As Rod Serling used to say at the beginning of every
“Twilight Zone” episode: “Picture if you will,” a jaded traveler,
fed up with the usual fair of package tours and elephant rides. He wants a
new experience, something different, something distinctly Thai. And, oh
yeah, he has no money.
Luckily, there are countless adventures one can have for
little or no money. One of the best parts about traveling without money is
that you will be forced to avoid the chauffer driven tour buses, loaded with
foreigners. You will also have to seek out those restaurants and
accommodations which cater to local people.
was purely a cultural exchange, and a chance to practice speaking Thai. In
these types of relaxed environments people are always more willing to listen
to you butcher their language.
The simplest way to do an “Adventure on the Cheap,”
is open up your guidebook, find some attraction that you have a remote
interest in seeing, and then go there. But the trick is to go there under
your own power. This means walking, riding a bicycle, rowing a boat, or
ridding a horse. The last two may prove problematic. But the first two are
available to anyone with two strong legs. Even a trip to the mall can be
exciting if you choose to get there by walking in the irrigation ditches
which run through Chiang Mai. But that is another story.
must reach a waterfall at some point.” Walking along the river was an
adventure in itself.
I chose to walk to Wat Phra Doi Suthep, a temple outside
of Chiang Mai. The first three kilometers out of the hotel were a little
surreal. I was dressed like a trekker, heading for the top of a distant
mountain. But I was marching through the familiar, urban hustle of Chiang
Mai. I was having an adventure. Everyone else was just having a normal,
Just past the university, there was a sign for a
waterfall. Since I don’t enjoy paying admission, and look at rules as mere
suggestions, I climbed down the embankment, under the highway bridge, and
began following the river up. I figured, “It must reach a waterfall at
some point. Right?” Walking along the river was an adventure in itself.
The boulder-strewn riverbed was excellent for scrambling. At almost every
pool, people invited me to join them. Once you get away from places where
foreigners are common, the Thais really open up. In the clearings college
kids were sitting on bamboo mats, sharing a picnic lunch of sticky rice and
roasted pork, eaten from plates made of leaves. When you sit together, and
all eat from a single plate, there is an intimacy which we in the West could
never have by eating from our own, individual plates.
vegetation was a bit over grown, making photography impossible. “Note to
self: Next time, bring a machete.”
At the top of a smooth formation of white stone, beside a
babbling brook, I stopped to chat with a group of college girls. The fact
that they were beautiful had nothing to do with my interest in them. It was
purely a cultural exchange, and a chance to practice speaking Thai. In these
types of relaxed environments people are always more willing to listen to
you butcher their language. The girls told me that if I wanted to make it to
the temple, I would have to leave the river, by a stone staircase, and
rejoin the road.
boulder-strewn river bed was excellent for scrambling.
The mountain road, which rises sharply, 1,500 meters in
only 11 km, has become a Mecca for both western and Thai cyclists. They
struggled, pedaling slowly, in their smallest gear. One huge advantage to
walking, versus ridding a bicycle, is that you just look so much better when
you are walking. Bicycle riders have their mouth open. They are panting and
straining. Their faces look painful, but not epic. Walking, you can even
keep your hair in place with a little jell, in case you want to get some
photos made. The road has yet to become a trekking Mecca, however. As I
seemed to be the only person with enough head injuries to do such a
harebrained trek. Somehow, when you are walking to the top of the mountain
everyone knows that you are walking to the top of the mountain. People in
cars and motorcycle smiled and waved. They gave me the “thumbs up.”
Occasionally people stopped to offer me a ride. “They
don’t quite get it.” I thought to myself. But it was all part of Thai
good-cheer. Busses full of foreign tourists blew past me, missing
everything. I chuckled. There were some incredible views of Chiang Mai,
stretched out below. But the vegetation was a bit overgrown, making
photography impossible. “Note to self: Next time, bring a machete.”
When I got to the sign, which read, “Wat Doi Suthep 3
km,” I was elated. But, as is often the way with travel, the last three
kilometers were the hardest. The way suddenly shot vertical, going up like a
spiral staircase. When I finally crested the mountain, my heart sunk, when I
remembered the guidebook saying that the actual temple was at the top of
three hundred stone steps. An air-conditioned tour bus stopped. The
foreigners got out, stretched their legs, and got into a cable car, to take
them to the top. I began walking up the impossibly long staircase.
A hill tribe girl was shouting. “Photo with hill tribe
girl, only 40 baht.” Some tourists saw this as a nuisance. I saw it as a
chance to make some money. I began touting people. “Photo with American
journalist, 35 baht.” Wouldn’t you know it? The hill tribe girl
immediately cut her price to 30 baht. I guess capitalism is alive and well
in the mountains of Thailand. I went to twenty five. She went to twenty.
When she hit ten, I knew that I had priced myself out of the market.
I continued on my upward journey. The casualties of the
dreaded three hundred steps lay strewn along the wayside. As much as my
heart went out to them, I wondered what they would say if I told them I had
walked all the way from Chiang Mai.
I hate to say that someone lied, but I had been promised
300 stairs. I only counted 297, and two of those were broken. I hate it when
they misadventure these attractions just to get you to come.
The way back is always easier than the way up. When I
finally reached my hotel, I had walked a total distance of approximately 40
km. I had gotten some much needed exercise, practiced Thai, made some new
friends, and best of all, the only money I had spent was on food. You can
create your own, custom adventures in Thailand. And you can do it on the
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