peace and quite to be had. (And some exciting street food of course as well, at the Night Market, where I first burned my entire mouth with some pineapple pork skewers, not wise. At least I’ve built up some spicy food tolerance while on the other side of the world I suppose.)

Heading to the islands right after has not really been the original plan but it turned out the right thing to do, the night trains to Chiang Mai all booked out and me realising I’m way to exhausted for the original two week roaming plan. It feels like moving between places is at least a whole day activity every time, no matter the distance, with packing up, getting to stations and additional vehicles. Our trip to Trat was about 5 hours in a minivan where the locals new very well that they should get in asap and avoid the seats in the back at any cost. Which of course meant that we ended up there, with another tall, German couple, the chickens somewhere in the back and a puppy in a box between the seats. The town is a small one that once planned to become another large tourist junction on the way to the islands and Cambodia but ended up largely bypassed. It’s a shame though, their night market is lovely and the people fun to interact with. You can walk and breath and see the stars, a welcome change after passing through Bangkok again.

Koh Mak is small and peaceful — at least the majority that I’ve seen of it, so much so that I dared to learn driving a scooter. The Bamboo Hideaway here we stayed is true to its name, traditional bamboo huts on top of a small hill with a slice of the sea visible from the terrace. One feels like sipping a drink on one’s own private island. There are tiny coves with beautiful turquoise water and white sandy beaches, hammocks or songs or lanterns — not a bad first tropical island experience. Not awfully much to do of course, though that suited us for the time.

Koh Chang is indeed large and pretty touristy, a start to feeling like a neat little tourist package being moved between places in the most sterile and air conditioned way possible — Bangkok was too big, Ayutthaya too small for that feeling and on my trip it accumulated in Chiang Mai.

But you could get away to different beaches and get around on your own if you so wished. Our accommodation was as amazing as I imagined when looking for it for weeks — it was for my birthday after all — 5 minute hike up the hill, the views from the terrace and it’s treehouse lookout point were beautiful, the gardens lush and flowery, the bungalow secluded by banana leafs and birdsong.

Lonely Beach is as far from lonely as possible, but sometimes all you want is a string of decent bars to choose from and Sky & Sand at sunset. I had the most amazing massage of my months on Kai Bae, in a hut overlooking the ocean reflecting the last rays of the sun until the moon took over completely. Afterwards, you can sit at the edge of the water, drinking tea and silence and all is right in the world. Pearly Beach was the most peaceful and the sunset spread around us in gentle purples and pinks and tiny waves and we were laughing out loud happy holding onto the pirouetting swing.

It felt like the right time to leave, to see new places again, but the ferry ride and our 8 hour minivan journey back to Bangkok was one of the first things that got me feeling, it is way too easy to move around here. When a dozen of those minibuses queued up for the ferry I couldn’t help but realise it is incredibly difficult to avoid structured fun in this country.

This also marked the start of my travels alone, with a 15 hours long night train journey no less. I did hear some less-than-amazing stories — cue cockroaches running along the beds — but my own experience was really lovely. Well, apart from the two-hour wait sitting on the platform until the train finally rolled in at midnight, indeed surrounded by cockroaches and silently sweating in the heat. The ride itself was pretty fun, long enough berth, some privacy thanks to the bright magenta curtains, beautiful views on the morning. In between space, the rumbling and swaying lulling all fears and loneliness away.

Chiang Mai was almost a breeze compared to Bangkok, of course, but I’m not sure it made me fall in love quite as much as most people seem to feel towards her. Sure, there are many many gorgeous temples, more green, more walkable streets. Some healthy food, a good handful of places that know how to make a great coffee…cheap massages. And arriving on a Sunday afternoon, the market’s smells and colours and energy made me very happy. There are also an unbearable number of tour operators and lines and lines of minibuses in front of every hostel and guesthouse every morning, which was probably the thing that really made me want to run away. And how many of those eco treks are really eco and how many elephant sanctuaries are really genuine? Are demands from conscientious tourists really changing things or is it just easy to write on the flyer, a make-believe?

Either way, let me just stick to the great things. Wandering through the streets with a mango shake, every corner hiding another, prettier temple. Fish spa, that tickles and I’m still not sure how effective is, but certainly a fun half an our. The Monk’s Trail that I got to climb completely alone, with the cicadas and birds for company. It leads up to Wat Phalat and it’s meditation retreat, a group of temples, demon and dragon sculptures guarding a sunlit little valley. You are on top of a waterfall, whose large rocks you can lay back, gazing at the sky above or the city below. That was the first time I realised dragon sculptures have nicely carved bumholes too — who would have thought it’s that important a detail?

And I must tell you about the meditation course with Wat Suan Dok and the Chiang Mai University, a 2 day hideaway in their simple out of town centre, all silent, all students in white garments. It looked as peaceful by day as it got spooky after the dusk settled and everyone wrapped a white blanket or two around themselves. What you get is lots of calm ghosts, walking around the grounds really slowly, swaying to the rhythm of their breathing.

It was a thorough, serious but lighthearted enough course to be enjoyable and useful as well. Wake-up call at 5 am, sitting, standing and walking meditation, little tips and tricks to make the mind bend to our wishes. Also discussion and ask me anything — our monk, Phra K K was a fun mix between a young Yoda and a buddhist (fake)gangster rapper. Someone asked whether there are statistics on how many people get enlightened every year… A funny question but to be honest it lead to an interesting answer on how enlightenment is not a permanent state. You can thrive to get there and sometimes when your mind is really clear, dwell in it for a bit. But eventually things happen and you are out of it — when there is nothing much to do but to thrive for it again.

I’ve also learned how many different flavours of buddhism exists, the South East Asian one not taking reincarnation quite so literally as the Nepalese, but having way more rules and restrictions than the Chinese.

More coffee, more massages, more temples and then it was time to wander towards the north.

The road to Chiang Rai is first windy and beautiful, through hills and forests and nature. Then it turns flat, widening into plains of rice and small towns. Smaller and scruffier than Chiang Mai, you see way more locals on the street — even at the Night Market — and you can wind up in the backwaters of the city, hilly and green with tiny temples on the peaks and ramshackle huts in the valleys.

It is so true that people make a place: my hostel was one of the most basic I stayed, though clean and the thick mattresses on the floor were also one of the most comfortable. The owner, Tot, who funnily enough was in advertising before and always dreamt about having her own bread and breakfast, spoke good English and was so friendly. Inviting me down for beers with her friends on the yard next to the building, she made a somewhat sad evening — no reason, but sometimes you will feel a bit lonely on the road alone — into a really nice one. A genuinely friendly and fun exchange with locals I was waiting for almost the whole month.

One can easily avoid the crowds here which suited me beautifully. You can find some crappy bikes to rent and bike out to the White Temple along lakes and rice paddies — after open skies and cows and a few helpful locals the amount of people and noise at the temple was almost shocking at first. It’s worth it for the destination too, all white, all sparkling, cooky and beautiful.

I wandered more than I looked for entertainment, no hill tribe visits or elephant sanctuaries but it felt like a good place to just be.

Chiang Khong was the last stop, tiny border town on the Mekong across from Houay Xai, after 2 hours of rice paddies and gardens with banana trees passing by the window. It is a very rickety bus too, the doors missing, the windows jammed open, street vendors offering up steamed sweet corn and curries in plastic bags through the window.

And I should have left already, managing to overstay my visa by a day, but you know I am attracted to border states, in-between times, nowhere places. Chiang Khong will draw you in too, the walk along the Mekong so peaceful and filled with shades, the main street just colourful enough to look alive, the wooden houses you can stay in airy. Have dinner overlooking the river then walk on, down to the sandy bay, between mysterious patches of cabbage. Meet the people who grow, unearth and wash soy bean sprouts on the Mekong and sit on the warm sand as the sun slowly dives lower and lower. Get a private room for this last night in Thailand — send nude pics to your boyfriend if so inclined — and chat on the veranda till it is time to leave again.

Some of you told me, look for how the travel will change you. I wonder however and I’m curious. Do I want to change? I always thrive to learn more, see more, be more open, judge less. Feel more accomplished, braver. But all in all I’m quite happy and secure with who I am.

Surely, there are new experiences and culture shock. I expect to learn things I may not have known without them, and to be sure, it has already registered that I’m not as flexible as once was, I can survive without cheese easier than I have ever imagined and no, I am not drawn to actually living the life on the extremely slow lane, without my soya lattes, broadband internet and liberal and free thinking friends. You see, in a way I’ve built my whole life to get away from that. Been yearning to, since I was 16, maybe sooner. There is of course more confidence, from being able to be here and navigating very different waters but I really don’t think you should expect a completely different me on returning.

I’ve seen extreme poverty before up close, not just visiting — been walking right next to it every weekday on my way to primary school. I’ve never been one to stay within my comfort zone either. Sometimes it came unwillingly — like switching schools at 12 to attend a 6 year high school — more often I’ve thrown myself at it deliberately, if occasionally clueless about the consequences. I had to forge my own way in 4 different countries, make friends, learn languages, battle through unemployment, breakups that unhinged my entire life, not just broke my heart, fight back depression and anxiety, stand up from failures that seemed devastating at the time.

So maybe I’ll just sit back and enjoy myself on this ride.

orsolya anna tóth

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