After 68 days, 5 countries, 3,700 kilometers, and countless bowls of noodle soup, we have made it to Hanoi!
Check this space in the coming days for updates and reflections.
As we rode out of Chiang Mai, we approached a small village where music was blasting from speakers. We had been in Thailand long enough at this point to know something entertaining was about to happen.
As we rode up to the masses of chairs covered by a big blue party tent, several party-goers motioned for us to come in.
We entered to find a stage with several older ladies wearing different colored silken suits and sunglasses, dancing wildly to very loud music. Naturally, they invited us (insisted) that we come join them on the stage, and we obliged. We danced and drank homemade white rice whiskey. As Anshuman did a shimmy shakedown with an old and very tipsy woman, I giggled and exchanged a wink with him. After dancing, they invited us to eat. We munched on piles and piles of litchis and ate bamboo stew with sticky rice. Not long after dinner, we casually excused ourselves, thanked the hosts, and went on our way.
After this event, I was reminded of the first party we accidentally crashed. We were stunned for at least 2 hours straight during the event and afterwards. We kept glancing at each other excitedly across the room, we couldn’t believe our luck, we couldn’t believe the amazingness of circumstance and coincidence or fate.
In general, our first few weeks of the trip held an air of whispered excitement. We giggled our way onto the bus, staring at everything, gasping at views, taking photos of everything.
In recent weeks, this excitement has started to wane. We don’t feel like blogging or taking photos, awe-inspiring views don’t phase us, we are only slightly surprised when we stumble into a party with spirit mediums and homemade white rice whiskey.
I suppose this is a natural progression, but it is somehow amazing to realize that even the most unpredictable and seemingly ‘unroutine’ lifestyle – a nomadic one – can begin to feel mundane. Indeed it is not the circumstance which determines the level of gratitude, but rather the mindset.
How does one maintain perspective and ‘fresh eyes’ in the midst of everyday life? And everyday life can be anything – from that of a blue collar worker, to that of a Queen, to that of a nomadic bicycle tourist.
I try to remember ‘where I am’ and how unique an opportunity this is, but that method might not apply in a more traditional everyday life situation. Instead of constant stimulation and newness, I wonder if it is possible to look at the same thing again and again, and by ‘looking a different way’ actually see a different thing – like close reading a painting or a text.
If not, perhaps this feeling of boredom or complacency is not something to be feared? Maybe it is an essential part of the human experience? Maybe it shows us that we have learned and that we are adaptable and that we are curious?
Just keep pedaling, just keep pedaling….
I have always been fascinated by cities and towns that sit on the borders of nations. Although I’d never actually been to such a place, I figured it was reasonable to expect interesting things from a town that straddles two countries. I figured, at the very least, that such a place would feature a mix of two cultures. Two for the price of one. The thrifty Indian in me approved.
But as I said, I had never been to such a place. Few can say they have. For all our globetrotting, we make transitions not from country to country but from airport to airport, station to station. We turn our flip books with great speed, with no time to give each page its due.
In the last month, I have crossed one border and grazed past another. By the time this trip is over I will have crossed two more. But this post is not about the roadside money changers of Padang Besar or the mysterious Urdu speakers of Mae Sot. I have chanced upon something altogether more interesting: a border town where you would least expect it, smack in the middle of a country.
Chiang Mai straddles no borders, but the city is criss-crossed with borders all the same. Here’s the deal: the tourists of Chiang Mai aren’t confined to one farang part of town. Sure, there is Old City with its bike rental shops and espresso-serving cafes, but that is not where the action is. The tourists have long since leaked out of Old Town and invaded the city as a whole. As a result, the streets of the city are homogenous in their confusion. Special Massages are advertised as blatantly as the latest deals in refrigerators. The bustling (and decidedly local) Warorot Market is situated awkwardly on Tha Phae Road, with its art galleries and handicraft stores. Even the wats seem unsure of themselves: some are sober and quiet, while others offer one-on-one English interactions with the monks at select times of the day.
Each such confusion comes with its own border. While the locals and the tourists throng the same streets and see the same signs, they certainly do not respond to what they see similarly. A local knows exactly where on Tha Phae Road to go to buy eggs: she sure isn’t going to get lost and land up at an art gallery! A woman looking to spend a couple of hours studying her copy of Lonely Planet is going to find her way to a quiet bar, and not to a loud stall selling nam soup by the bowl.
A border runs throughout Chiang Mai. It twists around and turns back on itself, cuts through streets and skips over rivers. It tells you where to speak Thai and where you are better off with English. It tells you where the locals pray and where the backpackers drink.
It offers you two cultures, yes. Two for the price of one, yes. But like all borders, it leaves you starkly aware of which side you stand on.