Stolen Maps and the Sunset Mosquito Blinding Phenomenon

    The “dudes don’t ask for directions” attitude cannot be applied to international travel. For those of us interested in places outside the cushy maps of a Lonely Planet guidebook, word of mouth is often the best and only way to discover the unknown. For me personally these interactions with locals are some of the most hilarious and interesting moments during an adventure. You never know what will come out of asking a simple question to a stranger. I’ve been invited to dinner, been offered rides and even taken out to drink beers just from a brief interaction. When you’re traveling never be too focused on the end destination and disregard the journey. From the insightful tongue of Robert M. Pirsing, “To live for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”

    Continuing on from my last entry… With the white temple in our rear view we set off toward Maesai, the most northern city in Thailand which serves as a major border crossing/trading hub with Myanmar (Burma). With a decent map from the guesthouse we decided to take a quick detour to what looked like a nearby mountain village called Doi Maesalong. After a few hours of pretty intense mountain driving, we began climbing elevation at a rapid pace. No picture could capture the surreal landscapes of sun-kissed farming villages, dotting the slopes of big green mountains as far as the eye could see. With a passenger on the back, maneuvering my bike up and down very narrow and steep switch backs was quite the challenge. Luckily I already had a few months of treacherous Thai traffic navigation under my belt so I was ready for it. As we passed many poverty stricken communities hanging on the sides of mountains we realized that none of these tiny villages had electricity, running water or even adequate shelter. If there has ever been a moment to capture a photograph so unique that National Geographic would be begging to hire me this was it, so we pulled over to snap some pictures. As we ventured into a village dangling on the side of a mountain two young Thai men passed by on an old motorbike and flashed us the warm, signature Thai smile. We couldn’t help but think how friendly they seemed even though they had so little. As I walked back to the motorbike that had been within plain sight the entire time, I found Jessy quite distraught. In our eagerness to take pictures she had left our map and an IPod in her helmet on the back of the bike, and both had already been stolen! Blown away by the speed and craftiness of the thieves we decided to test fate and enter the village to find the perpetrators. As we carefully navigated through the aluminum and wood shacks there was no one to be found. Taking the IPod seems to me a fairly normal act, but what perplexed and slightly worried me was why the smiling bandits took our map!?

With no idea where to go we continued on for a couple more hours slowly climbing and descending mountain after mountain. With the afternoon upon us I realized the motorbike was steadily running out of gas. The entire day of cruising the rural, jungle filled mountains had not shown us anything remotely close to a gas station so we began to worry what we were going to do. Not only that, but we had no clue where we were going. Here’s a rough idea of my thought process at the time “Where are we? This motorbikes rented and they have my passport can’t leave it… but can’t hitchhike with it…. is it safe to sleep in the jungle… would a farmer let me siphon some gas… oh man this is not good…” Consumed by a new sense of urgency the road turned into a very steep incline and the bike started making noises signaling that it was done for the day. Just cresting the hill the road flattened out and I coasted in neutral past some ferocious street dogs. In the distance a sign said guesthouse and my worries dissipated. An old Thai woman spoke a little English and told us we could purchase some gas just up the street. She treated us to some delicious cherries and Chinese tea allowing us to rest our soar behinds. Three old ladies (one being literally the oldest living person I’ve seen in my life) were sowing blankets, staring at the two strange white people who had frantically entered their village. We thanked the women and puttered the bike to a shop that sold gas out of an old barrel.

    Still with no map, but a new air of confidence we continue on our journey. Cruising along trying to guess where to go we saw a large upscale resort nestled in the valley below us. We decided to cruise down and try to get directions. Strangely enough NO ONE spoke any English at this secret hidden hotel, but we were able to obtain a terrible map showing only the major highways in the area (we were on tiny mountain back roads). The map was virtually useless and as we cruised on for some time Jessy and I began to bicker about where we were going as daylight was nearing an end. Driving through the mountains of Thailand as the sun sets sounds like a beautiful experience, but I can assure you its quite the opposite. The most frustrating aspect of Thailand is at dusk when you are riding a motorbike. Unless you are fortunate enough to have a helmet with a glass face protector (not common on rentals) then you will be subject to what I like to call the “sunset mosquito blinding phenomenon.” These pesky little bugs never seem to come out during the day when I’m wearing sunglasses, but the MOMENT it becomes just dark enough to where I take them off, my eyes are bombarded with insects aiming to bury themselves in my corneas… The initial sting of contact is bad, but pulling over and attempting to dig these critters out of the corner of your eyes is utterly horrible! Doing my best to open my eyes as little as possible while driving the motorbike we eventually arrived in a village with a couple signs in English and knew we had reached our destination.

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Getting Lost, Wax Monks and the Philosophy of Travel

    Why do we Travel?  —  For me personally there are two main reasons why the thoughts of adventuring to faraway, exotic lands occupies an unreasonable amount of my time. The first one is the idea that simple routine tasks when performed in a different culture/language become adventures in themselves. One of my top inspirations, the legendary Bill Bryson understands this: “To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” The second reason is because I think traveling is hands down the best education out there. Put yourself alone in a foreign city with no understanding of the language, culture or where to go and see how much you will learn about the world and yourself! From the wise words of Mohammed, “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have traveled.” The following story is just the introduction to one of the most raw, incredible, spur of the moment adventures that defines why I love to travel. Here’s the tale…

The northern most province in Thailand and bordering the intriguing country of Burma, the city of Chang Rai was the destination of a long weekend holiday for “Teacher’s Day.” After another bus ride similar to spending 3 hours riding the tea-cup ride at Disneyland with a hangover, Jessy and I arrived in the heart of a night Bazaar. No accommodation booked yet, but we decided to sit down for some food and beers to warm-up as it was actually quite chilly up in the mountains of Chang Rai. As we sat down to watch some traditional Thai dance moves on stage, a couple at the picnic table next to ours asked us to join them. It was a 30 something aged Swedish dude with his Thai girlfriend of a couple months. She was quite intoxicated and couldn’t stop telling Jessy how beautiful she was while constantly stroking her hair. The Swede spoke decent English and I knew one word in Swedish “Skal” which meant cheers, so we got along drinking beers and chatting about travels. I felt like I was doing sit-ups throughout the entire conversation as the Thai girl was absolutely hilarious making me laugh to the point of almost obtaining a six pack. She was telling us that she was the “runt of the litter” in her family, because she was born very premature and the youngest of 8 sisters and a brother. I thought she was just joking around until she stood up and was literally 4′ 6″ at best. This was funny because her Swedish boyfriend was clearly of massive Nordic Viking heritage. We called a guesthouse around midnight, which they weren’t particularly happy about, and grabbed a tuk-tuk to the room.

After a pretty solid nights rest in a gorgeous teak, wooden house, we rented a motorbike to explore the area. We heard about a fabled all white temple that resembled something out of a fairytale and set out to discover it. Despite this temple being one of the most popular things to see in the area, we had quite a time trying to find it. No signs pointing to the temple’s location, so our primary strategy was to just pull over and ask random Thai farmers, construction workers and shop owners how to get there. Unfortunately none of them really spoke a word of English and I didn’t know the name of the temple so it was quite challenging. I knew the words Wat (temple) and Si Kow (White) in Thai and saying this while pointing in random directions with a shoulder shrug was how I hoped to gain some direction. At one point we pulled over to an older boy walking on the side of the road and asked him for help. I don’t know if it was our white skin or my shiny golden hair, but when he looked at us his eyes penetrated my soul with a look of deranged fear and no words were spoken for an uncomfortably long amount of time. We decided to leave him be and thought that he may have been autistic. Eventually a shop owner’s eyes lit up when we spoke English to him and he said “my baby speak English” with a look of pride comparable to having your son win the Superbowl and be elected president in the same moment. Confused as to how a baby would help us, he took us to his house where his 14 year old son gave us good directions.

Bleach white dotted with silver reflective mirrors, this temple was truly incredible. In front of this heavenly looking temple curved two massive elephant tusks forming an entrance. Two pits on either side depicted some sort of hell with arms, skulls and other body parts reaching towards you. Inside the temple was a monk sitting on a cushion meditating. We literally spent 15 minutes or so trying to determine whether this monk was real or a wax sculpture. He was freakishly still and not once during our uninterrupted jaw dropped staring did he so much as flinch or show any signs of breathing. Hearing other tourists say they heard he was real was the only evidence we saw of that being true. To this day I will never be sure whether it was a real monk in the deepest state of meditation imaginable or not. Near the exit to the temple were large colorful murals depicting the apocalypse. However these paintings were clearly made with tourists in mind as they showed ridiculous scenes of Superman and “Neo” from the Matrix intermingled with Armageddon style situations. One section was a monster whose arms were gas pumps smashing into the twin towers with a plane also heading towards them. As we departed my mind was consumed with wondering whether this temple was constructed purely for tourism, or if it ever truly served as a religious monument at some point in time. We hopped on the motorbike and headed north towards Burma, not knowing that the next few days would become one of the best adventures we’d ever had….