Friday, April 29, 2011

Almost Famous

Here's a look at Almost Famous, my favorite bar in Pai (Northern Thailand).  It's one of those funky eclectic bars that could be almost anywhere.  There are a few giveaways, however, such as the "no stupid farrangs" sign (farrang is pronounced fallong and is Thai for foreigner) and the lovely Lazy Angel mixing cocktails (she also taught us a Thai cooking class).  Keep an eye out for some other fun stuff like cartoons, phrases and even a Quebec licence plate!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

A Tale of Two Tours

When the guide handed me body armour and told me to put it on, I began to worry.  When he did a full safety inspection of my mountain bike, especially the brakes “because I was going to need them”, I became seriously concerned.  And when we wheeled ourselves to the edge of an incredibly steep mountain slope and looked down a trail that plunged over boulders and through trees, I couldn’t help but ask myself “What kind of insane tour have I signed up for this time?”

Tours are the traveller’s paradox.  No one wants to be cooped up on a bus with a bunch of tourists being led around by some overly friendly lady holding up a flag.  But at the same time, travellers are in fact tourists, and tours offer a convenient way for tourists to economically experience a place.  If you’re travelling, you’ll end up on a tour at some point.  It’s inevitable.  The trick is to do some research ahead of time in order to identify the tours that suit your particular travel style and personality.

Chiang Mai’s idyllic location in the mountains of Northern Thailand makes it a mecca for travellers and a hotbed for tour operators.   During my visit there I figured I had done my homework appropriately and signed up for two tours: a guided mountain biking ride and a bus tour to the golden triangle.  Mind you, as I sat on that bicycle precariously perched atop a mountain, my homework skills were in serious doubt. 

The tour company offered a variety of rides for cyclists of all abilities, from beginner to maniac.  I had picked what the brochure described as an intermediate ride.  But when I looked at the three other guys in my group, intermediate looked pretty hardcore.
I was old enough to be the father of each of them.  I think the guy closest to my age was 22.  They were all extreme sports enthusiasts and had the scabs and scars to prove it.  On our ride from the shuttle bus to the start of the trail they were doing wheelies and jumps like the guys you see on Mountain Dew ads.  As a kid every time I tried a wheelie I’d fall off my bike, much to the merriment of the entire schoolyard.  Not in the mood to relive any traumatic childhood events on this day, I kept my head down and secretly wished I had gone with the fat guy and the family of four who were on the beginner ride.

There was no time for hesitation (or quitters).  Our guide let out a yelp and with a fancy rear wheel fishtail he was gone.  Within seconds so were the other riders.  They were out of sight before I had my feet on the pedals.  This was going to be a long day.

I began to carefully pick my way down the trail at a considerably slower pace than my fellow riders.  It’s not that I’ve never done any downhill riding before; it’s just that I know how long it takes my body to heal.  One mistake and my trip could have been over.

A good guide is integral to the success of any tour, particularly one where there is very real potential risk to life and limb.  Our guide was a very skilled rider (having done the trail more than 100 times probably helped too), but where he excelled was in passing his knowledge on to us.  He’d give us tips about how to get through a technically challenging part of the ride (“Dave, maybe you should walk down this part”) as well as advice on how to be better riders.  With his guidance my confidence increased and I managed to hold my own, if I do say so myself.

They were still faster than me and would have to wait from time to time for me to catch up.  It seemed they would usually choose to wait at the bottom of a particularly gnarly stretch, giving them a clear view of my descent.  They’d give a big cheer when I’d arrive in one piece, which I assumed meant they were happy for me and not because my arrival meant they could finally get going again. 

It was all going famously until the point where, after a fairly steep section of switchbacks, I rode up to them, stopped, and proceeded to fall over and into a ditch.  It all happened in slow motion.  First I went over, then my bike on top of me.  For good measure I rolled one more time after having almost stopped.  I was inextricably tangled up with the bike and covered in mud.  Once they could stop laughing they were quick to help me up, which certainly sets them apart from those kids I went to school with.

The trail became more technically challenging as the ride continued.  The guide repeatedly reminded me to keep my butt way back on my bike and to avoid using my front brakes.  The purpose of this advice was to keep my weight to the rear of the bike and avoid a tumble.  It worked really well for me as long as I had time to think about what I was doing.  As soon as my body would act instinctively, I was in deep trouble.  It became clear that my instincts were not well in tune with downhill riding because when they would kick in they overruled everything he had told me.  On several occasions I found myself heading chin first over the handle bars directly onto whatever particularly nasty bit of trail had frightened me into slamming on my front brakes in the first place.  

As a result, when we had finally finished and were sitting beside a lake having a few beers, I had by far the best war wounds to show off.  The other guys had hardly broken a sweat, while I was covered in mud and bleeding from various extremities.  If that isn’t an indication of a successful tour, I don’t know what is (which as I reread this sentence is a distinct possibility).  I had pushed myself to the limit and felt much better for it.  My first tour had been a resounding success.

The second tour began early the following morning with me feeling a little worse for wear, the result of trying to keep up with the boys in the pub as well as on the trail.  I was looking forward to some coffee and a greasy breakfast to help deal with the situation. Unfortunately, the staff in my hotel restaurant, normally so over attentive as to be oppressive, chose that morning to be aloof.  They had taken my order by the time the tour van showed up, but I doubt if they had cracked an egg.

So with an empty stomach I piled into a passenger van with a bunch of strangers and we headed off to spend a day exploring the mountains to the northwest of Chiang Mai.  The tour brochure said we were going to visit hot springs, a white temple, the golden triangle, the Myanmar border and other places of interest.  I’m not usually a fan of bus tours, but that sounded like a pretty interesting agenda.  “How bad could it be?” I had mused.

A major factor in the level of enjoyment of any bus tour is, of course, the bus itself.  I probably should have been wary when I smelled the stale cigarette smoke as I got in our van, but I was too busy looking for a seat.  Being last on the tour pick-up route meant that I got last choice of seat, which inevitably meant I was sitting in the very back.  People in Asia are small so leg room in an Asian vehicle is already at a premium.  But when sitting in the back of an Asian van you are sitting over the back wheels.  Thus my legroom was inconveniently taken up by the wheel well. 

We didn’t drive very far before I realized another drawback to sitting over the back wheel, as the shock absorbers in this van had seen better days, probably back in the 70’s.  I could feel every bump we hit.  It would vibrate through the entire length of my spine.  Larger bumps resulted in double spine compression, as my head would hit the roof soon after my tail bone had taken the initial blow.  This van was not helping me to overcome my general apprehension for bus tours.     

Nonetheless, I was willing to let that slide as long as the tour lived up to its billing.  A great guide like the previous day could certainly have helped.  Count that as strike two for this tour.  Our guide’s “fluent” English wasn’t.  As best as I could tell, she was going back and forth between Thai and English to accommodate the mix of people on the tour.  That would have been fine if I could have deciphered which was which.  I soon gave up and put on my iPod.

That’s when I got my first whiff of vomit.  We hadn’t been on the road for an hour when a young Malaysian woman had her head slumped over a plastic bag.  I have started to recognize this as a regular occurrence on SE Asian road trips.  The woman sitting next to me on my bus trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh threw up for seven hours straight, although somehow she managed to control the odour.  We weren’t so lucky in the van on this day.  On the bright side, at least I wasn’t being offended by the stale cigarette odour any more.

The first stop on our agenda was at the hot springs, which turned out to be nothing more than a rest stop along the highway.  There were two small man made cement pools with steaming stinky water and lots of garbage in them.  Otherwise there was plenty of room for tour bus parking and lots of stalls selling trinkets for tourists.  Our guide informed us that we had 20 minutes to look around.  I had finished looking around before she had finished talking.  I was beginning to have some serious doubts about this tour.

Two hours of driving and vomiting later we arrived at the White Temple.  This temple looks like all the other temples you see in Thailand, except instead of lots of gold and bright colours, it is entirely white.  Oh, and this one also has cardboard cut-outs of the guy who is building the temple so you can get your picture taken next to “him”.  That’s right; it’s a new temple being built by a civilian in, as far as I could tell, his own honour.  Some of it was interesting to look at, especially with the garish futuristic touches he’d thrown in, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about L. Ron Hubbard.  This particular Thai man was obviously rich enough to pay all of the tour companies to bring their customers to his temple.  I can’t think of another explanation as to why we were all there.

We pushed on to the Golden Triangle, the primary feature of the tour, where we were to be treated to a VIP boat trip.  The brochure indicated that the boat would take us for an informative look up and down the Mekong River, and then make a stop in Laos on the other side.

The Golden Triangle is the confluence of two rivers which form the borders of the three countries that meet there - Thailand, Laos and Myanmar - hence the Triangle.  The history of the area is quite infamous, as it is steeped in the mystique of the opium trade.  Opium was brought down from the surrounding countryside and exchanged along the rivers for gold, thus the Golden.  In the middle is an area called no man’s land, a notoriously lawless stretch where many a murder has occurred over the years.

I learned all of this from Wikipedia, not the commentary on our VIP boat trip.  I had naively thought that the commentary would provide us with some insight into the geography and history of the area.  Silly me.  We had two commentators while on the boat.  The first was what the Thai people refer to as a lady boy who giggled his way through some bad jokes about opium and, once he realized no one was laughing, sulked and pointed out some casinos.  The second was a woman who sang Thai songs to us, like she was doing “a capella karaoke”.  It was all very weird.

As for the stop in Laos, we were charged 20 Baht (around 60 cents) for the privilege of wandering through a bunch of stalls selling tourist trinkets from Laos.  It was on a small island in the river so there was absolutely nowhere else to go.  We were stranded there for 45 minutes.

It’s not that there wasn’t anything to see in the area.  In fact, our tour guide spent quite a bit of time highlighting places that probably would have been well worth seeing.  For example, we passed a rather stylish large complex that she made sure we all noted, and then explained “That building the Opium Museum.  Very interesting!”  We didn’t as much as slow down.

After a buffet lunch at a restaurant filled with tourists from bus tours, we drove to a border crossing between Myanmar and Thailand.  I still have no idea of any significance of this particular crossing, but I do know that lots of the merchants selling trinkets to the tourists there were also selling black market Viagra and Ciallis for a “very good price”.  I know this because we had been dropped there for 30 minutes and the van left to get fuel so I couldn’t just climb in the back and sleep.  Instead I had been left to wander amongst the stalls.  Apparently a six foot tall middle-aged guy with gray hair walking in a decidedly cramped fashion makes a pretty obvious target for Thai people selling erectile dysfunction medication.

That pretty well sums up the tour, although it did make one final stop at a makeshift traditional village where women with long necks pose for pictures, but I chose to not partake in the spectacle.  There were, however, plenty of stalls selling trinkets to keep me occupied while the others went to gawk. 

It was probably the worst tour I have ever been on.  A more complete waste of my time I have never been subjected to.  I can’t over emphasize how horrible it was. 

And yet, quite shockingly to me, the other people on the van absolutely loved it.  After every stop they piled back in the van laughing and chatting, arms filled full of shopping bags and junk food.  Even the sick girl got into the act.  They couldn’t have been happier with their choice of tour.  It was exactly what they wanted. 

A tale of two tours?   My two tours certainly were.  They were as dissimilar as could be.  Yet the experiences of the passengers on the bus tour were just as dissimilar.  You might say it was a tale of two tours in one. 

Such is the challenge that presents itself when a traveller considers a tour.  Even with all the advance preparation in the world, your experience may not live up to your expectations.  Not to worry, though.  No one back home wants to hear about your wonderful hill trek anyways.  It’ll just make them jealous.  You really need the odd story about bedbugs or bus trips from hell to keep them interested. 

Hmmm…  Come to think of it, maybe I’ll book one more tour while I’m here.  How bad can it be?