Travels with Jackie Steves
Five years ago, my brother, Andy, and I toured South America together, exploring Peru, Argentina, and Brazil together. Despite our reputation for rough housing non-stop while growing up, we survived each other unscathed. And ever since that trip, we've been scheming to visit Southeast Asia. There is a certain comfort traveling with your brother. You can let it all hang out and he still has to love you. And, of course, I'm glad he has a strong woman to protect him. We can hardly wait to experience Indonesia, with stops in South Bali, Ubud, and the Gili Islands. Then up to Vietnam to visit Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City. In Thailand, we'll enjoy tastes of Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Koh Phangan. Thanks for joining me and lending purpose to my travel writing. Let's see what happens when you mix travel-writer offspring with the spices and wonders of Southeast Asia!
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(Video by Andy Steves for Weekend Student Adventures)
Taxi, plane, bus, ferry, taxi…and finally, paradise. Koh Pha Ngan — island bliss in the Gulf of Thailand in the southeast of the country. The sight of so many “bro” backpackers swarming the island signifies the infamous Full Moon Party approaching, just two days away. All the other backpackers here are sure to be bigger partiers and bigger fans of electronic music than us, but I think we will still find a way to enjoy ourselves.
(Video of the Full Moon Party by Andy Steves for Weekend Student Adventures)
I did take a cooking class in Koh Pha Ngan.
Speaking of enjoying myself, here I will take a vacation from writing. Sunbathing and ocean swims don’t provide the most interesting fodder for blogs anyway. As I type up my handwritten journal to share with you, I’ll enjoy digesting and reminiscing on my last four weeks of Southeast Asian thrills.
I feel honored that you would spend even a moment of your day reading my blog. Thank you. And I wish you the very best in your summer and your future travels!
Video by Andy Steves for Weekend Student Adventures.
We savored one last evening in Chiang Mai lollygagging at the night market and chowing down on massive burritos (believe it or not, we were finally ready for a break from fried noodles) before flying south to Bangkok.
Sometimes it’s nice to get your bearings in a city by letting yourself get lost in its alleyways and along its canals. Our hostel was near the Bourbon Street of Bangkok, the infamous “Backpackers’ Row,” called Khao San Road. This crazy, party thoroughfare was already obnoxious by afternoon.
We discovered another superb hole-in-the-wall jazz bar. We made quick friends with the three Thais who shared our table — up front, close, and cozy with the band. My legs were possessed by the same spirit that infects my dad when he jives with good music. The band was good. The harmonica player — just like the one at the Chiang Mai jazz joint — was the only white member. He also sang. The walls were plastered with images of African-American jazz legends. This band, however, didn’t feel like it was Thais imitating Americans. It felt like it was their own music, infused with their own blues — their own Thai soul.
We wrestled our way onto a chaotic river taxi to make our way down to the Grand Palace. I was struggling with a sinus infection, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was pollution-induced. I’d had it since our motorcycle ride a few days prior, which had afforded me many healthy inhalations of exhaust and dirt.
The Grand Palace is so grand it almost feels artificial. It’s hard to believe that all of this gaudy gold plating and bold architecture had been here for over 200 years. My favorite part was the murals along the outer walls of the temple area which tell the epic story of Ramayana, with its themes of honesty, faith, and devotion. I got a kick out of the monster and centaur statues, with all their personality and allure, standing guard. The place felt more mythical than religious.
Beholding the Emerald Buddha reminded me of a first meeting with the Mona Lisa. You’ve heard and read so much about it that it has been augmented in your imagination. So you are surprised when you finally see it, and it is rather small and unassuming.
The teaming crowds of pilgrims were as impressive as the infinite golden twinkling mosaics washing over the pagodas. Equally infinite was the number of pictures — especially selfies — being snapped. Since when is it so acceptable to take a ridiculous number of pictures of yourself? Gone are the days, it seems, when vanity was shameful.
Bangkok’s Chinatown is a typical bazaar, but on steroids, repeating the same stuff over and over. The dim sum we had for lunch was indistinguishable from the dim sum I enjoy in Chicago’s Chinatown. Globalization is very nice in this regard.
Once we had our eyeful of chicken feet, pig’s heart, cow’s tongue, dried squid, and wholesale everything, we flagged down a tuk-tuk. These are minicars powered by a basic motorcycle motor such that I’m surprised it can pull the weight of Andy, me, and a driver. And it nearly doesn’t, tuckering out and stalling frequently. We panicked at each turn, worried our high center of gravity would topple the little thing.
We checked out the massive super mall area called MBK and Siam Center. Their food courts and department stores are bigger and nicer than their American counterparts, but contained few crowds, even on a Saturday. I wonder if this is due to their unaffordability for Bangkok’s masses.
We took our third water taxi of the day, but this one was on a small canal through the middle of the city and made for a frighteningly disgusting experience. Peering out at the banks of the canal, we saw walls blackened by the thick pollution of the water. The smell was unmistakably raw sewage flowing into the water. We were relieved when they put tarps up along the sides of the boat to shield us from a shit shower. Boy, was I happy when I escaped that canal.
Equally disturbing was the sight of the mangiest dog I’ve ever seen eating trash beside the canal. We couldn’t tell if it was swollen with disease or pregnant. Its belly hung down in the shape of saggy udders. It looked as if it had originally been white, but it was now the color of gray-and-black dirt.
During the day, iTunes U, specifically a lecture by a Stanford professor, narrated my strolls around the city. I’ll summarize what I learned. Thailand has experienced a remarkable rate of urbanization, with large numbers moving from its countryside to Bangkok, so that this city’s population has swelled more than any other Southeast Asian city. In politics, Bangkok has become the tail that wags the dog — the rest of the country. The military has repeatedly deposed prime ministers elected by the “Red Shirts” (the working class) in 2006, 2008 and 2014. In response, the Red Shirts have protested on a grand scale against the “Yellow Shirts” (the elite and the military). They even drew loads of their own blood — ten milliliters! — to pour it at the gates of government buildings expressing their grievances regarding labor rights. One hundred people were killed and over two thousand were injured in these protests that began peacefully, but turned violent when the military and police tried to suppress them with force, according to this Stanford professor. A movement toward democracy here has been fraught with conflict.
Thailand’s laws barring the people from speaking out against the monarchy are stricter than in any other monarchy in the world, except maybe Morocco. The king and queen are omnipresent, with their pompous portraits plastered on billboards everywhere. Just like in Vietnam, I’m puzzled by how Thailand can identify as a democracy.
On a Thai live music kick, we sought out another live band at a bar. This one, Brick Bar, was a bigger venue and featured a pop cover band, complete with two guitars, a keyboard, drums, a trombone, and a trumpet. They were awesome. We sang and danced along to the contemporary numbers by the likes of Bruno Mars and Katy Perry. When the Thai pop hits were played, that is when the crowd really went wild. I am a big fan of their jams and will have to look some up on YouTube.
When we told some of our new Thai friends that we wanted to check out Soi Cowboy, Bangkok’s red light district, just for the experience, they gave us surprised, nervous looks. “You’ll meet lots of lady boys there,” they warned. These men seemed wary of the “lady boys.” They estimated that ten percent of Thais fall in the “lady boy” category. Whoa! I’m so curious why that is the case here; it doesn’t seem the case elsewhere. I wish I could interview a Thai gender studies professor (if those exist) to find out more about socialization and gender dynamics here in Thailand.
Our taxi driver was also a little wide-eyed when we asked him to take us to Soi Cowboy. We walked down the famous street of ladies clad in nothing more than bikinis. They all looked one hundred percent feminine to my undiscerning eye. I felt my mood ripen and rotten as it does whenever I perceive the exploitation of women. I began to imagine the sex trafficking I’m sure is rife here, and I grew indignant and angry. Andy and I agreed, “Let’s go home.”
We boarded a long, skinny boat powered and steered by an old car motor at the end of a long metal pole. We zipped down the river to arrive at a famous “Longneck Village.” We were greeted by a woman with brown skin refined by 50 or 60 years of age, with twinkling eyes and a smile spreading wide across her face, wearing bright pink, yellow, and green traditional garments and golden bangles that had worked at lengthening her neck since she was a small girl.
Sutthi chatted with her while I tried not to stare. I longed to get a good hard look at her long neck, but I was very wary of peeking too much. She beckoned to me to sit beside her to take a picture with her and then dressed me up with a traditional headband and a golden necklace facade that ties in the back with ribbon. She is probably among the most photographed women in the world, I thought. We were grateful for her warmth and eager to repay her for humoring us by purchasing some scarves she wove by hand.
I’ll admit, I was paranoid and overly analytical about this exchange with the women in this Longneck Village. Couldn’t it be considered rude and disrespectful to come to this village to gape at these women like they are zoo animals, I wondered? Then again, I think they are proud of their longneck beauty and happy to present themselves to visitors who have heard of them from around the world. Sutthi wasn’t bashful about admiring the women and asking them direct questions about their tradition. I bet they appreciate him being comfortable and direct rather than awkward and shy about it. I just hope they aren’t feeling annoyed or exploited. I’m glad that at least they make some money selling their wares to tourists.
The longneck tradition is growing extinct, with fewer mothers compelling their daughters to don the heavy golden bands. After all, it presses the clavicles down rather than stretching the neck taller, which weakens the spine and the neck. The price of beauty! Most of the longneck women have moved out of their rural villages down into the cities where they can make more money off of tourism.
Upon arrival in Pai, Sutthi joked that if we stayed here too long, pretty soon we would be walking around barefoot, tatted, with long, shaggy hair and riding motorbikes with no helmets. That illustrates the immigrant hippie/hipster population in Pai for you.
We’d heard excellent things about Pai, but I was a little bummed when beer-drinking backpackers were easier to come by than Pai natives. The locals certainly know how to pander to young tourists, passing out flyers for the party at the Rasta bar, advertising two-for-one happy hours, displaying catalogs of bamboo tattoos, and dressing up as sexy cowgirls and inviting you to try their Texas barbeque.
Not until I fed bananas to elephants myself, all up close and personal, did it hit me how crazy it is that an elephant’s nostrils are so far out at the end of her trunk! I was mesmerized by the trunk acting like a hand to grab the food, curl under itself, and deposit the snack in its shriveled orifice of a mouth. Elephants are one of those animals you feel warm kinship with and empathy toward when you peer into their human-like eyes. Their fuzzy heads of hair also aid my imagined personification of them. Their average lifespan is longer than that of a human. Pregnancies two years long and concentrated mothering until the babies are four or five years old limit the number of children they can have. I didn’t feel compelled to mount and ride these guys. I was content to keep popping bananas, like they were peanuts, into their hand-like trunks.
Sutthi expressed his bitterness toward the trampling effects of tourism, especially on nature, pointing out “Resort, resort, resort…coffee shop, coffee shop, coffee shop. Too many resorts! Too many coffee shops!” He did his best to show us the hidden gems of nature still surviving. All very beautiful, but I wish I had found a way to communicate that we were more interested in meeting the people of these hill tribes.
I wonder, though, if it is unrealistic to hope for authentic encounters with hill tribes. We don’t want to be voyeuristic, and we don’t speak their language. Does a tourist with enough confidence, charisma, and wherewithal stand a chance at enjoying true immersion in hill tribes these days? Do they mind our visits? Sutthi set an itinerary for us that didn’t allow us to take a whack at this, besides the coffee and longneck villages. I hope to return to North Thailand to try my hand at getting to know the people of Thailand’s hill tribes.
We had heard from other travelers, including my dad remembering his own trek thirty years ago, that the hill tribes outside of Chiang Mai couldn’t be missed. We found a private guide, Sutthi, who was happy to drive us up to and around Mae Hong Son and Pai.
We began with a brief trek through the mountainous forest, with stops at waterfalls that sprayed us in welcome. A local guide showing us the way pointed to trees that had been hacked at by insensitive visitors; sap would seep out and they would torch it to produce a small fire show. These hacked trees had been tenderly bandaged with cloth by our guide’s fellow tribe members to send the message that such careless treatment of nature was impermissible.
When the trees finally parted, we discovered rice paddies and flower fields bending and folding with the hills and valleys. No opium or marijuana is grown openly here. These hill tribes used to be mass producers of poppies until the Thai government and police, under international pressure, firmly quashed the industry in recent decades.
A local tribe woman brewed us up a cup of locally grown coffee, boasting about its superior quality due to its berries growing in the forest rather than in a bio-homogenous, exclusively coffee field. Starbucks was buying the local coffee here until this tribe grew tired of the corporation’s overbearing presence and asked them to leave. They are proud to keep more of the profit by selling it more independently now.
Sutthi bought a banana leaf packet of sticky rice, custard, and fresh mango for us. Love at first taste! You can have it for breakfast or dessert. My mental calculation tells me that I can have it three times a day, then?! And we did.
We drove through literally 1,864 curves in the road, a number boasted on signs along the way, to get to the secluded small city of Mae Hong Son. We visited their mountain-top temple, distinguished from others we have seen by its decorative silver tin, intricately punched with holes, lining the layers of roofs. This is the temple style of Burma (also known as Myanmar), the country over the border to the north, from which most people here immigrated. In Christianity, we say that humans are made in the image of God. At this temple, it’s switched; Buddha is made in the image of the people, with red lips dyed from chewing on beetle nut (the local version of chewing tobacco), also evident in the red streams of spit on the sides of the road.
Mae Hong Son was a bit of a ghost town in what was now low season. We retired to our resort, made up of bungalows hiding among the forest. Brangelina stayed here! They looked out at us from five picture frames on the reception desk. It makes sense Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would prefer such a quiet resort in a quiet town away from paparazzi — except for the hotel staff-turned-paparazzi who copped photographic evidence of their stay here.
Video by Andy Steves for Weekend Student Adventures.
Video by Andy Steves for Weekend Student Adventures.
On our second day in Chiang Mai, we made like the locals and mounted a motorbike. Don’t worry, Mom and Dad, Chiang Mai traffic is very calm and safe. As if backpacking through SE Asia isn’t enough of a high already, exploring a city and its surroundings by motorcycle makes me feel like I’m flying.
We made our way north to meet some felines of the massive, striped variety. If we wanted to go in with the tigers, the staff member at the Tiger Kingdom told us, we’d better go soon, because the tigers were getting active. We looked out to see the furry guys pacing aggressively. Before we could chicken out, we signed up for the “large tigers.” The staff whisked us inside before we had time to read all of the safety warnings. The only one I caught was “Don’t approach the tiger head-on.” Our designated tiger trainer roughed up one of the guys playfully and cajoled him into sitting. We nervously approached from behind to steal a pet and a picture. While I patted him, all I could think was, “Holy cow, this guy is massive and pure muscle!” I think you can detect this anxiety in my expression in the pictures if you look close enough. We also checked out an albino tiger, an African lion, and newborn tigers. Mother Nature is truly incredible to transform those small, helpless cubs into kings and queens of the jungle.
We then ascended a mountain to see a famous temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, at sunset. The mountain-top temple is slightly closer to heaven, and it feels especially surreal in this setting of melodious monk-chanting, golden Buddhas reflecting the sun’s last rays, and pagodas shooting into the skies. You don’t need to be a Buddhist to connect with the spiritual majesty here. Built atop a mountain to look out over Chiang Mai, the temple also offers brilliant twilight views of the city.
It was time for me to experience a Thai massage. Unlike other massages we’ve had during this trip, sans clothing and in privacy, this one happens in jumbo baggy pajamas and out in the open. As the masseuse pulled and stretched my limbs, I wasn’t sure whether to close or open my eyes. I felt like a big, awkward, silly baby as she tugged and pushed my body into all sorts of contortions. This is like a lazy woman’s yoga — no effort required but great therapy, especially for the hip joints and the back. The constant chattering and chuckling of the masseuses soothed like a bird’s song and lulled me into forgetting myself, allowing me to fall into the rhythm and enjoyment of the ancient practice.
Dinner was a feast of pad thai, tom yum soup, and khao soi, a northern Thai specialty of rich coconut milk and braised chicken noodle soup. It was one of those meals during which I couldn’t stop saying, “This is sooo good,” as I blew through countless tissues in response to the sinus-clearing spice. I promised myself that I would find a cooking class to take here in Thailand and work on perfecting my preparation of these dishes myself when I go home.
We went to the local boxing club to watch some notoriously fierce Muay Thai. The ritualistic tone of it all was fascinating, with live music like that of a snake charmer, suspenseful pacing, showy stretching, and ceremonial bowing.
One round was particularly entertaining, with seven guys of different weight classes blindfolded, punching and kicking randomly around them, hoping to get a good swipe at each other. Another round featured two men in a traditional sword fight that was really a choreographed dance. Still, I didn’t stop holding my breath until those pairs of serious swords finally stopped their wild twirling.
The finale was a fight between a Thai and a German, both of whom looked even fiercer than the twenty others we had seen thus far. The matches usually culminate in one fighter pinning the other against the wall of the ring so that he can give him swift knee kicks until he has racked up enough points to win. I would have put my money on the Thai guy, but zee German, enjoying an advantage of a few inches in height, won in the end.
Having completed our tour from the north to the south of Vietnam, we departed Saigon to tour Thailand in the same order, beginning in Chiang Mai.
Not only are Thai women strikingly beautiful, but their uniforms, such as those worn by immigration officials, are also remarkable sharp. It looks like high fashion imitating military dress, with perfectly tailored army green tops and stylish pencil skirts.
My first mission here was to converse with a monk at a “monk chat” available for tourists to learn about Buddhism and for monks to practice their English. By the time we made it to the temple, we were too late, and the monks were busy with a ceremony. But a man named Lucky, who used to be a monk, offered to speak with us. He pulled out his religious texts and stumbled over the English translation of Buddhist tenets in his determination to practice the language. Buddhism’s rules for laypeople share similarities with the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments, but there are just five: abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication.
Many young boys join as novice monks in order to get a good education in the temple. Only wealthy families can afford to send their kids away to the good private schools. So many men are novices or monks for just a short time, and they are free to leave whenever they would like. Lucky wanted to marry and be a “bad boy,” so the life of a monk wasn’t for him long-term.
I could spend hours perusing Chiang Mai’s Sunday Night Market, my favorite market of the ones I’ve seen thus far. Fresh pure fruit juices, fried cricket and beetle snacks, mountains of pad thai, intricately embroidered art pieces, antique knives, and, of course, the whole gamut of hippie traveler wear. All these billowing, elephant-printed pants, shepherd ponchos, and calico patchwork bags crack me up, because I’m pretty sure locals never wore this stuff. Yet, backpackers across Southeast Asia buy up all of this boho fashion, as if we don’t stick out enough already! Oh, and then there are the bracelets. It is like a rite of passage for any female backpacker to cover her wrists in beaded and braided bracelets. I’ll admit that I’d like a few myself, but I can’t find any that every other girl eating pad thai on this street isn’t wearing already!
We stole away from the night market before I was ready to follow a newfound Aussie friend to a jazz bar. Coolest scene! Open-air bar with fans huddled around Thai bands bluesing out just as well as any I’ve heard in Chicago. Surprisingly, tourists and locals were actually represented equally in the audience, and the two groups were mixing. This is hard to find in SE Asia, where these groups don’t often hang out at the same bars — and when they do, they are often segregated. I’m afraid when we go out we often learn more about Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Canada, etc., than we do about the locals. That’s why we’ve been fans of tours that give us a chance to speak at length with locals.
After just one evening here, Chiang Mai has already beat out the other places we’ve visited as my favorite. It’s big enough to be brimming with excitement and complex culture. It’s small enough — the Old City — for all of its contents to be within walking distance. This food vies with Italian as my favorite cuisine (which is obviously saying a lot!). The intense flavors of coconut, curry, basil, peanuts, fish sauce, salty, sweet, hot chili pepper, and garlic are exquisite. Thai iced tea is criminally delicious and refreshing. Each time I discover a temple — practically every block here — I feel like I’ve stumbled across a fairytale with fire-breathing dragons, gold-plated Buddhas, magical architecture, and smiling wise old men in tangerine robes. Thai people have a wicked sense of humor, always laughing, always joking. I join legions of backpackers with my cliché love of Chiang Mai!