Friday, July 15, 2011

By Bus to Chiang Mai

"The fortune-telling Sikhs are out in force today," I noticed as I followed a group of six backpackers and a guide down Khao San Road. These guys hang around and say "Excuse me" to every passerby until one stops and agrees to follow them down an alley for a fortune. They get pissed at me. I always ignore them.

I'd booked an overnight bus to Chiang Mai—under protest. I'd only booked it because I had no choice. After I'd picked up my passport from the Indian visa processing center on Wednesday, I'd headed straight to the train station to buy the next available ticket.

But it turned out to be a holiday weekend. The next available ticket was for Monday, the same day my 30-day Thailand entry stamp expired and when I was supposed to be leaving the country.

An information agent suggested I travel standby to Chiang Mai. "Just show up in the morning and you'll get a train ticket eventually."

He was probably right but I was hoping for something a little more concrete. I went upstairs to a travel agent on the train station mezzanine.

"You can leave tomorrow on an overnight bus for 900 baht. Come here first and we'll take you to the bus."

That was almost the same price as a first-class train ticket, but for the pleasure of "sleeping" on the bus, not to mention crossing town at rush hour when I could just as easily get a cheaper bus from Khao San Road.

I headed back to my part of town and went into the first travel agent's office that I saw, where I bought a dirt-cheap overnight bus ticket for Thursday night.

But I knew the score this time. In 2001, when I'd bought a bus ticket from Khao San to Siem Reap, I'd been confused by how a girl had led me around, walking, to various hotels, picking up other travelers before putting us on a minibus to the border. We walked across and on the other side were deposited in several different vehicles, traveled for hours across a potholed landscape, then driven straight into whatever guesthouse had paid for our delivery. The Khao San buses sell you to guesthouses at your destination, and that's why the fares are so cheap.

But I knew that this time and I was far too lazy to go to the train station to get an expensive bus when I could take a cheap one from my own neighborhood.

I packed (I hate packing), sent home what I could, threw things away, cashed in my coffee stamps (like Green Stamps for free coffee), and went back to the travel agent at six. Eventually, the bus representative showed up and walked me and four others, carrying our bags, from Rambuttri to Khao San.

"Wait here," he said, disappearing into the crowd.

"Uh, does anyone have any idea what's going on?"

I did and I told the other travelers.

"The buses can't come here, so they collect us all and lead us to the bus."

Our group got bigger every time we were told to "wait here." Eventually, we had a whole parade of backpackers heading over to the edge of Banglamphu where several buses waited. We were put onto a rundown bus right before the rain started. I stared out the window at the twilight backpackers processions, all being led to their buses.

The first time I'd taken an overnight bus in Thailand, I'd had to explain the narrative of "Deep Blue Sea" to my Italian seatmate. This time, no one sat next to me and I got to watch Pirates of the Caribbean 3, while barely being able to hear the dialogue.

I thought back to the last time I'd taken an overnight bus in Thailand. This was 2001, on the first The train track had problems between Butterworth, near Penang in Malaysia, and somewhere in southern Thailand. We'd all been taken off the train and put onto overnight buses bound for Khao San Road.

I'd ended up seated next to a 50-some-year-old retired man from Montreal named Philippe. He'd been traveling alone so long he no longer seemed to have a home to go to. He'd been hanging around Lake Toba, a legendary Sumatran destination, and eventually it had occurred to him to check his email. And that's how he learned his brother had died while he'd been away. The funeral had happened in his absence.

I knew then that I was in danger of becoming this rootless person. It's what convincd me that in time, I'd have to stop all this roaming. It's what gave me the idea that when I went home from Cairo in late 2007, that I had to stay until staying home was no longer painful, until home was as appealing as the road. It's what makes me think I need to stop when I get back, get a real job, adopt a dog, maybe buy a new condo.

Or maybe I'm deluding myself and can't stop.

Today's Khao San Road bus to Chiang Mai was nothing special but the driver was hardcore, stopping for almost nothing. Getting out of Bangkok alone took hours due to the holiday traffic. I'd grabbed a Subway sandwich to bring on for dinner, not being sure what time our dinner break would be. I was glad now to have done this. Our meal break was at 1:30 a.m. Toilet breaks didn't happen—we had a tiny cabinet with a bus toilet in the stairwell. It was clearly made for short people.

The problem with overnight buses is that they ruin your next day, because you don't get much sleep on a bus. I had my airplane neck pillow out and made a valiant attempt at sleeping (I am a skilled sleeper), but I was still dazed when, right after sunrise, the bus pulled up to a gas station on the outskirts of Chiang Mai.

"May I have your attention please? The bus stops here. You will all complete your trip to Chiang Mai in these," said a man, motioning to songthaews, little pickup trucks with benches in the back that act as public transport in Thailand.

"Are you alone? You go in this one." The bus passengers had been split up into multiple songthaews.

"Does anyone know what's going on? I was told we'd be let off in the middle of Chiang Mai," said a worried Japanese tourist, his girlfriend frantically calling up Google maps on her iPhone in the back of the songthaew.

"We've all been divvied up between guesthouses," I explained. "They'll drive us to a guesthouse. It's why the ticket was so cheap. Don't worry, you can always leave."

But why bother? I bet most people just stay at the guesthouse they're driven to. They're usually pretty good value.
Our songthaew zipped directly into the walled compound of a guesthouse just outside the city walls. I took a look at the map—great! We were near the hotel I'd booked at my Chiang-Mai-resident friend Toby's suggestion.

I strapped on my backpack, adjusted the buckles, and walked out of the guesthouse. No one seemed to notice. I passed through a residential neighborhood full of little guesthouses that all seemed to be offering eggs benedict, headed straight to the city walls and to my hotel, which let me check in early into my room with en suite bathroom, A/C, and free wi-fi. The only problem with Lux Hotel is it doesn't offer breakfast. You can eat dry violet wafer cookies and sip Nescafe or you can go to the market for fruit, yogurt, and granola, or have breakfast in one of the little restaurants nearby.

But the rooms were decent and cheap. I left my stuff in the room and headed past the market to look for breakfast.

Nice Kitchen turned out to be the place. I ordered a coffee that came with milk in a ceramic chicken and opened up my laptop.

"What's the wifi password?" I asked.

"Sunshine," said the cafe owner.


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