So this morning I woke up with great purpose and anticipation. School has begun again. All the kids are back and you will not meet a happier person than myself. There are moments where I am just sitting on the ground, surrounded by little bodies crowding close and showing their boo-boos, hugging, snuggling… and there is no one there that is more pleased about it than the tall American right in the middle.
However, this warm, fuzzy picture is only half of the coin. The other half I like to refer to as Life and Life just happens, ready or not.
I left for Maesai this afternoon after school. There is nothing warm and snuggly about sitting on cold, hard benches at a bus station waiting. And waiting…. and waiting? Isn’t there supposed to be a bus here? A lady explained to me that the next bus was at 5 pm.
It was 4 pm.
I thought to myself that I would write a blog post. I started to and it was very nice! All about how exciting travel was. How much I enjoyed all the possibilities that every leg of the journey brings. I jinxed myself. No doubt about it.
I should have turned around right then. I did not. I boarded that 5 o’clock bus and fell asleep. When I awoke, it was to the crush of an over-packed bus. I don’t know how they fit that many people on there. We endured the ride to Chiang Rai and I stumbled off, blearily blinking in the fluorescent lights of the Chiang Rai bus station.
I looked around and spotted the sign for Maesai. They were just taking it down. No more buses that night. Great.
I’m in this vast city, at night, with no idea what to do next… Hotel?
On the bus I had passed a brightly lit hostel called Connect that looked promising. It was just a couple of streets over. No problem… I got this.
I slung my backpack and my laptop case over my shoulder and started walking. The city was teeming with foreigners. Everywhere I turned I heard snatches of French, German, Arabic and the sweet nectar of my own English. That being said, I still felt oh-so-conspicuous. A girl, alone, marching down the street with determination that was poorly masking uncertainty.
One must do what one must do.
I walked down the street to the corner. Beside the intersection was a cafe. Now, this city has many cafes, but this one was called Cat ‘N’ A Cup. The wall was entirely of glass and inside, prowling around, were the most gorgeous cats. Exotic felines curled up on pillows and sitting on tables, staring down the customers who were sipping their coffees and making tentative offers of friendship towards them.
I was so struck by the number of cats that I missed my opportunity to cross the street. When I finally tore my eyes away from the spectacle, I waited a bit, then darted across and continued walking. Everywhere I looked were candles and lights, lining the streets and clustered next to shop doors. Something was up. A festival?
I realized I had been walking for a very long time. This hostel was further than I thought. Oh and it was. Much further. By the time I dragged myself across the front patio of this trendy, well-lit hotel, I was about to throw my bags into one of the ditches on the side of the street and live there.
I walked up to the front desk.
“Hello!” a man chirped, spinning in his office chair towards me.
I say chirped because he reminded me of a perky, squat robin. His glasses glinted so brightly I could not see his eyes.
“Hello,” I answered, “Do you have a room available?”
“Do you have a reservation?” He swung towards the computer.
His hands paused over the keyboard for a moment. “Oh,” he swung back and clicked his tongue, “I see.”
I was taken aback because I genuinely felt that I had disappointed him deeply.
“Do you have one available?” I asked again.
He pointed to the sign on the counter.
What in heavens name was a mixed dorm room 6? and why was a private room only one option and a female 4 room another? I was very confused.
“What?” I pointed to the sign.
“Would you like a female only room or a mixed room?” he asked, as if it was the simplest thing in the world.
I must be incredibly sheltered.
“I want my own room.”
Who wants to come to the end of a long day and spend the night listening to a bunch of strangers snore? Who would feel safe in whatever a ‘mixed room’ is?
His tongue clicked again and he carefully put his hands together, as if he was about to deliver very delicate news. “Our private rooms are fully booked, would you like to be in a female only room? Or would you prefer a mixed room?”
A member of hotel staff came up and stood behind me. It’s not realistic to think they would force me to stay in their ‘dorms’ but my mind doesn’t react realistically, it reacts dramatically.
“I’m going to check other hotels.” I backed away, feeling very odd about it all. I was beginning to realize that a hostel was much different from a hotel. I’d always wondered. You live and you learn.
I went to the next place and it was closed. I was beginning to relate to Mary and Joseph. No room… unless you are willing to sleep with complete strangers. I’d rather sleep on a bench at the bus station. Or find my own version of a stable with a manger of hay and some friendly animals… maybe that cat place? with all the pillows…
Thankfully, all was not as bleak as I had assumed. I found a room in a presentable hotel. I deposited my heavy bags in my room and sat on the bed. I was conflicted. I was so hungry… and this is Chiang Rai at night! Think of the street markets! Think of whatever this candle festival is!
However, I have this voice in my head, which I contribute completely to my Mother. It was telling me that my phone was at 13 percent battery and if anything happened to me, people were probably a day away from noticing I was even gone.
Then my stomach rumbled and someone set off firecrackers in the street below.
I emptied my backpack and threw in some essentials. Then I hit the street. The hotel was on a very quiet stretch of the street. About halfway back to the busy section, I was hit by the conviction that I was going to be attacked. No reason, no person was even close to me, but my imagination was whispering that if it was going to happen, which it surely was, this was a perfect place for it.
It was dark and the alleyways were even darker. I almost wished my backpack was heavier. I had just emptied my only weapon. I quickened my pace. As the streets became busier they became brighter. I started to relax and enjoy it again. Anne texted me and told me that the festival was Loi Krathong. This is the festival where they float the lanterns up into the sky and send basket lights down the rivers. What a perfect time to be in the city!
The night market was my destination. Apparently, this was the best time to hit the market. It was bustling. I walked through and secretly hoped I would see the shop I had come to on my first trip here, over a year ago. I had bought a bracelet that I loved and that I wear almost every day. In fact, I was currently wearing it.
As it happened, the shop was in exactly the same place. I went in, my eyes wide with anticipation, my hands clasped. I seized every color that caught my eye and presented them to the shop lady. She smiled at the load I bore, but her eyes fell on the bracelet I wore on my wrist.
Our eyes locked. Oh, oh I see, no lady, this is mine… how do you say, “I bought this here last year.” in Thai? For an uncomfortable moment we stood, judging the character of the other. I was wondering if she was the type to call me out on the supposed theft, she was wondering if I was a thief.
I decided to flaunt the bracelet. Surely a thief would have slipped it in their bag, not slipped it onto an obvious place like a wrist. Right? What kind of idiot would put it on and flash it in front of the proprietor’s face? So I started pointing at everything and gesturing madly at the earrings. I even went as far as to point to my bracelet and ask if she had the same color again?
She allowed me to leave the shop without accusing me, so I assume she either did not think I was a thief, or was loathe to call me out on it. So I joined the flow of the night bazaar again.
I cannot express the feeling of wandering alone through a crowd. I get the same feeling when I’m overlooking a vast and spectacular view. Lost. In a good way. Insignificant and free to soak up every last iota of the experience in my own way and in my own time.
I bought my chicken on a stick and my sticky-rice and watched the people pass me by. I was brought out of my comfortable people-watching by the realization that across the way I was also being watched.
He took a bite of his food and steadily held eye-contact. I dropped my own eyes and decided that I should just shove the rest of my food in my mouth and skedaddle. So I did.
As I continued through, under the hanging lights, I saw nothing that struck me. That is, until I locked eyes with a pencil drawing. I felt like I recognized her. She looked like the soul of every little girl I’ve met here. Small and self-sufficient.
She is, of course, unbelievably adorable. However, she makes me remember, just by looking at her, how it feels to have that distance in their eyes vanish and have little arms reach out for a hug. I’m big now, but for the first time I don’t miss being little. Because I can be the adult in someone’s life that they need. It’s exciting and scary all at the same time. So much pressure and so much opportunity!
I bought the print and a few other things at the shop. I bought strawberries, munched and meandered, listening to the languages flow past and catching the snatches of English.
“Silk? Oh Dan, I think this is real silk, isn’t it lovely?”
I missed his response but from the look on his face when I passed him, it was probably a “Harrumph!”
Dan doesn’t care, my dear, better just buy it and go to the food court where he can look at things he does care about.
I came to the end of the market and decided I was done. I also decided I wasn’t walking to my hotel. I crossed the street to where a line of Tuk-tuks waited. They are the motorized version of the old bicycle taxis.
This one I once saw in Phayao. I don’t believe it’s used anymore but let me assure you, the modern version is definitely uglier and always blue.
I pulled my room card out of my pocket and showed a driver the name of the hotel I was staying at.
They all looked at each other and jabbered a bit in Thai. They all but did rock, paper, scissors for the opportunity of ripping me off. The man who won in the conversation, turned to me and named the ridiculous price of 80 baht.
I knew he was taking advantage of me, but I also knew that I didn’t care. When I agreed promptly, the instant regret on his face made me laugh out loud. Should have asked for more.
He laughed as well, a bit nervously, and kept shooting glances at me like he didn’t understand why I was laughing. The joke was on me after all. I still laugh at the exchange. They weren’t even trying to hide how mercenary they were being. All the way to his tuk-tuk, he was calling out to the other drivers, who were lounging in their seats, pointing to me and I heard “paet-sib baht” again and again.
I rode all the way trying to understand just how much ‘paet-sib’ or 80 baht was and why it caused such a stir. It’s about $2.50 in USD. I know it’s more than I should have paid for a few blocks, but not that much more, right?
When we pulled up to the hotel, I offered him a 100-baht note.
“No change.” he smiled.
I went into my change purse and poured out all my coins and started counting very slowly. I had two 20-baht notes but now, since the poor man who probably had been collecting fares in small change all day, had no change for my 100 baht, I would have to count out 40 baht in 1 and 2 baht pieces so he had change for the next unlucky rider he would try to shiest.
When he saw me begin, I heard him sigh. I dropped some coins but continued counting and digging around in my change purse. There was the staccato beat of fingers drumming the handlebar of the motorbike.
I looked up.
“They change!” he pointed to the receptionist of the hotel.
I looked back down and kept counting. I had his eighty baht in exact change, but he would have to sit and wait.
He leapt out of the front seat and bounded up the steps. When he returned, he had a 20 baht note in his hand. Magic. You go in with no money and come out with 20 baht. I wish I’d known that’s how that worked.
We completed our transaction and I trudged up to my room. I was ready for bed.
I want to tell you the name of the hotel because I had inadvertently happened upon the softest bed I’d ever slept on in Thailand. Most hotels offer you deluxe mattresses that feel like you are sleeping on the floor. Not so with this mattress. It lovingly accepts you. It also smelled so fresh. Most rooms smell like damp and other people but it smelled like flowers. The sheets and blankets were pure white and fragrant, even if the other furnishings were sparse and dated. I don’t care about one other thing if the room is clean and the bed is comfortable.
It’s called The Space Hotel in Chiang Rai. As in, you get your own space, you don’t share it with six other ‘mixed’ people. Which is nice.
So yeah, Life happened. It’s the other side to my coin and I honestly would not have it any other way. I could sit and be safe all the rest of my life and just spend my coin, not experience it. But that’s like giving away the one thing that you will have to present to God at the end.
So thank you, Lord, for my coin, both sides.