Why is it that people are so keen to read stories of failure? (Well, you are here, aren’t you?). If my theory is right, this post should be hugely popular. 🙂

After 12 straight days of living my hedonistic scribe existence in Chiang Rai without leaving the city at all, I was looking forward to my three nights at a homestay in the countryside.

(Warning: this post is rather verbose, in the way stories usually are.)

The spiel

I first heard of the Ban Meing Homestay when I picked up their brochure at the Chiang Rai Tourist Office. Ban Meing is located about 20 kilometres from the city, but conveniently, they have a small office right downtown, so I paid a visit. Tao Wimae is a very good salesman. He speaks good English, and his written biography mentions not only his language skills, but also his life growing up in the “jungle” and how this makes him the ideal guide to tell you about the flora, fauna, and hilltribe people in the area. He has plenty of video clips on his computer showing guests engaged in all kinds of activities from teaching English to local kids, to taking cooking lessons, to making baskets from bamboo. Of course there are hikes, swimming in hot springs, etc, etc. It looks like Ban Meing really has something for everyone!

The bungalows cost only 280 Bahts a night (less than $10) for one person, and they have ensuite bathrooms with hot water. The one day jungle trek costs 1300 Bahts, which is a little steep, but seems to include a lot of activities (waterfall, elephant camp, villages, etc). The only catch is that you need a minimum of two people, but I figured I might be able to join other people once there. Worst case scenario, I’ll relax in a quiet natural environment for two days with a good book. I’m fed up with the traffic in Chiang Rai. After Mandalay, I had barely noticed it at first. But now, this habit of vehicles to rush around corners as soon as the traffic light changes, cutting off the pedestrians trying to cross, is starting to piss me off. And the broken sidewalks don’t help.

So I make a booking with Tao to spend the nights of February 7, 8, and 9 at his homestay. Free transportation in also provided in both directions, so what could be easier?

Getting there (the 45-minute ride that took 3 hours)

I start having slight misgivings on the afternoon of February 6, when I get a frantic email from Tao around 5:45 PM saying “Hello, Marie….where are you staying?? Now our driver is waiting for you at our office (4 :00 P.M)…will you come or not…we still waiting for you until 6:00 PM…it is too late now.,….if you wishes to go up again may be the next day….0901465424    call us….Thanks….”.

I call him immediately to remind him that my booking is for the 7th, and that today is only the 6th. A slight pause and then “oh sorry, sorry, my mistake”. I’m feeling sorry not for him, but for the driver who has been waiting almost two hours! And then I realize that in fact I know very little about this place and this family… I am not really sure what to expect anymore. More confusion?

The following day, I show up at the office at 3:45 PM, feeling very virtuous, and wanting to make sure nobody has to wait for me. I have been asked to be there by 4:00 PM, but the driver doesn’t show up until 5:30 PM! Yawn. Good thing I have a book with me.

Finally a car arrives. An old man is driving, with a young girl in the passenger seat. I soon discover that both of them speak virtually no English. After half-an-hour on the road, the old man gets a phone call and stops the car by the side of the road, next to a vicious-looking dog. I ask “why are we stopped?” I think they guess my question more by my frowning face than my words. Gibberish comes out of the guy’s mouth. He points to the seat next to me. I figure that we’re waiting for another passenger. “How long?” I ask. The old guy defers to the small girl. She says something that could be either seven, seventeen, or seventy. But then it becomes “twenty”. We wait twenty minutes. The old guy gets out of the car and goes to chat with some people at a nearby shop. The little girl and I remain in the car. I’m getting really fed up with all this waiting and I sigh noisily. Thirty five minutes later (it’s dark by now) another car pulls over, and a lanky bearded guy comes out. Ha! Here is our passenger. His name is Alex, and he’s from Russia. Thankfully, he speaks pretty good English, and even some French. Bonus.

He says he’s only spending one night at Ban Meing, having just arrived in Chiang Rai and been told that it’s much better to spend the night here than in the town itself. (Does Tao send someone to the bus station to pick up travellers?). His goal is to go to Mae Sai, the border town with Burma, to do a “visa-run” (that is, exit and re-enter the country to get 30 more days).

After another 15 minutes of climbing on a bumpy curvy road, we finally arrive. (Question: why didn’t the car bringing Alex take him the rest of the way? Right, the other driver saves himself 30 minutes and we waste 35. Brilliant.) Upon coming out of the car (it’s 7 PM by now) I immediately feel the cooler air. And I hear a racket of frogs and crickets. Not unpleasant.

The first night

I’m quickly ushered into a bungalow by a lady who barely says a word, and I find myself staring at a mattress on the floor piled with about seven blankets (which probably haven’t been cleaned in a while) but no top sheet. I’m starting to get an inkling that the night will be cold. The bathroom has not been cleaned very well, or perhaps not at all. There are dark orange spots on the toilet seat, toothpaste stains on the toiletry shelf, and a very dirty mirror. Memories of Burma flash through my mind.

At the restaurant, an hungry Alex is already seated, waiting for his fish. He’s Orthodox Christian, and we’re Friday. Enough said. The fish is not on the menu. Most of what is on the menu starts with “Fired rice…” (not my typo). The woman and the girl are both preparing the food and serving us. We meet the three resident cats (rather bold – blame it on the fish) and a surprisingly well behaved dog staring at us from the lawn.

As soon as we leave the restaurant, the lights are turned off, and everybody vanishes into the darkness. So much for finding out more about the wonderful activities advertised, the amenities, what to do tomorrow, etc. I think Alex and I are the only two guests. And I don’t think anybody else speaks English.

I knew that there wouldn’t be any internet, but now I discover that my cell phone has no signal. I try making a call and it fails. I’m feeling very isolated and cut off. I don’t like this feeling.

By the time I go to bed, the room is starting to feel very cold. I decide to wait until the following day to take a shower. I unwrap the gift that the lady at the hotel gave me this morning. Google translated it as “loin cloth”. I thought that was funny. It’s a long narrow piece of fabric. The perfect top sheet! I pile several of the dubious blankets on top and go to sleep.

During the night I wake up several times. My face is cold. The air in the room is frigid. It feels like the inside of a fridge, or a crypt. I have to cover my face with the sheet to be able to fall asleep again. I’m trying to guess how cold it is. Probably less than 10C. I also end up wearing my earplugs because of the loud frogs, restless cats, and howling dogs. So much for quiet countryside.

As the night turns into dawn, I decide that I am not spending another night here. I’ll try to get in touch with Tao in the morning and ask him to get me out of here. I don’t want to risk getting sick just before I fly to Australia on Monday.

When I get up in the morning, I give up on the shower once more. It’s even colder than the previous evening. I get dressed and shiver violently. My clothes are freezing and slightly damp. Outside the sun shines, and it actually feels a bit warmer than inside. I see Alex. I wonder if he got cold too. I don’t need to ask though, because the first thing he says is “I didn’t come to Thailand to be cold”. There, you have it. A woman from Canada and a man from Russia freezing their asses in Thailand.

Making an escape

The level of English has not improved this morning. I ask the girl if Tao is here. She says “no”. Is he coming later? She says “yes”. (But when I ask the same question 10 minutes later she says “no”.)

Finally I make them understand that I want to leave. I’m cold. I want to talk to Tao. The woman gets him on the phone. (How come she has a signal? “Satellite” Alex tells me later). After explaining the situation, he asks me to give the phone back to the woman. She talks to him some more in Thai, than hangs up, and walks away. Now what? I have no idea what’s going on. I decide to go pack my things. Alex thinks that Tao is coming at 9:00 AM.

Ten minutes later I’m packed and I come out again. The old guy from yesterday is there. He says “ten” and shows me 10 fingers. What? 10 minutes? He says “10 hours” but he means “10 o’clock”. OK one more hour. Time to have some breakfast: omelet on top of white rice, and some jungle tea. The cats are sunning themselves. I’m glad the cats are here. They’re mellowing out my mood.

I can tell the day is going to warm up nicely, and the landscape actually looks pretty. Too bad I don’t have a few more hours to explore, but I’m not risking spending another night here.

After breakfast, Alex and I start walking down the road. It’s very peaceful, with a few houses here and there, chickens, dogs (of course), people reciting some prayers inside one of the buildings, green fields and trees. And then comes a big silver pick-up truck. We squeeze along the narrow road to let it pass, but it stops. The driver grins and says “You go to Chiang Rai?”. Yup that’s us. Less than an hour later we’re plopped down on the streets of Chiang Rai. Ha, I love cities!

I know what you’re thinking…

OK, so was I too wimpy? Did I give up too easily? It wasn’t so much the freezing night, or the dirty bathroom, or looking at two days of boring uninspiring food, or not being able to communicate with the outside world, or the lack of English skills and organization. It was all of those things put together. It just felt unbearably uncomfortable to me.

Note: Today was my last day in Thailand. By the time you hear from me next, I will be in Bunbury, Australia on a house and cat-sitting mission!

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