Don't Eat the Massaman Curry at Cave Lodge: Stories from Thailand, Part 1
September 30, 2013
It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when Tali and I began plotting a trip to Thailand, but the plan became something real in the spring of 2012 in Tel Aviv: walking down Rothschild Boulevard, we saw a pile of books. Amongst them cook books, novels and travel guides — namely India and South East Asia on a Shoe String. We knew it was fate right away; for the following year and a half, nearly every day until we took off for Bangkok last month, we highlighted, dog-eared and scribbled away in that book. Finding it on the sidewalk just gave us the motivation we needed to actually go.
Now, a few weeks after returning from a month in Thailand, the trip feels utterly surreal. Did we actually rent a motorbike and ride all over the jungle? Did I eat an alligator? Did we nearly perish in an underwater cave? Probably, unless the whole thing was one long fever dream. Recounting a month in Thailand is a task that I don’t have patience for, nor could I ever expect any of you (anyone? Mom?) to sit through. Buy me a few drinks and I’ll talk your ear off, but for now, here are the greatest hits.
You’re Missing Some Jews
The only real reservation we made before landing in Bangkok was our hotel the very first night. All other travel we figured out as we went. This was the best decision we made, as we could do whatever we wanted whenever we wanted to. That freedom was intoxicating. But when we landed on a Friday in July, all we wanted was a comfortable room to drop our stuff.
Note to travelers: Chinatown in Bangkok is not the place to chill out and get your bearing. Bangkok’s Chinatown is easily one of the maddest places I’ve ever seen: every storefront sells Chinese food or gold Jewelery; ever sidewalk is packed with juice stands, soup vendors, guys selling fish balls and the ever-present dorian (or jackfruit), which smells either awesome or absolutely terrible, depending on who you ask (me: awesome, Tal: absolutely terrible). Showing up, fresh off the plane, to Chinatown was like being awoken by a car horn.
After an hour weaving through Chinatown’s backstreets, we finally found our hotel: the Shanghai Mansion Boutique. We’d passed it twice before actually walking in. But once we’d arrived, we took a much needed 30 minute breather lying in the gigantic bed. The silk bathrobes were a nice touch, too. Recharged, we set out to tear through Bangkok.
We explored Chinatown’s epic, endless market on Sampeng Lane, wound through Wat Pho, with it’s enormous reclining Buddha and strolled through the Amulet Market, where old men squinted into magnifying glasses, looking for that perfect metal figurine.
Reclining Buddha beats Hanging Jesus any day:
Wat Pho: The most colorful place of worship I've seen yet:
Amulet Market: Home to countless Buddhas, Vishnus, Ganeshas and, amazingly, every variation of penis figurine:
Then it rained. Hard. We found ourselves on a university campus and ducked into the law library to stay dry. Everyone else had the same idea. It also happened to be graduation day. Thousands of Thais, decked out in suits and/or graduation gowns were jammed into the library with us, taking pictures and probably joking how ironic it was that they were stuck in the place that sucked so many hours out of their lives.
The spot was simply too crowded, and we didn’t want to accidentally photobomb any new graduates. So we left the university and found a huge, HUGE, open field. At the far end, loud speakers and a stage were set up. But any sort of audience was missing. We walked towards the stage to find out what was up, and soon found ourselves with an old Thai guy. He spoke almost no English, but we learned this much: we’d arrived at the Prince’s birthday party. But all the performances — and all the people, including the Prince — never showed up because of the rain. Total fail.
Still, the stage wasn’t empty. It was lined with pre-teen Thai versions of pageant queens: little boys and girls blasted with make-up and donning more sparkling jewelry and colorful clothing than the entire wardrobe of “The King and I.” These kids looked like wax statues; they seemed freakishly mature with all that make up. They could’ve just been a commune of festive, middle aged little people. Their only audience, sadly, was their mothers, who were busily snapping photos and calling to them to smile, which I don’t think was physically possible given all the lipstick and caked foundation. Naturally, I approached one of the moms and asked if I could join the kids onstage for a photo. By asked, I mean pointed to myself, then my camera, then myself, then the stage, then my camera, then smiling. She understood, and this beautiful picture was born:
Yes, that is real. No, I can’t believe how awesome it is either.
We descended back down to the moms, who had also taken our picture a few hundred times, and thanked them. Our ears perked in that moment, realizing we’d been listening to some sort of chant-singing for a few minutes. Our old Thai guy, who was still sticking around, pointed us to a tent left of the stage. A monk was chanting what seemed like one endless prayer into a microphone. We gazed around the tent and saw all sorts of differently dressed dudes. Old Thai guy pointed and said: Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. The five main religions of Thailand, and they were all representing at the Prince’s failed B-day Bash. I turned to Old Thai Guy and asked, “Are there Jews in Thailand?” He laughed and nodded, obviously having no idea what I had said. But there clearly weren’t any rabbis slinging “Mazal Tov”s in the tent.
I approached one of the Hindu leaders and said, “I’m from Israel. I’m a Jew. I think you’re missing some Jews here.” He smiled and nodded, then waved me to come inside. I took out my camera and did the same pointing exercise, and the next thing I know I was taking a photo with a bunch of monks, imams, Hindu and Christian priests and a few Sikhs. Tal stood off to the side, not wanting to ruffle any “No Women Allowed” feathers, but they waved her into the picture too. One monk told us we needed to kneel, so as to appear below these holy men.
Thailand does have a tiny Jewish community, but they weren’t invited to this big shindig. I was thankful that we showed up just in time to represent. We thanked the monks and imams and whatnot, said goodbye to Old Thai Guy and wandered back towards Chinatown in a blissfull, high-fiving-because-that-was-so-weird type of mood. And that was our first day in Thailand.
But I Thought Thai Food Was Spicy
We soon traveled to Chiang Mai, a mid-sized city in Thailand’s vastly rural northwest. The city is a staple in any backpacker’s trip through the country, and as such, it’s a hub of tourist activity: Thai cooking classes, jungle trekking, elephant training, ziplining, monkey-spotting, curry-chugging and, our personal favorite, “Monk Chat,” which was exactly what it sounds like. Our monk was super friendly, but we left when an English lady sat down during our chat and started explaining how she believed Jesus and Buddha were friends.
I’m a notorious crank when it comes tourist trips, but sometimes you just shut up about it — when else was I going to ride an elephant through the jungle in Thailand, or learn how to cook Thai food while in the jungle in Thailand? Never, that’s when. So we squeezed into a few day trips while in Chiang Mai and did as the tourists do.
Tal insisted on the cooking class that advertised itself as an ‘organic farm.’ The Whole Foods of Thai cooking classes, if you will. A truck drove through Chiang Mai to assorted hostels, picking up tourists, and an hour later we arrived at the farm — a gorgeous spot out of town with mango trees scattered around, vegetables growing on the ground and a handful of pagodas equipped with low-tech kitchens. The class was pretty basic, of course, but you can’t expect much from a bunch of farangs (white folk), ourselves included. A 20-something Thai girl named Pern (pronounced Buhn) taught the class and she was totally badass, constantly making penis jokes about the food. She nicknamed me Big Noodle Justin, which I suppose was better than the alternative from our first dish, Glass Noodle.
We met some cool folks, and some weird folks, including an army dad who seemed to be working out his aggression with a mortar and pestle. By the end of the day, we were full of pretty good food (let’s be real, it wasn’t complex Thai food) that we actually made (under the exacting guidance of Pern, of course). It looked impressive though, considering the things I know how to cook include only sandwiches and scrambled eggs.
At the end of the day, Pern asked if we wanted to hang out around Chiang Mai with her and her friends. We were flattered, and jumped at the opportunity — especially as she promised to take us to some non-farang places outside of town. We exchanged info, and the next night she showed up at our hostel ready to hit the town. We’d been unsure if she’d actually show, so we vowed to sit in the bar of our hostel both 90 minutes before she said she’d arrive, and 90 minutes after, in case she was late. Worse case, we’d be drunk on cheap Thai beer and find our own dinner. Best case, we’d be drunk on cheap Thai beer and eating real Thai food with Thai people. By the time she showed, 60 minutes late, we were ready to party.
We hopped in her friend’s car, picked up another friend and soon arrived at a big outdoor restaurant full of people — and not one white face to be seen.
“You promised to show us real Thai food, yalla!” I chided our new best friend. She wasn’t messing around; she called over a waiter, ordered a handful of beers and began pointing to every other dish on the menu. A few minutes later, the table was full of a dozen dishes: spicy veggies, fried mushrooms, BBQ duck and something called a Giant Snakehead Fish, which arrived with its head in tact. It looked like it sounds, but tasted better.
I was so happy! The food was amazing, the company was great and the beer was super cold (because it was served Thai style — with ice). I looked like this, and I was eating like a goddamn champion.
Super full but still hungry, I turned to Pern and said, “I thought Thai food was spicy. I mean, this is delicious, but you’re letting me down a little bit.”
I was completely full of shit — the Snakehead Fish alone was burning the roof of my mouth, and the dozen or so other dishes were only adding to the fire. Pern smiled and laughed, and I made nothing more of it. A minute later, a waiter laid a dish of papaya salad in front of me. Right in front of me.
“I got this for you, you’ll like it,” said Pern with a grin that I was too stupid to recognize. I started to eat the salad and within seconds felt my face melting off, like the Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Arc.” The salad wasn’t hot, it was scorching. My skin turned red and I immediately began to sweat profusely. I foolishly tried to keep my cool and took another bite. My whole body began shaking. I think my tongue and eyeballs were sweating. And that’s when I noticed Pern laughing. And Tal. And all of Pern’s friends. Everyone was laughing, except me, who was about as comfortable as Joan of Arc.
“I order papaya salad with 50 chilis for you!” laughed Pern, and the whole table cracked up. “No one can eat 50 chilis!”
I’d been so food-blinded by the amazing dishes on the table that I failed to notice when Pern had ordered a papaya salad with an inhuman amount of spiciness. Plus, I don’t speak Thai.
“I! What?! You did what?!” I managed to choke out.
“You had enough?” giggled Pern.
I nodded, and she motioned for the waiter to take the dish away. The whole thing had been to fuck with me, the silly, overconfident American who dared challenge a Thai girl that her food wasn’t spicy.
The papaya salad that nearly ended me
The night ended in a riverfront bar where we sang karaoke and a sloppy drunk Thai guy fed me whiskey straight from the bottle. A great introduction to Thai culture: expect to be taken care of, but don’t ever get cocky. Or your face will melt off.
Don’t Eat the Massaman Curry at The Cave Lodge, No Matter What They Tell You
The north of Thailand is indescribably beautiful. Mountains, rice paddies, rivers, low-hanging clouds and jungle Buddhas make for a perfect picture of paradise. While staying in Pai, a largely ex-pat hippie town near Myanmar, we rented a motorbike and set out to explore the terrain. It looks like this:
And I even found a Buddha-in-progress on top of a mountain:
Sure, that kept us busy for a few days. But we wanted to get OUT there. I read online about Soppong, a tiny town along the one highway (read: barely traveled road) that connected the different cities of the north: Chiang Mai, Pai, Mai Hong Son. The trip would be a few hours through curvy mountain roads. No sweat. We planned to stay overnight at a place called Cave Lodge — another 10 miles into the jungle from Soppong. Out there, indeed.
We left our bags with our wonderful hostel-owner in Pai (who had also cooked us dinner, and gotten us swirling with his homemade herbal whiskey), told him we’d be back in two days, and set out into the mountains. There is simply no way to write how breathtaking the ride was: my beautiful lady sitting behind me, scaling bright green mountains, the sky piercing blue and the roads curving like a curly straw.
From one amazing viewpoint:
After a few hours of stunning riding, we arrived in Soppong. The town was literally just a row of buildings along the road. No signs in English, no ‘Western restaurants,’ just a few hostels. We’d arrived exactly where we wanted to be. We pulled into a roadside, open air spot with a few tables set up and grabbed some menus. Just then, a crew of 6 motorbikes pulled up to the same place. They hopped off their bikes and sat down at the table next to us. For a second, there was that weird dissonance — we were the only two groups in the place, both obviously travelers, sitting next to each other and not speaking. I broke the ice: “Hi guys.”
That’s all it took; for the rest of the day, they were our travel buddies. Led by a tall, lanky dude from Denmark, they were a ragtag group of single-travelers who’d joined forces in Pai: a long-haired, lone wolf from Chile; two girls from Holland; one from France; and a fast-talking, enthusiastic med-student/yoga instructor/photographer from Taiwan named Victor. We all ate lunch together, sharing stories of our trips so far. They called themselves a Biker Gang, and we were honorary members. Considering the lack of leather jackets and beards (replaced by Indian jewelry, loose t-shirts and fisherman pants), Biker Gang was more like Biker Buddies.
The main draw of Soppong is its vast underwater cave network, accessible from the deep jungle by bamboo rafts. The Biker Gang +2 made our way to the largest cave, where we paid a few Baht for some Thai folks to take us caving while floating above the dark water. The cave was hot and moist, and completely covered in bat shit. Like, so much so that you couldn’t help but slip on it and become covered in bat shit as well. But, boy, was it cool looking:
Victor the Acrobatic Taiwanese Med Student was about the most entertaining person we’d ever met, and he insisted on running ahead and staying behind the group to shoot photos, while everyone else was just trying not to fall to their doom. (Editor’s note: We later ran into him in a gigantic mall in Bangkok, carrying shopping bags and smile-screaming how incredible the city was – “This is my fourth time in this mall!”- then rushing off to buy new shoes.)
After caving, it was time to bid farewell — the Biker Gang was biking back to Pai, and we were overnighting in Soppong. But first, the ‘see you later’ photo:
We quickly found Cave Lodge, a beautiful guest house made of treehouses in the jungle. The place seemed perfect: friendly Australian owners, free maps of all the local waterfalls/caves/villages, cold beer and great-smelling food. The place even had rope swings hanging from the ceiling, and a killer view. We ate dinner with an Austrian mother/daughter duo, who we’d also met in Pai (small world, always) and spoke about travel, life in Israel, alternative parenting methods and if the Kibbutz ideology still exists. Good vibes were shared across the board. We ate Massaman curries (mine with locally-caught alligator meat) and drank beers and everything felt in its right place as the sun set through the dense trees.
Then we went to bed… and woke up at 4am deathly ill, without electricity or hot water and covered in ants.
The Cave Lodge had taken a turn for the worst. Everyone expects to get a little sick while traveling in Asia. That’s fine. But to do so in a tree house, 10 miles from a town that’s two hours from anything resembling civilization, well, that’s not a great feeling. And for the next 5 days, we’d be sick off and on, from both ends. Cave Lodge: 1. TK/JJ: 0.
Still, we soldiered on. We hadn’t come this far to puke everywhere, give up and turn around. The next morning, when we’d de-anted ourselves, we left Cave Lodge as soon as possible.
I’d wanted to see a hill tribe village since arriving in Chiang Mai — but it was one thing I refused to do on a tourist tour. Nothing sounds worse than a van full of white people turning a rural village into a human zoo. But on the Cave Lodge map, we saw a village that was another 6 miles into the jungle on a dirt road (“Don’t try to go after it has rained.” It had just rained). That had to be the one.
The ride made the previous day’s highway cruising look like child’s play: it was unbelievably steep, curvy and included deep patches of mud. But, shit, was it beautiful.
Then we ran out of gas. The bike’s gas meter was terrible, and often changed by a quarter tank in the course of a minute, then shot back and forth. But when it hit ‘E,’ it stayed there. We were too far to turn around, so we prayed that this village had… a gas station?
But we were lucky sons of bitches. We pulled into town (and by town I mean several shacks made of wooden planks), and found a few old men sitting in a storefront. I pointed to the gas meter, then made an ‘X’ with my arms. And then a guy handed me a bottle of whiskey. I love a good, stiff drink, but times called for a different liquid.
And that’s when we learned that out in the sticks, Thais use liquor bottles to store gasoline. We breathed a huge sigh of relief, and filled our bike up with gasoline that probably tasted slightly like whiskey.
What happened next wasn’t our finest hour, admittedly.
First, an old woman walked towards us, squatted on the ground and spread out a sheet covered in clothing, blankets and cloth work that she’d clearly made. ‘Oh, how neat,’ we thought. Then another showed up. Then two dozen more showed up. Within five minutes, we were surrounded by women trying to sell us their handiwork.
We should’ve known. I’d read that in the tourist-visited villages, the experience can be jarring — to these rural Thais, tourists are a main source of income, no matter how demeaning the visit may be. But I was a fool to think we’d escape that ‘Sell the white folks stuff’ mentality further into the jungle. Of course, this village saw less tourists. But they certainly saw some, and money talks. As we stood there indecisively, the mass of squatting ladies was multiplying. We had to make a purchase and bounce. So we bought a shirt/tunic — just like the one worn by the lady standing on the left, above – thanked them all and walked on down the road.
The town was a gorgeous dichotomy of nature and man; tiny, bare shacks nearly hidden in the jungle. Where elsewhere in Thailand, the jungle bows to man’s dominance, here man knew his place and kept himself tucked away.
Happy New Year 2013! From... the Toilet Paper Company?
In the yard of the school pictured above, we met a guy. I’m not going to pretend I remember his name, so we’ll call him Tim. Tim had impressive English, and impressively few teeth considering he was, as he told us, just 22 years old. Tim wanted to go fishing with us, and loved to give hugs — which, as you can see below, made Tali very comfortable.
Tal's shrugging shoulders seem to say "This is exactly what I want to be doing, Tim."
Tim said his fishing spot was an hour away. It took all of our power, and patience, to explain that an hour’s walk into the jungle wasn’t our top priority.
“Yes, but… fishing?”
“No, I don’t think so. We don’t have time today.”
“Yes, but… fishing?”
And so on. But he did walk us to a temple, where the village children were learning how to pray from some monks. Tim waited for us outside the temple and told us it was alright to enter. We stayed quiet, but our entrance was an obvious distraction. Still, it was an amazing sight: the Sunday School of rural, Buddhist Thailand. The kids fidgeted on their carpet squares, just like they do in every church and synagogue in the world. The monks spoke in short, rhythmic phrases; the kids repeated in unison. A large, golden-painted Buddha statue loomed behind them. Then it was lunch time, and the kids were relieved. Whether in Philadelphia or Tel Aviv or outside Soppong, nobody likes Sunday School.
We left the temple and, whattayaknow, Tim was still waiting there for us, kind of just hanging out by himself. Listen, I don’t mean to sound like an asshole. We were grateful that he wanted to hang out and show us around, but different culture or not, the dude was a little off.
“Temple nice. Now fishing?”
“No, I think it’s time for us to leave. I’m sorry!”
“Yes, ok. Fishing now?”
Right up until we returned to our motorbike. When we put our helmets on, he got the picture. We bid farewell to Tim and left the village with a full tank of gas. We returned towards Cave Lodge, then towards Soppong, then back towards Pai. The next day we flew down south, and the second leg of our travels began.