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The Travel Lunatic: Did We Finally Go "Beyond Rangoon"?
Plus, eleven cats, loads of penises, a "Long Neck" village, and getting stuck in a monsoon!
The Travel Lunatic is a regular column about the amazing places Brent and I go, and the crazy things I do. Plus, cat pics — lots and lots of cat pics.
Greetings fellow travel lunatics!
Brent and I recently spent five days in Chiang Rai, a town way up in the northernmost part of Thailand — very near the borders with both Laos and Myanmar, and surprisingly close to China.
Please note: Chiang Rai is different from Chiang Mai, about which Brent recently waxed rhapsodic. In Thai, “Chiang” means “city,” so you see it in quite a few names.
The Chiang Rai area is part of the infamous “Golden Triangle,” the mountainous region where the countries of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos all meet around the Ruak and the Mekong Rivers. It was infamous for all the poppies that were grown here — and are still grown in Myanmar — which were then turned into opium that was smuggled around the world.
Our time in Chiang Rai was also a chance for Brent and me to possibly do what we call going Beyond Rangoon!
No, not literally — well, not entirely literally.
This is confusing and will take some explanation.
Every couple has inside jokes, and this is one of ours. When we say the phrase, “I think we just went Beyond Rangoon,” we’re saying to each other we’ve left civilization and safety behind and gone off the beaten track to a place of mystery and danger.
The phrase comes from the 1995 movie Beyond Rangoon, starring Patricia Arquette, about the 1988 uprising against the military junta in Burma, as Myanmar was then known. It’s a harrowing story that takes Arquette’s character deep into the dangerous Burmese countryside.
At one point another character says, “Even at the best of times, only official tour groups are allowed beyond Rangoon” — clearly implying how dangerous it was to venture any farther.
(BTW, today the largest city in Myanmar is officially known as Yangon, but saying Beyond Yangon doesn’t sound nearly as cool IMHO. Also, remember when I said this was confusing?)
After watching the movie, Brent and I started saying that we we’re going “Beyond Rangoon” whenever we did anything potentially dangerous.
Or, rather, slightly risky, because, let’s face it, we’re never exactly climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.
But when we took a floatplane to a remote mountain cabin surrounded by grizzly bears in Alaska, we were at least on the outskirts of Rangoon.
And when, in the Caribbean, I went swimming right next to a huge school of barracuda, I was definitely Beyond Rangoon. Or — as Brent said at the time — I had gone Beyond Stupid.
During our time in Northern Thailand, we had an actual opportunity to do something we considered going Beyond Rangoon. It even involved Myanmar, though we wouldn’t be going anywhere near Rangoon itself.
Did we actually go Beyond Rangoon — figuratively and almost literally? Read on for the answer!
Crazy Cat-Filled Place We Stayed!
The harsh truth is, neither Brent nor I really loved Chiang Rai. There honestly isn’t much happening in town. Nor was it especially charming.
It was pretty much meh.
However, we did get a kick out of the place we stayed. Huen Chan Thip is kind of a cross between a motel and a homestay. It had more rooms than your typical homestay — and even a pool — but the family lived in the downstairs area and walking to your room was kind of like passing through their living room.
But the family was very nice, and the five-year old grandson adorable.
And the price? Twenty-two dollars a night. Which, for us Westerners, seems crazy affordable.
But the absolute best part was the eleven cats that deigned to allow us to share their home with them. That included five kittens, and you better believe Brent was in hog, er, kitty heaven.
Crazy Wet Monsoon!
Southeast Asia is, of course, famous for its rainy season — and especially for the monsoons.
What is a monsoon exactly? An especially heavy rain, right?
Actually, a monsoon isn’t rain at all. At its most basic, a monsoon is a wind pattern in South Asia and West Africa that changes direction once a year.
Those heavy rains — what we think of incorrectly as monsoons — are what happens when those wind patterns switch. During the summer months here in Thailand, the land and air get very hot, and the hot air rises. That pulls in colder air from the sea, and when it collides with that rising hot air — voila! — torrential downpours.
During the winter monsoon, the opposite happens, and the moisture-laden air over the seas gets pushed away from land, resulting in the dry season.
One night, we went out for dinner at a food court, and we encountered a monsoon-driven rain — which left us stuck for a good forty-five minutes.
Be sure to listen with the audio on to get the full effect!
Crazy Endless Day-Trip!
Our Chiang Rai homestay-hotel offered a one-day tour of the most famous attractions near the city.
It turned out to be one long-ass tour: twelve stops over twelve hours — all for a grand total of $50 for the two of us in a private car. We chose to cut three stops, and it still took nine hours.
Here’s some of the crazy stuff we saw and did.
The Blue Temple
Chiang Rai might be a bit boring, but it’s surrounded by all kinds of fantastic destinations.
There’s the extraordinary White Temple, which Brent already wrote about. And while the Blue Temple is less considerably extraordinary, it is, well, very blue.
(After visiting here, I learned Chiang Mai also has a Blue Temple, and that place is a whole bouquet of crazy. Stay tuned for a future newsletter including it!)
Baan Dam Museum, aka The Black House, aka the Black Temple
Several people mentioned we should see something called the Black House, also sometimes confusingly referred to as the Black Temple. Interestingly, it’s neither a house nor a temple, but is instead a sort of open air art collection officially known as the Baan Dam Museum — the creation of Thai artist Thawan Duchanee.
It’s also a showcase for penises — artistic ones, I mean.
Lots and lots of artistic penises
Carved wooden penises are quite common in Thai culture. Known as “linga” or “lingam,” they are associated with the Hindu god Shiva. Thais see them as a sign of good luck, and touching carvings found at certain shrines is believed to help women struggling with fertility issues.
Here in Thailand we’ve even seen vaginas and erect penises used to indicate men and women’s bathrooms. Let’s just say the Thai are way more relaxed about sex than most Westerners.
A Long Neck Village
The day before our tour, I did some research and learned we were going to stop at one of the three villages near Chiang Mai that are home to about a thousand members of an ethnic group known as the Kayan Lahwi. They historically lived just across the border with nearby Myanmar.
Unfortunately, starting thirty years ago, war and persecution by the Myanmar government forced many Kayan Lahwi to flee across the Thai border. These people are now refugees in Thailand, and their movement and ability to work is severely limited.
If none of this rings any bells, these are also the people whose women sometimes wear brass rings around their necks giving them, er, long necks.
Incidentally, these women’s necks aren’t actually longer than normal. Those brass coils push down on their clavicles and vertebrae, creating the image of the elongated neck.
Brent and I didn’t want to visit this village. We’d read that the Thai government established these “villages” as tourist attractions and even keeps most of the $15 entry fee. Visiting here felt too much like a human zoo.
But our driver didn’t speak much English, and when we told him to skip it, he didn’t understand and took us there anyway. So we went in, bought a scarf for a friend, and quickly left.
Selling crafts to tourists is the only kind of work Thailand allows these people to do, and the “village” did feel very manufactured — and designed to display the Long Neck women as they sit and weave textiles to sell.
Brent and I try very hard to be respectful of other cultures, but this place made us deeply uncomfortable, especially the little girls with brass rings on their necks.
So…did we go “Beyond Rangoon” or not?
One of our last stops was the Thai border town of Mae Sai, which is separated from the Myanmar town of Tachileik by the narrow Mae Sai River.
Thus, we finally come to our Beyond Rangoon moment!
Brent and I had to decide whether or not to cross the border into Myanmar.
Which may not seem like that big a deal. This is, after all, a tourist stop on a hotel tour. The Thai and Myanmar governments literally invite tourists to cross the border for an hour or so. Meanwhile, many, many nomads and expats regularly do border runs here to renew their Thai visas.
But after spending two months in Bangkok, Brent and I recently left Thailand for Cambodia, and upon our return, we had been grilled pretty extensively on why were spending so much time in Thailand.
Thankfully, we had proof of onward travel, and they finally let us in.
But had we been flagged somehow? If we left again, even for an hour, would they let us back in?
Given that our laptops, backpacks, and pretty much everything we owned was back in Chiang Rai, that would’ve been very, very bad.
We asked our driver, who still hadn’t learned much English. But he seemed to think we were crazy not to go. Other folks online had told me the same.
The woman in the Thai immigration office we needed to pass through didn’t really understand our concern either.
Brent and I went back outside into the searing hot sun to decide if we should chance it.
In the end, we didn’t do it. We really wanted to go Beyond Rangoon — or, rather, closer to Rangoon. But we also really didn’t want to get trapped there.
A week later, we had dinner with a well-known travel writer who’s currently living in Thailand. He knows all about border crossings and Thai immigration, and we asked him what he would have done.
He said, “Under those circumstances? Hell, no! I think you made exactly the right call.”
In this case, we chose not to go Beyond Rangoon. And now we’re really glad we didn’t.
Crazy Reader Question!
This question from a reader isn’t actually crazy, but, hey, this column has a gimmick, and I’m sticking with it.
Dear Travel Lunatic,
I’m very interested in trying out a nomadic lifestyle and was thinking of doing it for a month. Sort of a nomad trial run. Is thirty days long enough to decide if this lifestyle is right for me?
First of all, thanks for the kind words about how much my new column has changed your life and become the highlight of your week! I’m truly touched.
For those of you who don’t see any references to my column in the above question, well, clearly you’re not reading between the lines!
I know that for most Americans, taking an entire month off to travel is unusual and a pretty big leap. And I’m sure you would learn something about yourself and how you like to travel during a month-long trip.
That being said, in my humble opinion, thirty days isn’t enough time to experience either the real pluses or minuses of nomading.
For starters, for me one of the joys of being a nomad are the different places we’ve been and that we’ve been able to stay in many of them for up to three months.
It’s by staying in those places for so long that you start to get a sense of what it is genuinely like to live there. Heck, more than once we’ve totally misjudged a place at the start of our stay and had our opinion change completely by the end. (Which is why we have the Seventy-Two Hour Rule.)
A month also isn’t really long enough to encounter many of the downsides of being a nomad either. What are those? Carefully researching your accommodations only to get a place with a crappy bed, leaky shower, and a very loud bar next door; constantly dealing with visas and restrictions on how long you can stay in a country; packing and unpacking, and catching flights, trains, or buses; dealing with time zone changes from your home country; missing friends, family, and a lot of other things.
Sorry, Nomad Wannabe, but I think three months is the shortest a test run could be in order to give you a genuine sense of whether or not you’d like it.
But perhaps my fellow Travel Lunatics have a different take they will share in the comments.
Do you have a question for the Travel Lunatic? Leave it in the comments below, message me via social media, or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crazy Fellow Travel Lunatic!
Vicki Webb is from the Seattle area and started nomading on September 9, 2021. Her recent travels have since taken her to seventeen countries, though she’d previously visited another twenty-eight.
Her three favorite countries are France, Italy, and Zambia. “The people are nicer in Zambia than anywhere else I have been in the world,” she says. But she spent three months camping there, and didn’t always love the conditions.
Two years ago, we met Vicky in Split, Croatia. We even took a wonderful road trip with her to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Okay, that’s it for this edition. If you don’t hear from me in two weeks, it means Brent and I finally really have gone Beyond Rangoon!