It was just past Thanksgiving. The cold weather was delayed in arriving in Michigan, but no doubt it would make an appearance soon. It was time to take the trip that was supposed to happen 3 years ago before COVID screwed up everyone’s life.
Amy and I packed up the bare essentials (pinwheels, foam cowboy hats, and a temperamental 10-year-old psychotic dog) and headed to the “Land of Smiles” for a 4-month immersion. I have never spent much time out of the US on a continuous basis and was excited to try my hand at “slow travelin’”.
A good summary on Thailand:
Finding a flight that allows dogs in the cabin was no small feat. Fortunately, I had done a lot of initial research when planning this trip in 2019. No American-based airlines actually fly into Thailand, and basically, no Asian Airlines allow pets in the cabin, so it would not be easy. Also, Max, the animal in question, had never been on a plane, and saying he was unpredictable was an understatement. I eventually found a Delta flight that flew to South Korea and then partnered with a Korean Airline flight into Bangkok. It was about 20 hours of actual flight time and the dog was supposed to not leave the bag under the seat. Factor in another 5 hours of airport time and you have a recipe for disaster.
We got to DTW and eventually got the paperwork and Visas straight so we could board the Korea-bound flight. Max was not cool with going into the bag at the airport counter, let alone staying in there for 20+ hours. We wrestled him into the bag, dosed him up with Benadryl, and made the best show of it for the powers that be. Once on the plane, we kinda built a blanket fort over our trays and let him roam around under our feet. He did pretty well, but a couple of times escaped into the aisle. We became a bit complacent, and Amy began walking him up and down the aisle for exercise strolls on his leash. At this point we were admonished and told under no uncertain terms was the animal out of the bag. Back to the blanket fort. In Korea, we found a fake garden area and were able to convince Max to relieve himself there. Before you scoff, we did clean it up, but yes he did poop in the middle of the terminal on fake grass. He has no shame. The Korean Airlines flight was much stricter than the Delta one. Those Asians, and their adherence to rules. They were policing him heavily, making sure he stayed in the bag. I don’t think he was ever actually in the bag, but we made an attempt. I thought it was quite an accomplishment that we had him sitting in the bag for boarding, with the top flap open, but even this was not kosher. We had to zip him in completely. This only lasted for about 5 seconds before passing the flight attendant by. Max was about at the end of his rope at this point. We were at his mercy. He held all the cards.
We arrived in Bangkok around 1 am and breezed through immigration. Normally when you travel you can get a Visa-on-arrival in most countries, allowing roughly 30 days, but that would not cut it. I had to apply for a longer-term tourist visa before leaving the US. It allowed me to stay a maximum of 9 months, but I would have to leave the country every 60 days. Amy’s sister picked us up and dropped us off at our new place on the outskirts of Bangkok. Amy’s mom had spent the last few months remodeling a house for us to move into. It was a perfect setup, just needed to buy some furniture and other amenities.
I wanted to hit the ground running, so I joined a gym the first week and eventually got a scooter so I was not dependent on the local bus system. I was initially going to buy one, but after finding inventory a bit low, it just became easier to rent this trip. The scooter has its pluses and minuses. On the positive side, it allows you to weave in-between traffic and get to places much faster. Normally a 5 mi ride could take 25 minutes in a cab but only 10 minutes on a scooter. The downside is that you might die by taking the scooter. The first week I saw 2 major accidents involving scooters and was a bit apprehensive, but in the end, I needed the freedom and control to keep my sanity.
I did decide to wear my full motorcycle protection outfit while riding the scooter, which was an upgrade from the local preferred protection of flip-flops and a Paper Mache helmet. I had to find a bike shop where I could buy some of this gear, fortunately, their largest sizes were close enough to fit me.
I tried to capture some video of what it is like to ride here, but it doesn’t quite provide the real effect. Asian drivers are unique, but in some ways, they allow for the organized chaos that takes place on the roads. You dart in and out of traffic, lane splitting on a bike is about the tamest thing on the list of craziness I engaged in once I became comfortable, which only took about 30 minutes. I found it easiest, in the beginning, to just follow another scooter as he moves in and out of traffic until I got the lay of the land. In a few days, I was leading the packs and grumbling about drivers that got in my way. It is true that there really are not any rules here on the road, but what makes it survivable is that everyone makes moves at a very slow pace. The cars are like the rhinos that slowly just do what they want, and the bikes are the flies that just dart in and out. If the cars drove as they did in the US, making sudden lane changes and abrupt moves, it would not work. As I have said before in these blogs, you just slowly wade into the stream and let the water (traffic) surround you and react to your subtle deliberate, and predictable movements.
After getting the scooter, our next adventure was opening a bank account. They do not have Google/ Apple Pay here but they have something similar that is tied to local banks. It allows you to scan a QR code when paying and it transfers from your bank account to sellers. Everyone uses it, from food stalls to shopping malls. It really is essential. We were able to open an account and get 2 different debit cards. It made life a whole lot easier than continuing to do what you normally do on vacation, pulling money out of an ATM all the time. Using a company called TransferWise, we could also exchange/transfer money at low rates from an American account to a Thai account without the delay and expense of wire transfers.
Shot from our front door
I still don’t understand it but here, there are bars on everything, triple locks, and gates, and even guards at the community entrance. Everyone is so friendly and no crime. I think thai people are just paranoid if Amy is any indication. She makes us lock the compound down like a maximum security prison each night.
We have been sleeping on the floor for the first couple of weeks here as we wait for a couch, TV, and bed to be delivered. Really wasn’t that bad. We would get up in the morning and walk to the local market (about 2 min walk) and get breakfast. No one really cooks here because the meals only cost $2 to purchase. Eventually, I got tired of eating pork and rice/noodles for breakfast and bought eggs and such to cook at least one normal meal at home.
Somewhere in that frenzy of activity the first week we got local phone plans. We both use GoogleFi as they are the best for international travel. That became our eSIM, but we also picked up local SIMS to make things run a bit smoother. Everyone here communicates on WhatsApp or LINE anyway. These are just WiFi texting/calling. We also used this to call back to the States.
One evening we took the scooter to a night market for dinner. They love Americana antiques here, and I must say that they have some good collectibles. I was craving a steak and decided to buy one at a local stand. It came out rare and was about 1/8in thick. Hard to cook that rare, but they did. They then covered it in brown gravy. I could not eat it. I can probably count on 1 hand the amount of meals I have not finished in my life.
The gym I initially selected smelled terrible (read: something dead in the bathroom) and they had only the bare bones of equipment, but still charged$50/month. Not sure how they got away with that, but once I got my scooter I started exploring gyms a bit farther out. At the mall, I found one that was less than $50/month and included a swimming pool on the roof and all new equipment. Our neighborhood did have a brand-new pool, but it was cheaper to just use the pool at the new gym
Malls are a bit different here in Thailand. Each mall is like the Mall of America back home. They have everything, including about 50 restaurants. No one got the memo that malls are an 80s thing. Even with Thailand's version of Amazon (Lazada), the malls are still packed all day long.
Before leaving the US I picked up a Pickleball paddle on ebay. I had to stop playing tennis due to nerve issues in my neck, so this was going to be my new jam. I found a “Meetup” group that plays every week. In fact, the Meetup App is quite popular. I found regular groups doing everything from hiking, climbing, tennis, book clubs, drinking, etc. I went with one group on a bike ride down in the city.
I also tried playing Badminton cause I am decent at tennis. I incorrectly thought that it would be easy to be competitive, much like pickleball. I was wrong. Just because you dominate your nephew on the lawn for 4th of July does not mean you are good at this sport. Asians are like little ninjas with badminton. You are turning left and right as the shuttlecock flys by, and by the end you are exhausted, flat on your back, vowing never to return
I should mention were are a bit east of downtown. It is actually a pain in the ass to get down there. With my scooter I can do it in 25 minutes, but since I don’t have protective gear for Amy, and won't weave through traffic with her on the bike, it takes too long. Public transportation takes about 1.5 hr to get down there and involves a combination of Cabs, Sky Trains, and buses. We did try to go down there to celebrate Christmas at a cool jazz bar, but after 2 hours of travel, we got turned away at the door for not being dressed fancy enough. Amy did try to salvage the night at a bar district but we soon realized it was a gay mecca and I felt like I was going to get molested if left on my own
The next street over wasnt any better as it was all massage parlors with tons of scantily clad ladies sitting outside beckoning you in for intimate "massages". The night was not a total loss as we did hit up Chinatown and sampled a variety of Michelin-worthy food stalls
My next adventure was attempting to get a Thai Drivers License. I did this for a few reasons. 1). It meant I would not have to carry my passport around, 2.) It made conversations with officials easier, and 3) and most important, I thought it would be cool. I had to watch multiple youtube videos to try to understand the process. I guess I should pause here to comment on Thailand. It is a place where things are not thought out. It is like, there is a problem, that needs a solution and they just come up with one without worrying about how it affects the rest of the process. It looks a lot like my construction projects back home. I have good intentions, but once I get into something and realize it is not going to work, I have to quickly determine how to make it functional. To understand this you only need to look at the mess of electric wires around town. People are constantly splitting and circumnavigating power until you end up with the mother-of-all Christmas light tangles. I think it comes down to the Buddhist principles of "live in the present" and dont worry about future planning. Well, that’s how the driver's license system or any other government entity works. Throw in that everybody needs to get their cut and it grinds to a halt. Before going to the DMV, I had to stop at a health clinic outside and pay 200Baht to get a “Health certificate” basically they checked my blood pressure and sent me on my way.
Then I waited in a long line at DMV with copies of DL, passport, INT DL, and notarized affidavit of my residence. To get that document I had to go to the US embassy, which was locked down tighter than fort knox. At the front of the DMV line they told me I did not have a QR code for an appointment. I told them their online system was down, but they would not budge. I even tried taking a picture of some local persons QR code, but they didn’t fall for it. They told me I could have an appt in a month. No one in the line had an appointment because no one could get online to make it. The DMV knew this and was now just treating this line as their new reservation making system. Basically you had to come down here to get a date in a month’s time to come back. We flew to Chiang Mai the next week and in the smaller city I was able to walk-in and get it all solved, but not without mass confusion and waiting in multiple lines in a recreation of the soup nazi episode from Seinfeld.
Saw another major scooter accident today on my way downtown to play pickleball. It reminds me of the D-Day scene from Saving Private Ryan where the soldier is in shock and just walking around looking for his arm. Eventually finds it, picks it up, and moves on like it was no big thing. These 2 bikes ran head-on into each other and exploded like a formula one race car. Each guy just stumbled about looking for flip-flops or their produce while holding their head. No ambulance, just kinda get them to the sidelines and let the game resume.
Amy got COVID during our second week here. This resulted in one of her sisters getting it, and then soon after the other sister as well. My reptilian blood kept me safe. If I did not drink a glass of bat blood before bed each night I probably would have got it as well.
Off to Ching Mai with Amy’s Mom for the weekend. It is Thailand’s 2nd largest town and sits up in the mountains making it much cooler (tolerable) and full of greenery, something I desperately need after the concrete jungle of Bangkok.
I had hotel points to burn so all 3 of us stayed in one room at this swanky hotel. The bathroom was more than twice the size of the rest of the room. We were able to jam a roll-out bed in there for her mom. Each night about 4 am I would hear scurrying and noises. I attributed it to mice in the walls, but it was just Amy’s mom doing god knows what. She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Thai, so it was just this frozen stare you engage in when you open the garage and the raccoon in your trash can looks back at you.
The next day we went on an elephant excursion.
A local hill tribe, “Karen”, no not the annoying memes of older white ladies in grocery stores, but people that live in rural communities in northern Thailand. The elephants used to be used as beasts of burden here, to move such things as trees for building materials, but now people are becoming more conscious of the elephant intelligence and the need to respect these grand animals. There are about 50 elephant preserves but only about 10 are known for ethical treatment. The others use them to maximize the tourist dollars they bring in. Allowing rides and chaining them up at night. The 2 we walked around with, and bathed, seemed to be treated well, with 2 tours each day consisting of multiple rounds of feeding and scrubbing down. I was a bit cautious when we got them in the river to wash these girls. I envisioned one swing of the leg and my leg was going to be snapped like a toothpick.
After the elephants, we sat down to dinner and talked about travel with some young Americans over on holiday
That night we visited a food stall made famous by Anthony Bourdain. Like every place he has visited, it becomes an instant Instagram frenzy, but I guess makes the chef into a celebrity, which is good?
We stopped at Northgate Jazz Coop after for drinks but left as Amy’s mom fell asleep during the performances
The following day we hired a driver to take us to Doi Inthanon. It is the highest mountain in Thailand and has some magnificent waterfalls and temples in tribute to the former King and Queen. We started the afternoon with a visit to a Karen village and a hike by a local guide
Stopped for lunch at the King and Queen's restaurant....whatever that means
The Thai people are obsessed with the royal family. The government is set up similarly to many countries. The royal family was once in control of everything, but it was slowly realized that they needed an actual government. So they switched over to elected officials, but still allow the royalty some ceremonial power. In Thailand, they treat the royal family with much more respect and devotion than I have seen anywhere else. They consider them almost god-like. Their pictures are everywhere. I have no opinion on the matter, just definitely not something I am used to.
In addition to visiting many temples and shrines paying homage to the king and queen we also visited the highest point in the country at the top of Doi Inthanon National Park
Amy's mom had a unique pose and hand gesture for every picture. I think this one says, "All of this is mine! Enjoy at my discretion"
One more waterfall on the way down
Our final dinner in Chiang Mai. We hit up one of the best traditional Northern restaurants
Back in Bangkok, I walked to our local pond and captured this huge beast.
Starting at the tail in the back he measures at least 6 ft. I was intrigued and frankly frightened by this colossal. A couple of times I saw him up on the bank, and I knew he was not to be trifled with. It turned out to be a Monitor Lizard. For some reason, an alligator would have been easier to deal with in my mind. This one reminded me of all the Nat Geo specials on Komodo Dragons, and I envisioned myself getting bitten and left for dead with a oozing infection, only to be pulled into the water at dusk.
After our trip into the woods up north, we figured it was only fair to do the same for Max. It as obvious he had enough of all the noises and concrete as well. We loaded him up on the scooter and drove a couple of kms to a local park
He always enjoys a high-speed ride, or so I like to believe. He immediately took to the water for a dip.
On our way out we saw people feeding the fish. It appeared like they were trying to dispose of a dead body.
One evening we went downtown to a festival. Or at least that is what it was billed as. Some food stalls and music acts, but as we walked through it became much stranger. Basically turned into a flea market where they were selling women's underwear and also trying to force you to buy raffle tickets for women's underwear.
On New Year's Day we gave food to the local monks and had lunch at a Chinese Hot Pot Restaurant. I am not one who likes to pay to cook my own food, but this was decent
A busy first month. Looking forward to what January brings
Until Next Month