Northern Thailand and the Best Meal I Had This Year

When you travel you will meet many people, but there will only be a small handful who stick in your mind as remarkable. On my trip throughout Southeast Asia I met two such people: Here is the story of the first.

“What should I do next?” I asked my Airbnb host in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Of course, I had the guidebooks and the internets and my friends’ recommendations, yet what they were all telling me to do next didn’t really jive with what I wanted to do. After the chaos of Bangkok and the still very-white-European experience of wandering around Chiang Mai for days, I was really jones-ing to get away from coffeeshops and dreadlocked Germans.

“Let me rephrase that,” I said. “What would you do if you had a few days off?”

When you travel, of course, you do all the tourist-y stuff. I mean what would be a trip to Seattle without seeing the Space Needle, or NYC without a visit to the Statue of Liberty, or not seeing the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Honestly, I don’t really care for that stuff.

I was only Week Two into my big Southeast Asia trip and if I had to take my shoes off and go through yet another temple to look at more gold Buddhas, I was going to go mental.

My Airbnb host looked at me, sizing me up to see if I’d really dig the local stuff. Then he said, “There are two places not too far from here up in the mountains. This one has really cute little huts, and still has some Wi-Fi and massages and stuff like that if you don’t totally want to go off the grid,” he said, pulling it up on his laptop.

“But this other one is really remote. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard it’s incredible. I’ve had families go up, and the kids come back and they were like, ‘It’s boring! I hated it.’ But their parents love it cause there’s nothing up there but the bamboo huts and the woods.”

Kids hate it? Sold.

No sticky, sugary treats? No big-screen TVs? No video games, or internet, or shiny things, or overpriced plastic shit to buy? Done and done.

The place, Bamboo Nest, is about 23 kilometers north of Chiang Rai, which turned out to be a very bumpy four- to five-hour, nausea-inducing bus ride from Chiang Mai.

From the website:

Bamboo Nest , we offer without electricity, fan or air-condition only breath fresh , cool mountain air, live with nature , relax without pressure to buy things you don’t want.
We provide light at nighttime by solar power”

Photo credit: Bamboo Nest

Photo credit: Bamboo Nest

Once I got off the bus and was waiting for someone to pick me up, I found a few other passengers who were clearly waiting, too, including a nice couple from the UK about to embark on a bike tour through Laos, a single woman traveler from Australia, and two charming young couples from Denmark and Croatia.

The place is owned and operated by a pair, Nok and Noi. When the woman Nok rolled up in her pickup to load our bags, then a different open-air truck came to retrieve us, and we started ascending super-steep, bumpier, smaller dirt roads that turned into even smaller, bumpier dirt roads, I was pretty much in heaven. The final road to the camp was so steep that we had to get off the truck and hike up about a half mile.

The road from the village to the camp.

The road from the village to the camp.

Once we got up there, the man Noi, started grabbing our bags and showing us our cabins, little bamboo hits in the hills. I found mine and just left my rollaway outside the door while I went in and started poking around and opening the windows.

Noi came up to the window and was like, “Here, let me get you your bag,” and started to put it through the window. Then, he picked up some stray dead bamboo leaves off the pristine garden outside the window, muttering to himself, “So much to clean up, so much to do!” and wandered off.

This was my room.

This was my room.

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This was my hut.

I was thinking, what a curious little man.

The next day, I signed up for a “jungle tour and lunch then river cruise” along with a few of the other people. I figured we’d walk thru the woods and then stop at a local village for lunch, as did everyone else. That was not the case at all.

Noi, who was pretty much the one-man show of the camp, doing all the construction (I saw him with two huge logs on his shoulders, powering up the bumpy road driving his motorbike with one hand), grounds work, and now hospitality, started leading us up a crazy steep path into the jungle.

“Are there poisonous snakes here?” asked the Danish girl.

“Noooo,” said Noi, then paused. “Only cobra.”

So was Noi’s humor, taking us through the jungle.

After about an hour and a half of steep hiking, we stopped in a clearing in the path. And he goes, “Ok, now we have lunch.”

We look around at each other. Huh?

“This is my second kitchen,” he says.

Then we see where he’s going with this. He takes his machete and starts hacking away at dried, dead bamboo and builds a fire. He then takes huge bamboo leaves to cover what now appears to be ramshackle table made out of dried sticks. He bounds off into the woods, “Now I go get some frogs for lunch,” he says, leaving us there.

“You don’t really think he’s going to get frogs, do you?” said the woman from the UK, laughing.

“Don’t know. Seems anything is possible at this point,” said her husband.

Noi comes bounding back with some huge bamboo shoots. He then starts hacking those up into tubes, and unloads his backpack, which we know see is filled with baggies of egg, rice, chicken and coconut water.

“Ok,” he says. “Now you help make lunch.” He shows us how to tamp down food into the bamboo shoots, filling it with coconut water a little at a time, filling each with egg and rice. Then we stack them over the fire. Next up is spearing the chicken and placing that over the fire.

Noi making a fire in his jungle kitchen.

Noi making a fire in his jungle kitchen.

Noi covering his jungle kitchen prep space with bamboo leaves.

Noi covering his jungle kitchen prep space with bamboo leaves.

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Noi showing us how to put food in bamboo to cook it.

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More bamboo stuffing.

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We eat our meal with our hands right off the prep table. Best tasting chicken, rice and egg I’ve ever tasted.

While Noi is constantly hopping around, hacking at bamboo with a machete, this 90-pound man is chain-smoking cigarettes, and telling us tales about how the locals believe in “black magic,” so if they get injured or “bit by cobra” they drink some potion from a local medicine man, and just pray and do the “black magic” to save themselves.

We don’t know how much he’s putting on a show or not, but he’s a pretty amusing storyteller. But he also tells us that we don’t see any animals in the jungle because the local people have pretty much eaten them all because they are starving, a very sobering thought indeed.

When the food is cooked, we peel the bamboo shoots just like a banana to reveal cooked eggs and rice, which we stand around the table and eat with our hands. For dessert, he pulls out tiny pineapples and chops them up. It is one of the most delicious meals I have ever had in my life.

Later that day, after we discover that Noi himself is a vegetarian — he goes through the woods, plucking plants from the ground and eating them “Oh, this one is good,” he says, like a Thai version of “Survivor Man” — he takes us through local villages with starving dogs, buying a few buns to feed them, spreading a little peace and goodwill everywhere we go from village to village.

At the end of the day, we get picked up by the truck, and there is not enough room for everyone in the front. A former farm kid, I’m more than happy to sit in the back with Noi.

“Where are you from in America?” he asked me.

“Seattle.”

“Seattle…Boeing!” he says, very excited. “What was flying here like?”

“Well, it’s very long, like 14 hours, and they serve you a couple meals and you sleep and watch movies…” I watch his eyes widening. “Have you never flown before?”

“No! That is why I’m asking you!” he says.

So, I try to explain more about what I know about airplanes, which is not a lot at all, in the back of that truck climbing up the mountains of Thailand, and I realize that this incredibly handy man, who engineers buildings and kitchens in the jungle out of next to nothing would probably have made a damn great airplane engineer at Boeing.

“Where would you go if you could fly anywhere?” I ask Noi.

He pauses. “South Africa,” he says firmly.

“Why?”

“I want to see the animals,” he said.

A few days later, as I was packed up and ready to depart back to the Chiang Rai airport, Noi and I had a smoke, a moment and look, and he was like, “You please make sure to come back now.”

I didn’t meet many other Americans on my travels throughout Southeast Asia or Indonesia. One, it’s dang far away. Two, we just don’t get enough vacation time to make that journey work. Three, I believe that, here in the U.S., we tend to be raised without the natural curiosity and openness to experience other cultures, in fact, we are taught the opposite — to fear and distrust “the other.”

If you do not travel or even open your mind and heart to “the others,” you deprive yourself the priceless experience of meeting and connecting with other people around the world who have much to teach you. I did not always understand their viewpoints, or even agree with everyone I met or sat down with, but I think about each and every one of the people who helped ferry me safely along my journey, and especially those who taught me something over a home- or jungle-cooked meal. And for this, I am thankful.

More pics from Bamboo Nest:

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This is the view from top of hill at camp. The roof of my cabin is bottom left.

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The view from my balcony.

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Sunset.

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Ye old fire pit where everyone gathers after dinner to drink cold beers, smoke cigs and talk. My trip, there were people from Australia, UK, Denmark, Croatia, and Austria.

 

 

Scuba diving, a love story

If you’ve ever been on your hands and knees on the upper deck of a rollicking boat, wiping up your own banana-chunked vomit with a sarong, then this story is for you.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself here.

I have a love/hate relationship with scuba diving. Unlike its sexier cousin, surfing, I never had any strong desire to scuba dive, and it certainly doesn’t hold the appeal of the rush you get when you catch an awesome wave.

To surfing’s “great kisser, fast guy on a motorcycle vibe,” scuba diving is like hanging out with a cute nerd who can add some awesome new features to your computer — you don’t want to see or care about how he got there, but damn, sometimes the results are great. But most of the time it’s boring. And you just want to see some cool shit and get out of the water.

Besides, I learned how to scuba dive with my ex, and it was always more his thing. In fact, he still loves it and even goes cold-water diving in the Pacific Northwest. There’s only one reason to go diving in murky, unfavorably cold waters as far as I’m concerned, and it better involve looking for a body.

So how did I find myself on a live-aboard dive boat in the Indian Ocean?

Well, as Virginia is for lovers, Thailand is for divers.  I am certified and there is supposed to be world-class diving, so I figured why the heck not? I’m here. I got my Padi dive card itching to get out. I need the practice. Let’s do this.

Originally, I had planned to dive the gulf side by the island of Ko Tao, but a diver friend said that the west side on the Andaman Sea was much better. This was an opinion that was supported by several other experienced divers I met (including my dive master on the boat who’s taught in both places). However, if you want to dive the Andaman Sea, you pretty much have to sign up for a live-aboard dive trip since the islands you dive around, the Similan Islands, are about 60 kilometers off the coast.

I’d never been on a live-aboard before, but since I have plenty of experience on boats and have never once experienced sea or motion sickness, I figured I could handle anything for three days. So I happily signed up for a dive shop that came recommended and looked like they had the nicest boats online.

Right before — and I mean literally 30 minutes before — I was to be picked up for my live-aboard dive boat experience, I was polishing off an espresso and had that dreaded feeling. That “uh-oh, I don’t feel so hot” feeling. At first I thought it was heat and dehydration, so I drank more water, popped a Pepto and did a power lap in the pool.

After the driver took me to the dive shop, I was breaking out in feverish sweats, and I realized I was getting full-on sick. I was met at the dive shop by Mark* (not his real name), a stern-looking, serious, blonde, tattooed German with those disgusting gauge ear piercings that make your earholes really big.

On a side note, I would like to know why anyone thinks it’s a good idea to get these. When you want to take them out one day, and you probably will, you then have these huge gaping holes where your earlobes used to be. Nothing is a bigger boner killer than looking at the sad, saggy lobes of an ear that once was. 

Back to Mark.

“So, it says here that you’re open water certified,” he said. “You won’t be able to do any of the dives on this trip since most dives are around 30 meters, and you need deep water certification. But you can get certified on this trip for only 8,300 bhat (that’s about $230).”

“Ugh, classes,” I say, sweating and nauseous. The thought of taking more diving “courses” even when I’m feeling well would piss me off good, but when I’m sitting there with a fever trying to quell down the vomit train, it was enough to make me want to cut a bitch.

The dive “courses,” btw, are tedious. When you get open water certified, you basically have to take your equipment off and on a million times, and do a bunch of underwater drills. It’s important because it teaches you what to do if things go awry — and they will go awry — but it is a real pain. And I hate anyone messing with my mask and my eyes since I wear contacts and can barely see. It’s my thing. Knock my respirator, aka air, out, the one thing that keeps you alive underwater, and I’m like “no biggie.” Get a little water in my mask? I freak the fuck out like Kanye West at an awards show.

The thing is, Mark, who I later dubbed “Neo Nazi,” was quite adamant about following the regulations, which breaks all the “fast and loose cowboy rules” I’ve enjoyed with former shops, where if the dive master wanders past 20 meters you don’t spontaneously combust and die.

“Well, you won’t be able to do any of the deeper dives, and you’ll miss all the cool stuff and the fun,” Neo Nazi says.

“I’m too sick to make this decision right now,” I said. “I’ll tell you later.” Which was entirely true since I’d already told Neo Nazi that I wasn’t feeling well when I arrived.

From the get-go this dive shop really pissed me off. Not only was I sternly told that I was to be ready for pick up at 6 p.m., which I was. But guess what happened next? I spent the better part of the next three hours at the dive shop waiting for the other passengers to show up and watching a completely disorganized staff try to corral the ensuing chaos.

I also watched the dive shop employee at the counter try to up-sell every single person who came in on buying something else they didn’t need, especially Nitrox. Man, did he ever want you to get your Nitrox certification.

And then he refused to refill my water bottle and told me to go buy a bottle next door.

“I’m a paying customer who’s diving with you for the next three days and have been waiting here two hours,” I said, red-faced with clumps of vomit-streaked hair sticking to my face. “I know you have a water station back there somewhere. Refill my water bottle.”

They refilled my water bottle.

The dive shop also housed a frying station where they were deep-frying everything. Dive instructors and van drivers were chain-smoking cigarettes like, well, like everyone smokes in Thailand, and waiting vans and cars were pumping exhaust fumes into the shop, burning petrol like a Saudi Prince on spring break. All in 90-plus degree heat.

If you ever wanted to know what Hell’s waiting room looks/smells like, you’re welcome.

Fried food. Cigarettes. Car exhaust. I was in that filthy dive shop bathroom throwing up every 15 minutes. 

By the time we got to that fucking boat, it was probably close to 10 p.m. A shattered shell of a human being, I just needed to lie down. It took every ounce of energy I had not to throw up on the van ride there.

“Ok everyone gather on the main deck for the dive boat briefing,” Neo Nazi said.

“Is it Ok if I just go lie down and get the briefing later?” I asked.

He looked at me like I was insane. “No, it is very important safety information.”

I think I just stood there, blinking. After a few minutes, he finally relented, sighed and said, “Ok, you can go to your cabin.”

Now, I realize that boats are very small spaces, and I’ve been on many, and in no way was I expecting luxury accommodations, but when another very nice dive master/crew mate started leading me down to the lower deck, and then headed for the ladder one deck lower than that, I realized I was fucked. Totally fucked.

In other words, this is where they put all the poorest people on the Titanic, who subsequently were trapped below and drowned to death.

She opened the door to a tiny, airless, windowless cabin in the bottom of the hull, with four bunks, humming and vibrating with the sound of the engine.

Oh, HELL NO, I thought.

“Is there a bathroom on this level?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“Is there another cabin with a window open?” I asked.

“Let me go check,” she said.

I’ll let you guess if there was a cabin with a window available.

At this point, I just needed fresh air. I’d been puking for about five hours, and it was just painful dry heaves at this point, and I couldn’t even keep water down. After a few minutes in the tiny, airless cabin and after my last bout of dry heaving into a plastic bag, I headed for the upper deck.

“Oh, great, you’re up. Now you can get the safety briefing,” Neo Nazi says.

Do you want to know what the oh-so-important boat briefing was? “Write down what you take out of the mini-fridge, like beer or candy bars, here on this clipboard so we can bill you after the trip.” Oh, and don’t fall off the boat. Because they will never, ever find you in the Indian Ocean.

At this point Neo Nazi points to my plastic barf bag and tells me not to spill any vomit on the deck. I realized I would be getting zero empathy out of Neo Nazi. Ever.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I think I have food poisoning,” I said, vowing to never eat prawns again.

“There’s a virus going around Thailand,” he tells me. “I had it a week or so ago. We had a boat with 12 passengers who had it. It will pass in 24 hours. You’ll be fine.”

The thought of returning to my hellhole below sounded awful. But the main deck had a big day bed, and I spread out on that sucker, the sea air actually doing me good. Turns out, that day bed was also one of the Thai cooks slept (when you travel in developing nations on boats, much of the crew sacks out wherever they can while the guests sleep in their cabins. They don’t even get rooms. Tip generously to these hardworking folk.) She was super nice, asked me how I was, got me a blanket and some water. So it was me and this Thai lady on the day bed. I will forever be grateful that she let me sleep there, remember those little acts of kindness and regard that woman as my own personal savior that night.

The next morning, I met the dive master of my group, a jovial American named Matt. I swear, if I hadn’t been assigned to Matt’s group, I would’ve chucked myself overboard.

Matt was the anti-Neo Nazi, in other words. He asked how you were doing, if you needed anything, you know, like a decent human being.

I pulled it together enough to do two dives that day. But in between the last dive and the night dive, we got some bad news.

“So, the wind is really bad here and where we’re going, so we have to change course,” I heard Neo Nazi tell the group. “So that means we are going to be moving. It will take another three or four hours to get to where we’re going, in probably 3 or 4 meters (9 to 12 feet) of chop, so it’s going to be a little bit of a rough ride.”

I could feel the illness creeping back, but I could not go back to my tiny room. With my handy day bed already claimed by other bodies, the only place to lie down was the top deck, which only had a few mats and partial cover from the sun.

At one point, curled up trying to get out of the sun, and after a few hours of the boat churning through this surf, I started to feel ill again. Then, it came on fast and furious. I was gonna barf and there was no way around it.

Problem was the bathrooms were two decks down. Two very steep, precarious ladder climbs in even the best of conditions, let alone a boat rollicking through 9-12 foot waves.

Fuck me. I knew there was no way to make it to the bathrooms without either A) falling down the ladders and killing myself, or B) not being able to make it and therefore vomiting in front of everyone hanging out on the main deck below me.

Frantically, I looked around the top deck. Not so much as a bucket or a trash can. I looked around the railing, factoring in what would be the best possible position to hurl from — front or back, starboard or port? (that’s fancy fucking boat talk.) I decided, with the wind factor, that the back would be best and to try and projectile it enough so it would move away from the boat.

I don’t think anyone has put as much thought into vomiting as I did on that fateful day in Thailand. Then I let it fly.

After a few heaves, silently hoping that no one below would look up and see a bunch of puke flying by from the top deck — a ridiculous wish, like shitting your pants on the subway and hoping nobody will notice (I’ve not done this btw, but let’s just say you get exposed to a lot on NYC’s MTA) — I hear from below:

“Molly, if you’re going to be sick, go to the lower deck,” Neo Nazi said.

Wow, like that thought NEVER crossed my mind.

Two other guests unfortunate enough to witness my puke fest asked me if I needed help or was OK. It was then I looked at the few chunks on the deck and on the rail and began to wipe it up with my clothes since I had nothing else. I then retreated to my cabin to lie down like an injured animal waiting to die.

The good news? Neo Nazi was right. The virus did pass in a day, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t food poisoning since all I did was puke my lungs out. Thank goodness for small favors. The only thing worse than puking on a boat nonstop would be shitting and puking on a boat nonstop.

Since I was doing all the dives anyway, I figured I’d go ahead and get my Advance certification, which means that now I’m totally badass, or at least half badass, when it comes to diving, and I can roll up anywhere and do your stupid deep/wreck dive and no Neo Nazi will ever tell me differently again.

Here are a few other takeaways from my live-aboard dive experience:

I went from Never Fucking Again and vowing to quit scuba diving altogether at one point, to having a good time and doing some great dives.

I realized that Neo Nazi was in charge of keeping 20 divers from across the globe and his crew and boat safe, on schedule and so on. That’s a hard job for anyone. But damn, he did not have the disposition of a leader. He was certainly “business polite,” but his commanding tone and the way he presented info, like this dive trip was some sort of Navy Seal mission instead of a holiday, continued to annoy me. I also saw him be passive aggressive and condescending to his crew mate Matt in front of us so it only sealed my opinion that the guy was just an asshole to everyone.

Buddhists say that you are confronted with people/things that bring up your own weaknesses so that you might learn from them. I’m taking away that Neo Nazi was there to make me strive to be a more compassionate, patient and understanding person, especially to those who are down and out.

I still like surfing more.

I will never do a live-aboard with a bunch of strangers again. Now chartering a boat with some cool diver friends? That’s a completely different matter.