I left on Saturday morning for Tak, the province East of Sukhothai that borders Myanmar. As is always the case, my first obstacle was getting OUT of Sukhothai bus terminal. I took the bus there from Sawankhalok, and upon my arrival, my old friend/stalker P’Pin was there. It had been almost a year since I had talked to P’Pin, and I didn’t miss him one bit. He supposedly works at the bus station, but he is the least helpful person there. Every time I go, he tells me the wrong bus information, tells me I don’t need a ticket, and tells me to just sit with him while I wait. The people at the bus station love me, so the three hours that P’Pin made me wait went by quickly as I caught up with all the folks I hadn’t seen in a long time. But I was really annoyed because I kept seeing buses that were definitely going to pass through Tak and I wasn’t getting on any of them, because P’Pin said that it wasn’t my bus yet, or that one was full already, or it was going in the wrong direction. Whatever, P’Pin. So I escaped to go to the bathroom, and found a new friend to help me get a ticket and get me on a bus, which happened in 15 minutes. I think I’m at the point where I speak just enough Thai that I’m not completely hopeless so people know I can get around on my own okay, but not enough to understand everything that’s going on around me. Hence my 3 hour delay to Tak. But one hour bus ride later, and I was in the main city of Tak. I called a teacher from the Philippines that I had met at a competition months ago that lived in the city and asked her how to get around from the bus station. She said, “Can you wait there? I’ll be right there.” I insisted all I needed was the name of a hotel downtown and I could get around from there, but in half an hour she was at the bus station with her Thai friend and one motorcycle. So the three of us spent the afternoon riding around the city crammed on her little motorcycle, seeing everything that Tak has to offer. Vanessa, the Filipino girl, has been living in Tak for 6 years now, and Fern, the Thai girl, her whole life. But both of them had never been to a lot of the places they took me to. We started with lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant with NAM NUENG! I was in heaven; then to the biggest swamp in the city, which is poorly maintained and kind of an eye sore now, but has so much potential to be awesome; to the Shrine for Taksin the Great, who was the King of Thailand known for protecting Thailand from the Burmese way back when (not Taksin Shinawatra, the ex-Prime Minister who is exiled from the country…not that Taksin the Great, haha); then to the oldest bridge in Tak in the middle of a rice field; then to the burial site of people who were sacrificed alive…really eerie and kind of odd; then to a temple that is also kind of odd because there is a drum that if you rub a certain way will make a high pitched whistling sound- if you can make the drum hum like that, your wish will come true but we tried several times until a monk had to step in to show it how it was done, then asked me to continue the humming, which I couldn’t do; then to the suspended bridge over the Ping River in the middle of Tak’s beautiful waterfront- which is Tak City’s one and only famed tourist attraction- to watch the sunset; then finally to dinner at an American restaurant where we feasted on pizza, buffalo wings and a salad. It’s a good thing I got to Tak three hours later than I planned. I was exhausted by our non-stop sprint through every last inch of Tak. So we took some last pictures by the bridge, and I headed back to my hotel to get ready for my next adventure.
Early in the morning, I headed to the bus station to catch a van to Taksin Maharat National Park. The van on the way to Mae Sot dropped me off at the road to the park, where I walked 2km to the entrance gate at 7:30 in the morning. The guards were delighted to see this little farang girl walk up to the gate by herself. I asked for a tent, a sleeping bag, and paid the discounted entrance fee, which went from 200 bhat to 40 bhat for being able to speak Thai, hopped on the back of a guard’s motorcycle, and he took me to the campsite. It was PACKED! The sun was still rising, and whiskey bottles were still out and the campsite was alive with teens, families, and groups of friends around my age. The guard plopped me down in the middle of the chaos with a front-row view of the rising sun over the distant mountains separated from me by a deep valley. He helped me set up my tent, and then I immediately retreated away from the mass of scary Thai people that might talk to me. I think normally I would be excited to be able to meet Thai people and practice Thai, but there were so many Thai people and I was the only farang, and a GIRL farang at that, and the prospect of having to talk to so many people seemed exhausting. In these situations, I usually get several offerings for marriage, or at least am forced to promise to bring some girls from America for them to marry. I usually get a stalker or two that gets my phone number and calls me non-stop for weeks, and MOST DEFINITELY, I get sucked into having to teach someone English on the weekends. To avoid all of these, particularly the last one, I retreated into the forest as quickly as possible. I started on the only trail at the park, which was a 2km hike to a big tree, then a 1km hike to a waterfall. This park is famous for this big tree, the Krabak tree which is the biggest in Thailand. The hike was along the river, and was really beautiful. It was super peaceful too because I was the only one on the trail since there is an alternative route that you can drive to then walk down stairs to get to the tree. The biggest Krabak tree in Thailand wasn’t very appealing to me, having been to the Redwood Forest in Northern California which I think is more impressive, so I moved on to the waterfall. Again, another quiet hike. And this attraction doesn’t have a parking lot, so there was no one at the waterfall. I’ve been to many waterfalls in Thailand, more than I can count by now, but this one was the most beautiful one I’ve ever been to.
I spent an hour at the bottom of the waterfall, with lack of anything else to do really, before meandering my way back to the campsite. I had spent about three hours on the hike, and emerged from the forest around noon to a completely empty campsite. Being a Sunday afternoon, the weekend partiers had all packed up and left! Whew. What a relief. There was one couple and a group of three girls that were staying another night, and though our tents were next to each other, we never really crossed paths. I spent the afternoon finding different views of the surrounding mountains to read and nap, the only person I interacted with being the woman at the canteen. It was eerie to walk into the empty canteen. I felt like I had just missed a party, with messy plates and glasses still left behind. When I ordered food, she frowned, wanting to pack up and go home after the weekend rush. But as soon as she handed me my pathetic mixed vegetables over rice, she gave me a wide smile and asked me where I was from and why I was traveling by myself. When I went back for dinner, she smiled wider and asked me more details about what traveling I was doing. (Then she betrayed me by not opening in the morning- taking a personal holiday so I got no breakfast. The canteen is the only option for food, except for the closed mini-store, unless you have a car/motorcycle to take you to the main road and drive however many miles to the closest restaurant or store) I was worried about the evening- not out of safety, but out of boredom. I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a large span of time where I was by myself, with no cell phone service or internet, and no one to talk to. I had a great book my aunt had sent me for Christmas about a woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail by herself, perhaps the first woman to do so, and so I entrenched myself in the book and I became that independent, lonely woman. I also convinced myself that I should hike the Pacific Crest Trail when I finish my masters degree (if I get in?!?!) but I’ll probably forget about that dream by then. Surprisingly I didn’t get bored though! It was great to get absorbed into a book, something I haven’t done since I lived with my grandmother at the beach when I was kid, and it was nice to be alone. After the sun went down, I laid on the roof of the canteen and watched for shooting stars. I got to make three wishes before heading back to my tent and falling asleep by 8PM.
That was the first time I was able to sleep through the night in a tent. I think it was because of the adorable “I love you” pillows with hearts that the park officer gave me. I woke up 10 hours later just in time for sunrise. I opened the front of my tent and watched the sunrise over the mountain cliffs, still snuggled in my sleeping bag.
Having been betrayed by my canteen lady, I left the park by 8, hungry, and ready to go to the border to get this visa thing finally taken care of (I was able to do this trip over the weekend because the immigration office is only open Monday-Friday, so I designed my trip to get me to the border by Monday). In my planning, getting the van to Mae Sod (the border) from the National Park seemed as easy as getting dropped off at the National Park from Tak. In reality, no one actually does that except for crazy farang traveling by themselves (who probably don’t even do that- I think I am the only one), and it was a lot more annoying than I thought. The vans pass through every half hour, but the first two were full already, and not willing to stop for the crazy farang on the side of the road to try to fit her in which would be easy to do. They displayed this to me by flashing their lights while I frantically waved my arms as they sped past. I sat down in the only spot of shade behind a bush, watching people go in and out of the park, staring at me. I had been on the side of the road for over an hour, really hungry, when finally a woman saved my life. She came out of the park on her motorcycle and asked me where I was going. She carefully instructed me that I cannot get into a car with any strangers and I must wait for a van. After her instructions, she was about to go, but changed her mind and told me to get onto her motorcycle and she would take me to a better place to wait. So she took me to a strawberry farm where I could stand in the shade and wait, and gave me her number to call her when I’ve made it safely to Mae Sod. The guys working on the farm one by one stopped their work to one by one ask me where I was going. Convinced this wasn’t the right place to wait, they flagged down another girl on a motorcycle to take me a bit further up the road to another place that was a better idea than the strawberry farm. This place was a police check point, where we strolled up with no helmets. That wasn’t the concern though. The concern was if I could speak Thai, which the girl on the motorcycle insisted I could. So the police took me in, and let me wait and watch TV with other police that weren’t doing anything. One of them struck up a conversation with me, asking where I’m from, where I’m going, why I’m traveling by myself, the usual. Turns out he graduated from SawanAnan 10 years ago, and was upset there was no one to help me get to Mae Sod. So he gave me his number, and insisted that I call him when I safely get to Mae Sod, and next time I go on a trip to tell him so he can make sure I have a friend to go with (this friend is him, which will probably never happen. At least he didn’t ask me for English classes) After meeting Yod the cop, I think I now have met more cops than teachers, which is pretty remarkable for never actually having a problem where I need the cops. Though if I ever do, I have plenty of cops. Even more remarkable, this is the first time I’ve met a cop and he was sober.
Having the police stop the van and insist they take me to Mae Sod is probably the only way I would have ever gotten to Mae Sod without hitchhiking on the back of random women’s motorcycles all the way. I sat in the aisle of the van for the short ride remaining to Mae Sod, and as promised called my helpers to ensure them I made it there safe. I checked into an adorable little place called Green Guesthouse, and went to FINALLY get breakfast. I had heard about this Canadian place in town that had bagels and coffee (bagels basically don’t exist in Thailand, so this was a surprise), so I went straight there. Every once in a while, I crave breakfast sandwiches, and having a bacon egg and cheese on a bagel with a coffee reminded me WHY I missed them so much. I was in farang heaven.
There’s actually a lot of farang in Mae Sod, a lot more than I thought for a small town. Many work here for NGO’s for Burmese refugees. A lot of them are missionaries, which are easy to spot cause the women wear long skirts. And there is a small population of tourists like me coming to take care of their visa, though they usually have someone to take them around, unlike me, so they don’t actually stay in the city. After finally getting food (and too much of it), I went to go take care of this visa thing. I had spent weeks getting the paperwork together with P’Sonya to make sure that everything was perfect and in order, especially since I was doing this on my own. It took me a while to figure out where to get the ride to the border, then once at the border, where the correct immigration office is, then at the immigration office why everything was closed to find out they were on their lunch break. So I wandered around to the river that borders Thailand and Myanmar, and marveled at the shallow depth that keeps the Burmese from crossing over, with a measly strip of easily hop-over-able barbed wire. And no guards. Well, I didn’t think about that for too long, because it was 1:00 already and I could go get my visa extension. Weeks of paper work and three days of (optional) travel to spend less than ten minutes in the immigration office and be awarded my visa extension. SO easy! P’Sonya prepared me well. So I spent the rest of the afternoon shopping at the border market, looking for a good gift for P’Sonya and the other teachers in the department.
I was exhausted when I came back into the town of Mae Sod from the border. After freshening up at my sad little hotel room, I took a stroll around the municipal market, which is HUGE and incredibly diverse. Mae Sod is known for its cultural diversity, having goods from Thailand, Burma, hill tribes, Muslim communities and India. As well as people from all those denominations. And their diversity of goods are scattered throughout this huge market. I unintentionally wandered around it for over an hour, trying some street Burmese food, before taking a rest at a Burmese restaurant that donates 20% of its profits to an NGO. I tried their specialties: Tea leaf salad and pumpkin curry, which were both out of this world amazing. Then I went back to the Canadian place to have a glass of wine (farang heaven) before going to back to the hotel to sleep on the last night of my adventure.
I woke up early in the morning to try the variety of breakfasts scattered throughout town. After passing some Buddhist monks receiving offerings along the street, I had curry and tea at an Islamic restaurant outside of the mosque, then walked through the market to a Burmese tea shop where I had sweet milk tea with roti and a little sampling of Burmese baked goods. Tummy full of international treats, I packed up my things and walked to the bus station. Van to Tak, bus to Sukhothai, bus to Sawankhalok, with each transfer less than 5 minutes, and I was home in less than 3 hours. Stupid Sukhothai bus terminal. Next time, I'm only speaking English.