We nicknamed them "Death Marches". It doesn't sound that pleasant, and it seldom seems it at the time, but the Death Marches that Kathy and I oft embark on usually turn out pretty interesting. They just make our feet hurt, and sometimes leave us with a sunburn to nurse.
Our first recorded Death March was to the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. I'd reasoned the closest subway station was within a "reasonable" walking distance from the park: in a pig's eye. By the time we got there it was near closing time and we were both seriously parched and she more than slightly peeved at he.
The tradition continues.
My innate sense of direction is pretty good; give me some sun for a compass point (don't leave at high noon), and a reasonable road layout (i.e. a city laid out in a grid, more or less, or something else... rational) — and I can generally get myself and party to our destination and back. Usually. Once my mental image of "how things are" gets askew, however, it's really hard to get it "right" again. That's what happened today: I started out with a misguided view of where on the compass I was starting, so everything relative to that point seemed wrong. Because it was.
Kathy was a little under the weather, so I'd ventured out by myself. I expected about two and a half hours of walking. It ended up just short of four. Chiang Mai, Thailand, is practically a model city for navigation on foot, compact, parallel and perpendicular streets aligned North/South; and should you get tired, there are "tuk tuks" (3-wheeled, covered motorcycles that dart in an out of traffic, cheating death daily) that never seem more than a few seconds away. They seem to know when they're in a good bargaining position, however. But to resort to having to take a tuk tuk back... it's defeat.
The mission started out innocently enough: find a branch of a particular (common) bank, with an ATM, and "refill" a prepaid internet card at the ATM. This is a little more challenging than you might guess, because only about half the Thai banks have their names in English as well as Thai script, and half of those put it in letters you could only see with a magnifying glass. Siam Commercial Bank seems one of the latter. So, you memorize their logo. SCB's is the outline of a lotus flower. Helpful?
At the same time, I thought I'd look for the hotel Kathy and I ended up in during our first trip to Chiang Mai, in 1992, the Arcade Inn. It was north of the city, near the bus station. And in 1992, there wasn't much there besides the hotel and the bus station. We were out in the sticks because we arrived in Chiang Mai in the middle of their biggest festival of the year, and our hotel had, um, kind of like forgotten our reservation. Mai pen lai. Thus, a mission born then borne: walk from the east-central part of the city to the north-central, and back.
Except I had the mental image that I was starting in the south, sigh.
I'm carrying the (locally) famous "Nancy Chandler" map. These maps of Thai cities have been around for years, a Graphic Artist, Ms. Chandler started out hand-drawing a Bangkok map with areas of interest, places she found interesting, good restaurants etc. It's blossomed into multiple cities, and we now find Nancy Chandler greeting cards and Christmas cards at new stands. Good for her!
So, I've got this big map of Chiang Mai. I've got the sun, setting in the west (as it does here). Now all I need to find out is where the hell I am, so I can choose the right direction to cut a km or two off the trip. My feet hurt. It's getting too late in the day to worry about sunburn.
Trouble is, once you leave relatively touristed routes, the street signs either disappear, or at least the ones transliterated into English. However, Chiang Mai is choc-a-bloc with temples. Wats they're called in Thai. Like the Paris Metro, it seems like you need only walk a couple hundred meters in any direction to find one. So I head for the nearest wat. Oh! Good fortune! Buddha smiles on me! It's name is labeled in English! But it's not on the Nancy Chandler map. Screwed.
I'd been walking almost continuously in hot, humid weather for about 3 hours already. Defeated, dehydrated, disoriented, I realize, "you're going the wrong way, Idiot". You've plot a steady course south, but the guest house isn't south of the city gates, it's east. I round the corner from the wat (which was north of where I'd been walking) and return to my path into the sunset. [non-directionally-challenged Readers should see the folly in this immediately]. "I've wondered much further today than I should, and I can't seem to find my way back to the woods". Resigned to retracing the last half mile or so, I set feet back to pavement. This isn't the first reversal of my direction: initially I try to go down a "residential" street and am greeted by growling dogs and people whispering (or less quietly) "farang!".
Guess all y'all don't see too many damn fer'ners round heah?
Ugly but somehow loveable dogs scavenging on the road. Motorcycles zip by with barely a mirror's width between them and say, me. A completely naked boy, maybe seven, is running down the road. He doesn't seem particularly concerned that he is naked, or in general. The kid could at least wear sandals or something. [Actually, social nudity is completely disapproved of in Thailand, and in most of Asia. Up to about age 2, boys and girls both often go "bottomless"; it's just pragmatic. The seven-year-old is inexplicable. Couples don't even embrace in public; hand holding is about the limit of public tolerance. In a Men's Locker Room (the only ones this Author has experience with), Thais always have towels around their waists until the last possible instant, and if exposed (gasp!), hold a hand over their private bits so not to offend. Contrast this to Western guys, who regardless of their male prowess or lack, are pretty much... brazen. Sorry you asked?
I pass a sii-lor Driver parked on the side of the road. A sii-lor ("4 wheel") is basically a pickup truck with seats in the back and a roof. Poor man's bus: the Thai answer to the Philippine's jeepney. The driver is as dirty as his truck, few of teeth, frequently spitting (out the window, thanks), but friendly enough. I smell like one of those loveable mutts on the road, a little less scruffy, maybe, so we're probably well suited for each other.
Asks me in Thai where I'm going. It's not that I understand him per se (I have enough trouble with Thai spoken through a full set of teeth), but these Drivers aren't asking passersby for baseball scores, after all). "Charoen Prathet" (name of the street for my Guest House), I reply, saying it quickly enough to incent his brain to correct my likely mispronunciation. It's an old trick, far more useful than the typical American approach of saying the same thing again only louder, expecting they'd understand IF THEY JUST HEAR IT WELL ENOUGH.
He repeats the street name. Hope springs eternal. I reply "chai, krap" ("is") and make a mental note of the right way to pronounce my repeated street name. I will need to lose some teeth to pronounce it this way.
He still looks incredulous. Only a little later do I appreciate that I'd been walking 180 degrees opposite my destination. We've negotiated the price: 40 baht — almost a buck. It's an outrageous amount for a sii-lor because they make their money by picking up literally a truckload of people; each potential passenger asks whether the Driver's going where that person wants to go. But I don't care. I'm a rich farang (farangs are by definition rich) and I'm going to use my farang buying power to get home before the blisters on my feet break. Damn straight, Cowboy.
I get in the back of the sii-lor. The Driver knocks on the glass separating the cab from the back of the truck, beckons me into the front seat. The Driver is still suspicious. We're going to go over the destination again. I take out the Nancy Chandler map. He's amused. It's labeled in English. He can't read English of course, never mind speak it. Begin Survival Thai, coupled with enthusiastic hand movements over the map, like those Weather Bozos (Meteorologists) pawing at the TV weather maps. I am good at this. I am experienced at this. Mae nam! (river!). "SaTHON Na ra wat!" (Narawat Bridge!). "Geez!" (or the Thai equivalent), the Driver thinks to himself, "The stupid farang really does want to go to Charoen Prathet. He ought to know which direction to walk, at least". He tries to renegotiate the fare; I think he's explaining that I was walking the wrong way and should be made to pay for it.I win this round: 40 baht: the fare stands.
Off we head, away from the sunset. That's where the East is, you know. The sii-lor picks up two more passengers along the way, each gives their destination to the driver for approval. He says "blah blah blah farang something something" to the first one. Maybe I'm paying for everybody. I don't care. Comon' and take a free ride... yeah yeah yeah yeah".
The driver wants to know where the Stupid Farang is from. Or he's just making small talk. I'm not getting his question, so I shrug repeatedly. This reinforces his strong initial suspicion that I am a Stupid Farang. He goes thru a few country names, I finally recognize that he's trying to guess my country when he says "farangset". No, I'm not from France, I'm not that well dressed and I don't smoke evil smelling cigarettes. "Ameri-gah", I offer. "Ameri-gah!". He prattles on in Thai: "blah blah blah Ameri-gah blah Ameri-gah blah blah ". I don't know whether I'm being insulted or exalted. And I don't care at this point.
The sii-lor slowly makes its way up Charoen Prathet, trolling for more passengers along the way. Soi (side street) 12. Eleven... I'm seeing a trend... Soi 2.
The sun is setting. Beer chilling. Aircon welcomes: "Norge of America" the logo says. Home.