The Road to Chiang Mai

“The Traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The Tourist is passive.”

~Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Saving $12 on bus fare; but spending two days in sodden heat, sleeping on hard floors, and suffering pangs of doubt and uncertainty; is not an advisable transaction. It’s hilariously invalid from a financial perspective. And the vulnerability a hitchhiker wagers is hardly made up for by the people he meets, the unseen villages he explores, and the stories he earns to tell.

But though the credits and debits on this dirtbag hobby don’t square, taken in isolation those people, those places, and those stories, are worthy. That is the purpose of travel after all, isn’t it? To see the country? The ‘real’ country? Not just some bottled and sterile facade of it?

If the average locals could be greeted without the incumbent risks of hitching, then they surely ought be. Because it is worth it to capture a glimpse of the impossible societal strata in which those lives exist. In other words, there is no better social sample that someone can expose himself to than by playing the lottery of hitchhiking.

So here’s the Fool’s story as he completed his journey to glorious, magical Chiang Mai.

On some forgotten day in Ranong, he was bitten by a mosquito. The Fool thought nothing of this. He was a Fool after all. No he didn’t have Malaria pills, nor had he taken a Typhoid shot. No he didn’t apply antiseptic. Why should he? His cynicism ran deep for the capitalistic peddling of nostrums for profit, not public health. And he was in the South of Thailand, not the jungles of Papua New Guinea. AND he’d been bitten thousands of times, and he’d sustain a thousand more. There was simply no preceding inclination that could have possible rescued him from his own abysmal inaction.

Abysmal, because each Ranong night the Fool steeped himself in the pore-widening stagnant water of the local hot-spring. He bathed in springs frequented by hundreds of local men, women, and children. And he was in the microbial heaven of the tropics.

By the time the Fool caught his first ride out of Ranong, the bite on his knee had grown swollen and pusy. The 1″ diameter flaming pus hole was only the caldera to an infection volcano that discolored his entire right knee a pinkish red. His body was engaged in a microscopic war to which he’d been egregiously neglectful. There was an invader at the gates while the commander and chief was asleep.

Still, the Fool carried on. He caught a ride with a city-family on their way to visit grandparents. They drove a nice air-conditioned Camry. After they dropped him off in Chumphon, within five minutes he pulled a full-size pickup truck with three young men, and it brought him nearly 800 kilometers north to Suphan Buri. The ride lasted all day, and at its end his knee was a stiff, painful nuisance that finally caused some concern.

So the Fool indicated his knee, and monkey-talked ‘Pharmacy’ as best he could. The gentlemen understood the knee. They kindly dropped him off at a pharmacy, and gave him the location of a cheap, local hotel.

The Fool was safe and sound in his enormous, but eerily unfurnished hotel room. He clicked a Thai soap opera onto the CRT television. And he cranked up the ceiling fan to a dangerously wobbling intensity. He showered.

Then he dropped Benedine napalm on the bacterial stronghold. And he gave a cargo drop dose of antibiotic reinforcements to his allied immune system. But not before squeezing a shockingly sized spoonful of pus from the gaping hole in his body. His deepest recollections returned no wound so cavernous and deep as that. He slapped one of those durable fabric band-aids over the wound, and passed out to the unintelligible, but unmistakable sounds of fictional melodrama.

The antibiotics worked wonders. Overnight his bulged knee had returned to normal. In the coming days, with attentive treatment, the wound closed, scabbed and scarred over into what now looks ligar a cigar burn. The Fool’s impeccable luck saved his ass once more.

Feeling recovered, he was back on the road early in the morning. After a slow start, he caught a ride in a luxury Hyundai with a Chinese couple. There was a high performance bicycle jutting out of the trunk. It turned out the man competes on a professional track cycling circuit back in China.

The couple was heading off course, so they dropped the Fool off at a highway interchange. From there he pulled a short motorbike ride to the next main vehicular artery. He had lunch on the grass median outside a gas station, then caught a ride to the next village with a teenager heading off to meet friends.

The village didn’t even show up on the map, and the Fool saw that fact as an omen of good fortune. You’re in a honeyed state of travel when even Google doesn’t know where you are.

There was a lively market in effect, so the Fool stayed awhile. He munched on some apples and chatted up a masseuse. Then he humped his pack and walked right out of town. A thick block of clouds screened the sun. A steady breeze blew at his back. It was cool enough to stroll, and he felt buoyant; making progress.

A fair ways out, a big dump truck squealed to a halt, so the Fool climbed up the step ladder into the cab. His eyes met those of the driver who gave him a wide, gap-toothed smile, and spoke not at all. They exchange goofy, fragmented smiles for about fifty kilometers.

Then as the sun dipped behind some distant hills, the Fool pulled one last ride. It was a wealthy Thai couple on their way home for the evening. They spoke impressive English, so conversation wasn’t stunted after shallow greetings. As they passed one of the many billboards plastered with the King’s portrait, the Fool asked about him. The couple nodded solemnly, then said, ‘The royal family not good for Thai people.” Further inquiry yielded not a peep after that.

The couple lived in Kamphaeng Phet, a rather intriguing city with intricate fairy light constellations lining every street they drove down. It lies just South of Chiang Mai, so the Fool hopped a midnight bus.

He tumbled out at a 2:00am arrival onto the grey concrete slab of a bus-hub. The Fool didn’t have the energy to crack open a brand new city before dawn, let alone find accommodation. So he took a snooze on the plush bench of an odd Taco vendor to await the rising sun.

At daybreak, he checked his GPS, chuckled a ‘no’ at a pestering Tuk-Tuk driver, and walked the last two kilometers into the heart of Chiang Mai. It would become his favorite city in the world.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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