Travel Stories

When can I go back?

I had the strangest feeling walking back to my hotel after playing basketball my last night in Chiang Mai.  I felt like I was home.  I knew where I was; I knew the street I was walking on, where to go, and how to get there.  I knew people, had friends, had a regular pick up basketball game, and had plans for later that night.  It reminded me of summer nights in Boston, walking home from the basketball courts in Brookline after a long afternoon of ball, legs tired, completely exhausted, sticky with sweat, feeling great.  I was only in Chiang Mai for five days, but I already miss it and what to go back soon.  I made some great friends while I was there, had some fun nights out, and of course, ate great food.

My last night playing basketball at the courts in Chiang Mai I officially cemented my name in the history books of Chiang Mai street ball.  In previous nights I played good enough, dominated somewhat, but I never really played all out.  I was trying to figure out the style of play and get other players on my team involved.  I won some games, but never got a real win streak going, and watched the best Thai players (one of whom played for the National team and others who played in a Thai pro or semi-pro league) stack their team, beat me, and run the court.  Not tonight.  I knew it was my last time playing on these courts for a while and I came on a mission – destroy the competition and beat the top Thai squad.

I was one of the first players on the court this night.  After a short, playful game of two on two (which helped me get loose and get a rhythm) we started the five on five games.  The best Thai players made their five (probably the five best players besides me who all could play well and would rarely miss open shots), and put me on a team of four of the weakest players on the court.  A loveable group of misfits who could hardly dribble a ball (ok, I’m exaggerating a little bit here), but I knew they had heart.  I came out swinging.  After every defensive rebound I grabbed I sped up the court and took it strong to the hoop.  I went up for every offensive rebound.  I demanded the ball in the post on every play.  The opposing team double and triple teamed me shouting “Felang” (Foreigner in Thai, what they call most white people) on every play, but I was not going to be stopped tonight.  We ended up winning the game 15-13 in front of a solid crowd of other players and older adults that had stopped by to watch the game (It was CMU’s graduation that weekend and some parents were hanging out in the bleachers at the court).  I went on to win three more games that night and left the courts of Chiang Mai that night the way I had hoped.

I had a conversation with one of the best Thai players (he played for Chiang Mai in a city league) before I left.  He asked me (being completely serious), “How come you don’t play in the NBA?”  I laughed out loud.  He said, “I think you play very well.”  I spend the next 10 minutes explaining to him, his girlfriend, and his friend that the players in the NBA were “MUCH MUCH MUCH MUCH MUCH better than me.”  I told him that I played division three basketball and that there were two divisions above me, and that only the top players from the top division made the NBA.  They were shocked to hear this information.  Side note:  I had a similar experience tonight in Laung Prabang, Laos, a place where I really never imagined I’d find a pick up game, but some how stumbled upon another great nightly game.  I told one of the guys at the court that the Celtics were my favorite NBA team and he thought I was on the Celtics and got very excited.  I think people in Asia have a somewhat misunderstanding of how good you have to be and what it takes to make the NBA.  At another basketball event I was at, with some of the best college players in China, who were good, but definitely not near NBA or D.1 level, their chaperones (more lack of a better term) were seriously inquiring with my friend who organized the event if their players had a chance to make the nba.  Anyways, I digress.  I said goodbye to my first basketball friend from the courts in Chiang Mai, T, who told me whenever I am in Chiang Mai I am welcome to play at these courts (T was kind of the OG of the courts).

While interacting with people at the basketball courts that week, I met a fellow American from New Hampshire named B.  Through our conversations, we realized we had a mutual friend that he went to college with and I was very close with in high school.  B just moved here from Bangkok and is a professional poker player.  He makes enough money to live comfortably in Thailand, plays basketball almost every night, travels and parties.  I am super jealous of his lifestyle.  B and I went out one night in Chiang Mai and had a blast.  We went to a club called “Fabric.” The atmosphere inside was electric.  There was one main room packed with Thai people dancing, drinking at tables, and a dj playing great techno/house (I don’t know what they call it these days) music.  For 300 baht (10 dollars US) you got entrance to the club and they gave you a card worth 300 baht towards drinks at the bar (basically no cover).  B, his friend Lee, and I combine our three cards and got a table near the main stage (there was a Thai band playing before the DJ came one), and a bottle of good Vodka.  Side note: we were the only people not drinking Johnnie Walker red or black label whiskey.  Thai people (and maybe all people in southeast Asia because I’ve seen a lot in Laos) LOVE whiskey.  It’s all I’ve seen them drink and it seemed like it was the only thing to drink at the bar.  Anyways, back to the club… Let me repeat this, three people got entrance to a great club, a table, and bottle service for 30 BUCKS!!!!  See why I love this place?  A similar experience in the USA (I’m estimating because I’ve never had the money to do so) would cost north of 500 dollars.  Aside from the main room (which was packed with beautiful Thai women), there were 3 or 4 other rooms, each of which were playing a different type of music, and each of which had a different physical set up and vibe.  There was also an enormous out door area with a huge bar, tables, fireplaces, large sofa chairs, and palm trees.

In the end Chiang Mai was one of the most fun places I’ve traveled to in my life.  Everyone that lives there, Thai or not, is incredibly friendly and generous.  The city has a great spirit to it that is incredibly attractive.  I want to say thanks to B, T, Q, Baz, Mac, Lee, Som (there not much for long names in Chiang Mai), and everyone else I met in Chiang Mai and made my experience there a great one.  I hope to see you all again soon.


Chiang Mai

After a 14-hour train ride from Bangkok, my dad and I have settled in Chiang Mai (a city in northern Thailand).  Other than the fact that the AC was BLASTING in our train car, I had one of the longest sleeps I’ve had on our trip.  Just being in Chiang Mai for a short period of time I could already tell that Chiang Mai was going to be a more enjoyable experience than Bangkok.  The streets are less jammed with cars, motorcycles, street vendors, and hookers.  You still see that here in Chiang Mai, but it’s much less, much less thrown in your face.

Via a Google search: “basketball in Chiang mai”, I found a great game of pick up b-ball, outdoors, at Chiang Mai University. 20-30 players gather every single night of the week from 6-8 or 9.  I still don’t understand how teams are selected or all of the rules they play with, but everyone has been very welcoming and I’ve always found my way onto a team (I’m sure being the tallest person helps) every night.  The other players are very excited to see me play.  When I get an offensive rebound, throw down a dunk, or make any kind of decent play they cheer wildly.  Not only for me though, at no other pick up basketball game have I seen people who are waiting to play, cheer or clap when a player on the court makes a nice play or move.  It’s awesome.  It’s a lot different than pick up b-ball back home.  Some parts I like more, some parts less, but its always fun.

Like all of Thailand I’ve experienced, the food is great.  Favorite breakfast meal: Fried rice with a fried egg on top and fresh fruit (watermelon, mangos, bananas, and pineapple).  Favorite lunch food still goes to roadside noodle stands.  Favorite dinner: “Deep Fried White Snapper”.  Essentially a whole snapper filleted a certain way so that when its served you can just pick the meat off the fish, dip it in sauce and enjoy.  There is no batter on the fish; it is light, and crunchy.  I had this dish at a trendy (aka a lot of young people/CMU students eating there) restaurant/bar called “Neighborhood”.  Favorite dessert: “Rotee” with egg and bananas.  Basically a crepe filled with a scrambled egg and sliced bananas, folded over, lightly fried, and topped with sugar and chocolate sauce; tastes like the best French toast you’ve ever had.  We had been eating mainly in the section of town near our hotel (a very touristy area), but on a taxi ride home from the b-ball courts I noticed a section of town near the university that had a lot of restaurants packed with Thai people (always a good sign). 

I think when traveling it’s easy to get comfortable in the area your hotel is, where there are some people traveling like you.  The food and people you interact with are good, but there is more out there to discover.  Last night my dad and I returned to that area of town and found an outdoor shabu restaurant where people were boiling and grilling their own food.  We sat down and realized everything on the menu was in thai and we could hardly communicate with our waiter.  Regardless, a Thai man who was also at the restaurant and spoke a little English helped us order.  We ended up having a great meal and met some very interesting people.  Throughout our travels I’ve found that your most pleasant experiences come without an agenda, when you just go out and explore the place you are in and let the rest come to you.

Just a quick note on some culture things I’ve noticed in Chiang Mai.  One, I think the bowl cut is coming back as an acceptable hair style for men in Chiang Mai.  I saw a couple of good looking college-aged Thai men with bowl type hair cuts and beautiful Thai women under their arms so I might have a different look to me when I get back.  Also, boy bands are very much alive in Chiang Mai (maybe all of Thailand).  We have a TV in our hotel and I’ve been able to watch local TV for the first time on my trip.  There are a lot of Thai back street boy bands that seem to be pretty popular around here.  I don’t know if I could ever get into the music scene in Thailand.  I got a ride home from a couple of the guys I play basketball with last night (another example of how friendly and welcoming the people I’ve met are) and the music they were playing was awful.  I couldn’t understand a single word, but it just sounded like bad 90s pop music.  Maybe Thailand is just a little benhind on certain cultural thing (understandable).

My dad and I had an incredible day touring Chiang Mai yesterday.  We traveled with our driver and tour guide “Lucky”, a very sweet and soft-spoken Thai woman.  She took us to the most beautiful temple I’ve seen in Thailand.  It sits at the top of a hill outside of the city.  You have to climb over 300 steps to make it to the top, but once you get there its quite a scene.  Not only tourist visit (although a good amount do), but also local Thai people come to worship.  I’m not very familiar with Buddhist practices, but the spiritual experience was very powerful.  Next we traveled to a “long neck hill tribe village”.  This experience was not as pleasant.  You basically walk around a tribal village that has been organized pretty conveniently to make it easy for you to see everything as if it was a museum.  And that’s what it is essentially, a human zoo.  Only tourists visit here, every hut has the some items for sale that the villagers beg you to buy.  One foreigner walks around with a bag of soda and candy giving it out to the village kids so their teeth can rot even more.  It’s definitely not authentic, and made me very uncomfortable.  Regardless, the few villagers I interacted with were very kind.  Our last stop was to the “Tiger Kingdom”, a tiger zoo where they let you into the cages with a trainer and allow you to interact and take pictures with the tigers.  The trainers say that tigers sleep 16 hours a day which explained some of their lackadaisical behavior, however, there were times when I was suspicious if these tigers were either very well trained or drugged up.  They claim that the tigers have been given no drugs, just very well trained and well fed so I guess I’ll have to trust that.  Either way I don’t think there is any other place in the world where they will let you snuggle with a 270 lbs beast, an experience I will never forget.

All in all our time in Chiang Mai has been very enjoyable.  It’s a laid back place with kind people.  There’s great food, basketball every night, and the sun is shining.  I’m easy to please.  I was invited by a number of the players at the court to play in a citywide tournament on Feb 1st (the day I’m suppose to return to Boston).  Maybe I’ll stay a bit longer…I’m not ready for the snow yet.