Un court vol à bord d’un 747 pratiquement vide et je suis atterri à Ho Chi Minh Ville (Saigon de son ancien nom). Après près d’une heure d’attente pour récupérer mon visa à l’aéroport, j’embarquais dans un taxi qui m’a conduit à frais modique parmis les marées de motocyclettes à mon auberge dans le centre de la ville et où devait me rejoindre mon ami quelques heures plus tard dans la soirée. Là, en défaisant mon sac, il m’est apparut que le clingnement des pièces de monnaies étrangères que j’avais gardé de chaque pays précédemment visité ne se faisait plus entendre. Aussi manquant à l’appel, mon multi-outil suisse. On me les avait volé. J’ai déballé tout de même le contenu entier de mon sac sur mon lit, mais en vain, si le personnel des baggages les avaient déplacés, ils m’auraient laissés un message comme ils l’ont fait tant de fois avant. Merde. Je me suis donc affairé pour le reste de mon temps libre à envoyer un message à Lufthansa pour leur signaler le vol. Un peu plus tard, mon ami arriva finalement. Une accolade, quelques moment et nous sommes sortis prendre une bière, une seule par contre, car après plus de 24 heures de vol, il est naturel que l’on soit fatigué. Je l’ai donc laissé aller gagner son lit et ai passé le reste de ma soirée à visionner un documentaire sur la mécanique quantique jusqu’à ce que la fatigue me gagne moi aussi.
Tous deux debout de bonne heure le lendemain, nous sommes partis explorer la ville en suivant le circuit de marche suggéré par notre guide Lonely Planet. Hormis le flot incessant de scooters, Ho Chi Minh est surprenament agréable. Possédant de nombreux parcs (pour une ville d’un pays en voie de développement) et étant généralement propre, elle me parut étonnament charmante comparée à ses congénères du reste de l’Asie du Sud-Est. Notre marche s’est terminée par une visite pour le moins traumatisante au musée de la guerre, lequel montrait photo après photo les horreurs commises par les Américains lors du conflit au Vietnam avec une section tout particulièrement graphique sur l’Agent Orange, ce qui ne manqua pas de mettre les larmes aux yeux à certains. Une version certes biaisée des faits, mais l’histoire nous a enseigné que en ce qui concerne le Vietnam, les États-Unis n’ont pas grands argument de défense, c’était une erreur monumentale dont le peuple de chaque pays engagé paye encore aujourd’hui le prix. J’ai dédié le reste de l’après-midi au travail tandis qu’Yves-Étienne a fait une longue sieste. Le soir venu, nous nous sommes rendus sur l’équivalent Ho Chi Minhois du Khaosan road Bangkokois, une rue de bars, de restaurants et d’auberges pour touristes. J’avais lu dans le guide qu’il pouvait se vendre au Vietnam de la bière à aussi peu que 25 cents le verre. Après un dîner bien local, nous avons trouvé sur la rue un bar dont l’entièreté de la clientèle était assise sur du carton à même le trottoir. Pas trop confortable, mais à 8000 dongs (40 cents) la bière, on ne pouvait pas vraiment se plaindre.
Le lendemain, nous avons réservé un autobus pour Mui Ne, notre prochaine destination et sommes partis passer quelques heures à explorer un autre pan de la ville. Me disant qu’Yves-Étienne aimerait bien voir un temple bouddhiste, je lui ai proposé l’idée d’aller en visiter un. Une fois au dit temple, nous nous sommes butés à une porte barrée pour le dîner, tant pis. Les Vietnamiens ne semblent en général pas très pratiquants de religion organisée. Parout l’on retrouve de petits bibelots superstitieux, mais comparé aux autres culture Asiatiques, où l’on retrouve un temple littéralement à tous les coins de rue, les lieux de culte sont plutôt rares. Après le déjeuner donc, le reste de l’après-midi s’est passé à bord de l’autobus.
Aboard the bus, I had plenty of time to think about my next move. The more I read and heard about Bangkok, the least it became interesting so upon arriving there, I would have to find a nearby escape to spend a couple more days before my flight. Ayutthaya was the perfect candidate. One hour an half from the capital, small and full of ruins from one of Thailand’s first empires so I took a taxi to the other bus station and got there.
After a solid 3 hours nap in fan-cooled hostel room. I got downstairs to work for a while and heard some French spoken with that peculiar accent that we have back home. Having not talked to anyone of a familiar culture for a while, I cooked up a way to engage a conversation, rehearsed it a couple times in my head and started conversing with Jean-Michel, whose name I already knew because I had seen it in the guest book. However, I was pleased to learn that we had much in common than our home, including the fact that he was at the start of an Asian journey himself. Having each made other plans for the remainder of the afternoon, we parted ways but decided we should meet later on for drinks; great, I had found a friend for the night (somewhat important when you travel alone).
In spite of the almost unbearable afternoon heat, I set out to explore part of the ruin complex of Ayutthaya, a UNESCO world heritage site. Mostly buildings of religious functions it seemed but square kilometers’ worth of them. Yes, I had seen my share of temples before on this trip but at least, those were in ruins and of a different architectural style: Khmer. It was too late to visit anyone of them so I contented myself of a walk around and soon enough was back at my hostel for some more quality time online.
An hour or so later, Jean-Michel showed up, bought a beer and we started talking about the thinks travelers talk about: travels. At least though, he had some pretty unusual experiences to recount, for instance his recent visit to Iran. Interested in the perspective of touring this unlikely destination, I picked hist brain about it while he picked mine about North-Korea and China. Then out of nowhere, another westerner pulled-up to our table from the street and very politely told us that for the last three days he had been alone and wondered if he could sit down and join our conversation. Of course we both replied. Instantly, he let out in impressive French: “Nous pouvons parler Français si vous voulez”. It’s not everyday that between different nationalities you can afford to speak your own tongue. Normally, everyone defaults to English because its the only second language they know or out of courtesy for those that don’t speak anything else. Manuel however, was from Spain but at the moment living in Ireland and spoke near-perfect French and even better Italian it seemed. Later-on, I would learn that his parents were diplomats and that on top he himself nurtured a passion for linguistics but still, according to my book, the more languages you speak, the less likely you are of being an idiot and Manuel more than confirmed that rule.
Anyway, with Manuel now integrated in our little francophone circle, we carried on to a small street food stand for dinner and then went to a nearby bar. There, a lone French forcibly imposed his presence on us and normally, it’s not that we would have cared, on the contrary, we would have done him the same favor we did Manuel some hours ago. Problem was, he had such a shitty attitude and showed complete and unabated cynicism towards every possible subject of conversation we brought up. Jean-Michel quickly got fed up and left and soon after Manuel and I followed suit but not without him and I setting a meeting time the next day for some more exploration of the ruins. As for Jean-Michel, he had to leave early in the morning.
The next day, with the temperature even hotter than the day before, Manuel and I rented bicycles and proceeded to tour some temples and ruins for the afternoon. Through that 20 kilometer circuit we did all around Ayutthaya, we stopped at numerous ruins. At some of them for a bit longer than I would have preferred, but Manuel is a photographer. Not the kind of would-be photographer that lugs around a large reflex everywhere to capture even the most insignificant moments of his vacations, no Manuel appeared thoughtful in the shots that he took. There is not secret with photography, it’s one good picture for a thousand bad ones, so Manuel was still pressing shutter button way more than I did, but at least, there was method in the way he did things and I enjoyed observing the objects or vistas that piqued his interest, scraping bits of information about the art of photography in the process. A skill I have a dire need to improve myself on, the disastrous images I put on this blog are testament to that. I never showed him my pictures, but he certainly showed me his and he had credentials to prove that while still an amateur, his aspirations were justified. Every now and then, he holds exhibitions in Dublin where he sells some prints and frankly, some of his images are definitely worth the euros that he charges for them. For those interested in checking out his work, he has a regularly updated blog with many of his pictures on it and also a Flickr account where most of his work ends up.
That afternoon, we both must have drank three liter of water and as Manuel pointed out, not once did we go to the bathroom. The day ended with a long ride to the Portuguese settlement, which the map led us to believe that it was a little picturesque colonial village, but was just an excavated church. Interestingly, they also had unearthed the whole cemetery behind the church and exposed the bones, some of them in display cases without any means of securing them. I thought a human vertebrae would make a nice pendant, but for fear of the kind of end that will await these heretic Thai archaeologists for desecrating christian sepultures, I abstained and let the dead rest in peace. I’m kidding about stealing human parts, but I could not help to think that such a thing would never occur in a christian country. The Thais thought, being exclusively all Buddhists, do not care much for their mortal flesh and bones. I’m digressing. Luckily after, our God rewarded us with a ferry ride across the river instead of a 10 kilometers bike ride back to the previous bridge.
After a work session for me and some blogging for Manuel, we again dined on street food, had some beers around which we talked of many things including but not limited to travelling, life, the future and blogging. Then we both set out in our respective direction as he was going North for the remainder of his vacation and I was going to Bangkok.
I remember hearing that the train ride to Bangkok was quite scenic, so instead of a crowded bus in which I would have to have both of my backpacks on my knees, I got myself a train ticket for a measly 14 baht. As expected the train was late, but I was pleased to find myself back in the same sort of car as on my first Thai train, except this one had windows. At the main train station, I passed the hordes of tuk-tuk drivers offering rip-off rates to gullible tourists, hoped in taxi and went straight for Khaosan road, Bangkok’s backpacker Vegas, a whole district of bars, restaurants, souvenir stalls, tattoo parlors, massage places; in short, the best Thailand has to offer.
I had made sure my hostel was within walking distance but not too close from the action so I got there, checked-in, worked a while and headed out in search of today’s only goal: a restaurant since it was too late to go sightseeing. Except that it was not to be any restaurant, I was looking for Snack Bar BKK, originally named Poutine Sans Frontières (Poutine without borders). The joint was started up by a celebrity from back home, Bruno Blanchet and you’d be hard pressed to find in Québec someone who has not heard of this famous comedian. One day, he was fed up with life in Canada I guess and decided to pack his bags for an around the world trip of which he has yet to come back from I think. Or he might actually never return, he has written several books on travelling and animates some globe-trotting related shows on TV. He also appeared to have liked Thailand so much that he made himself a girlfriend there and opened a poutine stall, which eventually evolved into Snack Bar BKK, a proper restaurant. This made the rounds in Canadian media back then so when I hit Bangkok, I absolutely had to have a Poutine there. The restaurant was easy to find, it had a large Québec and a Montréal Canadiens flag and was playing hockey on TV. Not the two things I’m most proud of from my culture, but just like in Pai, it felt good to see things from home so far away. Once there, I sat and got greeted by Bruno’s son (who now manages the place), sat down and ordered this much sought after dish from back home and a beer, in French s’il vous plaît.
Unsurprisingly, I was not alone there. I mean there were some Germans munching on pad thais, but I could count at least four other French-Canadians. Since this was our little hangout in Bangkok so I granted myself the permission to impose myself in an ongoing conversation about the hardships of finding parking in downtown Québec City. First-world problems. I had to keep it shut for a lack of anything to bring to the discussion, but after a short while, the two ladies left us to go pack their things for an early morning departure and it was me and Neil. My spree of meeting interesting individuals was to continue it looked like. Neil was a self-employed construction project appraiser, worked remotely during the winter while travelling and built houses during the summer, had a passion for things on two-wheels and several lengthy adventures under his belt. We left Snack bar BKK and took the party to Khaosan road where for a couple more hours we sat at a table and chit-chatted about our shared interests. Once came the time to pay the bill, the waiter asked us if we were Italian. Odd, generally, strangers to French tend to assume I speak some sort of Scandinavian language, but Italian? Neil and I could not really figure out where he had pulled it from. Regrettably, my new acquaintance was leaving the capital for the islands early the next morning so we gave each other a solid manly handshake and set off and our own direction.
Last time I had seen rain in South-East Asia was in Singapore. That morning was to be second time. Daydreaming at breakfast with my eyes fixed in the canal below, I spotted what seemed to be a dog swimming below but as it got closer it started resembling something else until I saw it getting out of the water. It was a 2 meter long monitor lizard swimming in the thrash. Poor dogs, having to share the gutter with immense reptiles. When it pours in Asia, its no joke, but it only lasts for a while and then stops, so I waited it out with a nap and by the time I had woken up, the rain had stopped. Remembering my last day in Thailand had to be devoted to the exploration of Bangkok, I set towards the shopping centers. Why? Because when people had been talking about Bangkok, they talked about shopping centers and I had to investigate and indeed, these shopping centers are worth a mention. Large and incredibly luxurious, I toured them in absolute awe while Russians and Middle-eastern tourists as well as rich Thai kids were spending their vacation money or monthly allowance away. As for myself, I bought a whole lot of nothing and soon had enough of the atmosphere. Thankfully, Bangkok still lives between its malls and rich condos and on the way there and back, got a glimpse of the citizens living life as usual. Until I hit the site of the very publicized Thai protests, which I swear I was not looking for. As I was walking in the direction of what looked like a barricade in the distance, I was intercepted by a visibly irritated local who insisted on me not going there. I shrugged him and kept walking. In this polarizing crisis, I guess he was on the pro-government side.
The protesters had taken over several blocks of the city and had set-up camp on their major boulevards much in a city-within-a-city fashion, with tent districts, clinics, restaurants, showers, laundromats two immense covered theaters where as I was walking through a concert was going on in one and a speech in the other. Impressive. Of course, I restrained my photo taking, but not once did I get weird look. In fact, I got many smiles and even enjoyed a short conversation with a friendly monk. And I was not the only foreigner there, I passed a couple of them who had obviously no business as journalist and were simply on a little excursion in this strange part of Bangkok. If only one thing, the protesters actually want more foreigners going through and taking pictures, it gives them publicity and fills the void created by the media’s short attention span when things quiet down and the violence subsides. Once passed the maze of sand-bags and concertina barricades, I was back in the city.
That night was spent quietly having some food and beers (hard to find because of election day) with an eclectic bunch and the next day, I was off to Bangkok’s new airport to catch a flight to Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, where my friend from back home would join me later that night. The overly luxurious shopping malls found in Thailand are not the only tell-tale sign of its increasing wealth, its flagship airport is too. Immense and beautiful, its a marvel of modern architecture. A good last impression of Bangkok I guess. It remains that there is a side of the city I would have liked to experience, the dirty side, the dance and ping-pong shows (google that), the upscale bars, the crazy markets. No worries, I will most likely come back through on my way to another place and even if I don’t, there will be even more of that good stuff in the future.
Reflections on Thailand
Was Thailand all that I expected it to be? Yes. Was it fun? Yes. Was it a country I would do anything to come back to? No. It could have been my fault for staying on the beaten path, but it seems that the tourism industry has become so large and omnipresent that it’s now very difficult to escape it without having to go to lengths about it. Almost everything is geared towards foreigners and appears artificial. As a consequence, I could not develop a good appreciation for the Thai culture as they do not really expect you to be outside of the sightseeing routes and any attempt at exploring on your own will often lead to them directing you back towards the tourist pen. They treat you differently and its obvious. Thailand should be taken as a destination of leisure and pleasure rather than one of culture.
Once Jesse had left for Seoul and Georgia for Myanmar, I was again alone. No big deal, since the last few weeks, I had constantly been hoping from place to place so I was overdue for a break. Not to mention that work had piled up and I had a huge backlog of experiences to commit to this travel log. So I stayed an extra day in Chiang Mia, quietly typing away in front of my computer. The next morning, I booked a shuttle to Pai.
Pai is a little town some hours north of Chiang Mai that due to its laid back atmosphere I guess, has become a backpacker haven. There is not a whole lot do there but in a sense, this is what makes this little provincial city such a proper place for taking a pause from the craziness that prevails in the rest of Thailand. Having already passed though while on my motorcycle journey, I had had a pleasant feeling about Pai so way back then I had already made the decision of coming back.
Three hours aboard a minibus on road so tortuous that I almost got carsick (having my eyes on my computer the whole time probably did not aid) and I was back in Pai. Not really knowing where I should go and stay, I had a soup at the street market and started wandering around in search of a cheap bed. After passing through a couple streets, I got intercepted by Dougall, an Australian dude who offered me a decent deal. Anxious of dropping my things and getting back to writing, I made my way to his hostel, which turned out to be decent enough and while I was filling the guest book, Dougall upon seeing that I was from Canada started to get really excited: You must be from Québec right?
Yes? He had spent more than two years in Montreal working at La Banquise (Montreal’s most famous poutine restaurant) and in the process had grown a fascination towards the city, its people and its hockey team, the Canadiens, of which he had their logo tattooed on his right calf (later he would also show me a “tabarnak” higher up on his thigh). Now married to a Thai girl, Dougall remains a hardcore fan and never misses a game and was understandably really enthusiastic that he now had someone to watch them with him on the other side of the globe. I’m not a hockey buff, but of all the televised sports on the planet, its the one I enjoy watching the most by a huge margin, with strongmen competitions coming close second. So over the course of my stay at Happy House Pai, I would watch no less that three hockey games (a personal record) and hold numerous discussions with Dougall about the Canadiens, Montreal and Québec in general. The first game saw the Canadiens catching up from a 4-1 deficit to win in overtime against Ottawa with only 5 minutes left to play and scoring the evening goal with 0.3 seconds left in the game. Dougall was bursting with joy he could no longer contain while his wife and her sister’s boyfriend were giving him perplexed looks.
Besides watching hockey, the rest of my daytime would get devoted to working and writing. Not once did I leave the premises of the hostel when the sun was up, except to go eat lunch. From the beginning of the afternoon to well in the evening I would be in front of my screen. Pausing sporadically for a quick discussion with the guests or to get a drink. Nighttime would see me become a bit more active though. The hostel was small and we had a good crowd of backpackers (mainly Dutch) which I did join for a time out in town on two occasions. One of which was to attend Pai’s very own full moon party, which had advertised itself as a trance music night, but ended up being some fire shows and a bunch of people drinking around camp fires; my kind of party. Back at the hostel and feeling like one more drink, I pulled out my bottle of “good whisky” (Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 years) and shared it with the gang on the sidewalk of a nearby street.
Pai is one of those places where people get stuck and I could have been a good candidate, but my schedule demanded that I be in Vietnam in four days so not having seen Bangkok at all, figured it would be wise to give myself enough time to visit it. Not really motivated by another sickening shuttle ride to Chiang Mai, two of my companions informed me that a rental agency in Pai had offices there so its was possible to rent a scooter for a one-way trip. Currencies in high denomination often mislead me into thinking something is expensive while in fact, after conversion it’s not. The shuttle was 150 baht while renting a bike was 640 so 25$ which for an afternoon of riding, is not so bad. Plus, they normally rent scooters but they had a semi-automatic of the type I used on my road-trip available.
Too bad it was already late when I took possession of the machine. Dougall was gone at a medical appointment so I did not get a chance to say farewell but still left a thank you note. I strapped my backpack to the backseat and hit the road. The bike, already quite old, struggled more than expected going uphill but nothing compared to carrying Georgia some days ago. Again, forest fires had made the visibility poor and had spread to much larger extent that when I first passed on this road. Around half-way, I encountered a massive traffic jam of several kilometers, to which being on a motorcycle, I was immune. A burning tree had fallen on a high-tension power line and had taken down several poles with it, blocking one entire lane with heaps of cables, concrete and metal. Anyway, I made it to Chiang Mai in one piece, stopped by the bus station to get a ticket for the night bus to Bangkok and made for the rental place where I surrendered the motorcycle. More and more I’m appreciating these Honda Dream, so ubiquitous in Thailand. Easy on gas (at least the fuel injected versions), they drive fine but above all seem to be reliable judging by the number of old versions circulating around. I wish I could have taken mine all the way down to Bangkok but no, I had to take the bus so after a small pad Thai, I was at the station patiently waiting but not looking forward to the night.
Not so fresh on that morning due to overconsumption of malted beverages, Jesse, me and Georgia gathered at the hostel’s reception to figure out how we could fit her and her belongings onto our bikes. Luckily, I had brought some straps (part of the backpack repair kit), so it was decided that since my bike was a little roomier, I would carry her. Her stuff would be attached to Jesse’s luggage rack and the smaller objects would get distributed between our front baskets. With everything secured and stable, off we went on the very windy road to Chiang Mai, so windy in fact that on here way here, Georgia got carsick.
Going uphill was a lot more tedious than before since I was carrying another person and on downhills, I had to be extra careful. Watch for hairpin turns, take into consideration all the grease, oil and gravel on the surface and be extra wary of all the potholes for Georgia had put her safety in my hands. Kudos to her though, she had rented a scooter while in Pai and two days before had bailed while down a dirt path too steep for her to handle. Jesse and I had figured that she might have been scared off motorcycles for some times but no, her only words were: I’m not gonna tell my mom. Originally, she was also okay with making the trip without an helmet; not that she did not care about safety but in Thailand, most people don’t wear them. A couple of minutes out of Pai, in a stroke of luck, I spotted a lone helmet sitting on a post by the side of the road and on inspection, did not appear to belong to anyone and was in good enough condition for her to wear it. The helmets that the hand out with motorcycle rentals are absolute crap and would provide little protection in a crash, but the idea is that if you end up in an accident at least you were wearing one. Also not a bad idea because officially you can get fined for not having one, but none of the police barrages we passed on that trip seemed to care that Thai people were not protected. To extort a bribe, they might make an exception for tourists though.
At one point, we saw a sign for the Pong Duet hot springs and geyser and decided to stop, because its not about the destination but about the journey. At the gate, we got charged more than we thought we’d spent that visit but since we had taken the time to drive the small road there, figured we should give it a chance. Thankfully, it was not a ripoff. The whole park was really nice, the geyser itself a small but proper one (Georgia had never seen one) and the hot-springs well maintained and located in a beautiful setting. Well worth the detour, the complex even had some very nice stone chalets centered around a mineral baths complex in which one day I would very much see myself staying in for a retreat. Satisfied with the experience, we paused at a small kitchen for a meal and pressed on to Chiang Mai.
The remainder of the road was uneventful, nice for a while, then very ugly when we hit the highway. Finding our way back to the hostel in rush hour traffic provided a small challenge but that was it. Safely home and relieved that everything had gone according to plan, we all rewarded ourselves with a pizza at some Italian restaurant in Chiang Mai, with Jesse and I recounting how this little escape would be the highlight of our time in Thailand and Georgia just sharing that moment of content and happiness with us.