18.3.19, 1am. Day 1: The departure.
A new kind of adventure starts. I’m on the plane, ready to take off from the slushy Helsinki airport for 7 weeks of solo travel in Southeast Asia. I’ve traveled quite a lot and backpacked in Southeast Asia before as well, but this trip is different from anything I’ve ever done before in the way that I am leaving completely by myself for such a long time, and I don’t even have the whole route figured out. Before leaving, people told me I was brave to do it, but I didn’t understand that. Why? Everybody does it, right? Well, I might be in a bubble of adventurous people, because now that I think of it, I see where those comments come from. I just don’t see these things as problematic, but rather like challenges.
My plane landed in Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport an hour behind schedule. My plan was to take a night bus the same evening in direction of Chiang Rai, so I was wondering if this delay would make me miss my bus. Fortunately, I was past immigration in under 15 minutes, had my backpack almost immediately after, ordered a Grab (Southeast Asian equivalent to Uber), and the ride took only an hour during rush hour. I was already mind-blown by the ease with which everything happens in Thailand the first time I came here a year ago, and I am exactly as surprised now. Everything from moving around to getting all sorts of things sorted is so simple and easy.
Day 2: Chiang Rai.
I woke up from a good five hours of sleep at seven in the morning, as most passengers got off the bus. In my sleep coma, I was wondering if that meant we had reached Chiang Rai and I should rush out as well, but as a few people stayed on the bus and I trusted the bus hostess to give me a sign when I need to get off, I decided it was probably not my stop yet. Good I stayed, because I don’t know where I would have ended up otherwise.
The bus I took was a Siam First Tour bus departing from their office in Bangkok and terminating in Chiang Rai bus terminal 2. The service was amazing (nothing to do with our long-distance busses in Europe) with free snacks and tea, seats that lowered almost to a bed-like position, a pillow and a blanket, and toilets in the bus. We also stopped once in a place where you could buy some extra snacks. The ride took around 12 hours, most of which you can sleep as it is by night, and cost only 20 euros. From this first bus experience, I could definitely recommend swapping domestic flights in Thailand for night busses whenever possible.
As I arrived in Chiang Rai, I took a tuktuk to my hostel, where I could shower and leave my backpack while I got out to wait to be able to check in in the afternoon. I didn’t have any plan, but I decided to start waling in the direction of the river. Almost the first thing I came across was a beautiful little part with tons of different flowers and even a sort of tunnel made of plants, called Nakhon Chiang Rai Tung and Paper Lantern Park on the map. Some of the flowers had already seen their best days but it was nevertheless a gorgeous place. I can only imagine what it looks like when all the flowers are blooming at their fullest.
After that I wandered further in the direction of the river, across living areas made up mostly of small, low buildings. There were plenty of small stores and restaurants, some of which were almost not visible as they were built in the similar type of small houses. I ended up in another park, Ko Loi park, right next to the river. It had a really cute small garden with elephant statues around a small pond in the middle. On my way back, I walked past a temple, Wat Si Bun Rueang, but couldn’t enter because of my clothing. Shortly after that I found myself next to the Hilltribe museum and decided to go take a look. The entrance cost 50 Baht (a bit over a euro) so I went in. It was a great way to learn more about the different tribes living in Thailand without transgressing their privacy by taking questionably ethical tours. There was also quite a big part on the history of opium, as it is linked to the tribes in the area.
In the evening, I walked around the area next to my hostel, and found myself at a cat cafe called Cat ´N´ a Cup, to do some cat therapy. After that, I wandered around until the night bazaar opened, then had dinner there. Later, I joined some people from the hostel for an event taking place in Chiang Rai and other places in Thailand a few times a year, where at midnight monks walk on the streets to collect alms such as money, food, drink and toilet paper, as they are not allowed to work. It was quite unique to get the chance to see such an event.
Walking around the city, I realised that Chiang Rai is quite a small place and the center can be seen really quickly. Still, many of the sights are outside of the center, so you will need to take a bus, a tuktuk or a motorbike.
Day 3: The White Temple and the first challenge.
I found myself faced to my first challenge on that first night at the hostel in Chiang Rai. As I tried to fall asleep, I found a tiny things crawling in my sheets. Shit. Bedbugs. I had actually already seen some insect in the bed during the day, but had decided to ignore it and think it’s just any insect. Big mistake. If you ever see anything red, about half a centimetre long, crawling in your bed, tell it right away to the receptionist and ask to change beds. You’ll avoid a big problem.
Bedbugs are not dangerous, but the thought of something crawling around your stuff in general is not very pleasant, and they do bite. And if you have them in your clothes and things, you will leave them also everywhere you go and spread the problem to others. So you’ll want to get rid of them asap.
Bedbugs can be eliminated the easiest by washing your clothes in very hot water. Unfortunately, in Thailand washing mashines don’t usually wash at over 30C, so that was not going to be possible. As I went to the pharmacy to ask for some product, the pharmacist simply looked at me in horror and said “no, no, no”. Well what now? At that point, the problem started to really annoy me. It took my whole day to deal with it, I had to find out the solution completely by myself, and I didn’t see many options. This is the first negative thing that I experience and a reality of traveling alone: if something goes wrong, you need to figure out how to fix it all by yourself, and that takes time and energy.
I washed nevertheless all the clothes that I had used so far, which I had thankfully kept separately from the rest, and changed hostels. Then I went to the balcony of the hostel and shook every piece of clothing and every bad that I had individually and thoroughly, hoping the beasts would fall out.
Later that night, I still found one bug crawling on my bag, but there was not much I could do at that point. So I decided to hope that it was the only one left, and keep observing if I see new ones or get any more bites. After all, although inconvenient, they are not dangerous, and I didn’t want to spend any more time than I already had on this issue.
Fortunately, I had decided to visit Wat Rong Khun, also called the White Temple, that morning, so my whole day hadn’t revolved around bedbugs. I took a bus early in the monring at Chiang Rai bus station 1 fro 20 Baht, which took me to the temple. The locals were so nice and helped me get there, and the bus driver even gave me a map of Chiang Rai as I got off. Although already at around 8.30 in the morning there were quite a few other people, it wasn’t overly crowded yet. I would still recommend that if you plant to visit Wat Rong Khun, you take a bus that will get you there by 8am.
I was surprised that the temple was located in the middle of everything else, shops, restaurants, houses, and almost on the main road. I had imagined it would be more isolated. But somehow this made the temple area feel like an oasis of calm in the middle of the life around. The temple itself was quite majestic and definitely worth the visit. You should read a bit on it before going there though, because there are quite a few elements that are not typical to temples, symbolising mostly early temptations. Shortly, as you walk towards the temple, you are surrounded by all sorts of temptations and vice trying to keep you from the beauty of a life in the presence of god. I found it really interesting that the temple was, in a way, telling a whole story.
Next to the temple, there is a free exhibition of other works of the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who is at the origin of the temple as well.
As I left the temple and walked on the main street to find the bus stop, a minivan stopped next to me and a monk in it made me a sign to get in at the back with a few school kids and other people. I’ve always heard you shouldn’t get it the car with strangers, but I guess I’ve never learnt the lesson, because I hopped in. I had no idea where they would take me, but I figured it was at least the right direction. It turned out to be a sort of mini bus service right to the bus station where I needed to go, which was perfect. Being spontaneous and trusting people a little can pay off, as long as you still use common sense and evaluate the situation quickly before acting.
If you go to Chiang Rai, this is definitely one must-do, but you should try to go as early in the morning as possible to avoid big crowds.
In the evening I returned to the night market for dinner, and spontaneously ordered a hotpot, which many locals seemed to be having. I knew that a hotpot is made to be shared, and I had no idea how to eat a Thai hotpot. I don’t know what I was thinking, but that’s what I did anyway, so I had to spy on the table next to me to figure out how to proceed when they bring you a boiling pot of broth (which was definitely not veggie broth, but I didn’t think of that beforehand either), a basket with raw vegetables, egg and noodles, and a small bowl. Apparently, you put the ingredients inside the pot, let them cook for a few minutes, then eat the hotpot from your small, individual cup little by little. Now I know.
Day 4: Chiang Mai.
The next day, I took a bus to Chiang Mai. There are many of them throughout the day, and the trip takes only three and a half hour, most of which I slept. This was a calmer day, and arriving to the hostel in the afternoon, I chatted with a man who had been in town for a while already, and he gave me some tips for good vegan food. I decided to go try the ice cream bar he recommended, White Elephant. Oh. My. It was the best ice cream I have ever had. The ice cream is coconut based, but it is nothing like the coconut ice creams I had tried before. Both the texture and the taste were out of this world, and I can only recommend this place if in Chiang Mai. After this heavenly culinary experience, I walked around “the square” of Chiang Mai for a bit. Chiang Mai is built in a quite strange way, as the old town is located in a square formed by canals surrounding in, but the city extends way outside of this area as well.
Day 5: Stereotypes and interesting encounters.
Have you ever heard of people going on yoga retreats to Chiang Mai? I feel like that’s the biggest stereotype I have of Chiang Mai. So obviously, I had to take a yoga class as well. I went to Freedom yoga, a 15 minutes walk from my hostel located inside the square, and the class was really good. I hadn’t done yoga for probably over a year, so I had to take it a bit easier, but it was definitely good.
After yoga, I went to a vegetarian Thai cooking class organised by the same company. The class was otherwise maybe not exactly as interesting as I had expected for the price, but it was super nice to see how to prepare some basic Thai recipes like green curry, spring rolls pad thai, kaho soi, and my favorite, mango sticky rice. Plus, I met some really interesting people with whom I ended up having some quite deep conversations on spirituality, relationships and life in general. It is so nice to meet open-minded people with different perspectives on things. I definitely realised I have different views on quite a lot of things, but exchanging with them made me question myself and my opinions and beliefs, something that is definitely needed from time to time.
After the class, one of the people asked if another person and I would like to join her for “some art thing”. As I don’t say no except if I have a good reason to, I joined her in what turned out to be an art therapy session. As it was about releasing stress, it was actually very interesting and helpful, with a lot of exchange with other participants and a safe space to share.
In these past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about how everything happens for a reason, and something good and unexpected always come if you just keep your mind open for it, without expecting anything specific. Already in such a short time, I have made so many interesting encounters, had great experiences and learnt a lot about myself and traveling alone. I’m curious to see what happens next.