Pakbeng to Chiang Mai to Bangkok to Tokyo

Right, so I’m back home in Boston now, but I figured it’s been a while since I wrote one of these updates, and there are some events that need to be shared.

It’s kind of hard to believe I was in Laos less than two weeks ago—it feels like a lifetime. Ross and I made it to Houayxay the day after my last write-up and quickly crossed over to the Thai border town of Chiang Kong. Riding in on the ferry you could sense an immediate difference between the two countries. On the left shore was Thailand—with its massive rock screes, construction vehicles, and commercial activity lining the river bank. And on the right shore was Laos—just a vast expanse of undeveloped land with the occasional dilapidated hut. I’ve never seen such an obvious disparity of wealth between neighboring countries.

Total Travels
Places visited in Southeast Asia

It became even more evident as we entered Thailand. I knew this country was more developed than Vietnam or Laos, but I didn’t realize how much. The motorbike traffic had given way to actual cars, all of which drove sensibly through more-or-less clean streets with buildings made of wood and brick and concrete rather than thatch and corrugated aluminum. Nobody burned their trash in the street here.

The food was also great. Ross and I spent the first night in a hostel in Chiang Kong, eating with an Italian couple, a Dutch couple (the Dutch are everywhere in SE Asia), and a Thai man. The next morning we set out for Chiang Mai by bus. The ride was pretty short and simple, and Ross and I were amazed by the newfound efficiency of the Thai bus services. (They actually tag your luggage and assign you seats!) My trip through Southeast Asia brought me to a lot of towns, ranging from tiny mountain villages to sprawling coastal metropolises. But Chiang Mai was the only place where I could actually see myself living.

Our first night in town Ross and I went to a Muay Thai fight and got hammered watching Thai teenagers cudgel each other with their shins. Ross placed some illegal bets and lost some money, as he is wont to do, and we smoked a pack of cigarettes between us. I think we eventually went to some kind of concert, but arrived as it was ending and so only so a bit of live music. I don’t remember a whole lot from this point on. It was all so filthy and delightful.

Fight Night
Me, Ross, and “Supsan”

The next morning we woke with a pair of mythic hangovers. We wandered about Chiang Mai to see what it had done to us. Somehow, we had the good sense to sign up for a Thai cooking class, which we obediently attended and learned how to cook some fantastic Thai dishes. We got to enjoy the spoils of our labor, too. It was great fare, though Thai food is actually fairly complicated and I am far from confident in my skills, even after completing that four-hour class.

The next morning we signed up for a daylong trek that included elephant riding, hikes through the jungle, bathing beneath a waterfall, white-water rafting, and bamboo rafting. It was a fun day that completed our time in Chaing Mai. That night we took an overnight bus to Bangkok and arrived feeling very confused and overwhelmed by the immensity of the place. Unlike Chiang Mai, I would never want to live there. Too big, too smelly.

I feel like Bangkok is so big and massive that you really need someone who knows the place to take you around and show you the sights, which is something Ross and I did not have. While we had one fun night out in the Khao San backpacker’s district, where I ate some fried scorpion on a stick, our last two nights in Thailand were fairly tame. Our second day we went to this market/mall where they sold cheap, knock-off versions of electronics. I almost bought a copy of Photoshop for $15 but realized I could always just pirate it for free because I’m a bad man. I did, however, buy a Beats Bluetooth speaker for $12. That’s right: $12. (It still works.)

Bangkok Traffic
Bangkok traffic

Maybe we were exhausted, maybe we didn’t know what to do, but Ross and I spent our last two days walking the streets, gaping at Bangkok’s oppressive population density. The traffic in this city makes New York rush hour look like Sunday church traffic. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is—it’s always gridlocked. It’s also worth noting how overtly sexual Thailand is, especially Bangkok. We stayed in a nice hotel the last two nights (courtesy of Ross’s frequent flyer program). The place was located in what I guess could be considered the high-end travelers’ district. It was mostly international business-type people, middle-aged and self-absorbed and very much not into backpacking or travel-for-the-sake-of-travel. Oh, and sexual tourists. A lot of sexual tourists. Creepy, overweight, middled-aged sexual tourists. Old white men walking around with Thai girls who rarely look older than 17. Gross. Ross and I were so sickened by these old farts that we took to muttering “pervert” under our breath every time we passed one.

On Friday we went to a movie (mostly out of boredom) and had to stand and pay reverence to the Thai royal anthem, which played after the previews and had Ross biting his tongue to hold back laughter. Live free or die.

We flew out Saturday, and that’s all she wrote, at least as far as Southeast Asia is concerned. While Ross flew back home to Boston I flew to the land of the rising sun to meet Emily. She had arranged a good portion of the trip already, for which I was extremely grateful because Japan is a really confusing place. It’s also very efficient and very clean, and they don’t really speak much English. It’s expensive, too. Still, I was mostly overwhelmed by how friendly and helpful the people are. I wrote in a previous entry about how trite it is to describe a country as being really friendly? Well, in Japan, literally every person we met was friendly. They actually wanted to help us.

Tokyo Skyscrapers
Towers in Tokyo

Apart from the unending and refreshingly genuine friendliness, Japan is a highly advanced society with electrified toilets and female vocal instructions that emanate from every little infrastructural gizmo. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where you have to remember to turn off the toilet before leaving home. Yes, there’s a control panel on the toilet. I didn’t really interact with it, because it was so strange to me, but I think you can control the warmth of the seat as well as the water pressure of the bidet. There’s a wealth of other options written in Japanese that may or may not involve magic plumbing. The showers also include control panels that allow you to choose the precise numerical temperature of the water. One mirror in a hotel we stayed in had a self-heating feature that allowed you to see through the condensation after a steamy shower.

Mt Fuji
Mt Fuji from the “Shinkansen” (Bullet Train)

All the trains are extremely fast, and they always arrive on schedule. The bullet train (called the “Shinkansen”)—which is the equivalent of their MBTA commuter rail, only much, much faster—leaves Tokyo station for all points every 15 goddamn minutes. It averages speeds of around 150 mph, and in some parts of the country it maxes out at 200 mph. Even the subway cars are smooth and quiet. Oh, and no one here jaywalks. Ever.

There are also all these interesting little examples of Japan’s cultural devotion to efficiency. In the subways, you have to insert your ticket into the turnstile upon leaving, thereby ridding you of some trash and keeping the streets clean of garbage. Also, unlike the Boston or New York subway lines, you have to pay according to the distance you’re traveling. I imagine Bostonians would be repulsed by this idea, if only because it requires a few extra seconds of brain power, but it would doubtlessly alleviate some of the MBTA’s revenue issues. At restaurants, you either order directly from the chef (in the case of sushi), or you have a button at your table that summons your server, and they always arrive within seconds. You also pay at registers by the entrance instead of having to wait for your server to get change. Brilliant.

Overall, the food was great—we had some awesome noodle dishes and, of course, sushi—but I think I still like Thai food more.

Kyoto Vista
A view of Kyoto

We visited Kyoto by bullet train, passing Mount Fuji along the way. We walked around the city, visited some temples and saw some historic architecture. The city is much smaller than Tokyo, but the downtown area is still bustling with activity. They really get into the holidays here. Lots of decorations and Christmas carols playing through public speakers.

Later that night we stumbled upon a small music venue where some local drummer was performing an hour-and-a-half-long drum solo. That’s it: just a drum solo. For an hour-and-a-half. The audience was captivated—and rightly so. The guy was damn good. Emily and I were the only foreigners in the place, and after the performance the drummer chanced upon us, shooting us a look of delightful surprise in the process. He asked us where we were from and we said America, to which he seemed even more elated. Through an interpreter he explained that he was honored that an American had seen his performance, and I told him he was one of the best drummers I’d ever seen. Which was true. We really made his day—he was so happy.

Kyoto in December
A December day in Kyoto

The next day, we did some hiking up a small mountain overlooking the city. At the top there was a snow monkey commune, where you could chill with monkeys and feed them and take in the impressive views. The foliage was also pretty stunning —not quite October in New England but still very nice. We also walked through a super tall bamboo forest.

That night, after dinner and drinks and a stroll through a shopping area, we headed back to our room, which was an apartment we rented through AirBnB. Upon arriving I realized I had lost the key and went into a panic. We doubled back to the place we had dinner to search for it, as well as a bar we had gotten a couple drinks at. No dice. I felt really badly—I mean, I honestly never lose keys—but Emily was really sweet and understanding about the whole thing. Since it was already pretty late, we ended up having to stay in a hotel, which sucked because it was a waste of money and we didn’t have any of our stuff with us. But I suppose it could have been a lot worse. We finally got back into our room with the cleaning crew the next afternoon, then we booked it for the bullet train to take us back to Tokyo. We stayed the last night in this super nice hotel overlooking the entire city, including the iconic Tokyo tower. This hotel was Emily’s Christmas gift to me, and it was great.

The next day we took a long stroll through a huge park that seemed to be like Tokyo’s version of Boston Common. Lots of nice views and well manicured greenery. In the afternoon, we hopped onto the subway and headed to our respective airports (Emily to Haneda, me to Narita). And now I’m back home in Boston and unsure what to do with my life.

Bamboo Forest
A bamboo forets in Kyoto
Tokyo Street
A street in Tokyo
Monkey Sanctuary
Japanese snow monkeys at a sanctuary in Kyoto
Kyoto Shrine
A shrine in Kyoto


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