Rather than book a bus trip to Chiang Mai in backpacker-ville, I took a cab up to the normal bus station and booked a spot on a first class (although not VIP) bus. I was once again surrounded by Thai people, and although it is a bit more difficult to figure out what exactly I'm supposed to be doing or where I'm going, I have discovered that being traveling like a middle class Thai person is infinitely better than traveling like a backpacker.
When I went to Ko Phangan they picked me up at my hotel, and the first thing the organizer did was to put a sticker on my shirt. Branded appropriately, we cattle are much easier to herd towards the bus which was parked on a side street a few blocks away. When I bought my ticket to Chiang Mai, the woman asked for... of all things, my name... which she wrote on a ticket along with my seat number and the number for the spot where my bus would be parked. She then sent me on my way.
On arriving at the bus to Ko Phangan, the organizers started shouting, in their most delightful manner "Get on the bus, get on the bus now." as we crammed ourselves and our luggage into whichever spaces were available and settled in for the duration. There were a few scratchy, plaid, polyester blankets thrown over the seats. For the bus to Chiang Mai a uniformed bus-attendant checked my ticket and directed me towards my seat. There was a fake velvety blanket and lace-edged satiny neck pillow placed neatly at my seat.
As the Ko Phangan bus departed those of us smart enough to stop off at 7/11 first brought out our bottled water & various snacks. Shortly after heading for Chiang Mai however, the bus attendant walked by first to hand out little white boxes containing various Thai muffins and cookies (not all of which were exactly delicious... but thoughtful nonetheless), and moments later returned with a tray of beverages, ice water or Coke.
The soundtrack for the Ko Phangan bus was what could only be described as poorly covered 80s lite-rock. While I was tempted to sing along with the soundtrack to the Karate Kid 2, hearing "Somewhere out There" was just bizarre. On the Chiang Mai bus the videos were playing Thai Karaoke videos. One in particular was a melancholy tune sung as a woman in traditional dress engaged in various aspects of silk production, spinning, and weaving. Ok... so we'll call the music a tie - although the videos were kind of interesting.
The pit-stops! The Ko Phangan bus let us off at a disgusting little tourist trap where we were charged double & triple for fried rice, bottled water and a few packaged snacks like oreos or potato chips. The bathrooms were among the worst I've seen, a western style toilet with no seat, and a bucket for flushing in a dirty little shack out back. Ugh. Nasty! The Chiang Mai bus stopped at a brightly lit rest stop that also served overpriced noodles - but at least it looked clean and well maintained. The bathroom was limited to squatty pottys, but again, it was in an actual building & looked like it had been cleaned earlier that day. There was also an extensive souvenir shop where I could have, had I wished to have, bought a bag dried squid or various other tasty Thai snacks (including potato chips, ice cream, gum etc... but I have to say, the Thais love their dried squid). Fortunately I'd thought ahead and had stocked up at 7/11 earlier in the day.
I don't think I'll ever be able to sleep on a bus, there's just not enough room to get comfortable. But the bus to Chiang Mai was significantly less rockity, and I didn't feel quite like I was going down a heavily potholed dirt road.
And on arrival the Ko Phangan bus abruptly stopped and the organizers started shouting at us again "Get off the bus, last stop, get off the bus please." rousing us from whatever slumber we might have been attempting to enjoy. The bus-attendant on the Chiang Mai bus however, turned on the lights and since I had my night-mask on, gently shook my foot to wake me and handed me a prepackaged baby wipe with which to freshen up before arrival. She came by again a few minutes later with a tray of coffee and/or water. I mistakenly took the coffee, but it was no problem as she returned a few minutes later to collect all our trash.
All in all, if I have to travel again, I will do my best to avoid the backpacker tour-bus. I think the 1st class was all of $5 more expensive than had I taken a back-packer bus, but being treated like an actual human being made it absolutely worth it.
In both cases, however I arrived at my destination far earlier than would actually be useful. The ferry to Ko Phangan didn't leave for a good three hours after we'd arrived at the transfer station. And the Chiang Mai bus got me to the guest house about 3 hours before it opened. Gah! So I spent my first morning in Chiang Mai camped out in the outdoor lobby of a guest house trying to sleep on a wooden couch. And as luck would have it, they didn't even have a room. Fortunately the guest house next door did.
My room, at a whopping 300 baht (~$9) a night has a nice sized (if somewhat... solid) bed and beautifully clean modern bathroom with a fully-flushing toilet and hot shower. So I've decided to stick around for a while here.
Chiang Mai is LOVELY by the way. It's nice to be someplace moderately familiar again. And compared to Rayong everything is shiny and new. The restaurants have English menus, the dogs don't look rabid, and I haven't seen a single rat. Seriously though, it's nice... there are some cute little shops featuring local artists, and a LOT of second hand book shops, not to mention all the cafes. I plan on taking a cooking course here... maybe tomorrow. First order of business though, is sleeping and trying to get over the rest of this cold. And, you know, eating western food. Gotta put a little more weight on before coming home or none of my winter clothes will fit me. ;)
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