I left the Health Oasis on August 21st (I think) to travel up to Chiang Mai and Bangkok with Faren and Bryan. After a month and a half of living at the resort, it was another bittersweet goodbye. I already miss my newfound friends, but I was anxious to move on--and particularly anxious to be on the road and traveling again. I also miss living on a tropical island, morning yoga classes, and my daily walk on the perfect, paradisical beach.
The three of us took a night train up to Bangkok, spent the next day wandering around the city, and then caught another train that night to Chiang Mai. Two nights of sleep on a train was not the best idea, but it was the cheapest possible route to take. While in Chiang Mai we explored the miles of shopping at the Night Bazaar, weekend market, and various other markets. The shopping in Chiang Mai was unbelievable. Thousands of vendors are selling anything and everything you could ever possibly want to buy--as a souvenir, that is. A lot of arts and crafts are made in the North of Thailand, and this is the best place to buy these goods. Needless to say, I have greatly improved my haggling skills. In Thailand, you can bargain for pretty much everything--from vegetables at the market to jewelry sold by a street vendor to the prices for food at a restaurant to contact lenses at an eyeglass store. No joke.
Our other major activity in Chiang Mai was a trek through the jungle, complete with elephant riding and a float down the river on a homemade bamboo raft. I was not quite sure what to expect, but I quickly found that this trek was serious and not for the weak of mind or body! There was a lot of rain and a lot of steep hills to fall down during the hike (I managed to avoid leeches, thank god), some intense rapids while on a very rickety bamboo raft (I was left with some battle wounds after being thrown around a bit), and quite the roller-coaster of an elephant ride. We slept in a cabin, no electricty anywhere for miles, in a hilltribe village only accessible by foot. Our guides, three young Thai men, were very good-natured, trustworthy, and competent--although, innocently enough, quite flirty. Overall, despite the rain and having to wear wet clothes (that refused to dry) for a few days, the trek was amazing. I love being outdoors, active, and close to nature. I've noticed that although this desire is a basic human instinct, it is often suppressed and easy to forget when we spend so much of our lives in cities and indoors. A simple walk in the woods always reminds me how much I cherish the earth, so a few days of no contact with cities and modern conveniences really refreshed this appreciation in me.
After we were hiked-out and shopped-out in Chiang Mai, we hopped on a night train to Bangkok. Unfortunately, once we reached the train station at 8:45 (45 minutes early, or so we thought), we found that the last train to Bangkok was actually at 9 pm and had no sleeper cars, only chairs. Of course the schedule we looked at while at our guesthouse ( a.k.a. cheap hotel) did not coincide with the true schedule. Pretty typical for Thailand. So, after literally sprinting to a nearby eatery to grab a dinner-to-go (now that we had about 10 minutes before our train departed rather than the schedule 45) we boarded the 9 pm. None of us wanted to be stuck on a train for 14 hours with no food and empty stomachs that had not been fed since lunchtime. Ironically, a train attendant came through right after we "took off" and handed us free dinners. We were pretty shocked. Sure, it wasn't the best food I'd ever tasted, but it wasn't the worst. And I cannot begin to tell you what a rarity something like a free dinner is in Thailand. Nothing is free! Especially when tourists are involved. No other train or bus ride that any of us had been on in Thailand has ever handed out free food--it would not exactly match the poverty mentality that prevails in South East Asia. We were appreciative of the food, but it would have been nice if the ticket vendor had at least tried to tell us, thus saving us a few bucks and a lot of hassle. But this was definitely not the worst part of the train ride. The air-conditioned car was so air-conditioned that we were freezing. All night long. So cold that Faren and I had to layer on every semi-warm article of clothing in our backpacks. After living in a tropical climate for months and months, not only are you completely acclimated to the heat and very intolerant of the cold, you have ditched most clothing that traps any heat against your body. Luckily, Faren and I both still have fleeces (for such situations) and raincoats. I was wearing both. Plus socks and my only pair of paints and a long skirt over the pants. The skirt was supposed to work like another blanket. We wrapped ourselves in our sarongs and covered our bodies with the provided blanket, and we were still cold. It was a long night and an even longer train ride. When we finally deboarded in Bangkok, it took me a good 45 minutes of 95 degree weather and a hot cappucino to de-thaw enough to the point that I wanted to take off my thick fleece. I was that cold. (I wonder how long it is going to take me to acclimate to the Seattle weather.)
In Bangkok, the three of us thoroughly explored the classic sites: Khao San Road--the infamous backpacker street, MBK--the huge fancy mall filled with a whole lot of the same crap you can buy on the street, Patpong District--heady nightlife famous for girly bars and "ping-pong shows," the Grand Palace--a bit of Thai history and architecture, and lots of shopping (more browsing than buying) at several markets. Faren and Bryan spent a few nights alone in a 5 star hotel since he would be leaving in just a few days, on August 31st. And when I visited them at the hotel, I experienced a strange culture shock from the decadent luxury. I've been roughing it for over 5 months. I lived in a classroom for a month while in Surat Thani--sleeping on the ground, no bed and definitely no conveniences like mirrors or screens on the windows. I shared a small hotel room with Faren for 2 months in Phuket, this has been our nicest long-term home. We shared an even smaller room at the Health Oasis for a month, and I lived in the room by myself for another 3 weeks after she left. This room did not have a flushing toilet OR a sink in the bathroom. We have stayed in bungalows that are little more than a shack made of sticks, complete with many huge spiders and other creepy-crawly critters. We've been roughing it and living very cheaply for months, and to suddenly step into a world class hotel in a big city was overwhelming. And fun. I had a lot of fun at this hotel, and I wasn't even staying there! Poor Bryan came down with a bad case of the flu the first night in the hotel and was out of commission. So I took over his spot at the beautiful al-fresco hotel restaurant, located 65 stories in the air. They had a dinner reservation and someone had to keep Faren company! The food was delicious, but the atmosphere was what we were really paying for. It is indescribable in words. After stepping off the elevator, we were ushered across a long, beautifully-lit glass runway that ended in a kaleidoscope glass window framing the city below. From the runway, a grand staircase led us into the main dining area where we spent our entire dinner gazing at the breathtaking view. It was the most enchanting, unique restaurant I have ever been to in my life.
After Bryan left, Faren joined me at my backpacker guesthouse on Khao San Road. Cheap but clean, with a fun atmosphere to seal the deal. I was ready to move on pretty quickly, having spent more than enough time in the big and polluted, albeit entertaining and exciting, city of Bangkok. Almost immediately, before we had the chance to even book our tickets out, I came down with the flu. It was bad, complete with a 103 degree fever and the worst headache I've experienced. Thank God we had not bought our tickets. I spent way more time in that hotel than any person ever should. After a few days I was still a bit under the weather, but now I was also suffering from cabin fever and anxious to get out of the city, so I decided that I was well enough to tough it out and board a bus for the all-day trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia where we were to visit the revered temples of Angkor Wat...