A Travellerspoint blog

December 2011

Chillin' in Chiang Mai

*Randomly ending up at the perfect guesthouse*

27 °C

After postponing my departure from Sydney multiple times, I am actually, finally, this-time-I-mean-it, going to Thailand. The day before I leave, Aron and Jo order me to find a place to stay on my first night; they fear they will be held accountable for my safety, and probably rightly so. I oblige by randomly picking one of Chiang Mai’s cheapest guest houses from hostels.com or some such.

The cab driver at Chiang Mai airport has never heard of Lita Guesthouse, but obligingly drives slowly down the specified soi (lane) looking for it. Somewhat to my relief, it does in fact exist. It is a wooden house on stilts with an open air sitting/eating area on the ground floor. As I walk up to the gate, Tam, the manager, calls out a hearty ‘sawatdee kaa!’ and asks if I need a bed. I don’t bother mentioning my online reservation – this doesn’t seem like that sort of establishment – and simply say yes. She shows me up to the main room, which has mattresses and belongings loosely arrayed on the floor, mosquito nets approximately over each bed. There are several guys lounging around and smoking to the right, and two people doing Thai massage off to the left. It is a pleasant sort of chaos. I drop my pack and sit down to hang out.


At 10pm it looks like the group is going out to a jazz club which supposedly has awesome Tuesday night jam sessions. I am really tired, acutely aware it is 2am in Sydney, and am inclined to pass, rationalizing that I’ll have other Tuesday nights in Chiang Mai. Then again. I know myself to have a bad habit of passing on things out of sheer laziness and apathy. Not my best quality, and one which in my better moments I try to counter. The jazz club is about a five minute ride on motorbikes. A guy named Matt who is here studying Thai massage has room for me on his bike, so on I hop and off we zoom into the busy night streets of Chiang Mai.

North Gate Jazz Club has a small stage area, a bar of course, some indoor and outdoor seating, and a little loft-type upstairs with a couple more tables and chairs. The crowd of mostly expats and some Thais is bulging out onto the street, and with good reason: The musicians are really talented. New groups keep taking the stage, and the audience is giving off the friendliest vibe I’ve ever experienced. People are not there to ‘see and be seen,’ they are just there because it’s a good place to be. I split my time between my new friends from the guesthouse and the small open area up front where there is aaalmost about enough room to dance. I finally crawl into bed around 12:30am (4:30am Sydney time, but who’s counting) and I pass out with a smile on my face, thinking, Welcome to Chiang Mai.

I wake up to dogs barking and motorbikes zooming by at unbelievable decibel levels. I have never stayed anywhere so loud. Nor so full of smoke for that matter. I am also getting what feels like an average of one mosquito bite every five minutes. The worst is in the bathroom, where they seem to lurk about waiting for vulnerable bared flesh. Then there is the cat who frequents the joint; he seems to know I am allergic, so I am his favorite person to brush up against and even take naps with (that blue in the upper left is my shirt, he curled up right by my stomach)…


But there is something special about this guesthouse. Namely, the people staying here and Tam herself, who is known to longer-term residents as “Mama Tam.” I already feel so at home that am not shy to kick up into a handstand when I feel like it or change clothes in the corner of the room when no one is looking. Feels kind of like a college dorm to me. Plus it’s about $3/night. I’m not going anywhere else. As if to seal the deal, Mama Tam has taken my Five Finger shoes hostage.


My first full day in Chiang Mai, Matt introduces me to one of the many nearby places with great Thai food, then we get 2-hour Thai massages at a place where everyone doing the massages is blind. It is amazing how, since they cannot see, they really feel everything. Also, this being a proper Thai massage, they include the stomach. I must say, having fists and elbows manipulating my viscera is not exactly comfortable and relaxing, but it feels good afterwards.

The rhythm of life here is über laidback. In the afternoon and evening there is general sitting around, smoking and listening to music. We have one guy from New York with probably one of the most diverse music collections in the world, another guy from Switzerland who plays guitar, and sometimes Matt joins in on the harmonica.


We also have a really nice guy from Israel who Tam calls “Mister Shalom,” and it cracks me up every time. My own name when she pronounces it winds sounding like Charlotte. Which in turn sounds quite the Thai word for MSG, “choo-rot.” But I digress. Back to our daily ‘schedule’: Around 10 or 11pm, folks often go out dancing at a place nearby known simply as The Reggae Bar. This is usually followed by further sitting around, smoking and listening to music until perhaps 3 or 4am, though I tend to pass out earlier - with the indispensable aid of earplugs and an eye mask. Mornings are quiet (aside from motorbikes roaring by) as most people sleep until early afternoon. No one seems preoccupied with ‘doing’ much; plans just kind of nebulously form and shift in an organic flow.

One afternoon, the group decides to go a nearby lake. This sounds great to me; I’ve been interested to see it. After about a twenty minute ride on motorbikes, we arrive to a row of bamboo huts where you can sit in the shade and eat while dangling your feet in the water. The lake is a tranquil contrast to Chiang Mai’s urban bustle, and feels much needed. Tam orders food for all of us in Thai, and I wait to see what will emerge. Presently, the waiter strides over vigorously shaking a small bowl with a lid and plunks it down on the little table in our bamboo hut. Pai, Tam’s seventeen year old daughter, removes the lid to reveal “dancing shrimp” – lots of live little critters squirming frantically in what has to be a stinging mixture of lime and chili. Some manage to jump out of the bowl; perhaps they know what’s next for them. Pai grabs one by the tentacles and pops it into her mouth – crunch! – and urges us all to do likewise. It doesn’t really appeal to me, yet in some odd way it kind of does… I go for it. Utterly weird, but not half bad. Specifically, and sorry to be graphic here, I can feel my teeth puncture and penetrate the exoskeleton, crushing the shrimp and causing the animal to kind of, well, squirt out. I eat a few more just because it feels so interesting. This is followed by more ‘normal’ food, a steamed fish in aromatic broth and a fried fish crisped to perfection. Everyone is dunking sticky rice into the broth with their fingers and eating from the serving dishes with their own utensils when they actually bother with utensils. This feel right at home.

I don’t know how large the lake is… several hundred meters across? Well, whatever, it is good and big. After we digest, a couple of us go for a long but leisurely swim all the way out and back. This would be pleasure enough for me, loving swimming as I do, but the setting is above and beyond. In the middle there is a 'sacred tree' rising improbably out of the water, and on the other side a gold Buddha statue winking out from among trees. The backdrop is lush green mountains, a slowly sinking sun, and rays of light shimmering down through large, graceful clouds. It is take-your-breath-away beautiful. (This photo is not mine as I didn’t have a camera with me – nor did I mind, because nothing could really capture the moment – but just to give an idea.)


Dramatic lake scenery aside, life around Lita Guesthouse is the sum of many little things. There is a core cast of characters who are in Chiang Mai for several months, and others who come and go. Everyone is really cool, probably due to a self-selection effect; some people walk into the haphazard living area and leave just as quickly, while others like the vibe and stay. Some days, Tam, who used to have a restaurant, decides to cook. She randomly calls up from the cooking area through the not-at-all soundproof floorboards, “Gin kow!” Which literally translates to “eat rice,” but just means ‘come eat.’ Then we all amble downstairs for amazing Thai food. Other days, the guy from NYC with the incredible music collection will find various art supplies at the Chinese market (where you can get just about anything for near about nothing) and involve everyone in making little clay sculptures or drawing on the walls with chalk. It’s really cool; I never would have taken the initiative to get the clay or chalk, but I start sculpting or drawing, eventually stop thinking, and am surprised when I like what comes out.


It’s quite lovely, how everyone comes together to cover an entire room in chalk drawings… Is this starting to sound like a hippie commune, complete with community art flow sessions? What can I say. It works.

But let’s shake things up a little. Shattering this tranquil existence, one of the more fraught moments is when our sometimes-resident cat gets hold of a mouse and is doing what cats do with mice: Playing with it while slowly killing it. He is alternately shaking it in his mouth, careful that the teeth do not go deep enough to kill it too soon, then setting it down and batting it around with his paws, eliciting sharp squeaks. While everyone stands around in consternation over whether to save the mouse, I go for my camera, feeling slightly wrong but finding it oddly riveting.


The game/murder continues, everyone wincing each time the poor mouse squeaks. Now, I am not the biggest fan of the cat, whose favorite activity after catching mice must be to make me sneeze, but in this case I am his biggest defender: This is nature. Lions dismember graceful gazelles, leopard seals devour lovable penguins, and cats torture and kill cute little mice. No need to interfere, I say. In the end, though, the consensus goes the other way, and Pai lifts the flailing would-be hunter while someone else scoops up his terrified prey and sets it free. Afterwards, the cat runs back to the corner looking for his prized catch, and not finding it, prowls around meowing furiously. If he were a lion it would be a full-blown roar. I shrug and return to my laptop, where I was tapping away at some travel blog on which I seem to be permanently running a few weeks behind.

Posted by sbw2109 06:43 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Around Sydney

*A gleeful visit with my fabulous cousins*

sunny 15 °C

On my last night in Tonga, everyone staying at my guesthouse went to a traditional Tongan feast. It was put on for tourists, of course, but was good fun and darn good food. There was also traditional Tongan dancing. The women’s’ arms, covered in oil, glistened as they waved like sea anemones. The men were strong, exciting dancers, very well put together I might add, and at the end they did a fire dance, whirling sticks with flames on both ends. From two rows back I could feel the heat. This was all in a cave on the beach, large enough to fit an audience of maybe 50. A nice finale to Tonga.

We got back to the guesthouse at 11pm. I slept a couple hours, then left for the airport at 2am to take a 5am flight. Checking in, I managed – yet again – to forget my pocket knife in my carry-on. Hey, I was tired. I went through the metal detector to see if they would notice it, figuring it was worth a try… they noticed. Happily, they did not kick me off the flight, and an agent was even kind enough to retrieve my pack so I could put the knife where it belonged.

Some hours later I arrived in Sydney, properly bleary-eyed from my night flight, to the home of my cousins Aron and Jo, who have decided to make their home in the land of kangaroos and didgeridoos. They put me up on their living sofa for what turned out to be over two weeks, showing me such a good time that I wound up extending my stay twice. Accordingly, this entry will be dedicated to Sydney highlights…

Welcome to Sydney
When I arrived on Saturday afternoon, the three of us went for brunch and started catching up on, well, life. It felt great to be with family, and their apartment felt like a home – something I have not had in a while. In the evening Aron whipped up a delicious dinner of grilled chicken and vegetables which, along with a clean and inviting bathroom and the immediate offer to run a load of laundry, made me feel properly pampered. On Sunday, Joanna and I went for a meandering coastline hike along Sydney Harbor and rewarded ourselves with a ‘boozy brunch’ overlooking the picturesque Manly Beach. Quite the introduction to Sydney!

I ventured back to Manly Beach on my own a few days later; Jo had several surfing lessons she hadn’t had time to use, so I showed up to Manly Surf School pretending my name was Joanna. The lesson began on the sand: Here’s how you paddle out on the surf board, here’s how you get up to catch a wave, here’s how you pick off jellyfish tentacles if they get on you… Yeah, I was wondering about that. I’d noticed them as we walked along the beach, hundreds of Bluebottle/Portuguese Man o’ War washed up on the sand, their iridescent blue bubble bodies with a long sapphire tentacle. The instructor clarified that the current was carrying them our way today, but the stings only hurt badly for about half an hour, plus we had wetsuits so the only open areas were hands and feet. Satisfied with this proposition, I presently found myself splashing around in the waves and doing a passable job for a first-timer. The jellyfish found me, of course, mostly around the ankles. Happily, but dancers are long trained to ignore pain in their feet, so I did just that and had a great time. And I have to say: I totally get the surfing thing now. There wasn’t room in my head for anything other than navigating the waves and trying to jump up at the right time (I most often did not). It was exhausting and happy-making.

Sydney Aquarium
Speaking of marine life. Again benefiting from Joanna’s demanding work schedule, I set out one sunny afternoon with an expired coupon for the Sydney Aquarium that Jo hadn’t had time to use. The woman at the ticket counter didn’t check the date, just waved me on ahead to where people were scanning their tickets and entering through a turnstile. I suspected that where the agent had not posed a problem, the bar code reader might. Watching the group in front of me enter, I noticed that the turnstile was generous enough to allow an extra person to slip in. I debated my options: Take a chance on the bar code, or just slip in? I opted for the latter. Once through, just out of curiosity and since no one was really watching, I reached back to let the machine read my ticket: “Code not recognized.” Satisfied at having made the right decision, I proceeded into the aquarium to enjoy my prize. The very first exhibit held…
A platypus! The coolest animal ever! I couldn’t have been more pleased.

I also enjoyed the penguins (such personable-seeming animals), eels (fascinatingly ugly) , dugongs (which I had never heard of before but they are basically the southern hemisphere version of manatees), sea turtles (but of course), humongous lobsters (which made me hungry), cuttlefish (which were quite cute but also made me hungry) sharks (just so cool), and jellyfish (much better behind glass than swimming with me).

Just hanging out

During the week, Aron and Jo were generally busy. Other ways I amused myself included struggling through several dance classes at Sydney Dance Company, a world-famous contemporary company offering open classes. I was actually not as bad as I’d expected after two months off, but the walk back home afterwards sure felt a lot longer. Aron and Jo also happen to live in close proximity to Kings Cross, which doubles as the backpacker area and the legal red light district, making it a fun place to wander around. So I hung out there a bit, though sadly did nothing more racy than get ice cream. The main other way I occupied myself (note the word choice, ‘occupied’ versus ‘amused’) was to spend hours on end on my laptop working on grad school applications. Not the most glamorous of activities, but what’reyougonnado.

Far and away the best part of Sydney was being with my cousins. On my second Saturday in town, we began our evening with drinks at the Sydney Opera House. Prior to seeing it in person, I found the very idea of it, annoying. I tend to assume that anything that famous is bound to be over-hyped. Not so. It is a truly impressive structure, and has a great bar right on the harbor. We felt good and swank sipping wine there as the sun set, sporting our yoga pants and five finger shoes.

Then we went for dinner at Golden Century, a Chinatown restaurant that is popular with the executive crowd. Like the aquarium, Golden Century has some impressive fish tanks, only not quite for the same purpose. When you order a fish, let’s say a barramundi, they scoop it out of the tank, weigh it, and bring it to you flapping in a plastic bag for your inspection, just in case you don’t like the price or the look of the fish. Assuming it is all acceptable, next time you see the barramundi it is on a platter, aromatic steam rising from the surrounding vegetables and broth. Did I mention that Aron and Jo made me feel pampered?!

To cap off our Saturday night, party animals that we are, we… went home and watched Glee. Before arriving in Sydney I had never seen the show and had barely heard of it. But it is a major activity in my cousins’ household, so there was no avoiding it. At first I thought it was unbelievably corny and would just keep one eye on the show while reading or doing email. Then it grew on me. I realized the kids sing about real issues (friendships, relationships, identity, confidence, etc.), the characters are actually fun to follow, and the music is catchy. I secretly began to look forward to the next episode. I was genuinely worried when I learned that the last disc of the season might not arrive in the mail before I left for Thailand. Happilyeverafter, it did.

On Sunday we all took a tour of the Sydney Opera House. It was interesting to hear the history of the building from the design competition through the off-schedule, over-budget construction, including drama with the architect. At the end of the tour, we got tickets for a Pinter play called “No Man’s Land,” for which Aron and I ventured back the following week. The actors were great, and on the walk home we managed to have what I thought was a rather sophisticated discussion considering the oeuvre was largely over my head. After the opera house tour, Jo took me to High Tea with a girlfriend. Aron decided to pass, I don’t know why, not like it’s girly or anything. No matter. Hooray for multi-tiered profferings of desserts.

Other highlights: Aron taught me how to use the grill – it’s fun and yummy! I took advantage of his excellent coaching to make Thai lettuce wraps later in the week:

Aron also resuscitated my computer after it caught a virus. With grad school applications in progress, it was not the most opportune time for my computer to quit. Then again, it could hardly have been any more opportune: Aron used to do virus removal tech support at Harvard. Suffice it to say, I owe him one. Meanwhile, as November rolled on, I realized that if I didn’t watch it, I’d get so comfortable in Sydney I’d never leave. Of course every time Aron talked with family back home, he was admonished to keep me out of Thailand’s floods - as if it were his job, poor guy. I finally kicked myself out of Australia on the 15th. Joanna had offered me to be her Executive Sherpa, but I felt I should first improve my qualifications for the position by learning some Thai massage…

Posted by sbw2109 02:47 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

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