Bye-bye for now, Bangkok. From Hua Lamphong Station, my travel companion & I climbed aboard an overnight train to Chiang Mai. Our cosmic, purple and yellow train would serve as both transportation and hotel. Our car was unlucky number 13 (which would make the superstitious hesitant, but as a fan of Halloween & horror movies, I embraced it).
The engine howled, the wheels thundered, and the next leg of the journey began.
Tucked away inside my curtained-off cabin, the miserable combination of constant swaying, spurts of bumpiness, and an insuppressible air conditioner should have made for an unbearable ride. But instead, my mind eased into a tranquil, surreal state. I gazed out the window as Thailand's countryside slowly passed by in a pleasing darkness. The unstable train wheels jerked over the tracks, oddly enough, provided an enchanting, soothing sound. The magical, metal clicks remained steady throughout the night - making my eyelids heavy, and eventually sending me to sleep.
When car number 13 stopped moving the next day, the train had arrived in Chiang Mai - Thailand's second biggest city, 428 miles north of Bangkok. After unloading our gear at our guesthouse, we hit the town for the only thing more important than TMNT toys - food.
While navigating through Chiang Mai in search of a meal, the cultural landscape of the city took shape. This place was a jumping off point. Backpackers and travelers from all around the world made Chiang Mai their pit stop. Other popular Thailand destinations were accessible from here, making the city the perfect launch pad. The foreign grasp of Bangkok had eased its grip in this place. There were now more signs in English and an international variety of bars and restaurants. That's not to say the place was unbearably touristy, but its character was much different than that of Bangkok.
Off the beaten path, we found a spot that served khao soi - a popular curry soup in this northern region of Thailand, served with sides of limes, cabbage, and red onions. The delicious dish was slurped down in seconds.
Appetites were satisfied. It was time for Chiang Mai's next best offering - temples. The city, like everywhere else in Thailand, was brimming with stunning, unreal temples.
And for every temple, there is an exotic food beckoning to be tasted. We sampled a couple varieties of quail eggs at the foot of Doi Suthep. It doesn't matter when your last meal was, in Chiang Mai there's always room for another snack.
The next day, my quest for TMNT toys was temporarily put on hold. I know, right now you're screaming, "but that's the only reason I'm reading this thing!" Don't fret, there's plenty of cowabunga left in this crusade. What colossal force is strong enough to derail my search for Turtle Power? Well, it came in the form of a 7,000 pound creature - the majestic Asian elephant.
Thailand has a complex relationship with its elephants. The mighty beast is viewed as a sacred animal - a common fixture on temples and places of worship. But then, many elephants are kept in captivity, living in poor conditions and forced into harmful activities, such as rides for tourists. Thank Buddha, there are places like The Elephant Nature Park - a sprawling sanctuary, in the heart of the jungle that houses over 40 rescued and rehabilitated elephants.
There are no cages - the animals roam free. They call the shots, with visitors contributing to the healing while learning about the harsh pasts and optimistic futures of these gigantic creatures. The Elephant Nature Park is Jurassic Park without the running and screaming. The attractions don't eat the tourists. In fact, YOU feed the peace-loving creatures - gently giving them tiny bananas while hiking along the grassy plains and muddy slopes of northern Thailand. The experience is truly uplifting. At the risk of sounding cheesy, your soul feels better in this place.
We left Chiang Mai with a renewed sense of optimism. The city didn't provide any Turtle Power, but the larger-than-life elephants filled my mutant void. The size of these creatures had me in disbelief - similar to if I had actually encountered a real-life Ninja Turtle.
From Chiang Mai it was off to Pai - a quirky town in the sleepy hills of the northernmost region of Thailand. The inhabitants were Thai hippies, Rastafarians, and ex-patriots - a real collective of mutants! The route to Pai is strenuous. Crammed into a passenger van with 8 other people, we zipped through the tangled roads of the mountainous course. The 4-hour journey is so treacherous, the grueling route has become notorious for its 762 curves.
After 3-4 hours, we were saying hi to Pai. The charming, offbeat town greeted us with positive energy. Motorbikes puttered along the quaint, pedestrian-friendly streets. In the distance, a gentle, white Buddha watched from a ridge. Happy tourists and casual locals relaxed in the open-air bars and restaurants, gazing out and succumbing to the spirit of Pai.
We allowed ourselves to fall into the hushed atmosphere, slowly settling into the town.
The next day, I wanted to conquer one of my bucket list goals - ride a motorbike in a foreign country. This was no spur of the moment, fleeting desire. I had previously taken motorcycle classes with success - receiving my license. However, that was over a year ago. And on this rainy, Thailand day, I would be required to drive on the left side of the road with my girlfriend seated behind me. The obstacles were pilling up...
My usual hesitant mentality strangely went missing, with a "now or never" confidence taking over. I shelled out the 150 baht (just under $6) for a motorbike with insurance and was handed a set of keys. The small engine hiccuped to life and the two-wheeled machine carried us off.
Battling the rain, I zipped through town avoiding chaos and dodging hazards. Stray dogs, slow-moving elephants, and reckless Thai drivers assured me there would never be a dull moment. That only enhanced the experience. Every survival, every scare always led to a peaceful reward. Dazzling sights were at every literal turn.
Each pit stop was more unique than the last. Nothing seemed real - like we were navigating through a fantasy land. The manmade structures ranged from exquisite temples to cutesy cafes. Each unreal place demanded a photo opp. We easily obeyed.
The natural wonders of Pai were equally as whimsical. The roads were often flanked by beautiful rice fields. The simplest of turns would lead to waterfalls and canyons. The sprawling artistry was so astounding the importance of my TMNT toy search got tossed to the back of my mind.
The gas tank and our bellies were both empty as evening approached. We parked the motorbike and took to the streets. We had to re-acclimate to the standard, slower-moving mode of transportation - our feet. We only made it a few steps when the sewer life returned - "Best Pizza in Thailand."
Not only was this a grand claim, but it was also the first time we spotted pizza in the country. We had been chowing down on Thai food since Day 1 - breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had earned the opportunity to devour a comfort cuisine. Pizza from the other side of the world?! This is a must-have for any man of the sewers.
The menu was a cultural mash-up. Pizzas on one page, Pad Thai on another. Embracing our inner-Turtles, we opted for the Vesuvio (described as "tomato, real Italian spicy salami, egg, cheese"). The steamy pie arrived to the table, looking surprisingly standard. "Best Pizza in Thailand?" I'll be the judge.
I wanted pizza from the other side of the world to make an impact - a pie with the power to sear a dining memory on my mind forever. A story to tell fellow TMNT fans from all over the planet. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The pizza was disappointingly normal. Not the best, not the worst, just a disheartening average. The other side of the world offered mediocre pizza like the rest of the world.
Time slowly ticked away during the rest of our stay at Pai, like Father Time took a vacation too. The remainder of the day was spent exploring by foot and motorbike. We saw more temples, eclectic eateries, and natural delights. But nothing compared to this sight - a TMNT movie playing in a local, no-frills Thai restaurant. This seemed like a sign from the universe to eat at this place. Unfortunately, our bellies were already full from the "Best Pizza in Thailand."
The next day, we boarded a mini-bus, saying goodbye to Pai. We revisited the infamous 762 curves, enduring the twists and turns, hoping our Thailand pizza would stay where it belonged. Pai had provided incredible adventure and boundless fun. But, my quest for TMNT toys was coming up short. My current haul of Thailand treasures was extremely disappointing and the future looked equally bleak. Would I ever find TMNT toys in this country?
On the final days of my trip, that answer revealed itself. A big, cowabunga-sized "YES."
NEXT: The voyage concludes in Part 3 as we return to Bangkok and explore its seedy, toy-selling community. What TMNT souvenirs would I find in the cloaked underbelly of the city? Find out!