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Everything sizzles and pops around you. Steam floats into the night sky like aromatic clouds carrying scrumptious smells of marvelous treats like various meats, or grilled vegetables, or spicy soups — all to the song from a lute; cracked leather-like fingers pluck the instrument, that long necked worn cherry-colored lute called the sueng, releasing a melody of ting-tang-tong-tang-ting to add sweet soundtracks amongst the chitter-chatter of the throngs.
Here and there and everywhere is food porn galore. From spicy papaya salad to buttered garlic bread, pork balls and chicken balls (not testes) to kababs with zesty yogurt — everything your tantalized taste buds can salivate over.
Needle and thread dive in and out of colorful fabrics with a delicate urgency under soft yellow light as young and old create intricate gifts before your eyes. Maybe you’re looking for a poncho, or a scarf, or a hat — whatever it may be, it can be found as far as the eye can see.
This is the Sunday walking street market in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Once you enter Ratchadamnoen Road; near Thapae Gate cutting through the center of Old Town, you are lost in the ebb and flow of the Thai and tourist slow moving river. And there is almost no turning back — though you probably won’t want to anyway.
Do what I call the Chiang Mai Market Shuffle: right foot slides forward two inches, left foot slides forward two inches, rock your body one way to glance at trinkets, rock the other way to fiend over drool-worthy food, and repeat. It’s packed in the market so you’ll have to do a little shuffle.
The Chiang Mai night market is a place bursting with people, but this river of buying and selling is a treasure trove of Thai and exotic street food and hand-made arts and crafts. Much of it that is rarely found cheaper or of better quality than here. There is a reason why even Thai people fight the current of bodies to shop here.
The Chiang Mai Sunday night walking street is definitely a busy place, but one of my favorite things in the city to do each weekend.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Sunday night walking street market is located directly across the from the Thapae gate on the eastern side of Chiang Mai, the entry into the old town. The stands begin to pop up in late afternoon and around dusk, and begins to get overly packed around 7:00pm to 9:00pm.
WHAT TO BRING
Make sure to come on an empty stomach and with smaller bills — many of the vendors cannot break 500 baht and 1000 baht notes. You will also be walking for quite a bit so wear comfortable shoes. Since the market is teeming with people, bring a back that has secure zippers and straps so you can keep your belongings safe.
WHERE TO STAY
Since the walking street market is in the heart of old town, most of the available hostels in hotels are close by and within walking distance. During peak season, Chiang Mai accommodation can fill up fast so make sure to book your hotel or hostel a few days in advance.
Have you ever been to the Chiang Mai Night Market?
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There is still a bad taste in my mouth. No, it isn’t from the beef on a stick which turned out to be liver that I had eaten for lunch in the market in Mae Sai this day. That bad taste in my mouth was from an experience that happened on my recent visa run in Thailand. An experience that may have very well tainted the country for me and my desire to return to teach English.
Confusion spun in my head, which eventually began to boil into anger. I was standing inside the passport control office in the great blue building — the exit gate of Thailand into Myanmar — and I was being yelled at for no reason obvious to me. The small Thai lady behind the counter had taken my passport, given a quick glance at it, and returned it to me with a stern “No”.
I had no clue why she was barring me from exiting into Myanmar which I had done numerous times before, so of course I asked why.
“Because you no leave. Go!”and she shooed me away with her hand.
So again I pressed for information, politely of course, stating that I had done this previously with no issues.
“New regulations, you no leave. Speak with my boss” she said, while waving over the next person in line. But I wasn’t going to just turn away and retreat without some clear answer as to why I couldn’t do the visa run.
“Okay, where is your boss?” I asked.
“Bangkok. You go speak to him.” she said without even looking up at me.
“What is his phone number?” I asked.
And that is when I got pissed off. After asking for the phone number to her supervisor, a different officer behind her laughed at me. The woman I had been speaking to shook head and said, “No, leave.”
I took a deep breath and a step back so I could see if there would be an issue with anyone else in the line. The next person to approach was a girl from Canada come to find out later. After she handed the same border guard her passport and the woman looked at it, she said the same thing as she did to me.
“No, cannot, new regulations.”
Obviously the girl was just as confused as I was, so she began questioning the reasoning behind this refusal as well. And she had the same luck I did. At this point, a crowd of failed attempts from foreigners trying to either cross into Myanmar or to do a visa run was gathering outside the gate. I was the only United States dude; there were also two Germans, one French, two Dominican Republic, and someone from the United Kingdom. And that Canadian girl now.
“They denied me as well” seemed to be the tune of the morning for everyone, and nobody had any information on why we couldn’t cross the border.
So with a dying phone I began scouring forums and Thailand groups on Facebook with a desperate message of something around the lines of “What the fuck is going on?!” In one group, comments began flooding in about some sort of sudden visa regulation changes that had dropped that very morning without notice.
Apparently the only information was in the form of an article posted in the newspaper, but otherwise there was no prior warning. Rumor and speculation flooded the forums, but it seemed as though visa runs (crossing the border and coming back in for an extension of time) were being axed for people with three previous Thailand stamps in their passport.
As I was giving updates to the group outside the gate, it caused even more confusion. Granted I had done 5 visa runs already, the girl who had approached after me had just flown into Thailand and had never received an exit stamp so that wouldn’t apply. Others were on their first or second stamp as well and were being denied.
Knowing that my bus was going to be leaving in the next hour and that my visa was expiring that very day, I was desperate to figure out the issue. I approached the window again behind an older Quebecois woman who was just being denied through as well. The Thai woman in the window gave her as much explanation as me, so when the woman started complaining about them not telling us more information, a male Thai guard came to the window and with a raised voice said, “No! Go! No visa runs, no visas for you!”
The Quebecois woman was pissed, and responded by saying, “I don’t want to stay anymore, I just want to leave Thailand now because of you, you are being very rude!”
Then the guard got aggressive and got within inches of her face.
“Ok. Thailand not your country. You go back to your country!” he shouted at her. I was shocked, never seeing Thai people be so adamantly rude and unhelpful.
“You wont let me leave!” she retorted, and stormed of after flashing a middle finger.
Knowing that things were getting heated and becoming angry would help nothing, I approached the window sincerely apologizing for the woman’s reaction (though slightly warranted I feel) and pleaded for them to help or explain the situation.
And they ignored me. They wouldn’t even look up at me. Most of the guards in the office were now chatting amongst each other, snickering, and occasionally glancing our way with a smirk.
“Fuck this shit” I said to myself and pushed my way back through the line and out into the gate. Everyone was still gathered outside venting about the whole situation, but it was clear this visa run wasn’t happening for anyone today.
Frustrated beyond belief, I gave up and decided to return to the bus station.
What was the reasoning for this? Why were the border guards, who are normally friendly, being so rude? What the fuck do I do about my visa expiring today?!
Even more so I was pissed at myself for not going with my friend on his border run the day prior — right before this random regulation was placed. But there was no way I could have known these shenanigans were going to take place.
The fact that I had taken the bus 5 hours there, sat at the gate for 2 hours confused, and had to return 5 hours back to Chiang Mai empty-handed added to the frustration of the day as well. I messaged my friend who was living in Thailand with me and told him everything that had happened that day.
“I’m leaving Thailand now. As soon as possible.” I told him.
“Don’t blame ya’ after that, I figured you would.”
My phone died, so I sat for the next 5 hours trying to figure out a plan of execution while fuming with anger.
I had planned on crossing over that day for an extension just until the end of the month, and then I had to leave Thailand to attend a friend’s wedding in Slovakia. I just needed of. And I wouldn’t get it.
What really did it in for me was that since they unexpectedly dropped this new regulation on a Saturday morning, the immigration office was closed until Monday. So even if I was to go get an extension, paying 1,900 baht at the immigration office, I would already owe another 1,000 baht in fines for an overstay.
It seemed to me like it was a planned slight.
Imagine hundreds of people needing to cross for their visa extension that day, just doing something that had been normal to do each month for the past few years, and then being denied. That is at least 1,000 baht per person before they can scramble over to a neighboring country to apply for a visa or apply for an extension at the immigrations office.
All that passed through my head was that, “those fuckers did this on purpose for a quick dollar.”
I can’t personally come up with any justifiable reason why they would drop a swift new regulation without warning on a weekend.
As more information surfaced later that night, it seemed as though the regulations would get even stricter. Soon, starting later that August, they would be barring flying out of the country and back in without acquiring a visa for Thailand in another country preemptively. Making it harder to stay long-term in a country many love.
I spoke to many, many travelers later that night about the slight at hand — about being screwed over last-minute. Some were in the same situation as I was. A small amount of others objected to or dismay, mostly uppity ones on forums who combated everyone’s panic and complaining with thanks and praises for a regulation that would “force out the teachers and freelancers exploiting Thailand’s loopholes“.
Older expats who had Thai wives and had been living there for 10+ years were ridiculing would-be teachers and freelancers for “living off Thailand’s easily avoided immigrant laws” — as if they didn’t fucking come to the country to exploit loopholes. How old was your wife when you found “love” for one another? How many times had you done visa runs?
I didn’t come to exploit anything, but clearly much of the older crowd making this argument had.
A country should accommodate my needs?
Some spoke of tightening regulations for entering the country as just enforcement for long-standing laws. Sure, the standard was that after 3 visa entries you would have to acquire a different type of visa. But what about those forced away while I was there that only had one? And though these regulations, in some form, may have been in place — the norm embraced by Thailand, travelers, Thai merchants, Thai companies, expats, teachers, and the like was the visa run.
Most people living in Thailand and doing visa runs are, from my experience, people who want to stay in Thailand because they love the culture and people. And they spend their money in the country. Freelancers being paid by other countries spend their money IN THAILAND. English teachers, who aren’t talking jobs from Thai people, are spending their paychecks IN THAILAND.
Sure, you might just say, “stop complaining and go the proper route to get a visa” but that isn’t why everyone was pissed. Or why I was pissed. I don’t think for one moment that a country should bend rules or accommodate rules just so I am comfortable. But when I arrived, the regular thing to do was to take visa runs until you got your work permit from a school you are teaching at, or do visa runs while exploring the country until you find a place you would like to settle. Then you can head on over to Laos and try to get a 90 day visa which takes a few days at least.
The reason everyone was pissed was because they established this new regulation without warning, without information, without explanation, and on a weekend while immigration offices were close.
It’s not only foreigners complaining…
Think travelers were the only ones complaining? The Thai apartment building owner my friend rented from saw a mass exodus of travelers who had been renting a room the following day.
“I don’t know what I’ll do…everyone is leaving. I won’t have a business.”
Sure, Thailand businesses may do okay during busy season, but we were entering the slow rainy season, one where most of these businesses are helped by spending from expats, teachers, freelancers or slow travelers staying longer.
How about all of those businesses that relied on the daily flow of packed buses full of travelers on visa runs? Those companies specifically offering visa runs are done for. Also, the shops those vans force you to stop at on visa runs rely on daily flow of backpackers for business.
I even heard about new protests in Bangkok solely about this new regulation. Whether that is true or not, I heard it from a Thai person.
Trust me, it isn’t just “freeloading” backpackers complaining if you decided to call it that, it was a vast majority of Thai people I spoke with confused and angry as well.
Again, I have no worry ever about going through the proper methods to enter and stay in a country, but the way this was executed without warning was something that will leave a mark on me, many travelers in Thailand, and Thai businesses as well.
So, was I really forced out of Thailand?
Yes and no. I was forced to make a quick decision that in no way made it plausible to stay in Thailand. I’m sure whoever “they” are would have loved for me to stay longer and pay more in fines.
I had just over two weeks left in the country before I had to leave. For me to jump over to another country like Laos and apply for a visa would take a few days in addition to costs of the application, transportation, and accommodation. I would have already been at a loss of 1,000 baht ($30 which is a lot for a backpacker) and I would be paying for a 90 day visa only to return to the country for a couple of weeks. It didn’t make sense to me.
I know that the gate I was attempting to cross through was a trading post and not actually a border crossing. From there, without being able to re-enter Thailand, you would be stuck. It is basically for good and Visa runs. But I had heard this was the story at most borders around Thailand, be it one for visa runs or not.
And the longer I stayed, the more money I’d be fined.
Why not move on to another Southeast Asian country?
According to the border guards, I had to fly out since my visa expires and the regulation restricted me from crossing by land. So, to spend $50-$100 on a last-minute flight to another country close by, then to spend $700-$800 last minute to fly to Slovakia, would be a waste of money on flights.
Instead, I decided it was just my time to leave Thailand and Southeast Asia (for now) and just take an earlier flight into Europe. My accommodation and daily living costs may be more expensive, but at this point I just wanted to get away from Thailand unfortunately. And though I had been planning to go to Slovakia, the plans changed again.
Knowing each day I stayed in Thailand would be another $15 tacked on to my fine, I took the next bus down to Bangkok to fly out the following day. I switched my plan to fly to Slovakia because I found a cheaper flight last-minute to Italy ($500) and I also had a voucher worth $250 with a flight booking company that I could use. Taking that cheaper flight to Italy, I could finally live out a childhood dream as well, and then take a budget flight for $50 to Slovakia for the wedding at a later date.
Expenses wise, it would obviously be more expensive in Italy than it would be to stay in Southeast Asia, but with the turn of events and how it played out with flights, it seemed as though the travel Gods were telling me it was finally time to visit the country I always yearned to see. Fernweh was pulling me — that longing for a place you have never been — and it was pulling me to Italy.
I had spent 6 months in Thailand setting up roots for myself to teach English after the wedding…roots that would have given me the proper visa to stay long-term, but the experience at the border and the way the new regulations were handled really pushed me away. And it is a shame. I really love Thailand. But seriously, from my local friends, Thai merchants and business owners I know, and backpackers around the Land of Smiles — someone fucked up with this.
Will I ever return?
I think there is a good possibility that I could return. After all, I never did explore much of the southern islands. But to live long-term and teach English there after this experience? Before flying out I had to pay 2,000 baht ($60) in fines to someone at the airport that had a quick chuckle after saying, “oooh, overstayed? Not good”. I can’t say for sure, but it Thailand isn’t on my radar anymore to live in.
*UPDATE* I have heard whisperings that Thailand has returned the policy back to the way it was. Still hasn’t changed how I feel about the experience.
Something felt off. Well, I felt off. But I could have never guessed what would come later, possibly in connection with the way I had felt the entire day after arriving in Chiang Mai.
And then I looked up from my sandwich in a Subway in Chiang Mai to see the glass before me shaking violently and the concrete walls of the building I was in shift back and forth.
“What the fuck?” I said with a mouthful of chicken teriyaki.
I looked up and it seemed as though the world was warping, as if I was staring into a funhouse mirror as the events played out around me.
Everyone from the top floor and base floor scurried out of the building quickly, snatching up all of their belonging in a mad panic and fleeing into the streets.
Me? I just sat there completely confused and feeling on the verge of vomiting. And once the shaking stopped, it dawned on me that I had just idiotically sat inside a building while an earthquake rattled the city.
I think the reason I hadn’t gotten up to run outside like everyone else was because of that exact feeling that I had bothering me all day. And right before the earthquake it, I felt faint and near collapse — thinking I hadn’t eaten enough that day. Thinking at the beginning it was just me.
Earlier that morning I had driven back 3 hours from the northern town of Pai, through the 762+ turns up and down the mountains without stopping. I just wanted to make it back to Chiang Mai as soon as possible.
Right as I got back I started feeling a little off. I figured I had slight jitters because I only ate a small breakfast and chugged a coffee to get the blood flowing before hitting the road. But I made sure to drink plenty of water on the return route, and even after going to the café and eating an entire sandwich…nothing changed.
All day I stood or sat slamming down keys for a post on the blog, and gradually throughout the day I felt worse. It began with just a slight drowsiness or lightheadedness. and then my arms began to tingle. I felt weak. My head slowly began to give me the feeling of the spins, and my forehead felt hot.
Eventually, it got too much to bear. I packed up all of my belongings and decided to head home for the day and lay down, hoping that feeling would subside. But it didn’t.
It was about 5 minutes before the earthquake hit that I felt on the verge of vomiting. I thought I might collapse and so I hobbled down the stairs and decided that I’d try to down some more food just to see if it helped. Then, right before everything began shaking, I felt like I’d faint. My vision became a little blurry, my dizziness took hold, and I was preparing to run to the bathroom in case I had to hurl.
And then it hit. At first I thought it was me. My shoulders tingled down to my arms and into my fingertips. I thought, “Yep, stay seated Ryan, you are going to faint”
Things started slow. The windows vibrated and the walls moved and I grabbed my head with both hands to steady myself. That’s when everybody began running outside. It worsened. The glass wobbled and bent as though it’s explode and I could literally see the building dancing before me. Yet I couldn’t get up. I was disoriented and still couldn’t get my legs under me to work. I watched as the lights shook and pictures slide.
I’m sure if I began seeing things breaking or cracking I’d be able to get the energy to run outside.
After it stopped, I could see the hundreds of Thai people massing in the streets on their phone, seemingly tweeting or lining or snapping freak outs about what just happened.
And I sat there and finished my sandwich.
Not more than 5-10 minutes after the earthquake, that intense ill feeling seemed to wash out of my body. I was still a tad bit off, but I didn’t feel nearly as bad as I did hours before.
The earthquake registered a 6.3 at its epicenter near Chiang Rai north of Chiang Mai, and seemed to crawl all across Thailand down to Bangkok and into neighboring Myanmar. As I checked Twitter, immediately the social network was flooded with tweets about it. Luckily, everyone I knew weren’t injured. Just really freaked out or confused.
Throughout the night and into the next morning, my house vibrated with aftershocks. I spoke to my roommate the next morning about how ill I felt and she mentioned the exact same symptoms, telling me that she thought it was a large thunderstorm coming that caused her to feel that way.
Maybe I have “Spidey senses” one of my close friends quipped after telling her about the incident since it seemed to dissipate after the earthquake came and went.
I’ve now been through my share of earthquakes; plenty of aftershocks in Christchurch that made it feel like I slept on a water bed, and the annual occurrences in California. Hell, I was even giving an iPad class in Washington DC at my Apple Store when one hit — of course I stood there as everyone else crawled under tables.
Even though none compared to ones that have rocked Asia before, or Christchurch in New Zealand, or caused the destruction in Haiti that I observed even 2 years after, it is still pretty nerve wrecking.
I do not like the ground feeling like Jell-O beneath me.
Have you ever been through an earthquake? Ever have symptoms like mine hours before?
Pai is a small town in the far north of Thailand and a place I escape to nearly every month from Chiang Mai. Besides being a hippy enclave, there are outdoor activities abound; surrounded by mountains on most sides, waterfalls everywhere you look, and more than a handful of different geothermal hot pools. Another “hidden” piece of Pai that makes it amazing is Pai Canyon, considered to be the Grand Canyon of Thailand.
The canyon itself isn’t nearly as vast as the world wonder in Arizona, but it is quite impressive. Rock formations trail outward like spiderwebs — treacherously narrow with 100 foot drops in some places and fine sand that makes it even more dangerous. For the adventurous (and stupid) like myself, this is what makes the canyon so amazing — you can hike on these narrow rock formations all the way through the canyon and be almost completely alone.
If you want to spread some travel mojo, share this photo below!
Weekly Photo Mojo is about stimulating your cortex with retina rupturing and awe-inspiring photos from around the world to help you reach Terminal Vicariosity (The point where the mind reaches maximum capacity from living vicariously through someone else, and chooses to start actually living.)
What feeling does this photo evoke for you?
Sometimes it’s hard to turn off the fear of something bad happening when you travel, especially for first time travelers. And quite often, one of those fears is being robbed, and something you are always warned about when you first start traveling.
Here’s an experience of my own in Thailand that stuck in my head for weeks, and an experience that should teach everyone a lesson.
The gears of the rusted motorbike clanked as he up-shifted and changed lanes, cruising down the canal loop that rings the outside of Chiang Mai’s old town. I was clinging on to the back, jolting every time the gear changed and the bike had a seizure. Besides the fact that my ass was close to slipping off the back of the bike, I had a pit in my stomach from offending the man earlier and mentally on edge as to where he was taking me now.
I did not know this Thai man; white discolored tank-top, torn and stained jean shorts, and faded tattoos etched into his leather colored skin. For some reason his appearance is another element that had made me hesitant. Which is a very rare thing. I pride myself in not judging people by the way they looked. And it is actually quite stupid I made that judgement because here I was, wearing a tank top and shorts, and covered in tattoos myself.
Hell, we even had the same hat on, though his had clearly seen rougher days than mine.
Yet, I still didn’t trust him as we pulled off the freeway and into back alleys of Chiang Mai that I was unfamiliar with. Though I was tempted to pull out my iPhone and check my whereabouts, instead I clipped the chest strap of my tech bag, securing it tightly and readied myself for escape if I needed to.
Fear is quite an odd emotion. Fear can electrify your body with adrenaline to accomplish feats that you never thought possible and make the reward for doing so feel astronomical. Fear can also prevent you from doing things you want to do or wish to do — turning your stomach into knots and squeezing the courage out of you. Fear can heighten your senses. Fear can also obscure your judgement.
Either way, I did not know where we were going and what the outcome would be, so I made ready for whatever would happen. The alleys became a labyrinth; left turn, right turn, left turn, past closed shops. Deeper and deeper away from main streets.
And then on a secluded side street we stopped.
Before I had gotten on that motorbike, I was strolling through my village north of the Chiang Mai airport headed toward the freeway to hunt down a Songthaew (truck taxi). The bag on my back was chock full of the standard stuff needed for a days work, which is pretty much my whole life. Macbook Pro, iPad, chargers, harddrives, cameras, lenses, and all of my other doohickeys that make the bag weigh more than my big pack full of clothes. Needless to say, if I lost this bag, I’d be destroyed, and always hold it close.
And I am very cautious when carrying it around any town.
As I walked down the long road leading to the freeway a man on a motorbike pulls over beside me.
“Where you go?” he said.
I hesitated immediately as a flood of thoughts went through my head. What does he want? Why is he stopping to give me a ride? How much will it cost me?
I’ve been to a few countries where a motorbike is the taxi and when somebody waves you down to offer a ride, it’s not a favor. Jakarta and Bangkok, for example, have the overpriced motor bikers who ask you every time if you want a ride for an atrocious price compared to other modes of transport. Though Chiang Mai is known more for the 20 baht truck taxis, I assumed this was a freelancer seeing an opportunity to take advantage of a foreigner.
“Um…I’m going to Kad Suan Kaew” I said, a local mall I go to for the gym.
“Okay, get on. I go into town.”
“How much?” I asked him, thinking he was a motor bike taxi of some sort.
And then I immediately felt stupid.
The look on his face when I asked for a price was pure offense. He gave me a look as to say, “what the fuck man” and suddenly I felt ashamed.
“I’m sorry, so sorry” I said to him, approaching him with a wai, a sign of respect with a slight bow. I reached out my hand and introduced myself, and though I felt terrible for making that assumption after he just wanted to do me a favor, he brushed it off immediately with a care-free smile.
“My name is Tawan. I go to town now. I take you”
“Kad Suan Kaew?” I asked. He nodded.
Tawan motioned for me to get on, so I did, and we sped off down the road. I still felt shame for asking him the price, but now I was wondering what would happen next. Many times in other countries I’ve been to, favors have turned out to be requests for money afterward, or agreed upon prices changed in a “lost in translation moment” even after verifying three times.
But I also know that we were suddenly passing by all of the streets that would lead to the mall I was trying to go to, and instead snaking through those unfamiliar back alleys.
The whole time we were driving through, I was attempting to remember the way we came. I tried to remember landmarks and ways to get out, and noting where people were walking around.
Until we stopped and there was nobody around in sight.
I hopped off of the motorbike quickly and glanced around to make sure I was safe.
I was completely safe.
“This is my tattoo shop” Tawan said with a smile. He lifted the metal rolling gate and turned around to me.
“This is your shop?”
“Yes, mine” Tawan said.
“How long have you been tattooing for?”
“Three years. But I am artist. Painter. My love” he said proudly.
“Thank you so much Tawan, I will come back for a tattoo sometime.”
“Yes, please, have a good day!” He said excitedly, and I turned and walked away.
I was still unfamiliar where I was, but it seems like there was nobody around because the street I was on ran on Chiang Mai time and simply didn’t open until noon.
I emerged from the alley and to my surprise I was on the Sunday walking street, a place I frequented often. The rest of the afternoon my encounter with Tawan was on my head, and I still felt ashamed for thinking that way about him.
Fear of some ulterior motive from a person who was trying to be nice caused me to make an immediate judgement of his character.
Should I have been ashamed? I’ve heard on occasion from other travelers stories where they, or someone they know, were taken to a place and robbed at knife point by a person who had a kind smile. Or had their bag snatched. Or others things. Not specifically in Thailand, but all around the world.
After going about it through my head I ended up at a couple of conclusions. I have always tried to assume the best intentions of people until they prove me right or wrong, and that day I didn’t even give Tawan a chance. Also, I know as a traveler it can be wise to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Being raised in Washington D.C. and spending most of my life there, I’ve always knocked the city for being a robotic and automated place where people are too busy to be nice. I left that city to search for a place where people acknowledged and interacted with others, people who smiled at another just to brighten their day, and a place where there wasn’t a “how much do you make? What do you drive?” standard.
In the land of smiles where I’ve come to know many local Thai people who are the sweetest people I’ve had the privilege to call friends, I gave Tawan no chance from the beginning. I distrusted him the moment he pulled over. I cannot explain why I did, it just happened on that day.
I am not ashamed to be cautious while traveling, we always need to be aware in an unfamiliar place. Or even aware in places you’ve grown comfortable in. There are some cities where you just don’t fuck around with being careless.
Bad people are anywhere in the world, but so are good people.
The one thing that bugged me most was that I allowed myself to fall back into that state of mind while in Washington DC; sunglasses on, headphones in, and “what do you want? Don’t talk to me” vibe. Don’t trust anyone.
I can be cautious, but I don’t need to be cold, and to be open to believing in random acts of kindness again.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
>> Have you ever had a moment on the road like this?
READ MORE OF THAILAND:
The fiery red protrusion on the back of my hand pulsated and throbbed like an angry volcano on the verge of erupting through the two dark holes in its peak — I had been bitten by a bulbous and shiny and demented creepy crawly something that could only have been birthed from the darkest corner of Hell.
No, it was a sickness. A sickness that began with a hoarse cough, like a raspy old hound barking his last warning, the shaking cold sweats consumed me more than the dry Thailand heat caused; eyes yellowed and gums bright red and bloody. I felt faint, nearly hallucinogenic, and as I stood to grab a bottle of water that the dryness of my mouth craved to consume, I collapsed.
No. No, no, no. That is all wrong.
Those scenarios above are exactly that — scenarios. Creepy crawlies and things that go bump in the night and exotic deadly illnesses were the kinds of thoughts that coursed through my brain whenever I imagined something that might land me in the hospital abroad for the first time.
I did end up in the hospital though.
It wasn’t some kind of exciting and strange insect, or disease, or motorbike accident. Fear sometimes grips us and takes over our mind. Our imagination comes up with the most irrationally movie-moment-esque mishaps, illnesses, dismemberments, and deaths. This is especially true when traveling abroad. A mysterious place never explored by your feet and eyes and mind — and everything can be amped up ten fold, whether it be the good, the bad, or the ugly side.
What landed me in the hospital? Well, if you read my post covering the recent Songkran New Year celebrations in Chiang Mai, you may already have a clue. If not, it surely isn’t as elaborate as the horror movie scenarios above, but I got horribly sick during Songkran either way.
Sick and left ill and in pain and unable to eat.
Let’s get one thing clear though…obviously I am still alive since I’m writing this. No need to fret.
So what put me in the hospital? More importantly, how was a hospital experience in Thailand?
The best way to describe my feelings toward hospitals in general is with two words; fear and loathing. I hate the smell of the hospitals, the look of them, and how people are treated most of the time, I also can’t stand going because they frighten me.
Every time I’ve been sick with something and had to go to a hospital, I’m always afraid they will drop something on me with their calm monotone doctor speech like, “Mr. Brown, you do have a respiratory infection…oh yea, and the black plague. You are going to die in five minutes.”
Hospitals tend to be just like the DMV, or as I call it — purgatory. You sit there in a chair with a fountain of blood spurting out of you and all the nurse does is walk by and say, “sir, please try not to make a mess“.
Like Beetlejuice, your number never gets called.
There’s also the stress. A small version of Mr. T inside your brain punches it over and over shouting, “they gonna’ take all yo money foo!” causing you to rock back and forth holding your head and yelling “SHUT UP!”
Next thing ya know you’re in the looney bin.
Okay, some of that is a little over-exaggerated, like the nurse calling you “sir” but I digress.
So what happened to me in the Songkran Festival?
Before coming to Thailand, I’d say I had a tad bit of bad luck with injuries or illnesses. At one point, my work was calling me bubble boy because so many illnesses or injuries had hit me in a row, and majority of the time I didn’t have health care.
For me to go six months without a doctor visit (though I have picked up some antibiotics for a cold from a pharmacist) was a pretty good streak.I guess it couldn’t last forever.
The pains began after the first day of Songkran, but worsened. By the third day it was a slicing and burning sensation in my stomach. I hadn’t eaten anything in two days at that point — I had tried to but it hurt too much.
I decided to cave. I put off going to the hospital for a few days because I’m stubborn, but once the festival subsided I knew I had to.
I guess caving is better than dying!
The dreaded hospital visit
The hospital I ended up at was Chiang Mai Ram hospital, located near the north-west corner of Old Town outside of the moat. To many, It’s known as the “expensive” hospital, but at this point I knew the location and I just needed to go.
I half expected the place to be a little dirty and outdated and swarming with ill foreigners.
The inside was like all hospitals; buzzing florescent lights, neutral white walls, and the occasional gaudy floral wallpaper slapped on them so your eyes don’t drown in negative space. But, to my delight, it was surprisingly empty. Normally when you go to a hospital in the United States, it’s like you are fighting through a battle to just get noticed. Not here, I was the only person to step up to the counter.
“Hello sir, what’s wrong?”
I informed the delightful woman behind the counter of my symptoms; severe stomach pains, headache, achy joints, and weak muscles — and then she asked me to go to registration.
Once there, I had to fill out a tiny registration form, have my photo taken, and I was already on my way to the waiting area with a cue number in hand. Done in 5 minutes. All the while she was calling me “Mr. Brown” and “sir“.
In the waiting area, one with just a handful of Thai people, I sat expecting it would now be a much longer wait. Soon after I sat down, a nurse walked around passing out juice to everyone, giving me an iced juice and a hot tea…just to give us a refreshment while we wait. Hell, I wasn’t even done with my juice and the next thing I know I’m being called into the office!
The doctor, an older Thai woman who didn’t speak English well, was still able to speak clearly enough when conversing with me. She had me lay on my back on a couch and squeezed my lower abdomen. She moves fast I guess! I never knew the tickle maneuver was a way to diagnose an illness, squeezing different parts of my stomach and abdomen asking me to inform her of where it hurt. I just hoped she would stop before I either began to giggle.
After a couple of minutes, she diagnosed me.
“You have bad intestine infection. Did you go to Songkran?”
I told her I had been to the festival water fighting and I felt sick the next day.
“Oh. Songkran water bad. Very bad. Make you sick.”
That brown, murky moat water that I had been sprayed with in the eyes and mouth in during Songkran, inadvertently gulping down a gallon of it, is what caused the infection most likely.
After she prescribed me medicine, I went to the pharmacy counter inside the hospital and waited for my number.
My bill? $2,000 baht or around $60.
Okay, I’ll admit it…I don’t have travel health insurance. Why? Just as in the States, I don’t have heaps of money to drop on it. Though once I begin my English teaching job I will definitely be making that investment!
2,000 baht is my budget for 3 days, and the was four times cheaper than what I would have paid at home. It’s wild, I always hated and feared hospitals, but my experience at the hospital in Chiang Mai was fine. In and out in nearly an hour and along the way calling me “sir” and being incredibly kind.
The after effects
A few days after going to the hospital while on 3 different types of pills, an antibiotic, and an electrolyte powder to drink, I was feeling a little better. For that few days after I still couldn’t eat most solid foods. The intestine infection, which has symptoms like something I’ve had in the past in my stomach, makes it painful to eat things like breads, cheese, meats, or vegetables. Oh, and anything acidic. So basically I had to stick to eating rice soup — what I now call “gloppity gloop” after having it 7 times that week after.
And to think all of that came from a little fun during the Songkran festivities in Chiang Mai. Next time I’ll make sure to get some goggles at least.
Hospital Info for Chiang Mai
Note: Make sure to bring your Passport, they will need this to process you.
Chiang Mai Ram – 8 Bunrueang Rit RdMueang, Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai, Thailand (north west corner of the moat)
Have you ever been sick or hospitalized abroad?
Have you ever heard of Songkran? If not, you’re missing out. Songkran is the biggest water gun battle in the world — imagine World War III but with squirt guns and ice-cold buckets of H2O.
If you have partaken in this end-all-be-all New Year celebration or have seen evidence of this epicness, you know exactly what it entails.
If it was so damn awesome, how could one grow annoyed by Songkran in the country of smiles under the 100° heat of the sun? Depends solely on the outcome of the battle, and your patience after the first day or two of it.
For me, Songkran in Chiang Mai began as a childlike love. In the end, I was more keen to loathe it. And I couldn’t stand going outside to sneak around the streets for food.
Just to make it clear; I did not, at all, dislike the underlying celebration of Thailand’s New Year.
The beauty of Songkran is the massive celebration of the end of Thailand’s dry season where water flies wild and Thai people bless the entire population by splashing water on you. Also, obviously, it has become a freakin’ massive party with throngs of foreigners running amuck. Myself included.
Where did I decide to take part in this water battle to end all water battles? Chiang Mai, the epicenter of Thailand’s Songkran celebration.
So how is it that I, someone who had been giddy at the prospect of living a childhood delight of water gun fights in summer, except on a city-wide scale, actually dislike it in the end?
Well, there are aspects of both sides I liked and didn’t like, but it was a cumulation of misfortunes in the end that brought down my battle morale.
Let’s start from the beginning…
My good pal Zach and I knew that we wanted to be in Chiang Mai for the Songkran festival, but last-minute took off to Bangkok for a Thirty Seconds to Mars concert an faced an approaching visa run.
To keep a grueling mis-adventure short, we took a bus to Cambodia to get stamped, checked out Angkor Wat, and then came back. What we didn’t know was that flying from Siem Reap would be about 10 times the price than to cross overland, so we were forced to take a bus back to Bangkok, and a late night bus from there to Chiang Mai.
Within that three-day span, the total time spent on buses would be over 36 hours, with a combined 6 vans and 4 buses in the mix.
By the time we reached Chiang Mai on the day before the Songkran festival began, we were well beyond exhaustion. But alas, we were still stoked to prepare for battle and jump right in.
Even though some splashing had already taken place on the 12th (rumblings that it was mainly farangatangs or douche foreigners) the real celebration is held from the 13th-15th. So we basically slipped into a coma the night before to get our energy back for the next day.
And so the madness began.
Songkran Day 1: Arm Up!
Zach and I took to the streets as the battle cries were already ringing through the hot stagnate air, the sound of dubstep pounding loud in the distance were the war drums of the day. We were unarmed in the beginning, searching for a way to make it to a stand to purchase a worthy weapon of water, but as we made it to the moat near Chiang Mai Gate, we could already see chaos had engulfed the city.
Quite obviously, there was a slaughter of water everywhere. People running and shooting at others. Trucks filled with water barrels and manned by feindish Thai bucket-chuckers hurled water with insane accuracy. Whether you were on foot, or in a car, or on a motorbike, you were targets.
Especially if you were dry…
And being that we had come into the fray unscathed and unarmed, we were now in the crosshairs of everyone. Drenched in 2.5 seconds flat to the smiles from those who walked up and casually dumped a bucket of ice-cold water on our heads — inducting us into the battle.
With now rocket-like nipples from the shock of the cold and an eagerness to join in, we snagged our weapons; The Super Shooter 5000, and began our own mercenary-esque water gun mission.
We winded our way through the street wrought with H20 destruction and every step along the way engaged in skirmishes with foreigner and Thai alike. Though, warning to would be future Songkraners, watch those cute little Thai kids — their fun smiles are evil smirks as the lure you in close just to shoot ice water colder than the arctic in your face.
Finally we arrived at the main battleground — Thapae Gate at the east end of Old Town and a place that was now a sea of saturated, drunk, foamy, raving madmen and madwomen.
The shock of how absurdly wild the gate was had yet taken hold before we rushed in to join the battle, spraying everyone along the way who crossed our paths.
This — this was my childhood dream!
That was when I encountered my first annoyance.
As Zach and I squeezed our way though the raving crowd beneath a high stage spewing foam and the fire hoses showing down on us, some Thai people began rubbing my face and arms with this white paste. This paste come to find out, is normally talc powder mixed in buckets and wiped on people as a blessing, but this white paste was no blessing at all.
They touched my face out of nowhere with this paste, completely throwing me off in a “what the fuck?” kind of way, but I figured it was something of a ritual for this celebration and Buddhist holiday. As we made our way into the open street battling along the way, I began suddenly wondering why my back, arms, and forehead were burning. And since nearly everyone targets faces with super shooters like mine, the white paste began dripping near my eyes.
It felt like sulfuric acid.
My eyes were on fire and it burned worse than accidentally brushing your manhood with icy-hot after pulling a groin. Been there, done that. Okay, maybe not THAT painful, but up there. I was rushing to wash off my face, and at the same time my arms and back felt as though I had searing sunburn.
(just a random example, maybe hers was talc?)
Turns out, instead of the normal talc powder, some company was trucking around throwing out bottles of “cooling shock” menthol powder that people were smearing on everyone. And also began sneaking it into the barrels of water to shoot.
It felt like a big practical joke. Why not stick to the classic non-burning talc powder?!
Though it was annoyance, it was just a small one. After that I made sure to avoid that shit every time a smiling Thai with a bucket came to rub me down with that white molten lava.
Now that my eyes were working again, it was back to the gnarly water battle and cause some ruckus.
Shortly after arriving, we met up with Hannah and Adam of Getting Stamped and Amy of Throwing the Bowlines blogs and formed our A-team. One side of this street faced off against the other side of the street in skirmishes, and trucks crept through hurling gallons upon us.
Oh, and the swat team showed up with guns.
We had battled all morning, so we all agreed it was beer O’clock and we all deserved an ice-cold Chang. We went over to one of the few places selling beer nearby and that is when we ran into another annoyance.
Before I knew it I was under the soaked and dirty arm of a great big Maori dude who was raving about some drunk nonsense. While I had been buying my beers, it seems the rest of the group had been drawn into a conversation with the rowdy herd of rugby players. A few Maori, a few Aussie, and a few Samoan. Even though I was excited to blurt out I everything I loved about New Zealand, I was also weary of the big raging bro type as well. Seriously, all they talked about was Wrestling and insulted each other.
Soon we found ourselves in a fierce and sloppy game of flip cup with everyone, pouring pitchers and slamming cups. Funny thing is, it wasn’t the people from the U.S.A. that were pumping fists and yelling “Murica!” but the group of rugby players strange enough. Actually not strange.
Since we were playing flip cup amongst the chaos of Songkran, it was an often occurrence that someone would be spraying water at us, which inevitably ended up in the beers we were drinking. And drinking. And drinking.
After a few games and a few pitchers of Chang spiked with moat water, the “bros” were getting quite rowdy, a tad pushy, and a bit confrontational, so we decided it was time to exit the scene.
The sun had begun setting and clouds gobbled up the last bit of daylight, and since we were still in sopping wet clothes, the shivers took hold. It got freezing. At one point I glanced to Hannah and she had blue lips and looked as if she would freeze solid in her place.
As we waddled back to their place to dry off, people were still battling in the darkness and drenching us with buckets. We all tried desperately to dodge it, but inevitably we took more ice-cold buckets to the face adding to our cold misery.
Tired, but all agreeing that it was one of the best festivals we had been to.
Finally in the comfort and protection of an apartment, we all relaxed and dried off a bit, decided that dinner and drinks we in store for the capstone of the first day.
Songkran Day 2: Defeated.
I woke the next morning with what I could only assume was a hangover since the A Team had all gone out for a bit of drinking after drying off that night. Knowing that we had drunk more beer throughout the day before than water, and that I drank some whiskey after said beer (breaking the liquor before beer rule), I figured that could be the only cause.
Well, little did I know that wasn’t why my stomach felt so wretched and painful.
I was reluctant to get out and into the water war again but my buddy Zach dragged me along, even with my abdomen having an uncomfortable pain and slight burning sensation. I had forgotten my gun at the flip cup table the day before, so I zombie walked to a stand to buy another, all the while with a hand on my stomach.
(not feeling well)
Already I could feel my attitude was changing. I was not in the mood to frolic about spraying water and getting soaked, but more-so to stay in bed all day. We went back to Thapae Gate where we fought the day before, and just as then, it was madness.
This time we stayed closer to the refill stations because I wasn’t feeling so mobile. Also so we could have unlimited ammo. But, looking into the refill stations, I realized that all of the water everybody had been spraying around was this brown murky liquid pumped from the moat.
Though it was seriously nasty looking, not many seemed to care, and everyone went on with their battle business full on fury.
Some even were scooping up the stagnant and dirty ankle high water into buckets or sucking it up into their guns and hitting people in the faces with it.
Myself included as victim of a street water bucket.
And though it was hilarious running around and shooting water guns at people, the amount of times I was sprayed full blast with dirty water into my eyes and mouth eventually took its toll.
It didn’t take long for Zach and I to lose each other in the chaos, but it was time for me to raise the white flag and quit for the day.
Except that wouldn’t be easy at all.
I was at the east end of the Old Town, which meant to get to my house behind the airport I would have to walk through the entire Old Town to the west side. That wouldn’t have been bad, but I was cutting straight through more hostile territory, and sure enough I’d get soaked.
And soaked I got. It was cloudy again so I was shivering and my mood had turned to grumpy and my stomach was killing me and every time I was shot or splashed, I wanted to yell. Mainly, I just gave the death stare.
When I finally reached the other side of the square, I saw the road was at a complete standstill in traffic like it was a parking lot. I managed to find a songthaew (truck taxi) nearby going up the street I needed to and hopped in. When I asked him to take me to “Wat Pong Noi” he repeated it and nodded his head to assure me he knew. Which he didn’t.
This happens quite often in fact and isn’t a big problem ever normally, but when we arrived at the completely wrong place and I told him where i actually needed to go, he upped the price 100 baht. Even though we were 75% of the way there and away from the celebration. I thought, “Fuck it” to myself and just wanted to get home.
That’s when the real pain hit.
That entire night at home the pain in my stomach grew from just uncomfortable, to occasional shooting pains. For the rest of the day I dared not move, just sleeping on and off hoping it would be gone by morning.
Songkran Day 3: The End is Near
The pit in my stomach was bottomless, but I had no appetite at all. I hadn’t eaten anything other than a ham and cheese toasty the morning before, but at that moment I didn’t even think I could stomach anything.
The headache was beating in my head. I had body aches and it hurt to move. My eyes hurt if I closed them too tight. I was going to the bathroom every 30 minutes (sorry, but details are details).
That day we were supposed to meet up at Hannah and Adams place for her birthday celebration, and though I struggled to move, I knew I wanted to at least say hi. Getting there would obviously be the most trying part I thought, but luckily my new roommate allowed me to borrow her mountain bike into town.
After biking down the freeway and nearly running into a car door after a guy decided to get out of his vehicle without looking, I made it to their apartment moderately dry. It was cloudy that day luckily which made the bike ride in my weakened state a little better. But I could feel myself internally cursing every time someone attempted to soak me.
We relaxed a bit and I couldn’t help but gobble up the marvelous looking ice cream cake she had at her birthday which caused me even more pain. Soon the A Team was aching to go outside for a fight on the last day of Songkran after a few jello shots.
Me? No desire to at all. But I did tag along because I wanted to help Hannah have a good birthday.
Immediately I regretted going outside. It was still cloudy and now even more people were out in force, guns loaded. We walked down a seemingly small Soi which then became a busy party street and no sooner did I mumble “fuck my life” did I get 3 ice-cold buckets of water on me.
“I should just steal a baby and walk around with it, they wouldn’t splash a baby!”
Along the way to avoid getting sprayed, I faked entering into cafés as a maneuver around the bucketeers along the road. When we came to Maya mall where there was supposed to be a concert going on, it more looked like a scene out of the movie Waterworld. Speakers blaring and thumping, fire hoses spraying, and people battling it out in close quarters.
Looked like one helluva party, and I didn’t want any part of it.
“I’ve gotta’ get some food in me” I told the group, and parted ways to find something to eat. Even eating white rice pained me, so I decided to go grab my bike and retreat back to my house.
I avoided everyone at all costs. Down back alleys and small streets I walked down, often hitting dead ends. When a group of people armed to the teeth would be marching down a side alley that I was on, I’d retreat and pretend to be looking for something in my bag around the corner.
I managed to make it to the bike dry and hurried on my way, dipping, diving, and dodging crowds and taking back roads all the way home. And I only managed to get a splash on the leg.
Feeling weak and having cutting pains across my stomach, I decided I’d go to the hospital and get checked out the next day.
The Songkran Sickness
The way to the hospital the next day was completely dry which I was so very happy about. After seeing the doctor and her doing a standard tickle the tummy procedure, she deemed that I had an intestinal infection.
“Oooh, Songkran water very dirty. Moat water bad. Very bad.”
“Ahh” I said.
After the stomach problems had lasted a couple of days I figured it was from chugging the water being tossed around since we were hit in the face so much. I had even heard rumors from other Thais that there were articles written about how bad the moat water was this year. But all the while it was used, and it made me terribly sick.
2000 baht later, I’m on three types of pills and I cannot eat solid foods for 3-5 days. Numerous people on my Facebook commented on their own experiences getting sick or knowing others that had — from stomach issues, pink eye, fevers, etc.
From Love to Loathe?
I can say a few things that are true. Yes, I was utterly annoyed by the festival by day three. I had gotten very sick from the water battle. Some things that were small annoyances were amplified by me being ill.
But did I actually get sick and tired of Songkran?
While I wrote about this epic festival and looking back on it, I realize that I didn’t really dislike it, I just had a bad personal misfortunes that compiled and one BIG one which caused me to not enjoy the rest of it.
More likely, I got sick and tired from it, not of it, and that made me hate everything at that point. But there is no way I could hate a water gun battle. Especially celebrating with people like Thai people who love to have a damn good time! I can truly say it was one of the craziest New Year celebrations I’ve ever been a part of, and that it was one wild party. Everyone should experience this unique cultural celebration in Thailand.
I know full well that if I was 100% healthy, the small annoyances mentioned that piled up wouldn’t have bugged me one bit.
But this water warrior went down early in the fight, and being sick did not allow me to truly love it.
I really don’t know how some survive the 3-5 days of celebration really. This was the biggest party I had ever seen and I was out by day 1. It’s like Thais have a super human Songkran gene.
Or just a lot of M150.
Some things to remember for Songkran
- Being prepared with goggles or glasses to prevent water getting in my eyes.
- Not drinking beer that had water accidentally gunned into it.
- Not viking roaring when I shoot so I don’t get water in my mouth.
- Avoid the moat.
- Get much more proper rest before and during.
[x_alert heading=”SIDE NOTE:” type=”warning”]Songkran isn’t solely a water gun battle and party. There is a lot of cultural importance to the festival; parading important Monks images to be blessed by all, washing away the “dirt” from the past year and praying for good fortune, inviting the rainy season and fresh crops, and more. Unfortunately, it has become in the larger cities just one big Spring Break like party (with partial clothes on) and I’m bummed I didn’t get a chance to see the calmer and more culture based side.[/x_alert]
HAVE YOU EVER EXPERIENCED SONGKRAN? Would you Want to if Not?