Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chiang Mai & Spicy Joe's Bungalows

In The Master tattoo parlor Erica K. spent three hours getting stabbed with a bundle of needles tied to the end of bamboo sticks.  Before getting to work, the master held a pair of these sticks like chopsticks as if he was going to be eating stir fry instead of carving art into my friend.  After laying down a temporary outline of the concept art he set to dipping the needle tips in ink and then carefully jabbing the skin of Erica’s back along the curvy lines that would eventually become a three headed elephant.  Compared to the modern tattooing process, bamboo tattoos hurt less and heal more quickly.

Modern Chiang Mai radiates from the square shaped moat of the old city.  It’s Thailand’s second largest city and something of a laid back hippy town nestled at the feet of several mountains.  Many of the Thai men there rock long flowing hair and share the streets contrasted by bald monks and countless westerners.  It seems there are as many monasteries as 7-11s (which is actually saying a lot).  Caucasian-native couples are more abundant here than anywhere else I’ve seen, though I’ve yet to see a male Thai with a lady farang (though I’ve seen a few male Thais with male farang (foreigner), so at least some of the Thai guys are getting some action).  The age disparity between some of the mixed race couples can be unsettling when you’re having breakfast next to a 60 year old man and an 18 year old Thai boy.

Across the street from where we were staying, I experienced my first Thai massage.  After changing into traditional Thai pants, stretching out, and exhaling deeply, I was mentally prepared for a long overdue pampering that I was wishing I hadn’t so long delayed – but when my hips were suspended in the air while my masseuse was sinking his elbow into my groin, I realized I was in for something a little bit different.  Thai massage requires a bit more audience participation than other styles and probably resembles couples’ yoga at times, except where one participant remains limp at all times.  While the numerous contortions and deeply penetrating elbows were unexpected and even seemed silly at times, the technique was  incredibly effective at finding and eliminating knots, and I felt bundles of muscular irregularities being crushed away in places I didn’t know they could exists.

Despite nuking my system with antibiotics, I still hadn’t quite recovered from the illnesses I suffered in Bangkok and therefore maintained my lazy pace.  My lethargy coupled with my being in the presence of a professional photographer meant my camera remained in my bag most of the time; after touching the graceful contours of her Canon, I increasingly disdained my own piece as a mere toy.

We were staying in the home of Spicy Joe, a Thailand native Erica C. had befriended the year prior.  He awaited us in the mountains in his eco-lodge resort and after a few days in Chiang Mai, we piled into an SUV and enjoyed one of the most scenic drives through the jungle mountains of northern Thailand until we reached The Spicy Joe Bungalows.

The jungle mountain road was steep – steep enough to cause engine failures in our SUV as it lurched its way up the mountain paths.  The SUV was carrying too much weight so we stopped to leave provisional bags of salt on the roadside for later pickup.  I could barely make out the moonlit fronds decorating the hillsides and despite my illness I felt alive and full of electricity for my new love of the jungle.

We finally parked and then hiked down a hill stepped with rice fields to a series of bamboo bungalows.  It’s silly to have an expectation that a thing like dirt should be exotic but I was somehow surprised to find that dirt smells like dirt, and the smell of Thai dirt kicked up to my nostrils brought me back to trails I’ve covered in Nevada’s deserts and New England’s mountains all at once.  We could hear singing from the solely occupied bungalow.  Soft candlelight and a happy birthday chant leaked their way through the gaps in its bamboo walls and tickled the darkness.  Inside, laid out on the floor, was a room full of welcoming faces and a Thai feast – including vegetarian options in consideration of my arrival.  An old Thai man played some kind of wooden harp and we passed around “jungle juice” made from fermented rice.  I knew I was in for a good time.

The hills in these mountains are home to the Karen tribes, Thailand’s largest hill tribe ethnic group, and Joe’s bungalows are staffed by smiling Karen natives.  In the morning light I could finally examine the place.  Between bamboo huts are rows of garden vegetables, eggplants and yellow and black bananas.  A chicken, an ornery goose, and two young pups provided additional company in the gorgeous mountain top setting, with an overlook showcasing a great valley full of trees save for where water runs and villagers have built shelter.

Guests can stay at the bungalows as either paying customers or working volunteers, assisting in whatever tasks are required to help the bungalows expand or improve.  Spicy Joe – Samart in actuality – is a long haired Thai with a Che Guevara tattoo on his upper arm, an impressive repertoire of situational jokes and innuendos, and mean cooking skills in his little Thai kitchen.  He consistently put out some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had and in portions that always had me rolling about the bamboo floor feeling like a beached whale.  If asked, he’ll tell you he went to university to learn how to break the heart of the western woman, and it was maybe then I realized I was the only westerner in his little eco-resort that can pee standing up (and thinking back to his pictures of visiting travelers in his home and the scarcity of masculine faces there doubly confirmed for me his overwhelming preference for the company of lady volunteers).

The work he had set aside wasn’t exactly light.  Our first assignment involved clearing a large portion of land of jungle growth to make way for fencing and eventually more bungalows.  Hacking away at bush and vine alongside his employees made the work easier thanks to their infectious cheerfulness.  All the Karen men shared Joe’s love cracking jokes and there were many smiles shared among the heat and the sweat.  The word for fun in Thai is Sanuk and is an important part of the Thai lifestyle.  They believe if it’s not Sanuk it’s not worth doing, and their ability to infuse joy into labor was something I enjoyed seeing first hand.

Bushwacking proved to be an exciting challenge, and it felt good to exert myself under the sun after a week and a half of being sick and sedentary (perhaps it was the mountain air or my love of the jungle, but my arrival in the bungalows seemed to coincide with my recovery).  For such a conservation minded guy, I surprised myself at just how much I enjoyed seeing my skill in felling trees with a machete improved.  Experimenting with the efficacy of different techniques, I found myself getting quicker in my side to side mowing of brittle grasses and freeing tree limbs from trunks and the tangle of vines.  In a moment I could decimate a sizable bush by clearing one side to its base, stomping the rest of it over to the opposite side, and hacking at the bottom until the entirety was liberated from its roots.  The refuse of flora would then be arranged in large piles and set ablaze (“for barbeque tourist”).  The standing jungle foliage was so dense and moist the fires could be set next to the forest with confidence that there would be no outbreak.  Who knew slashing and burning could be so fun?  I had never created such a literal swath before, and I stood looking over what was once jungle growth with the pride of a Viking pillager.  An errant blow from my machete accidentally tore off a section from the dome of a termite mound and I peered inside with fascination at their intricate tunnels.  At some point one of the workers chased the bees away from a fist sized honey comb and we took turns squeezing fresh honey into our thirsty mouths.

After the long work day was over, it was time to shower, but the waterlines weren’t functioning.  This meant we would migrate from the mountain top bungalows to the waterfall side bungalows to do our bathing in stream water.  The pickup we hustled into became filled up quickly which I used as an excuse to commute Asian style, and I clambered up to the roof to join locals Den and Chico for the most thrilling commute of my life.  Each of my limbs was wrapped around a different part of the roof rack so as to keep myself from being flung as the truck navigated bumpy and steep mountain roads in 4x4 mode.  The lovely jungle scenery flew about me in 360 degree’s, but I had to be always mindful of the path ahead so I could dodge incoming vines and branches.  The roof rack was hardly comfortable as it jerked beneath the seat of our pants and threatened to turn us into ladyboys, as Den joked. 

The waterfall was a welcome sight and everyone stripped quickly to bask in its spray and wash away the day’s toil.  The water came tumbling down a cascade of rock held together in parts by massive jungle roots.  Overhanging vines begged me to swing from them, but the pool’s shallow rocks forbade such a thing.  Unexpectedly, two of the paying guests recognized me; we had both had our breakfasts interrupted by marauder monkeys in the Indian desert town of Pushkar.  With happy disbelief we swapped tales of our travels since that morning.  They, Germans form Hamburg if I recall, were following a similar trajectory as myself but with a whole year and a half allocated for their journey.

One lazy night, Erika K. and I stayed up to watch Rambo 4 which was shot in the vicinity, and has John Rambo crossing the border into Burma to save Christian missionaries and Karen villagers from genocide.  The movie was crazy violent, but full of absolutely gorgeous scenery.  I later found out one of Joe’s employees, Den, had actually helped location scout for the film, and I envied his intimate knowledge of such wonderful places.

The next day’s work was something less glamorous; we spent the midday bent over in a river picking and bagging smooth stones to bring back to build footpaths with.

I could have easily stayed a week or more, filling my days with treks and volunteer projects, but my visa was soon to expire.  Having crossed over land, I was granted only a 15 day visa compared to the 30 days granted to the Ericas for their arrival via air.  So I had to get down the mountain and position myself for a quick border crossing for a fresh two extra weeks’ allowance.  I had one last too-large Thai meal care of Joe, bid my farewells to the friends I had made, hopped into an SUV, and fell in and out of sleep as my driver, the half Chinese Mr. Thong, sang his way nasally back to Chiang Mai.

The path to Burma from Chiang Mai is well trodden by expats and foreigners hoping to squeeze just a little bit more out of their holiday.  Competing tour companies offer vans that head straight to the border and wait on the Thailand side just long enough for its commuters to walk across the border, pay for a few stamps, and slurp down some noodles before heading back to Chiang Mai.  I spent the whole day on my ass, but the scenery boasted by the north Thailand country side is nothing short of lovely, with jungle carpeted hills carved in to the oddest shapes by serpentine rivers and low rolling hills made me want to buy a motorcycle and get lost in them forever.  The atmosphere in the van was unpleasant; no one wanted to spend the day in a single seat waiting to be returned to their point of origin, but luckily a shuffling of seats had me sitting next to a curly haired San Franciscan girl who seemed to be the only conversationalist on the minibus.

The two countries are divided by a thin and mild river and a bridge conducts traffic between them.  A break in the middle of the bridge permits foot and auto traffic only one way at a time; drivers from Thailand drive up on the left side of the road and have to switch to the right in Burma (and of course vis versa).

Border customs officers are notoriously corrupt.  I’ve had made friend whom were bribed an excess amount before permitted reentry.  The Burmese officer I met was both round of face and of belly.  His toothy grin was stained with the blood red of betel nut – a habit that seems confined to the Burmese side of the border.  They refused to take my supposedly kosher USD, instead demanding I pay in Thai baht, at a rate inflated to almost double the value.  I hate passionately rewarding dishonesty, but I tried to use my known powerlessness to deflate the bitterness I felt at getting ripped off.  Nothing I could do would change anything.  On the way back I stopped to admire a transparent box full of confiscated contraband, a huge chest full of toy guns, knock off prescription drugs, and discs of pornography.

I came back to Saturday night in Chiang Mai and a house full of everyone from back at the mountains.  Poor Camille’s eyes had become glued shut from an infection during an elephant trek, but Krumbein was in sporting shape, so we hit the town looking for a fight.  On a street full of western style pubs we let ourselves get pulled into a small stadium where we were seated nearly ringside and waited to watch our first Muay Thai fight, but not before getting properly buzzed from terrible margaritas and tall bottles of Thai beer.

Before every Muay Thai boxing match, the fighters perform an odd ritual; they circle the ring with a hand coasting on the ropes, roll their fists in the air, and get down on their knees for little bows, all to traditional Thai music.  The first fight was over quick.  A flurry of jabs and some round house kicks.  The fighters lock arms in an almost intimate embrace and exchange rapid knee kicks to each other’s sides.  One last punch to the ribs sent the loser to the ground.  Krumbein and I had taken to betting, and I had a bad habit of rooting for the tall lanky guy.

After returning to my seat with a beer from a bar staffed with large breasted ladyboys (and a devious bowl of peanuts with anchovies hiding at the bottom waiting to ambush my unsuspecting mouth), three men with blind folds and boxing gloves jumped in the ring.  One of them was a midget.  The three pounded each other silly to a crowd of cheering jackasses – myself included.

I didn’t care if it was more touristy than a fanny pack, the next day we hunted for a Dr. Fish spa.  You’ve probably seen photos of goofy white people with their feet dangling in a tank full of toothless fish nibbling away at their dead skin.  The sensation isn’t unlike that of bubble jets in a Jacuzzi, but more… I guess I would say tickly.  My feet were in a frightful shape from all my traveling about in the same pair of boots so I figured I’d be a special treat for these foot guzzling fishes.  They hadn’t quite liberated me from my tough white callouses the way I was hoping they would, but I’d say my feet felt something softer after the experience.

More words and photos from Erica Camille's blog follow:


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