Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand

And suddenly I found myself back on Khao San Road, the “backpacker ghetto” of Bangkok.  Just a few weeks earlier I’d regarded Khao San with a combination of disgust and fascination, but this time – thanks to the sharp contrast with Myanmar – I saw things differently.  Khao San may be disturbingly over-the-top and shallow, but I was starting to reframe places like that as the inevitable outgrowth of a relatively free, open, prosperous society.  I know Thailand is no utopia (look no further than the recent tension between the urban haves and the rural have-nots that boiled over in the Red Shirt street protests), but it’s still operating on a completely different level than Myanmar.  Before visiting Myanmar I saw Khao San Road as a symbol of what was wrong with Thailand, and now, counter-intuitively, I began to see it as a sign of what was right.

 

Freedom Sometimes Means Tolerating Ronald

 

(It does feel uncomfortable that many of the reasons I found Myanmar such an interesting place to visit – the 1969 time-warp vibe, the absence of Western businesses, the relatively low levels of tourism, the preservation of local customs – are due in large part to the fact that Myanmar is dominated by an oppressive regime.)

My newfound appreciation of Khao San wasn’t enough to keep me in Bangkok for more than one night.  I immediately took a bus to Chiang Mai, a laid-back city in northern Thailand that offers great trekking in the nearby mountains.  I planned to head right out on a trek, but when I collapsed on my Chiang Mai hotel bed I realized I was completely out of gas.  I stared at the slow-moving ceiling fan above my bed and felt tired, unmotivated, and cranky.  Instead of trekking I spent three days and two nights being lazy in Chiang Mai – sleeping, eating, watching movies on TV, and catching up on the blog.  I didn’t even take my camera out of my backpack.  I felt guilty, but I needed a break.

If I had more time in Thailand I would have done a better job in Chiang Mai, but I wanted to hurry to Nepal so I could fit in two weeks of trekking in the Himalayas before meeting Marie in India.  I rode back to Bangkok on the night bus, which was supposed to arrive at about 6am.  But we made great time and at 3:40am the bus spit us out on the edge of Khao San Road.  Two very drunk westerners dressed like zombies walked by, and only then did I realize it was Halloween night.  I may have been the only sober person on the entire street.  My hotel wouldn’t check me in until 6am, so I did the only sensible thing – I sat down at a bar, ordered a beer with breakfast, and watched the antics of the last remaining party-goers as they became increasingly less selective in their choice of partners.

I slept until noon, spent the afternoon finalizing my travel plans for Nepal, and then met my friend Kari for dinner.  Kari and I worked together before I left my job to travel, and about a year ago she transferred to our company’s Bangkok office.  I really enjoyed catching up with her, although I do have two complaints…  First, she blocked every attempt I made to take her photo.  And second, as painful as it may be, I have to admit that she is the better drinker.  At the end of the night Kari headed off perfectly clear and composed, while I woke up the next morning with a pounding headache.

 

Failing Repeatedly to Get a Photo of Kari

 

That afternoon I said goodbye to Thailand and flew to Kathmandu.  My flight, unfortunately, first took me to Delhi, India, where I had an all-night layover.  I found a dark room with a fully-reclining chair and managed to get some sleep, so Delhi’s international terminal turned out to be an OK place to be stuck.  But India is nothing if not quirky.  The terminal had no wi-fi, no internet cafes, and no ATMs.  Thinking I needed local money, I walked up to a big counter underneath a sign that said International Money Exchange.  “I’m sorry,” said the man behind the counter, “but we don’t exchange money.”  Of course you don’t.

“If I can’t exchange money and there are no ATMs, how am I supposed to buy dinner?” I asked.

The money exchange clerk, amused by my ignorance, enlightened me.  “Every business in this airport takes U.S. dollars,” he said dismissively.

At the terminal’s food court I saw the familiar golden arches and went to McDonald’s to buy an ice cream cone.  “We only take rupees,” said the McDonald’s cashier.

“But the money exchange guy told me all the stores here take dollars,” I said.

“Yes, all of them except McDonald’s.”

At that point I didn’t yet know India well enough to understand how characteristically nonsensical it was for the most American of all restaurants to be the only business in the Delhi airport that didn’t take U.S. dollars, but eventually I would learn.