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By Tom Holmes
Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
I woke up the next day, Monday morning, feeling a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. This was the day I was going to set off on my eight day time of spiritual testing. I would get on the train in Chiang Mai at 9:00 am and ride for two hours to Lampang.
After two nights in Lampang, a bus to Phayao. One night there and another bus to Chiang Rai near the border with Myanmar. Two nights there and a bus to Nan. And finally a bus back to Chiang Mai after two days in Nan.
I had two goals in mind: 1) explore some small "charming" towns in northern Thailand I'd never been to before and 2) be much more alone than I had been in Chiang Mai, where a rather large safety net of people was always no more than half an hour away.
The adventure began well enough. The porters at the train station helped get me in the right car and found a seat for me in a section reserved for "monks, handicapped and the elderly." I had gotten to the train on time. Buying the ticket had gone smoothly. I learned that my car had a bathroom. My anxiety lessened and my anticipation grew.
We pulled out of the station only fifteen minutes late, which is "early" by Thai standards, and glided past rice fields and lamyao orchards. Many of the little country wats we passed had chimneys, indicating the presence of crematories—something I never saw in the big cities. The charming scenery and the click clack of the wheels on the rails had a calming effect on me as we began to climb into the mountains.
It was fun watching the women who would get on the train in one town and walk through the cars selling bags of sticky rice, roast chicken, cut up fruit and bottled water. They'd stay on the train for half an hour, selling their home made goodies, then get off the train and presumably catch the next train going back home.
I began to look forward to actually enjoying being with these kinds of salt of the earth people which I imagined would be living in this town of 50,000 which the Lonely Planet described as being off the beaten tourist path and having an "undiscovered" feel to it.
Not only did Lampang have a lot of beautiful teak buildings—having been a center for the teak trade in northern Thailand—but was well known among Thais for having many horse drawn carts. In fact, Thais refer to the place as Meuang Rot Mah, ie Horse Cart City, because it's the only town in Thailand where horse carts are still used for public transportation.
About an hour into the train ride, we stopped at a little hamlet right in the middle of the mountains, and a group of ten teenagers carrying backpacks, smelling of smoke and holding liter bottles of Leo Beer climbed on board. Since all of the seats were filled by that time they sat on the floor, "camping" out right by my feet.
I began feeling not only alone but also very out of place. I usually feel insecure when I'm with adolescents, even when I'm back home. And even though none of them ever gave me a look which said "what is this old farang doing on our turf," I still felt—imagined is really a better word—like I didn't belong. That's what often happens in me. When I don't understand what people around me are saying, my imagination wants to fill the mental vacuum, usually with something fearful.
One of them started playing a beat up old guitar and some of the young people sang a few current pop tunes with him in Thai. He wasn't all that bad a musician, but I still felt great relief when they got off the train half an hour later.
The train arrived in Lampang two stops later. I got off, found a toilet, snacked on some cookies, got my bearings, and walked through the small train station and out the front door to find transportation to the guesthouse where I had reserved a room.
Three sawng tae ou drivers stood nearby chatting, and one of them caught my eye. I said in farang Thai, "Pom bpai Riverside Guesthouse." The three drivers conferred and one said—or at least I think he said—"I know where it is. Hop in."
As I struggled to climb in the back of the red pick up with the two benches and a metal roof I said, "Cha chaa (slowly)."
"Cha chaa," he repeated with a smile. We drove through the center of town, crossed the Mae Wang River, and after only a ten minute drive he dropped me off at the guesthouse. As advertised, the place was a large teak house reconfigured into small guest rooms. The floors were polished wood with a few cracks showing between boards which didn't fit together perfectly. No AC. No TV, but a hammock on the front porch which had a view of the Mae Wang taking its time flowing downstream. The place cost 250 baht ($9) a night.
So far, so good. Up till this point, the spiritual test hadn't been very difficult. Buoyed by a feeling that I knew what I was doing, I checked the pages on Lampang which I had cut out of the Lonely Planet and quickly decided that I would first explore Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao where the main chedi or stupa revealed a Hariphunchai influence. I had no idea what Hariphunchai meant, but it sounded cool. Maybe I'd even get to ride in a horse cart.
I approached the guest house owner who spoke English fairly well and told him my plan. He called a sawng tae ou driver and in ten minutes I was at the Buddhist temple.
My first reaction as I looked around was, "So, what's the big deal?" This wat looks pretty much the same as all the others. Same components. Same colors. Same architecture. The only thing that was different was how the components were arranged.
Maybe I was getting spoiled. Like with Thai food and Thai women. When they arrive in Thailand for the first time, many visitors rave about the delicious food and—especially the men—comment on the beauty of Thai women. But, this was my seventh trip to the land of smiles. Was I in fact getting spoiled? "Oh, yes. Another delicious plate of lard nar served by an extremely attractive young woman in an open air restaurant adjacent to an exotic temple. So, what else is new?"
Or, was it something else?
I dutifully walked around the compound, finding a bench in the shade to sit on and rest every twenty minutes or so. I took pictures of the chedi and the wihan and the teak kutis where the monks lived, but I wasn't having much fun.
What's more it's always an effort for me to walk—or more accurately waddle—around for any length of time. The stiffness in my legs makes them tire easily. On top of that I'm always worried about tripping and falling. The vigilance wears on me. Often during the day I pray, "Lord, please keep me from falling" and redouble my efforts to focus on what I'm doing.
Because I have to look at the ground to avoid cracks and roots I could trip over, I have to stop waddling every fifty feet or so, stand still and look up in order to see what is around me. As I proceeded from one shady spot near the monk's kuti to a bench under a tree next to the big chedi, I became aware of a man in his twenties watching me. As I approached the bench near which he was standing, he smiled as if he wanted to interact.
"Where you from?"
"Ah, Chicago. Far away."
"Yes." I had to smile. The guy was trying hard to make a connection, and in a smaller town like Lampang, he didn't get many chances to practice his English."
"Are you alone?" It was the question several people had asked me already.
"Yes," I answered, wondering what his reaction would be.
"I admire you," he added, giving me a thumbs up.
It was nice to get an unsolicited affirmation. I continued to waddle around the chedi, taking frequent rest breaks on benches. Realizing that I was running out of gas, I headed for the entrance to the wat and waited for a sawng tae ou to come by.
Within a few minutes I was able to flag one down. "Pom bpai ran ahan One Alloi," I told him, assuming that he would understand immediately. In Chiang Mai or Bangkok the taxi and tuk tuk drivers knew where all the restaurants were, but this guy just shook his head indicating that he had no idea what I was saying.
I tried three more times. No understanding. I tried writing it out. No read English. He said wait a minute and went to get reinforcements. The guy he brought back couldn't understand me either. "Geez," I thought, "it's just the name of a restaurant. My Thai can't be that bad."
By then a small crowd was gathering, and after hearing that this farang was trying to get somewhere but we can't understand him, everyone took a shot at figuring out what I wanted.
Finally a woman came by who spoke English and understood what I wanted. When she explained in Thai what I was asking for, as had happened before, the crowd said in chorus, "Ran ahan One Alloi."
And, as in the past, I muttered to myself, "That's what I said," knowing perfectly well that once again I had gotten the tones wrong and said something like I want to hit myself in the head with a brick. I also wondered how many cabbies in Chicago would spend fifteen minutes on a foreigner that couldn't understand.
Before I crawled in the back of the red pick up with two benches that would transport me to dinner, the woman who spoke English said, "You alone?"
Shaking her head in a disapproving way, she said, "You be careful." I never know how people are going to react to this handicapped guy out exploring on his own in a country where he is quite vulnerable. Some say I have courage, while others look at me as if I have no common sense.
I ate al fresco at One Alloi and tried to bounce back from a disappointing day. As the shadows lengthened I paid my bill and stood on the curb to flag down a sawng tae ou to take me back to the guest house. Within in a couple minutes one pulled over and asked me where I wanted to go. This time I was prepared by having a business card with Riverside Guest House printed in Thai. He said OK and I crawled in the back of the truck cha chaa.
"Finally something is going smoothly," I thought as we crossed the Mae Wang. I knew we were headed in the right direction. But then, unexpectedly, the driver pulled over and showed a food vendor on the street the card and asked where the place was. He got back in, drove a few kilometers, pulled over and asked a man walking on the sidewalk for directions. At a third stop, the woman pointed down the soi we were on, and in two minutes I was "home."
I climbed the teak steps to the porch, unlocked my door, set my back pack down on the floor and flopped on the bed. Nothing terrible had happened that day, but I felt exhausted and at the same time bored.
"I wish I had brought a novel along," I said to myself, realizing that I still had three hours left till bedtime and absolutely nothing to do. Before leaving for Thailand I had told my friends that often my only companions on my solitary adventure would be myself and God, and at that point I didn't find either one of them very interesting.
I would have hung out on the porch swinging in the hammock were it not for the mosquitoes which enforced a kind of house arrest every evening when the sun goes down a little after 6:00. I lay on the bed wondering how I could kill the next 180 minutes. I never thought of myself as a person who needs a lot of stimulation, but all I could think of was, "I wish I had brought along a book."