I step off the overnight train in Chiang Mai with my small backpack and a tattered guidebook not knowing what to expect. My guidebook isn’t tattered because I’ve been meticulously pouring over it to gain some insight into northern Thailand. It’s in its current depreciated condition because I shoved it, unread, into my overcrowded bag as I was packing for the train. The only thing that I know about Chiang Mai is that some friends in Bangkok told me it was one of the best places to travel to in Thailand, and after spending a month in Bangkok, this was all the encouragement that I needed to book a train ticket.
Not knowing the geography, I ask for a map at the tourist information booth and instead am given a ride to the guesthouse where I’ll be staying for the next week. On the way to the guesthouse the driver of the van shows me how he keeps himself entertained while driving backpackers around. He’s rigged his windshield wiper fluid so that it sprays on unsuspecting motorcyclists at red lights. Every time he hits a rider he falls into a fit of laugher that’s impossible not to reciprocate.
As I check in to my guesthouse I survey the courtyard. There are two raised, blue platforms where people can gather. One of them is currently occupied by a group of about eight people drinking beer and water and chatting away.
Usually, it’s more than a little daunting to make new friends out of complete strangers, and many friends and relatives warned me that I’d be very lonely traveling around the world on my own, but for some reason making friends is one of the easiest parts of being on the road. For the most part, travelers are open and receptive to other travelers, and as I make my way over and sit down on the platform, I am greeted warmly by a hungover-looking Brit who tells me his name is Dave.
From what I can gather, the group had a long night out and most of them are trying to recover. In addition to Dave I meet a cute girl from Kansas named Siena, a sunny Dutch girl named Kelly, a small American named Naomi, and several others whose names and nationalities I forget in the shuffle of meeting so many people.
There is a common perception that backpacker haunts are places where kids get stoned in the day and drunk at night all the while completely oblivious to the culture around them that they left home to see in the first place. There is some truth in this assessment, but the conversation around me has little to do with partying and getting wasted. Instead everyone is trading stories of the adventures they’ve had in Chiang Mai.
Through this conversation I discover that Chiang Mai is the main hub for adventure travel in northern Thailand—something that I would have known had I read my guidebook, but it’s much more enjoyable to discover this fact by hearing first hand tales of the various activities available.