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Sex in the Sub-City

Thai Diary: The Final Chapter
Old Ruins, Opium and Elephants

Day 35
The ride back to Thailand was surprisingly quick and effortless. Getting through customs was no problem at all, and we arrived in Bangkok even earlier than expected, a miracle. Then we were on a train to Sukkothai, one of Thailand's earliest capitals, complete with ancient ruins and Buddha statues. Unfortunately, the 10:00 train was booked, so we had to take the 8:00, which meant arriving in Philantoslok, the town next to Sukkothai, at 3 in the morning. We found ourselves in a strange, industrial town in the middle of the night, gawked at by cab drivers and random locals lazing about the station.

We braced ourselves for a long wait, but before we knew it a Sukkothai-bound bus arrived and we jumped on it. When we arrived at our hotel it was only 4:30 A.M., and the place didn't open until six, so we settled outside of the gated entranceway. We laid down on our packs and stretched out on the ground, tired, dazed, but thrilled to be in the north of Thailand, in this odd little town.

An hour later a large, spotted dog ran out to greet us. Ming, we later learned he was called, was the resident watchdog, although he was too friendly to be much of a threat. He was followed by the hotel owner, who allowed us to store our bags and shower. Our room wouldn't be ready for a few hours, so we decided that we should go out and see the town. After breakfast, we took a bus to New Sukkothai, then rented some bicycles and toured the old town, which was essentially a park, complete with lotus ponds, grassy vistas and ruins. The ruins were primarily of wats and chedis, large, bell-like structures supposed to resemble lotuses that hadn't yet bloomed. There were also a number of gigantic Buddha statues, posed in one of the three traditional styles: sitting, standing and walking. The park was filled with stray dogs, rundown and shabby, which G. felt sorry for, so she purchased some cold cuts and fed them, the saint.

Later that night we cruised New Sukkothai, eating delicious, cheap food at the night market, and then returned to our peaceful hotel to get some much-needed rest. I was woken up very early by the roosters and the chanting monks, who had coincidentally arrived that morning to bless the town. Even though their emissions were somewhat pleasant, I found it impossible to go back to sleep. Fucking monks.

Day 37
Today we decided to be lazy and rented a motorbike, where we saw all the temples that dotted the outskirts of the park. These were more interesting than the others, for they were not as well-maintained, and the weeds and trees everywhere, as well as the cows, gave them a more legitimate atmosphere. Afterward we went back to the nightmarket, had another delicious and cheap dinner, and then topped off the evening with a movie. This movie, however, being in a poor and provincial town, was not in English. It wasn't even an English movie dubbed in Thai, but a Thai movie in, naturally, Thai. The film was hard to describe, but it was roughly a fantasy action-adventure that dealt with evil warriors, wizards, monsters and the like. It was horrible to say the least, and probably would have been even worse had we been able to understand a word anyone said. However, the special effects straight out of the 50's, the stilted acting, the horrible sets, the lack of storyline gave it a touching Ed Wood feel, and we enjoyed it immensely.

Day 38
Took a bus to Chiang Mai, the capital of the north. Everything I was told about this place was spot-on, for I was told that 1) it was beautiful and lively and 2) that it was overrun with tourists and had lost some of its charm. Once we arrived we immediately went exploring, and soon ended up at their night market, which was simply a long and busy street that was wall-to-wall shops and tourists. Everything under the sun was for sale, and every middle-aged westerner under the sun seemed to be in attendance, browsing the merchandise. To make it worse, the main drag housed not only a McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut but a fucking Starbucks. After debating smearing their window with egg noodles we escaped to our hotel.

Day 39
Today we explored the old city, also on foot, visiting a number of beautiful wats, including one in the far-west suburbs that had underground tunnels and a lake filled with fish and turtles. One of these turtles I noticed did not want to be there, and was desperately trying to climb out, but the bank was too high. Then we saw a young girl arrive with her own turtle, which she placed in the water. This turtle too, almost immediately, began trying to get out of the water. G. asked the girl why she did this, and she said because the pond was in a monastery, and so the turtles wouldn't be hurt. She bought it specifically to do this, she added, which reminded me of another Thai custom, where people bought caged birds and set them free. I didn't really see the merit in this, for the seller obviously had to catch them in the first place, and would surely try and catch those that had just been set free. It was merely something that provided a quick jolt of good-will, as well as a feeling that one was a devout Buddhist, even though it was merely an empty action. Nevertheless, we watched the struggling turtles for a while, before leaving the place and walking back home, a walk that seemed even longer this time around.

Day 40
G. took a Thai cooking class, during which, at the proper intervals, I stopped by to sample her wares. Everything I tried - pad Thai, spring rolls, sticky rice and mango - was excellent. Now that my girlfriend could cook Thai, I think I'll keep her around for a while. During the class I rented a motorbike, so when it was over we went to Doi Suthep, one of Chiang Mai's nicest wats, located on a mountain above the city. The ride there was straight up, and at the top we discovered a fantastic view of Chiang Mai, along with some fine murals and Buddha statues, as well as the wat itself, which shone gold in the sunlight.

After coming back into town we went to a shopping mall, as G. wanted to buy a backpack. Even though she was leaving in a week, and could have used one BEFORE she arrived, not now, I didn't argue and went along for the ride. Strangely enough she didn't find one, but I ended up buying a new pair of Converse All-Stars for a little over ten bucks. Later we hit an orchid/butterfly farm, which was lovely, then visited a snake farm. One of the caretakers took us around to the different cages, telling us what they housed and what they'd to do us if they weren't - suffocate us, bite us, spit venom on us, etc. Then he went into a cobra cage and began teasing the things, until they all at once sported hoods and began hissing in anger. Somehow he managed to grab hold of one and danced it around, having the time of his life, while G. and I looked on fearfully. Next was a python, only this one happened to be tame, so we both took turns with it draped over us, the enormous thing lazily wrapping itself around us.

The last demonstration was with something called a coconut snake, a long, yellow, foul-tempered thing that did not want to be handled. To make matters worse, the guy decided to include us in his demonstration, and, once securing it just below the head so it couldn't bite, proceeded to wrap it around us and then shove its face into ours, where we had no choice but to look at it eye-to-eye. The snake tried fiercely to break free, and nearly managed to put its mouth around my nose before I got the overly-eager guy off of me. After that we both were a little creeped-out so we left. We topped off the night in true Chiang Mai style, by shopping. It would have taken a week to visit all the shops, but we wanted to do it in one night, so we saw as much as we could. And we did indeed see a lot, and G. even found a backpack, a large North Face for less than twenty bucks.

Day 42
Left for Pai, a tiny, hip, eclectic town four hours north of Chiang Mai. We had come to do what everyone does here - go trekking - but also simply to hang out and chill, which Pai is ideal for. While there is no beach, and nothing close to the options available in a large city, Pai is like a little paradise, a Thai version of Northern Exposure, filled with old hippies, hilltribe people, Muslims, Thais and backpackers. But trekking was our first priority, so after arriving we booked a tour for the next day, which would include elephant riding and rafting.

That night during dinner we ran into a friend of ours, Mitch, a long-haired, fortyish man from San Francisco, gay as Christmas, funny and full of character. After dinner we went to a bar G. had read about that had various "medicinal" whisky shots for 8 baht a pop. I tried the ones for overall health, blood circulation and the nervous system, but felt nothing but mildly buzzed. There was even one that supposedly helped with erections, but neither Mitch nor I wanted to try it, so G. did. For the rest of the evening we kept checking her progress, but didn't notice any difference in that area of her anatomy.

Then we went to Be Bop, one of the more popular local bars. The three of us proceeded to drink a bottle of whisky in fifteen minutes, and then went to the Golden Triangle, a bamboo duplex that even had a waterpipe you could try, which we did. We settled in a little room upstairs, and after going through another bottle of whiskey, Mitch was wrecked, slurring his words and burning everyone with his cigarettes, and I wasn't much better. I couldn't even sit up and simply laid down, and knew that if I stayed much longer I wouldn't be able to get up. So with some difficulty I stood and signaled that it was time to leave. On our way out the owner chased us because we hadn't paid for the waterpipe, but I told her that our gay friend with the long hair who was still inside was going to cover it. This would be news to Mitch, but it would actually make us even price-wise, so I didn't feel that bad about it.

Day 43
The morning was not kind. We arrived at the trek headquarters a half-hour late, tired and hung-over. We were then driven to the elephant camp, where we were introduced to our elephant, Budma. She was a sweet old girl, forty-five according to her handler, a little worn-out with a hole on the side of her trunk. She and her friend, also female - apparently the males were too hard to handle - were saddled up and ready to go by the time we arrived. This was actually kind of a surprise to me, for we had picked this camp specifically because you got to ride the animals bareback, as well as to swim with them in the river. I could have done without the first leg of the journey altogether, which was simply riding through the hills on Budma. It was G. and I on a saddle, with the handler straddling her neck.

Every few minutes Budma would stop, to either pee or defecate - which was a shitload, a crapload, a huge amount of waste material - or to grab a bush or branch with her trunk and tear the thing to shreds. Sometimes she did this to munch on the leaves, but usually just because she could. Sometimes she stopped for no apparent reason. Perhaps it was out of fatigue, or boredom, or to remind us who was in charge. The ride took about an hour, and its pointlessness was only surpassed by my sore ass at the end. Back at camp her saddle was removed, and what followed was a much more enjoyable experience. Riding Budma bareback, G. and I really got a feel for what it was like to be close to her, as well as to know intimately her physiology. Her back was almost hump-like, her rock-hard spine stretching from just past her neck to what I imagine was her tail bone. This was also difficult, but much more fun.

When we arrived at the river, Budma was at first hesitant to go in. But after some prodding from her handler, she stepped into the water, and finally she sat, her back now almost vertical. And if it was hard now to hang on, what she did moments later made it almost impossible: she lay down on her side. Somehow, amazingly, this huge animal decided to roll over like an overgrown dog, burying not only her entire body but her face, her long truck, her massive ears under the water. I gave up trying to stay on and simply let myself slide into the river. As I did so Budma watched me with her one great visible eye, and I could tell she was pleased. G., who had been sitting on her neck and therefore had a much better grip, held on tight while she continued to lie in the water.

Moments later she arose, and I attempted to get back on, but then she chose to lay down on the opposite side. Again I was lightly tossed off, and again Budma seemed pleased. It would take me several tries to get back on, and even when I did I barely sustained my hold. The girl was restless, and got up and went back down again many times before it was time to go. The amount of effort required to hold on was more than I had bargained for, and when we got back to camp I was exhausted. Just in time to go rafting, although I hardly needed any energy to do so. It turned out that we were merely riders, and G. and I sat down on the large bamboo raft and allowed ourselves to be steered through the shallow Pai River.

After the rafting it was time to go on an actual trek. Our guide was Yai, a tiny, sweet Thai girl but kind of dull, and after she answered all my questions about the hill tribe people and what we were going to do and see we didn't have much else to talk about. The hike took us through some amazing scenery, hills, forests and jungle, but was mainly concentrated in a series of back-to-back farms, most of which were growing garlic of all things. As we walked, the setting sun on our backs, the smell of garlic in the air, everything was grand. For a little while anyway. While I had meant to buy a pair of hiking boots for the trek, I opted instead for sneakers (the Converse), perhaps the flimsiest of all the sneaker brands. And the main problem was not even how thin they were, but that I had somehow purchased a pair that were too small for me. By the time we arrived at the village, I had blisters all over my toes and could barely walk.

And what of the village? Did we get to meet strange, bizarre people who worshipped rocks and trees? Unusual, isolated folks dressed in strange costumes, performing odd, ancient rituals? Hell no! We met a family who looked like any other Thai family, with kids who looked like normal Thai kids. They had a washer, a TV and even a Thai-style American Standard toilet. They were sweet and kind, at least from the minimal amount of exchanges we shared. But nothing at all out of the ordinary. Apparently all the money they had made from similar visiting tourists had managed to give them a lifestyle that practically mimicked their city-dwelling compatriots. Our stay there was fun, but rather pointless.

The saving grace was their pets, as they had two adorable puppies and like ten cats, a few of whom were mere babies. I made friends with them all, but after taking a careful look at them and seeing the fleas jumping everywhere, I soon found the strength to part from them. That night sleeping was difficult because of the cold, because I had fallen and had some nasty bruises down my left side, but mainly because the hilltribe people watched a blaring TV set long into the night. I managed a few hours, during which I'd wake up constantly from pain and cold, before I was finally awoken and told we had to go.

Day 44
After a quick breakfast and some goodbyes we were off. We walked all day, once again mainly through farmland. I was wearing my sandals so blisters weren't a problem, although the exposure of my feet lent them to a number of scrapes with sticks, plants and roots. Add to this the wet path we had to take and I was not a happy camper. I fell numerous times, lost my sunglasses, and then had a stick scrape the entire length of my foot, leaving a nice, nasty scar. I was ready to give up long before we reached my saving grace, a waterfall. While it was rather small, and the water was frigid cold, to wash off the dust and dirt of the past two days, not to mention the blood and cuts, was invigorating. I emerged as if a totally different person. After the waterfall we reached the next village, this time a Lisu one. Here we were pleased to encounter hilltribe people who actually looked like hilltribe people. Their clothing was colorful and rich, and their faces exotic, more Chinese than Thai. Unfortunately, our ride back was already there, so our meeting was reduced to some awkward photographs and some pity purchases of their handicrafts. I emerged with a wallet, and G. bought a number of small, colorful things.

Day 45
Today we rented a motorbike and road out to another waterfall, which was beautiful but too cold to warrant going in. Instead, we simply watched all the little kids (Lahu or Lisu) jump around in the water, splashing themselves and playing without a care in the world. On our way to the waterfall we had purchased some opium from a tribal woman, and now we were dying to try it out. Without a bong or a pipe we were simply going to have to roll a joint. So we did, mixing the opium with tobacco, which resulted in a lumpy, sticky joint that burned quickly but was difficult to inhale. After the first joint I felt a little something, but it didn't last. After the second I felt even less. Now we were left with simply the dregs: resiny opium and two opium-stained roaches. These I placed in a hollowed-out cigarette and attempted to smoke it. Again, the results were minimal. Opium, it seems, needs to burn for a long time, and only a pipe or huka is capable of this. Keep this in mind, kids.

Day 46
G. was leaving today, and I sadly watched her board the bus back to Chiang Mai, then Bangkok, then home. I spent the day doing nothing but swimming in the swimming pool - a virtual oasis just outside the main town, a large, clean, beautiful pool - as well as eating cheap, tasty food. The following day I rented a bicycle and decided to go to the hotsprings. But they were much farther than I had thought, and all the reports about them not being so great made we turn around. So instead I visited the elephant camp again, to say hello to Budma. After a brief visit I went back to the swimming pool, where I ran into a strange couple I saw everywhere: a thin, emaciated, woman and a pudgy, dopey-looking dude. She stopped me as I came out the water and said I was very sexy and asked if I was married. I said no and smiled and she practically tried to grab me but her companion restrained her. Weird.

Later I ate at a backpackery bungalow on the water, and watched the 25th Hour by Spike Lee, which was very odd, especially considering that everyone in the film was white. It was a decent film, but I wasn't prepared for the Ground Zero footage, which made me irrevocably sad. I even started tearing up at one point, and some Israelis asked me what was wrong. When I told them I was from New York, they immediately understood. "Don't worry," said one of them. "They're going to pay for what they did." I nodded and watched the rest of the film.

Day 48
Took a two-hour bike ride through some beautiful terrain. Later got a lovely Thai massage, then had dinner at a funky placed called Forestry 33 with some people I'd met at the swimming pool. During dinner a fat little dog named Pad Thai sat at my feet, begging for scraps. The thing looked like he'd eaten more than his share of noodles, but he was cute so I fed him. After dinner we went to a guesthouse by the river and sat around a fire, which was surrounded by travelers, passing around joints and booze. Heaven.

Day 49
Woke up, quickly packed up my things and checked out of my guesthouse. Then rode the bus back to Bangkok, where I had some twelve hours to kill before my flight. I will miss it here, especially Pai, which is like no place I'd ever been. A definite future destination, one of those places I will always remember fondly, and will always want to return to, such as Prague, Corfu, San Francisco, etc. I'm glad that my last stop in Thailand could be at such a place. It made a nice ending to a fantastic journey. Don't know what the future holds, but I know I am much better off for doing this. If my work, my regular life could even be a little bit like this, I will be a happy sumbitch. End.

--Russ Josephs

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[email protected] | April 2003 | Issue 37
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