One of the things I've had to really deal with a lot this trip is being on a rather tight budget means I am not always staying at the nicest of accommodation. Sometimes, things work out for the best (like Baan Traversi in Krabi), othertimes I think I'm getting a deal, only to enter into a cockroach showdown (Salad Beach Resort on Koh Phangan), and other times things have just been down right miserable (Hue Backpacker's and the horrid hostel on Cat Ba Island in Vietnam). Just when I think I've seen it all (grimy walls! A bed on the floor!), something new pops up that I never even thought possible.
In the case of my guesthouse in Chiang Mai, it was a toilet missing the tank lid and a mattress that was described on various reviews as "hard" but was basically sitting on a mattress stuffed full of metal car parts.
I had just arrived in Chiang Mai from Myanmar, where I had spent the preceding two weeks mostly in guesthouses and hostels, because Myanmar is more expensive than its Southeast Asian counterparts when it comes to accomodation. Sadly, it's not just more expensive, but the quality is lacking, too -- the problem of having way more demand than supply.
Anyway, I'd just gotten to Chiang Mai after flying all day, first from Yangon to Bangkok, then Bangok to Chiang Mai. Then I waited at the airport for what seemed like forever while the airport shuttle waited to see if anyone else wanted a ride into the city. So, the first thing I did upon entering the room was head into the bathroom where I saw the tank lid-less toilet.
Well, that's a new one, I thought, as I sat down to use it, only to discover there was no toilet paper. So, I went back down to get some from the front desk where there was a basket of rolls and a sign saying it was 10 baht per roll. Everywhere, I suddenly noticed, there were signs about this guesthouse's fees: check out an hour late? That'll be 100 baht. Want to refill your water bottle? That will be 10 baht. (A new bottle of water is like 13 baht.) Want to leave your bag in the luggage locker? An extra towel? Room service? Electricity? I'm surprised they weren't offering to keep the roof on the building for an extra fee. "Ohhhh, so you wanted a room with a roof? That will be 30 baht. 60 if you'd also like to have a door."
It was starting to occur to me why this place was as inexpensive as it was -- they would just nickel and dime you for everything else along the way. I was thinking this as I unfolded the grubby, ratty towel lying on the bed and went to hang it up in the bathroom, only for the towel rack to clatter to the floor. I could tell from the various holes in the wall, it wasn't the first time it had fallen off. It seemed safe to conclude that the guesthouse was inexpensive because they were saving money on properly fixing anything.
But whatever, at $12 a night, it wasn't the worst place in the world. No cockroaches had climbed up from up the bed (and at least I could see under the bed). It was relatively clean, even if the furniture was forty years old and there were brown sheets on the bed (who uses brown sheets on a bed?!) and the whole place was in a state of general decay. I'd originally thought I'd stay for 3 nights but as soon as I sat on the bed and felt like I'd sat in a toybox of iron-clad Slinkys, decided, hmmm, maybe I will just leave a wee bit sooner.
I got to Chiang Mai quite late in the day so I headed out and got a foot massage and had a really nice talk with the masseuse about my time in Myanmar and some of what I'd seen there, which, as Chiang Mai is relatively near the Myanmar border, resembles older aspects and traditions of the region's culture. We also talked about life in Thailand and the relationships between Thai women and foreign men and she seemed surprised to learn it is not considered appropriate for 70-year-old men to date teenagers. (It's not appropriate in Thai culture but she'd assumed since she's seen so many old men with young women over the years it must be considered OK in our culture. I set her straight and let her know that in the US, at least, this would be considered statuatory rape.) From there I got some food at a Vietnamese restaurant (which turned out to be awful), and headed back to the guesthouse for a night of uncomfortable sleep on the Slinkydinks.
The next day I ventured out for breakfast and found a great café called The Hideout, which served, among other delicacies, real bagels topped with cream cheese and salmon! Feeling a bit starved for Western food after two weeks in very-Western-food-free Myanmar, I took my time eating this sandwich, also enjoying the café's strong Wifi connection. Then I went to check out the main sights of the city and wandered around the town for a while. I also stopped by various travel agencies to see about the treks to the hill tribes available from Chiang Mai but everything seemed super touristy and expensive, especially after my fairly authentic one through Myanmar. I decided the best thing to do would be to cut my losses on Slinky-Dink Hotel and head to Pai a day early, where there was supposedly more trekking and white water rafting adventures to be had.
So, I left the next afternoon on a minivan bound for Pai (after another bagel breakfast at the Hideout, #noshame). While Chiang Mai is leafy and laidback, it still has a small city vibe to it; Pai, on the other hand, is just leafy and laidback and something of a hippie mecca. There's reggae bars and espresso bars and chai tea bars and all kinds of services advertised on photocopied fliers hanging on the doors of jewelry boutiques and restaurants for reiki and yoga and acupuncture. You could come here, grow dreadlocks, go hiking all the time, drink wheatgrass, and spend the rest of your life in a never-ending drum circle. It's like Marin, but affordable.
I had a recommendation for a bungalow place but couldn't stay there my first night in town, so I booked a more expensive room just up the road, which turned out to be a fairly nice place. The only downside was it didn't have a/c, just a fan, and the only windows that opened were the sliding glass door out on to the general walkway through the place, so for security, you'd have to sleep with the doors shut. OK, so I might sweat a lot tonight but at least the toilet has a tank lid on it. At least I'm not being charged for toilet paper. I went to wash my hands and then the sink drained all over the floor.
Side question: what goes on when these bathrooms are being built? "Hey, let's put the sink here! Hmm, where will the water go when it drains? I have no idea. I guess it can just drain on the bathroom floor." Why have a sink at all? Why not just put a faucet over the drain for the shower and install a soap rack? (There's never a soap rack.)
I settled into the room and took note of the thousand signs warning me about the costs lest I should break a glass on the concrete floor, damage the lamp or the TV, or dirty the sheets with a variety of different stains (each listed out at a different price, of course). What goes on in these places? Do people go to Thailand and then lose their minds/rational functioning human being behaviour and start acting like wild monkeys?
I then tried to open a side window and noticed the screen in the window allowed about a half inch gap between the screen and the edge of the window, so using the screen would do absolutely nothing to keep out bugs. (Again, why put in a screen if it is not going to actually screen an open window? What is the point?) Oh well, at least the Internet worked.
The next day I brought my bag to the bungalows and set off to rent a motorbike. The roads around Pai are easy to drive and navigate, as it's not particularly crowded or heavily trafficked -- most of the other people I saw on the road were fellow backpacker types. I drove around to check out Mo Paeng Waterfall, Pai Canyon, Pam Bok Waterfall, across an old bridge, and then to the hot springs, which I decided against paying to go in (it was already really hot out!). Mostly I just enjoyed driving around all day; my motorbike skills seem to be improving with every journey, and this time I even managed to make some turns successfully without fearing I'd accidentally go veering off into a pole (or a dumpster).
Back at the new bungalow place, I was in for another spell of disappointment. The room resembled the wooden cabins my family would stay at in the Sierras every summer at this family camp we'd go to called Lair of the Bear. To be fair, those had a ceiling that was just made of canvas, and this technically had four walls and a door, but with the gaps to the outside world and no mosquito netting, I started to wish I just had a tent. It was definitely very, very basic, although at least I had my own wet room (which didn't even have a drain, it just had a hole in one wall). But, I reasoned, at least there weren't cockroaches. At least there was hot water. At least I couldn't feel the springs of the bed poking into my back. And hey, it was barely $10 a night, which was important given all the fancy expensive bagels I'd been eating.
The next day I did a one-day trek back to the Mo Paeng Waterfall, which turned out to be strenuous as much of it involved a very steep uphill scramble of sorts through jungle, then a very steep downhill section that was again done without any kind of trail but just sliding down the dirt.
I'd planned to stay in Pai for 4 nights but given the quality of the bungalow, I decided to cut out early yet again. I booked a combo ticket to take me all the way to Luang Prabang, where I arrived late yesterday afternoon. The ticket had me leave late in the afternoon the following day for a drive to Chiang Khong, then the next day we'd cross the border into Laos and get on the 2-day slow boat down the Mekong. Other than taking care of a night of accomodation in Pak Beng, Laos for one night, the whole ticket came to $53 so I decided it was a worthwhile way to make the journey (my original plan was to go to Chiang Rai, then cross the border myself and figure out the slow boat journey in the border town of Huay Xai, Laos).
The room in Chiang Khong was another downer. I know, I know, where is my sense of fun? Where's my sense of adventure? I made the mistake of opening the fridge in the room, of which I will spare you the horror of description. That was an adventure. But picture, if you will, a room made entirely of wood, with a broken fan covered in dust hanging over the bed (like, missing-all-the-blades broken, so it is just an amputated dust-covered curliecuee of metal), a wood bed with a cheap mattress on it covered in old thin sheets that slants up towards the wall and then sags down in the part closest to the floor, which is where you'll be sleeping tonight in your sleep sack (which will also be the thing you are most grateful to have with you for all these terrifying rooms). The bathroom will be also covered in cobwebs and dirt, with tiny ants running along the floor, and while the shower just barely dribble out enough water to get you clean, the bathroom floor will never be dry. The faucet over the sink will move each time you try to turn the knob, so that you wonder if you'll accidentally just remove the entire faucet from the sink. Whatever can rust, will be rusted. Whatever can grow mold will grow mold. You will begin to wonder if this is what it's like to live in a San Francisco SRO or a Bowery Street flophouse back in the 80s, some cheap old hotel where everything around you is constantly in a state off decay, where there are always cracked tiles and bugs and stains and errant wires dangling from the walls. Wouldn't this begin to have a psychological affect on you after a while, this state of perpetual erosion?
Anyway. I slept. Barely.
We got up early the next day and were shuttled off for breakfast and the logistics of the border crossing. Then we were dropped at the Thai border, shuttled across to Laos, and everyone applied for their visas. A few hours later, we were on another bus to the boat jetty on the Mekong, where a large group of us boarded the boat and set off for the next seven hours until we arrived in Pak Beng.
At the Laos border, a representative from the boat company had offered rooms to us for a good price ($12 a night) that sounded good -- replete with transfer from the boat, Wifi, etc. Just as we arrived in Pak Beng, a torrential downpour began; when I finally got off the boat, the representative from the hotel pointed up the hill and when I asked about the transfer he pointed at the bed of his flatbed truck which was filled with three large spools of electrical wire, and water. I trudged grudgingly up the hill and the room was I given was so moldy I nearly passed out from the smell. (Naturally there was no a/c, either.) Finally, after sitting in the room for 20 minutes, wondering how much damage a night of sleeping in the room would do to my lungs/sanity, I went and asked for another room which I got and which thankfully wasn't as moldy and I could actually breathe in. I grabbed dinner then went back to the hotel to feel sorry for myself and shower and continue to repeat my new mantra which is: "it's only for 1 night, it's only for 1 night." (Or 2 nights, or 3 nights, depending on the circumstances).
We left around 9 am the next morning and arrived in Luang Prabang around 5pm. I had only booked my hotel here for two nights, having learned my lesson that it is better to be under booked than committed to something for way too long.
The guy at the hotel led me to the room and when he finally got the key in the lock and opened the door, I nearly cried. It was perfect: white sheets on a bed lifted up off the ground, clean white freshly painted walls, no mold or cobwebs or ants in sight, fluffy white pillows, and a bathroom newly re-tiled with large tiles going all the way up to the dark wood ceiling and granite tiles covering the floor. So, I'm staying for four nights. The bad news is, the WiFi is terrible. The good news is, there aren't ants crawling on the bed or dark mold seeping through the peeling paint or an uneven bed made of iron Slinky Dinks. The toilet is in one piece. The shower rack is on the wall. They even kindly left a brand new roll of toilet paper in the bathroom and there isn't even a sign warning me about the cost of replenishing it.
Luang Prabang is by far the chicest place in Southeast Asia, rivaling Singapore for cleanliness and order. For starters, there's sidewalks. As I walked around today visiting Wat Xieng Thong (Luang Prabang's best-known monastery) and the Royal Palace Museum, I thought about how sidewalks are really the foundation for all of Western civilization, the glue that is keeping order and society together as we know it. From Cannes to Carmel, chances are in any place teeming with sophistication and charm, you've ambled down a sidewalk from upscale boutique to upscale boutique on a sidewalk. Here's this elevated piece of ground set up from the gutters for humans to walk with dignity, free from dirtying their shoes with trash or mud, not worrying about the traffic buzzing by. All you must do on a sidewalk is step aside for other members of civilized society to pass. And unlike the sidewalks in Vietnam that were really just motorbike parking lots, these are uncluttered and flat and even. There's so flat you can not pay attention to where you're going. It's that civilized.
Secondly, perhaps because of the abundance of free, uncluttered, even sidewalks, there are tons of cute shops filled with beautiful products ranging from jewelry to décor that all looks very, very expensive. (If you want people to turn their heads and stare into your shop and contemplate going in, it helps to have even, safe sidewalks for your clientele to stroll down.) There's the famous Night Market, filled with locally made crafts that are all unique and gorgeous. There's a range of restaurants, serving a variety of food, but mostly Laos food, which I had last night and is very good.
Most importantly, though, there is my room, my beautiful room. With its clean, crisp white sheets, its comfy bed, its cold a/c. Yes, it's small and yes, if I was sharing it with someone else we'd complain about how there is no where to put anything. But I don't care. Everything (minus the Wifi) is fully functioning which means for a few days I can relax for a minute and be comfortable for a minute. And enjoy all these gorgeous, gorgeous sidewalks.