“GOOD MORNING, LADYBOY!”
Besides the clunk-a-clunk of the train and the throbbing in my temples, this greeting is the first thing I hear as I squint against the early morning light. That, and a snicker.
Day two of my 10-day loop ’round Northern Thailand and I’ve already learned a couple hard truths on my overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai: 1) Thai people are not nearly as reserved as they purport to be, and 2) Mekong rice whiskey makes the magic happen. A 90 baht a bottle (less than $3 USD) kind of magic. A sweet ’n’ burning kick-start that leaves me wondering, did the off-duty cooks, waitresses and ticket attendants really coax out a sad drag queen last night? Did a friendly sharing of drinks and snacks, and sporty, innocent flirtations in broken English (“You take my picture; 50 baht!” the waitresses banter) really devolve into a disco runway down the aisle? Once it was revealed my fellow travelers and I were all gay, did an unprovoked tickle attack really lead to a headband, earrings, a shirt tied into a bikini with rice bowls for boobs?
Author Justin Ocean (center) flanked by tour guide Tong and his friendly train-staffer/teaser.
The cabin attendant’s wink as he stows my bunk says yes. The window’s bright red reflection of smudged lipstick agrees. A waitress wryly cackling, “Laaaay-deee boiii-eee” as she walks by with breakfast seals it. It’s day two, I’m a tranny train wreck, and not one person seems to care. I’m officially in love with gay group traveling through Thailand.
WAT IS THIS?
Not your typical gay travel tour, according to studly young co-founder/owner Robert Sharp of new Toronto-based outfit Out Adventures. It’s 5pm on a steamy Sunday in Bangkok two days prior, and he’s giving my fellow travelers and me the low-down on our forthcoming tour, as well as the group rules and philosophy of the company. Where we’re going—north to Chiang Mai, then south to a H’Mong Hilltribe Lodge, through historic Sukhothai to the Kanchanaburi River Kwai area, and back to Bangkok—punctuated by elephant rides, street food, dance shows, and market shopping, is exciting, but more so is how we’ll be traveling: equal parts comfort and cultural authenticity, eschewing chain hotels for local Thai-owned businesses, avoiding the usual luxe tourbus-and -taxi bubble that often makes group tour into a bland field trip. Group size is limited to 12 (there’s only seven on this trip) and the goal is as much local interaction as possible—which isn’t code for sex. Sexual tourism, though prevalent and very much in your face at times, couldn’t be farther from the Out Adventures mission. They espouse a code of respect: respect of local traditions and taboos, and hopefully a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas rather than dollars for some tourist trap grub and snapshots for your Facebook page. (Not that we won’t have lots of the latter as well.) And in Thailand, since gay is pretty much okay, outside of Bangkok much of what we see is not gay specific or ghettoized, but rather a “best of” tour done with a queer perspective.
Robert Sharp leads the Out Adventures crew as they bicycle through the Thai countryside.
In other words, what’s about to happen on the train is precisely the kind of out adventure they’re promising, and one that would most likely never happen on a straight group tour. Thailand can certainly be done on your own, and group travel as a whole can be a tenuous proposition, especially when you’ve got persnickety media mixed with civilians and an age range from 20-somethings to spry retirees, but for a country as frenetic (and, as of late, politically volatile, if you’re not gung-ho about flashpacking, a type-A planner, or have never been to this region of the world before, it’s certainly a cush way to go.
Especially with the expertise of a local guide like Ronnachai Naprom, a.k.a. Tong. (He tells us all Thai have nicknames.) A competitive Muay Thai kickboxer, former Adidas swimsuit model, self-proclaimed “jungle boy” and all around sweetheart, always ready with an extra-wide smile, chortling hyena laugh and snappy jibe in equal measures, he’s a boundless ball of energy. And yes, he’s gay. (Who do you think instigated my makeover?) Much more than getting us from point A to point B, he’s also the heart of the trip, making sure we don’t run Western roughshod all over the place, remove our shoes during visits to wats (Buddhist temples), as well as clue us into the history and subtext of what we’re seeing. Thanks to him, northern Thailand’s rich tapestry came alive in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, some highlights of which follow below.
Chugging into the Chiang Mai railway station, the first thing you notice is the air. Unlike the wet sweatbox of Bangkok, it’s dry and crisp, though of a sort that threatens a sweltering afternoon. And it reeks of campfire. Northern Thailand has three seasons—rainy (May–November), winter (November–February), and summer (March–May)—and summer heat has come early this year, prompting the farmers to start burning the scrubs and forest of their plots, permeating a woodsy haze throughout the region. The Out Adventures trips are scheduled to avoid this, I’m told, but like all travel in Asia, it’s always more about preparing for the best, and then enjoying the inevitable entropy—because you will be thrown off track.
For instance, our train is a few hours late arriving. Why? Unclear, but for some reason the front half of it disengaged in Bangkok and took off without us, providing both a cool photo op of the barren tracks, and more time to make a dent in our mountain of convenience store snacks (my faves: dried squid sticks, tempura seaweed crisps, chicken-flavored roast peanuts and pandan leaf cakes). Tong has a succinct explanation that sums up a lot of traveling in Asia: “The train is late, because it’s late.” So wise. So true. So The Matrix. And for wound-up New Yorkers that haven’t quite absorbed the tropical vibe, so frustrating. Yet, it’s all part of the adventure, and having traveled extensively throughout the region solo, when things go awry, group travel is a definite plus. You’ve got a leader to connect the dots and a crew to laugh it over with.
Chiang Mai town (pop. 170,000), the 702-year-old capital of a Chiang Mai province (Thailand is arranged in a collection of 76 city-centered provinces), is a warren of snaky back lanes and busy scooter-clogged main streets, colonial-style apartment blocks and crumbling old houses. There’s no arguing that it hasn’t become a somewhat tacky Tourist-ville both backpackery and luxury, a prime jumping off for adventure treks to jungle hilltribes. But wander outside the ancient walls and moat of the city center near our hotel, the Raming Lodge is (but not too far that you hit the Thai equivalent of suburban sprawl), and there’s peace to be had. The pace is laconic and languid compared to Bangkok. And equally as gay-friendly, despite having a Pride celebration cancelled a week prior to our arrival due to protests. Tong explains it more as a product of “thug-like” action from the “red shirt” supporters of the recently ousted government, than any real intolerance on the part of the general population; more a protest point, than genuine issue. Thailand still remains, political turmoil aside, one of the most gay-welcoming destinations in the world. In Chiang Mai alone, a leathery expat friend of a fellow Out Adventurer claims there are 60-plus gay bars, most small and catering to a local crowd of gays and their puan sao (“gal pals”), Mandalay being the most tourist-local mix; the purely tourist-driven ones clustered near the night market unfortunately cater to hookers. Catering to all are the Muay Thai kickboxing bouts scheduled throughout the week at rotating venues (just look for posters tacked around town for the next one), where you can cap off your fight club with a ladyboy cabaret.
After checking in and scoping out the pool and breakfast spread in the atrium garden, it’s off to the Chiang Mai Thai Cooking School to get a taste (quite literally) of what goes into traditional cuisine. En route, our spunky hostess/driver/teacher, a 20-something local girl (although you can never be sure; Thai people have the enviable trait of appearing younger than their years) dolled-up in outfit combining traditional dress, combat-like boots, a sassy graphic-art top and neon pink sunglasses, swings by a local outdoor market to introduce us to the unique meats, fruits and vegetables we’ll find portioned out on our prep tables, like tart mini eggplants, chiles of varying spiciness, pungent kaffir lime leaves, ginger-like galangal, and fresh ant eggs, a seasonal delicacy.
The Out Adventure crew gets their Top Chef on at the Chiang Mai Thai Cooking School.
Nick Grand and Out Adventure’s Robert Sharp show off some of their work from cooking school.
Under guidance from TV chef/owner Sompon Nabnian, who formed the school in 1993, woks flame and mortar and pestles thunk over the course of an afternoon as we create (and eat and eat!) seven classic dishes including Phad Thai (the ubiquitous fried rice noodles with peanuts—and 14 other ingredients including a fermented fish sauce, chili, dried shrimps and tamarind paste), Tom Yam Goong hot ‘n’ sour prawn soup, fragrant with lemongrass, coconut-milk rich Green Chicken Curry, shredded green papaya Som Tam salad (with dried shrimp bits, more fish sauce, garlic, palm sugar and more chiles to test my tastebuds) and a rice and tapioca flour coconut banana cake steamed in banana leaf boats. It’s an empowering introduction to the “Five Tastes” of Thai cuisine and grounds our meal choices for the rest of the trip. It also makes me fat and sleepy, both fueling me up the 306 steps to Doi Suthep, a symbol of Chiang Mai and stunning hilltop wat with a magnificent golden stupa, free-ranging elephant and killer view of the valley, and keeping me in a spiritual-like food coma during the monk’s prayer chanting demonstration at sunset. Just call me Smiling Buddha.
The stunning Wat Phrathat at Doi Suthep.
The famous stairs at Doi Suthep.
Other Area Highlights
Wat Chedi Luang — Smack in the middle of the old town, this large complex sports an impressive central temple complete with Naga balustrades, crumbling elephant statues, and giant saffron-wrapped Buddha, plus a slightly creepy shrine containing bones in crystal canisters and a wax figurine of a famous monk. Find out what’s up with that (and anything else you want to know about Buddhism or life in a wat) with a free “Monk Chat.” Look for the yellow robes and eager smiles.
Khum Khantoke — At this sprawling, elegant complex dedicated to traditional Lanna arts and culture, herds of tour buses disgorge travelers hungry for an all-you-can-eat Northern-style communal meal (crispy pork rinds, ginger and tamarind curry) and a music/dance show, including the iconic long-finger-nailed ramwong and costume-drama khon. Love the high camp or hate the tourist-factor, if Thailand had a Luau, it’d be something like this.
Chiang Mai Women’s Prison — More akin to a real Hilton, than the Bangkok Hilton, the last place most travelers want to end up in Thailand is jail. But for 180 baht an hour, inmates trained in traditional Thai massage ease your aches while you contribute to skill training and a fund they’ll have access to on release. [Note. Their website is only in Thai.]
The huts at the Hmong Hilltribe Lodge. Each hut has four rooms and a shared lounge with an area for a bonfire.
Poolside at the Hmong Hilltribe Lodge.
Hmong Hilltribe Lodge — Fantastic deluxe rustic accommodations in the mountains an hour south of Chiang Mai, relax by your indoor fireplace, in the infinity pool, or during nightly BBQ and cultural showcases after spending the day trekking to nearby Hmong villages to learn about the ethnic minority’s unique way of life.
If our four-hour journey south from the wooded hills of Chiang Mai to the lush rice paddies and storybook karst outcroppings of Sukhothai is classic Southeast Asia—hot-‘n’-itchy-eye smoky (thanks, farmers), bumpy on the straight-aways, slow on the hills, lacking on air-con and fueled by blaring Thai pop and bizarrely subtitled James Bond DVDs—then our experience in Sukhothai is every bit pimp.
First, our hotel: the five-star Sukothai Heritage Resort exudes an airy royal elegance, while remaining tastefully restrained in service , all chilled citrus-scented face towels upon arrival, orchids and koi ponds, brick and terracotta, dark wood furnishings, silk pillows and hand-hammered brass fixtures. After a day of sticking to the seat and communing with dusty Dumbos at the Friend’s of the Asian Elephant Hospital and Thai Elephant Conservation Center, famous for its dung paper factory and pachederms who paint, a few sunset laps in the pool and chill time in the feather bed is comfort defined.
One of two pools, in one of two wings at the Sukhothai Heritage Resort.
Second, our next ride: a new over-sized touring van, all white leather, faux wood, swiveling club chairs, mood lighting and communal card table. The following morning as we pass fields of tobacco, drying like smoked fish in stilted huts by the roadside, our wheels leave us in a festive as we enter the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Sukhothai Historical Park. It feels almost limo-like. (Ancient temple ruin, will you be my date to prom?)
As well as being the most luxe part of the whole trip, it’s also the most active. Much like the Tomb Raider-famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Sukhothai is a collection of monastic compounds spread over 45 square kilometers, although on a much smaller scale, making a bicycle, rather than a tuk-tuk, the best and most fun way to see the highlights. (NB: start out early in the morning. Unlike Angkor, there’s little in way of jungle coverage to shield you from oppressive midday sun. The locals having a croquet tournament on the temple lawns make it look easy, but trust.)
Founded in the mid 13th century, Sukhothai (meaning “dawn of happiness”) saw nine kings and 200 years of prosperity during its service as capital of Thailand. King Ramkamhaeng the Great created the Thai alphabet still in use today. Everyone built temples. “In the field, have rice. In the water, have fish,” says one loosely translated inscription. As such, there’s much to see. One must, is Wat Mahathat (“Temple of the Great Relic”). In its hey-day the mud and rice husk bricks would have been covered in stucco, and the colonnades covered with a wooden roof (you can still see the notches for beams.) But today, it’s impressive for its collection of half-crumbled columns, their animal dung mortar cracking, and some 198 chedis (a.k.a. stupas), bell- or square-shaped domes depending on the era of influence (the former Sri Lankan, the latter Khmer), with a Buddha image or ashes buried underneath. Particular just to Sukhothai is a curving lotus bud shape for the main chedi. Other highlights include Wat Si Sawai, an intricately carved three tower Angkor-era Hindu temple appropriated by Buddhism and includes evidence of linga (sacred penis) statues, since stolen by tomb raiders.
A view of Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai, from across the water.
The undisputed jewel in this archeological crown is Wat Si Chum, famous for its “talking” Buddha statue called Phra Achana (roughly meaning “no flight” or “no fear”), peeking seductively over its 32-meter wide, 15-meter tall mondap temple enclosure. The legend spawns from when a king hid behind the statue and gave a speech to his troops, telling them they’d win a war, making it seem like divine prognostication from the Buddha himself. (It worked.) Not a trick, the peaceful awe that the Buddha inspires when you come face to face, or more accurately face to giant fingernail, with the icon, bits of gold leaf, blown free after being stuck on as a blessing, twinkling through the air. For a moment, magic does exist.
Wat Si Chum’s famous “talking” Buddha.
Other Area Highlights
Naá Kanarat Nettip — Local guide, guesthouse owner and cooking-school maven, Naá will set you up right with bike rentals and a homemade picnic lunch just like you wish your mom could make. For the bold, she’ll even bring bugs! (Warning: the grasshopper and bamboo worm go down crunchy, vaguely meaty easy, but the silkworm’s creamy center is a one-way ticket to Gag City. Beer, please!)
Ancient history no doubt had its brutal moments, but at least we don’t have photographs. That’s my deep thought of the day as my stomach churns while scuttling through the JEATH War Museum [PIC]. Built in the style of a P.O.W. bamboo bunkhouse, and housing photographs of emaciated Allied prisoners, rusty weapons, brutal signage and other remnants of WWII atrocities during the Japanese occupation of Thailand, the museum is an eerie, sobering reminder of the region’s more recent history and a tribute to all who died in the war. (JEATH stands for the five main nationalities involved in construction of the notorious Thai-Burma Death Railway: Japanese, English, Australian/American, Thai, Holland) The entire day’s tour has been eye-opening. The headstones at the immaculate Kanchanaburi War Cemetary revealed sobering truths both individually (personalized quotations from loved ones, ages, engravings representing religion or lack of) and in aggregate (there’s a lot of British and Dutch buried there). Our morning trip through the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, a gleaming white modern complex maintained by the Office of Australian War Graves, detailed the history of the Japanese encroachment into Southeast Asia and their monomaniac desire for a rail link connecting Burma and India to the Singapore. The free audio tour is a must-listen, recollections from former P.O.W.s personalizing the misery and human fortitude that went into clearing the 17-meter deep and 110-meter long Konyu Cutting, excavated through solid limestone and quartz rock, in only 12 weeks with nothing but pickaxes, a little dynamite, whatever could be fashioned from the surrounding bamboo forests, but mostly back-breaking, sick-making labor. (Jungle ulcers and starvation ain’t cute.)
Afterwards, the gorgeous views from the vintage train ride along the tracksending back in town at the famous Bridge Over the River Kwae [pronounced “Ka-way” not “Ka-why,” the latter being slang for penis], are tempered by the new knowledge that that cost an estimated 12,800 POWs and almost 100,000 recruited Asian laborers called Romusha (basically slave labor) lives. Even getting around town via old-fashioned ciclos (bicycle rickshaws) gave us pause. The hesitation: we’re responsible for the old men pedaling hard, straining in the harsh heat (our waitress at lunch joked that in Kanchanaburi the seasons are summer, sauna and hellish). The reality: without our patronage, they’d be out of a job, outdated by the rise of cheap motos and tuk-tuks—a sort of synecdoche for the striving of Third World Thailand to modern day affluence.
The famous Bridge over the River Kwae. Careful with that pronunciation!
All aside, even if the day might have been a brief downer, and some might have opted out of more historic sites, as we tucked into a delicious spread of grilled fish, fried banana flower, and curries at Apple’s Guest House, a sedately classy joint co-owned by Oprah and Gail pair Apple and Noi (wink wink), most agreed it was also an enriching tonic. It’d be easy to go through an entire vacation in Thailand just sleeping on beaches or trekking through jungles, trolling marketplaces, touring temples, getting daily massages and trying every new bit of amazingly tasty food—and believe me, we did—but that can be just a gloss. Sobering experiences, just as much as nameless food stalls, riverboat buses, and less-than-luxe digs (and lower-than-expected inhibitions) on a train, reveal a depth behind the Land of Smiles. And for this journalist, that’s what traveling is all about.
Other Area Highlights
30 Baht Bar — Over 12 varieties of local firewater. Plastic tables on the sidewalk. 30 baht. Hair on chest. Nuff said.
River Kwai Bridge Resort — The restaurant’s riverside view, lush landscaping and slick décor in the individual bungalows compete for title of Best Amenity at this relaxed boutique property.
Night Market — Next to the bus station, low-impact shopping and high-caloric grazing greet you and local families looking for a deal on everything from houseplants to baby clothes and cell phones. Look for the ladyboy shopkeepers for the best deals on designer knock-off sunglasses and other accessories.
SAWAT DEE KHA, THAILAND!
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