Before I get to that, though, I will give away what you have already surmised: Thailand gets the "Step Above a Tent with a Broken Ladder Leading Down to a Squat Toilet with a Beautiful View" rating. That's right. High expectations can kill you. Here we go:
1) The emergency jar o peanut butter
Leaving the treehouse, you all know how excited I am to get to northern Thailand to eat. When we land there at 10 pm (I skipped dinner so that I could eat at an outdoor pad thai or curry stand upon arrival to waste no time beginning the Best Week of Eating of my Life in My Soul Eating Destiny Country), we experience culture shock right away: the roads (they drive on the left side) are perfect. No potholes, no construction barriers. There are cars and SUV's and hardly any motorbikes. The signage is clear, and people stop at stoplights. We hire a cab to take us to a hotel listed in the Lonely Planet and when the driver pulls into a dark, deserted parking lot that looks more like a sand/garbage pit, I say to K, "Is this the part where he shoots us?"
The hotel is far from any night activity. There aren't even any street lights. We are so tired by the time we check into our "Hot Shower" room (that is not a rating...this is the hotel of the scoring guide) that I pull out my emergency jar of peanut butter and K and I scoop it out with our index fingers. First meal in Thailand. Things can only get better, right?
2) The Hard-Boiled Egg
Northern Thailand is beautiful, no one is lying about that. It is stunningly gorgeous. Chiang Mai is a pleasant town, with an older walled in city surrounded by water and sprinklers and lights at night. Chiang Mai is known for two things - night markets and trekking adventures. We hit a night market on our second night and it is pretty cool. We accomplish some good market eating - dumplings, fish cakes, meat on skewers, noodles and fruit shakes- and the stroll down the endless row of stalls selling arts and crafts and souvenirs takes hours. So it is getting a little better, but still, something feels off.
Things are bound to get better the next day, when we go trekking with an organization we feel good about: The Libra House - a little family-run hotel with good online reviews. We have read and heard negative stories about some of these companies, how they exploit Karen tribes such as the Long Necked Tribe (women elongate their necks by adding more and more rings to stretch them out), and we are careful to avoid the ones with a bad reputation. The Libra House seems OK...and it is.
Again, Northern Thailand is stunningly beautiful. Our trekking group of eight, led by our tour guide, Toto (of a Karen Tribe, he has two wives) rides in the back of a truck for about two hours out of town and we begin our adventure by soaking in a hot spring. Then we hike over 9 km through four Karen tribal villages. It doesn't seem too touristy- at least, we can convince ourselves that it isn't as bad as the others...the village people hardly seem to take note of us. And, again, it's truly amazing scenery.We stop to camp out in one of the villages for the night, one that sits right on the banks of the Mae Tang River; an easy little river that heads east toward Myanmar. Myanmar -at that time, Burma- is where the Karen Tribes emigrated from over the last 200 years: they escaped oppression from the government and civil war among the tribes and found peace in Thailand, where they pay no taxes. I learn all of this during day two of the trek, from Toto himself, while we are on the raft. "The Christians and Buddhists were always fighting," he tells me. "Which is your tribe, Christian or Buddhist?" I ask him. "We are Animists," he answers.
When we arrive, I cannot stay out of the river; it is a perfect river for floating. I love love love rivers - being in them, sleeping next to them, riding down them on innertubes. It's cold, but K and I float down, get out, run up the bank and do it again and again while Toto and his friend Poco from the village make us a great chicken curry with potatoes (masaman curry) over an open fire stove. Then Poco plays his guitar and we sing songs around a fire under bright stars("American Pie" and "Wonderwall" among the songs) and sleep in a kind of long house, under a few blankets with mosquito nets over us. "Are there any rats around?" I ask Toto. He assures me that no, there are not, and there are not. None of those stories in this particular paragraph.
The next morning's breakfast is toast, jam, and hard boiled eggs. These eggs are probably the most free-range eggs I have ever eaten. They have been laid by very happy looking, free village chickens. Five of us eat one hard boiled egg; one of us eats two hard boiled egg, and the other two eat no hard boiled eggs. (Take note.)
Then we get on our elephants for an hour and a half ride next to and through the Mae Tang. Watching these beasts walk down the mountain and stop right in front of us was thrilling; I have always loved elephants most out of all the zoo animals. I rode on one when I was really really little, and her name was "Margie." This elephant's name is "Jan" - or "Moon." Jan is so gentle, like the rest of them, but I keep picturing falling off of her and getting trampled (much like I kept picturing the zipline cables breaking and me plunging to my death hundreds of meters below). K and I take turns slipping off of the wooden "saddle" onto Jan's neck.
A few observations about elephants: their skin is so dry and wrinkly that I want to apply about ten bottles of leather moisturizer to her (and that would have only taken care of the top of her head). And their hair is so prickly. And when they urinate, the water pressure is about ten times that of my Rapunzel shower at the castle (no wait, that is assuming that I have a water pressure of 1. I don't).
After saying goodbye to the elephants, we get on long bamboo rafts for a two -hour cruise. This is K's fantasy. She has been talking about these bamboo rafts for months. It's a very enjoyable cruise...for us. However, the first one-egg eater has fallen ill. She is the tiniest member of our group, Yasmine from the UK. She is sitting low on the raft for the last hour, and when we stop to eat pad thai at another village, she gets sick.
The second one-egg eater, her boyfriend, Ben, starts to feel sick on the last leg of our journey, the hour and a half river rafting part. Poor guy. When this leg ends, we have a two -hour ride back to Chiang Mai. I don't know how this couple made it. And, well, the ride, in back of the truck along a very bumpy road, is where I start to feel it. But I am able to control it by lots of self-talk until we get to the hotel.
Now the details of what happens next are quite ugly, but K and I, also one-egg eaters, both get violently sick back in our room. Perhaps we don't like Thailand, but I don't suppose they are very eager to invite us back, either. A few reasons: four masked men must clean up after me in the room, very humiliating. And two days later - we were sick for three days total - we are pretending to feel better and go out for a little stroll. I keep going, but K, who was hit much harder than I - says she needs to head back to the room. Here is the story I get when I return (shared with permission):
"I was feeling that watery feeling in my throat, you know, the kind where you know something is about to happen...and I was frantically looking for a bathroom when I saw a transvestite (in Thailand, they are called "Lady Boys") standing in a doorway to a home. I asked him if I could use his toilet. A child was playing on a blanket in the living room. I went into the toilet and vomited about five times. I sprayed the toilet down (SE Asia has sprays to clean yourself, hardly ever any toilet paper), walked out of the bathroom, past the child, and said, "I'm really sorry" and "thank you" and went on my merry way."
Funny, just days before vacation, a co-worker was out for a few days with food poisoning. I told him I wasn't sure if I had ever had it. "You know when you have it, trust me," he says. I can now confirm that. You know.
You don't need any more details about this horror, but on day three we finally decide to get on a bus to Pai, heading east toward Myanmar (we had intended to make it to Mae Hong Song and stop at Pai along the way), only because we had to get out of Chiang Mai. It was New Year's Day. That's right, we brought 2009 in in a way I had never dreamed of. We get on a local bus and learn quickly that the road to Pai involves 777 hairpin turns over a high mountain pass. We are sitting in the back of the bus, and have no choice but to witness people taking turns hanging out the open door right in front of us, and yes, that's right, they are vomiting. Which makes Thailand the country where I have experienced the most vomiting ever. But oh what a beautiful view over that mountain pass!
After a four hour bus ride, we come upon Pai to see tent after tent along the riverbank. It seems that all of Thailand is celebrating New Year's weekend at Pai. We had been told by a very drunk guy that Pai would be busy, but he was drunk and we didn't really listen. We get off the bus in a panic - K covers the right side of a hotel- lined road and I cover the left. We are turned down and laughed at - there is no room at the inn, anywhere. Finally, K hits a "jackpot." It is a step up from a tent, a bamboo structure built over a bed, with a broken ladder leading to a squat toilet with a beautiful view(pictured to the right, below: the toilet, above: the beautiful view over the concrete wall). That's the thing about Thailand.
We hate Pai so much that we get most of our Thailand enjoyment out of hating it. Like Chiang Mai, you can find wheat grass and a shot of bee pollen in your pancake at every corner (K is especially indignant about the bee pollen in the pancakes, for some reason). We are told wheat grass is good for stomach issues, and we aren't craving food, so we get some. It is not the miracle worker the guy claims, and it is so bad tasting. The Doors seem to be playing at every cafe, everyone is wearing baggy pants and dreadlocks... northern Thailand is a gorgeous hippieville.
We try to make the best of it. We decide to rent motorbikes the next day, but guess what. The town is out of gas. We ride around for two hours-the traffic jammed streets are heavy with exhaust- and every gas station we find is closing right when we pull up to it, and I am not exaggerating. We finally return to the rental place for the third time (they keep giving us maps to smaller gas stations) and when we say, "we would like our money back" - all of a sudden gas appears out of nowhere. But guess what, we are so tired we don't feel like riding anymore, and we turn the bikes in within an hour. The town also runs out of bananas. We were told to drink banana shakes to help with our food poisoning recovery. And at one restaurant, they ran out of cooks. "No food today. We have no cook."
Oh, and I tried not to look too closely at the hut where we stayed for $4 a night, but the morning we left, I used my flashlight to look under the bed and saw a bunch of rat droppings. When I was making the bed, I found two rat droppings in the bed. I wasn't going to tell K, but then I knew I would tell you, and I knew she would read this, so I told her. I think it was mean of me to tell her. But it's hard to keep something like that to yourself, don't you agree? (Kathy Clift, I warned you not to read the last rat story and you didn't listen. So I didn't warn you this time. I suppose you won't be able to finish your work day today, either.)
3) Mike's Cheeseburger with Fries Smothered in Cheese Sauce, Sour Cream and Bacon
When we finally get our appetites back, we are back in Chiang Mai. It is the night before we catch our flight back to HCMC. We are at a night market, a really cool one, and there is Thai food everywhere. Our choice, anything we want. The only thing I want is a cheeseburger. So at this market, surrounded by the food of my (former, dead) dreams, I eat a cheeseburger and fries smothered in cheese sauce and bacon, served by a very husky-voiced, wonderful Thai woman who is obsessed with Shania Twain at a place called "Mike's." Hamburger, fries and country music in Thailand= my best meal.
You may claim that it isn't fair of me to judge Thailand so harshly after experiencing three days of food poisoning there, during a busy new year celebration. But we didn't like it pre-food poisoning, either. It's a well-oiled tourist machine, using K's well-chosen words, and it lacks the graciousness and humility of Vietnam. They have been there, done that. It's all beautiful, but it feels false. Besides, I can get great Thai food in HCMC, or in Seattle, if I am ever to want it again. I think I am more sad about the egg, though, because I have lost all feeling for it, and I have had a good relationship with eggs my whole life. Oh, and by the way, the guy who ate two hard-boiled eggs...well, he didn't get sick. Please ponder that riddle.
SO, all of you THAILAND lovers...speak up and defend the country that you love. Even travelers we ran into said the southern beaches were unenjoyable and crowded. SO WHAT IS SO GREAT ABOUT IT? I really want to know, even though nothing can make me change my mind about ever returning there!