Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Thailand: Week 2

The night train arrived in Chiang Mai only 45 minutes behind schedule, which would be a catastrophe in Germany but I guess is pretty good for Thailand. We got in at quarter to 2 in the afternoon, which meant that we'd been on the train for nearly 16 hours. The young English couple in the next seat over from me agreed it was once of the most miserable train rides they'd ever experienced, mostly because of how cold it got in the night. Everyone was wearing anything and everything they could find in their luggage to try to stay warm. 

Chiang Mai is busy and beautiful and full of Buddhist monasteries. Here are a few I visited. One of them was having Monk Chat while I was there, which meant I got to ask a monk questions along with some other visitors and then took part in a 90-minute mediation course. 

Ordination hall (women are NOT allowed to go inside)

There are also many, many street food vendors and outdoor markets, including the famous Night Bazaar selling goods of all kinds. 

Street food costs next to nothing and it's easy to treat a row of vendors as your own personal snack entourage, just strolling down the street and passing out 5-20 baht at a time for little pockets of rice, meat skewers, spring rolls, banana pancakes, and whatever else strikes your fancy. It's delicious and I need to get out of Thailand before I gain 20 pounds. Seriously, I'm addicted to two things: sticky rice with mango and 4-taste dried tamarind (available at 7-11 which are everywhere here). It's becoming a problem. 

After a few days in Chiang Mai, it was time to move on to the countryside. Against my better judgment, I decided to rent a motorbike to ride through northern Thailand. It's my first time on anything resembling a motorcycle. It's also the first time I've driven on the left, as well as my first time driving in Asia. Lots of new stuff to get used to. I took my Honda Click out for a test ride to the Doi Suthep temple just outside of Chiang Mai. Once outside of the city (and the ugly snarl of traffic), the riding was no longer terrifying and at times actually really enjoyable, so I decided to go ahead and rent the bike for a week. 

Arriving back at the rental shop, I was excited to hit the road for the laid-back, traveler-friendly town of Pai, 140km away. But then came a series of setbacks. 

Setback #1: daylight hours 

The lady at the rental shop looked at her watch and informed me that it was too late to leave for Pai. It was 4pm and the sun sets around 6:30 here. "No lights on the roads," she told me. Since part of the allure of the drive is the stunning countryside, and also because I didn't want to get hit by cars or drive off a cliff, I decided she was right, and that I'd stay another night in Chiang Mai. I booked into the hostel down the road and vowed to be in bed early so as to get an early start the next morning. 

Setback #2: booze and dancing 

The whole time I've been in Thailand, I hadn't really gone out, or had any alcohol save for the occasional afternoon beer. Neil and I went for a dance last week on Koh Chang but only because the techno party was right next to our hut and sleeping wasn't going to be an option unless we wore ourselves out. He doesn't drink so when we were hanging out I had less incentive to drink, too. 

Of course, since this time I made specific plans to be up early in the morning, I naturally ended up going out until 2am with the owner/manager of a local restaurant. He grew up on Mercer Island and his restaurant had been recommended to me by another Seattle friend, so I dropped by to check it out. (If you're ever in Chiang Mai, go there; it's called Dash and it's fabulous.) I intended to just say hello but ended up sitting at the bar for a few hours, observing the dinner rush as Dash kept sending drinks my way. (Yes, the restaurant is named after him.) When he invited me out to karaoke, I knew an early start the next day was not in the cards. True, I could have declined and gone home early. But since Dash is half-Thai and lives in Chiang Mai, he had an "in" that I hadn't had yet in Thailand. A local who could show me around? Take me to his favorite bars? Barter in Thai with the tuk tuk drivers? I figured that this was an opportunity I had to cash in on. 

Setback #3: lost key

After drinks, dancing and a late-night McDonalds run (karaoke was closed that night, sadly), I bade farewell to Dash and headed for my hostel. A quick inventory was necessary, and since I had my purse on me still, I figured I had everything, since I keep all the important stuff in there. Well, except for the motorbike key. Which was supposed to be in my shirt pocket. My fingers delved hurriedly into the pocket only to realize that the key to my scooter was no longer there. 

The key. Was. No. Longer. There. 

Fighting a wave of mild panic, I thought of the places the key might be. The thought had crossed my mind earlier in the evening that the key might be safer in my purse than in the pocket, but a thorough examination of the contents of the purse proved that I had not followed through on that particular notion. It must have hopped out of the pocket while I was jumping around to that Nirvana cover band... or whilst dancing in that reggae bar... or while grooving to Top 40 remixes in that club that was crawling with prostitutes and old creepy white men. I hurried back to the club complex only to find that they had all closed up shop for the night. A few long-haired after-hours Thai dudes were still in the rock bar and let me in to look for the key, but to no avail. The thing was gone. 

I went to bed feeling slightly ill and more than slightly aggravated at myself. This is what you get, I thought as I laid awake in my 4-bed dorm. Go out and have fun, but there will be consequences. 

I woke up at 11 the next morning with a slight hangover, not sure what to do. I went to the rental place to break the news to the mechanic, who reacted unhappily (although I didn't really expect him to react any other way - I mean they'd just lent me the bike 1 day before and here I was with definitive proof that I couldn't be trusted with a key, much less an entire bike). Whereas in America they'd say things like "No problem, we'll just grab the spare for ya, don't you worry, happens all the time", this guy just exhaled sharply and shook his head. (I think I prefer his reaction - much more honest - and really, what shop keeper would be GLAD that you lost their key?)

Anyway, they had a replacement key made, so all obstacles were now out of my way. By 2pm I was on the road headed to Pai. 

I stopped for lunch at a cafe with a scenic backyard and delicious curry:

The road to Pai has lots of curves. Dash's mother Noi had told me there were 550 curves in total and that I would not want to drive them, that instead I should book a bus ticket. Obviously I did not follow her advice, because scootering your way through the hills is SUPER FUN. Don't worry though, I'm doing my best to go slow and be safe. In the hostel in Chiang Mai, I talked to a tall handsome Estonian guy who was on crutches and asked him what had happened. No surprise: motorbike accident. Just 25km outside of Pai. He said he had talked to two more backpackers that had met a similar fate. I've seen plenty of tourists with scratches and bandages - "farang tattoos" (farang is the Thai word for foreigner, and literally means "French person"). Motorbiking was sounding less and less like a good idea. But I'd already rented the thing for the week. 

So far, I've done good and managed to avoid crashing, but motorbike accidents are like pregnancies: it only takes one to really screw things up.

That said, here are some pics of the bike and of the trip to Pai: 

Oh yeah and of me taking a gratuitous selfie, of course. 

Saw a LOT of Sharp Curve signs. 

And now I'm in Pai. 

That last one is from Buffalo Bar, but is actually a Buffalo Exchange sign. (The word "exchange" has been blacked out.) I wonder how it got here?

Next post: my last week in the Land of Smiles. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Pannier backpack combo hack

In preparation for my cycle trip to New Zealand, I've been trying to figure out the best way to carry my panniers when they're not on the bike. I have Ortlieb Backroller Classics and they are delightful. However, they aren't easy to carry when off the bike, especially if you have to manhandle two of them simultaneously. They come with over-the-shoulder straps but I'd rather carry one that way and one on my back.

Ortlieb sells a backpack converter kit which I find to be rather expensive, so I thought of ways I could make my own. 

The simple solution: a day pack and a thick plastic coat hanger. 

All you have to do is stick the hanger upside down into the backpack straps, as if the hanger was carrying the backpack. 

Then take your pannier and position it so that the clip system is facing the outside of the backpack. 

All that's left to do now is to secure the pannier clips one at a time to the hanger on either side of the straps. Pull up on the release handle on the side you want to open the clip. 

Ta-da! A somewhat goofy looking but functional backpack. (My dad said the hanger sticking out from my shoulders made the setup look tacky. I like to pretend they're little angel wings.)

The pannier sits high enough so you can strap other things to the lower part of the pack, such as shoes, your tent and ground cover, your sleeping mat, etc. 

To release, pull up on the release handle. 

When you want to carry the pannier separately, just insert it into the rack holder by itself. Be careful not to pick up your pannier by the release handle or you'll lose your hanger. For this reason, I prefer to secure the hanger on the lower hook, although I found this tends to bend the hanger over time. 

The backpack I picked up at Goodwill for $4. There was significant damage to the bottom of the pack which didn't bother me, as I only wanted the thing for the straps and back part. (Ordinarily I wouldn't seek out a Jägermeister-branded backpack, either).

My brother used the damage as a way to talk down the price at the register by 50%. Later, as I was traveling, I decided that I did want to use the big inside pocket for storage, and so I sewed a patch into the bottom of the pack. I found the side pockets to be useful for water bottles, toothbrush and anything else I want to keep handy. With the bottom patched, I can use the Jäger pack as a day pack as well. If anyone knows how I could turn the day pack into a handlebar bag as well, let me know!

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Three weeks in Thailand: Week 1

So the blog is called Killah in Germany, yet the next few months will be spent not in Germany. Actually, I haven't been in Germany since before Thanksgiving. Does that mean I have to change the URL?

(Not gonna!)

Anyway, here's what I've been up to. I know the post title suggests that I am going to write about Thailand, but BACK UP A MINUTE Kyla, how did you end up in Thailand? Thanks for asking! Allow me to explain. 

In mid-October, I left Berlin to start hiking the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, starting in St. Jean Pied-de-Port at the foot of the Pyranees mountain range in France. My sister and I met in Paris and took a rideshare down south. 

My sister started the hike with me but had to drop out on day 8 due to injury. She rejoined for one night to cook me a birthday dinner, though!

After 34 days of hiking including one day of rest, I was in Santiago, with 800km behind me and a certificate to prove it. 

Then I flew to Chicago just in time to spend Thanksgiving with my relatives in the Midwest. 

In December I went home to Olympia for Christmas and bought myself a nice shiny new touring bike. Thanks, KillahSanta! I love my new Surly Long Haul Trucker. 

To test out the mettle of my new bike, I took it out for a weekend in the San Juan Islands with my friend Brad. We missed the ferry for Lopez Island by a hair, so we ended up doing a day on San Juan island instead, and spent the following day on Orcas Island. It ended up being a blessing in disguise. 

Then I packed up the bike to be shipped to New Zealand. But before starting my bike tour there, I decided I wanted to see a little bit of SE Asia. Delta was having a fare sale to Bangkok and I had a flight voucher from them I needed to use before it expired. So I landed in Bangkok in mid-January. Neil, whom I met on the Camino in Spain, was in Thailand already and picked me up from the airport. (You might recognize him from the one of the photos above.)

After spending a few days in the tourist bustle of Bangkok as I got over my jet lag, we headed for Koh Chang, an island in eastern Thailand, setting up camp at beautiful Lonely Beach. 

Koh Chang is the 2nd largest island in Thailand after Phuket. It's got great beaches but the party scene can be a bit much. So I took a few days off from the big island to go to the smaller, quieter island of Koh Wai. The ticket taker on the boat had a very interesting belt:

I got my very own beachfront bungalow on Koh Wai for the equivalent of 5 USD a night. 

Yes, that's the view from my balcony!

Koh Wai was windier and thus not as good for swimming, but the water was clear and the fish were plentiful. And both islands were warmer than the San Juans!

Then it was back to Koh Chang for a few more days of beach bumming. The same wooden boat (with the same ticket taker with the same wooden (woody?) belt) took me back to Bang Bao Bay and then I caught a songthaew (bench taxi) to Lonely Beach, where I rejoined Neil.  

I really should take a picture of the bench taxi. It has to be seen to be believed. I've also had my turn riding in a tuk-tuk, which is an experience both delightful and terrifying. 

This morning, I packed up and left Koh Chang to return to Bangkok. 

After a 45-minute ferry ride followed by 6 hours in a minibus, I made it to Bangkok Huaphanglong train station and booked an overnight train to Chiang Rai in the north. They were out of room in the sleeper cars so I am traveling 3rd class (!). At least it's cheap - $9 for a 751km ride. 

It's good to get out of Bangkok too, what with the shutdown and all. Even waiting outside the train station on the steps, I was busy writing this post when a police procession showed up. 

The police were friendly though - they came over to us foreigners sitting on the steps and asked us if we liked various aspects of Thailand: the food, the culture, the weather. Though I think they really just wanted to bum cigarettes from the other backpackers. (One disadvantage of not being a smoker - perhaps the only disadvantage - is that you lack a built-in excuse to strike up a conversation with people.) I didn't see any protests but have heard various reports ranging from mild transit inconveniences to car bombings. These reports are third hand at best and remain invalidated, but at any rate I'm glad to be leaving for Chiang Mai. I've heard good reports. 

If you have any must-see places in Thailand or nearby, please leave it in the comments or shoot me an email. I've got 2 weeks left to explore. It's only just now starting to hit me how diverse and wonderful this country is. Monks roaming the streets in their monk robes along with Thai ladyboys, street vendors selling all kinds of delicious food for no more than $2, beaches and jungles (sometimes on the same island), motorbikes everywhere. Stay tuned for week 2, in which Killah takes a meditation course in a Buddhist monestary and gets addicted to dried tamarind. 

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