After having spent one night at the Elephant Nature Park, neither Laura nor I felt a pressing desire to leave. It was enough to just be there, where so much good was happening, that it was difficult to turn our backs and leave it all behind. That being said, there was more to Thailand than just bringing water for elephants, and we were eager to explore.
Back in Chiang Mai
One of the reasons we’d come to Northern Thailand in the first place was to escape the urban drudgery that often characterizes life in Singapore. The promise of stunning vistas and the temperate climate of Thailand’s mountainous north, was, therefore, an irresistible draw. Furthermore, Northern Thailand’s diverse hill tribe population was something Laura and I were interested in learning more about – and if we could accomplish this on a two or three day trek through the mountains, then all the better.
The difficulty, however, was in finding a trekking company that we felt comfortable with, and that promoted the kind of ethical tourism that had become even more of a selling feature for us since our experience at Elephant Nature Park.
This turned out to be an insurmountable task, as the plethora of trekking companies that offer tours through the hills and that visit hill tribe villages all seemed to exude anything but ethical eco-tourism. Even those companies who promoted their commitment to sustainable tourism practices – especially in terms of limiting their impact on the lives and way of life of the hill tribe villagers themselves, seemed incapable of recognizing the inherent irony in the fact that the “non-touristy” experiences they were offering were in no way different from their shameless competitor next door. All of these tours offered the same kind of itineraries: a stop at an elephant camp, bamboo rafting, and trips to various villages by car. The non-touristy packages simply covered the same terrain but in reverse order.
What we could not shake off was the notion that all of it came across as a kind of carnival sideshow with each tribe dressed in traditional garments and paraded around rustic villages for the amusement and fascination of Western tourists. The notion of supporting this kind of practice was one we just could not support, nor did it come close to offering us the kind of experience that we’d envisioned. We therefore decided to axe the whole idea, which turned out to be a good decision in some ways (other tourists who we met later on confirmed our worst fears about the trekking tours, including drunken tour guides and the prevalence of opium use by tribesmen who had come to rely solely on tourist dollars in order to survive) and not so good in others (the outcome of which has forced me to grow a beard, which, by the way, is not ideal in this climate).
It also left us with determining what to do for the remainder of the week, as we’d planned to finish up the remainder of our stay in Thailand in the hills.
After picking up my suit and pants from the tailor’s and a spending a day learning the ins and outs of cooking Thai cuisine (which since returning to Singapore we’ve attempted once with resounding failure), we headed for the northern town of Pai, some 3-4 hours from Chiang Mai.
Once a small, isolated village on the northern frontier, Pai had, in recent decades, become an alluring hotspot for hippies and stoners, remnants of which still exist in the proliferation of Bob Marley-themed handicrafts and the constant rhythms of “No Woman, No Cry” floating out from the open doors of restaurants and cafes.
Pai had, arguably, shed most of what had made it appealing when it had first been discovered by tourists from the West (a centuries-old trend), having had its quaint charm replaced by a sprawl of bars, restaurants and guesthouses to cater to the tourist boom. It still retained a small town charm, but could have easily been mistaken for any other small town from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.
A few minutes outside of Pai, however, and it’s a different story. Rolling hills and valleys form a landscape that is lush and serene, becoming even more mountainous the further north you travel. Aside form the occasional small village or farm, the region remains largely secluded.
It is with this backdrop that our final, climactic scene is played out.
Once again renting scooters, Laura and I travelled north of Pai to an area known for its massive subterranean caves. Traveling for little more than an hour, chugging slowly along the rugged, windy village roads, we arrived at Tham Lod Cave
In order to enter the caves, we were required to hire a guide, whose limited vocabulary in English restricted her to the role of lantern carrier, who whereby would point at phenomena of interest within the caves, such as a unique stalagmite formation, and would compare it to something like an alligator or a UFO.
It’s likely that I learned more about geology from watching episodes of “Fraggle Rock” than I did through the knowledge and wisdom of our guide, but the experience of exploring the caves did invoke some sense of adventure and excitement that more than once gave me the feeling that I was immersed in the world of “The Goonies” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
As the afternoon sun began to wane, we began our journey back to Pai. Climbing up the mountain along which the highway stretched, and stopping for a restroom break at its summit, Laura and I both commented on the fact that we felt much more confident and in control of the bikes than we’d had previously.
Less than five minutes later, as we began our descent, I felt the sudden sensation of the road being swept out from beneath me like a magician swiping a tablecloth from underneath a setting of plates and cutlery. Unlike the dinnerware, however, I was no longer remaining upright.
Suddenly, I was seeing the world from an entirely different perspective – a combination of Adam West “Batman’s” dizzying camera angles coupled with the hand-held shakiness of a Stephen Bocho television show.
My head hit the asphalt with a large thud, half an inch of hard plastic all that separated the side of my face from having its flesh torn off as I skidded along at 40 kilometers an hour, dirt and gravel flying through my clenched teeth as my jaw served as an impromptu brake, resisting, as best it could, from snapping altogether.
People talk about seeing their lives flash before their eyes in moments of near death, when the fragility of life becomes all too real and apparent. That didn’t happen – and thank God for that. It was bad enough that I had become a statistic on the roadways of Thailand, but I don’t think I could have dealt with being a cliché as well.
Instead, from the moment my head hit the ground to the moment that the guardrail abruptly stopped my descent into the abyss below, I was imbued with a sense of clarity and absolute calm, as if all of my senses were focused on that one moment to reassure me that everything, in the end, would be all right.
I climbed out from underneath the bike amidst a volley of cries from Laura, who had just pulled over on her bike, to sit down and stop. I obliged, despite the fact that as far as I could tell, I was relatively fine. In fact, I was more preoccupied with the fact that I’d managed to cause a small tear in the knee of the new pants I’d just bought from Columbia.
Laura rushed over to see how I was. From the angle she’d seen things, it was a miracle I could move at all, let alone sit and converse. Heck, from the angle I’d seen things, it was a miracle I could do anything at all.
Laura examined the status of my chin, neck and forearm, which had taken the brunt of the fall and subsequently was now covered in blood, several layers of skin having been violently shorn off from the friction caused by having been dragged along asphalt for several meters at a fast speed. In the meantime, two Thai men who had been trailing behind us stopped and proceeded to pull my scooter out from its position under the guardrail. They spent several minutes attempting to get it started again, but to no avail. If it had down to it, I would have driven the bike back into town myself, not that I was particularly eager given the circumstances, but what other choice did I have? We were still a good 20 kilometers from Pai, and I was in no condition to walk that distance, even if I’d wanted to. Besides, the sun was slowly setting and it would soon be dark.
My only choice, then, was to hop on the back of Laura’s bike, but not before pouring my remaining water down my arm to clear away some of the dirt from my wounds, and not before asking Laura to pull out her camera to take a picture for posterity.
Despite the strain I placed on my hands and fingers as I clutched the sides of the scooter with violent tenacity, it felt good to face my anxieties about getting back on a bike once more and without hesitation. That isn’t to say that the ride was an enjoyable one, as straddling the seat behind Laura offered me less of a sense of control, and more than once did my stomach flip-flop as we took each sharp turn, flashbacks of a few minutes prior seeping to the forefront of my mind.
We pulled into the rental shop in Pai, and I, blood-soaked as I was, casually explained that there had been an accident. The employees were remarkably understanding and made no fuss handing us back our passports and ushering off their premises with little hesitation. I suppose the sight of a man dripping blood from his neck down to his knee is not good for business.
We walked the five minutes it took to get to the town hospital where I was sutured (five in my chin, four near my elbow) and bandaged. All in all, if the accident had to happen, the outcome was a best possible scenario. There were no broken bones or life-threatening injuries, and the doctors and nurses in both Pai and Bangkok, where we would stop-over the next day, all spoke English and did an excellent job in attending to my medical needs. Indeed, if you have to end up at a hospital in Southeast Asia, make sure it’s Thailand.
Let’s not beat around the bush here: I could very well be dead and you’d be reading about this in my obituary rather than on this slick blog. Every once in awhile it hits me, as it did when writing about this experience more than a month after it had happened. And even still I haven’t fully healed, with patches of my arm and knee still providing testament to what happened, along with the scars on my neck and chin, which continue to be concealed by a month-and-a-half’s worth of facial hair growth.
While I was able to escape having the sensation of my life flashing before my eyes, therefore avoiding falling face first into a tired cliché, the experience left me unable to avoid understanding the fact that we all walk a very fine line when it comes to the distance between life and death, and that it’s something, understandably, that we think very little of in our day-to-day routines.
But the fact is, we are extremely lucky. Lucky in the lives we lead, the opportunities available to us, of the friends and family that care about us, of the fact that in this day and age it is reasonable to expect to see a good adaptation of a comic book on the big screen.
It truly is a shame that we don’t stop and recognize these facts on a more regular basis, so if you’ll bear with me for one uncharacteristically sentimental moment – if not today, then the next day or the day after that, turn to that person close to you and remind them how lucky you are to have them in your life, to share those moments worth sharing and even the ones we’d rather not think about.
And that’s all I have to say about that.