Turning up in the Bangkok airport just after midnight isn’t ideal. Trying to get my bearings as we make our way to the exit to hail a cab soon becomes a devastating sight. As we round the corner, a large lobby area comes into view with a huge crowd of people gathered on the other end—what we soon find is an atrocious line for a taxi. So, we wait an hour until, alas, it’s our turn to jump in a pink little ripper that zooms us through the streets to our hotel. As we settle into our newest temporary home, I realize that we’re halfway through our trip and extremely lucky to have stayed with friends until now. (If you’re wondering about the price of not having friends abroad, though, it’s quite cheap. Luke and I were able to get this place for about $20/night.) My reflections of gratefulness soon dissolve into the haziness of being deliriously tired and dehydrated. I muster the energy to guzzle some water, then collapse on the bed.
Morning light reveals our surroundings that were a mystery when we got in last night. We’re starting our day by setting out to find train tickets up to Chiang Mai. One of the goals of this trip is to see the Loy Krathong Festival (the one with all the lanterns) and although the details are quite unclear, I’ve heard the place to be is in the north. The Bangkok train station looks like a movie set. An open platform in the middle leads the eye to trains on either side. The trains are old and purple and look perfect for a rough travel through the beautiful Thai countryside. Unfortunately for us, the tickets are sold out for at least two weeks. We cut our losses and decide that we’ll just have to fly.
We use the rest of the day to explore the city using the rather pleasant Skytrain to meander around with no clear destination. Hopping off here or there and walking around aimlessly is my favorite way to take in a city. I love to see the differences in the most basic buildings like apartments. Strolling down a little road, I stop at a French Quarter-looking spot with apartments on either side of the road. Each unit has a balcony and is painted with bright colors. It’s these sorts of spots that really make me remember how far I am from home.
After a short dip in the hotel pool, Luke and I set off to find some good eats. Still not finding a good place for Pad Thai, (although Luke is quite persistent) we decide to eat at a Korean BBQ place called “Best Beef.” This place is almost too trendy—I think it would fit well in Nashville. Then again, it seems to fit well here! A huge awning spans over 100 tables, each packed with burning coals and little trays of meat. I don’t care if it’s not technically Thai food, it smells delicious.
For the past few months I’ve been communicating with a guy named Jovo, who lives in Bangkok, via Stocksy. Well, come to find out, I’ve also been communicating with his girlfriend, Ivana. Luke and I are lucky enough to have time to meet up with them and they welcome us into their place for coffee and even tell us they will show us around town.
A short walk takes us to the loading dock for a Krong, which is basically a boat taxi that runs up and down the Chao Phraya River. Its a great, cheap way to see the city and parts that aren’t quite noticeable from the main roads. Moving from the river to dry land, we stop at a temple and then find our way to another. The temples are amazing showcases of architecture and creativity. My attention seems to fade after a while, and it’s quite hot, so we decide to cool down with a beer. Typically on the trip so far, the beer is served warm with a glass of ice. In America I wouldn’t dare, but when in Asia, drink as the Asians do! So we pour the beer on the ice to let it cool down, sit back and listen to each other tell stories while a fan oscillates above us.
As evening comes Jovo and Ivana take us to Soi 38 (or street #38) which is rather famous in Bangkok for street food. One of the Pad Thai vendors here placed second in a big competition and his food does not disappoint! The dish is a bit different than a version that I’ve had in the states but in most ways seems like the clean pure form with bright flavors. Our dessert is my first real helping of sticky rice and mango which is what really wins me over.
Our new friends lead the way to a small club, sort of a hookah lounge type of place, where we sit on the floor and jam out to booming Thai remixes. It’s a bit too loud to have any real conversations but that’s fine. For now, I’ll sit back and enjoy this tall Leo (a popular Thai beer) and pretend like I’m a local.
The time in Bangkok is short-lived before I find myself sitting in a empty boarding area with pink chairs and plain, white walls. We’re heading up to Chiang Mai for the last chunk of the trip with hopeful expectations. Most people we’ve talked to have described it as more scenic and small so I’m looking forward to a more relaxed, slower-paced area.
Although it’s only been a few days since my scooter crash, I heard about the ‘Road to Pai’ and instantly the intrigue of getting a pair of scooters and ripping out there was rattling through my head. It’s a long drive, about 130km (80 miles) one way from Chiang Mai but the irresistible part is the 762 curves that lie between the two towns. At first, both Luke and I are hesitant - it’s a long road and I’m doubting my current riding skills.
Starting off I’m a little shaky—the thought of crashing again causes me to be extremely cautious and hesitant when going around curves. The road winds back and forth again and again. I’m also thrown off by the fact that in Thailand driving is done on the ‘opposite’ side of the road than in America. With a tight grip on my handle bars, I uneasily push the wheels into each turn passing through thick forest and cliffs overlooking hundreds of miles of land.
A little strung out, we finally arrive in Pai, Thailand after about four hours of twists. Given the time it will take to get back to Chiang Mai, we only have time to eat a burger and hop back on the road. Returning the way we have just come, I ultimately fall in a groove and the comfort of riding a scooter comes back. On and off the gas, leaning in and out of each curve, the rhythm of the road set a beat and the two of us follow.
The adventure continues as we meet with Jovo and Ivana again. They, too, came up to Chiang Mai for the Loi Krathong Festival but were lucky enough to get the train experience that Luke and I missed out on. Along with a few friends, they invited us to stay with them at a small farm house outside of the city. Although its overcast and rainy, the temperatures are warm. Staying dry under the leaf covered overhang adjacent from the kitchen, we continue to learn about each other’s lives as we devour the local food dishes made by our hosts. Jovo and Ivana are originally from Serbia, some of the differences in our lives are quite stark and yet here we are — enjoying a drink on the same deck! Factual stories of life eventually turn to scary ghost stories as the sky fills with the stars. This amazing chance of meeting is what I enjoy most about traveling. I find that the more time I spend with new people and travel with close friends, the more I learn about myself and become inspired by their stories—both the struggles and successes.
The friendship and conversation spill into the following day as we head back in town for the Loi Krathong Festival. Approaching the city, hundreds of lanterns can be seen taking flight far off in the distance. When we arrived, the streets are full of people and we even catch a fantastic display of fireworks.
I’ve been excited for this festival the entire trip. I had seen so many iconic photos online before leaving and I was dying to see those moments for myself and take as many photos as possible. As we eat dinner surrounded by new friends, some who don’t even speak any English, I feel relaxed. The urge to go take pictures is overwhelmed by the feeling of staying in the small booth at the top of a make-shift restaurant. I am in the right element and the experience the last night of the trip was better than any lantern photo could have been. I’m learning to enjoy the moment I’m in, even if it may not seem like the one I imagined.