Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tuk Tuk Ride to the (Real) Centre of the Universe

Louise Southerden has a surprising adventure in Thailand’s northern city.

If you’re like me, you probably thought Manhattan was the centre of the universe. But maybe we’re both wrong. On the outskirts of Chiang Mai, there’s a hotel unambiguously, intriguingly called The Real Centre of the Universe. Which you’d think would be signposted. Particularly in this tourist-friendly hub of northern Thailand. But half the fun is getting there, right?

It’s my last afternoon in this lovely, low-key city and, souvenir shopping done, I’m keen for an afternoon of swimming. On discovering my hotel pool is a bit on the small side, I do a quick internet search and find what I’ve been missing while travelling in Thailand for two months: a 25-metre saltwater swimming pool with dedicated lanes for lap-swimmers, only six kilometres (15 minutes’ drive) north of the city centre. I’m there. Well, not quite.

The Holy Grail - the lap pool at the Real Centre of the Universe (supplied)

The first clue that this place might be a bit tricky to find, to put it mildly, is the resort’s website, which, in addition to giving directions and maps, provides GPS coordinates, a slideshow of landmarks en route and two (two!) phone numbers for taxi drivers to call if they lose their way. I take the added precaution of asking my hotel concierge to write the directions in Thai on a slip of paper. What could go wrong?

My first challenge: find a tuk tuk. It’s 4pm, still well before peak hour, but there is not an empty tuk tuk to be seen on my street, one of the four main ones that form a square around the old city. I cross the street, walk up and down, wave at every passing tuk tuk. Finally, one pulls over.

Or rather rattles to a stop beside me. It looks as ancient as its driver, Som, who’s wearing a threadbare safari suit and knitted golfing gloves. I can hardly turn him down. He might be a Thai version of a London cabbie, able to find any destination in Chiang Mai, blindfolded, at night. It will be an adventure, I think.

I hand Som the piece of paper. He takes it in both hands, squints at it, pulls his mobile phone out of a cloth pouch hanging around his neck. After calling the resort, he seems satisfied. We set off. At first, it’s delightful, this audio-free scenic tour of Chiang Mai – past temples and wats, sharing the road with people (and their dogs) on scooters and motorbikes – for the price of a one-way trip to The Real Centre of the Universe, 200 baht (about $A6).

Som checking directions - no worries!

Then we merge onto a freeway and boldly occupy the middle lane between fast, expensive cars and trucks that threaten to suck us into their slipstream. When Som glances at me in his rear view mirror, I shrug as if to say, “Sorry man, I’ve never been to this place either.”

As we putter along, I daydream about arriving at the resort: I’ll pretend to ignore the large billboard out the front saying THE REAL CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE above an illustration of planets orbiting little Chiang Mai; then I’ll say to the security guard, “Excuse me, is this the real centre of the universe?” How many times in your life do you get to say that? He’ll chuckle good-naturedly, I’m sure of it.

Back in the real world, nowhere near the centre of any universe, we pull over. Som gets out and walks over to a man getting onto his parked motorbike, who takes the precious piece of paper (please, let it not blow under a speeding car!) and reads the directions aloud, as if they’re written in code. Then he points up the road. We go on.

Som asking directions - yes, still on track!

But Som seems increasingly unsure. So we stop again. I’m watching an improv routine: driver asks question, hands over piece of paper, bystander acts helpful. This one pulls out his phone and calls the phone number on the paper. Nods as he speaks to someone, then points – back the way we’ve come.

The next person we ask is a security guard manning the imposing entrance of a gated community. I think about asking my question but he clearly doesn’t speak English. Further down the road, we stop at a stall selling strawberries and while Som asks again, I buy a punnet, partly out of embarrassment.

We rattle up and down the freeway some more before, probably for no good reason, we turn onto a potholed dirt road. A dead end. It’s starting to get dark. Should I be nervous? Som seems trustworthy but travelling solo can make a girl cautious, even in Thailand. I glance at my watch. This 15-minute trip has taken more than an hour and we’re not even there yet.

It’s time to abort the mission. I ask Som to take me back to my hotel, the one with the smallest pool in the universe (a slight exaggeration, borne of my disappointment). He looks relieved, then lights up a cigarette, coughs and hacks a golly onto the road.

Canine tuk-tuk

On the way back to town, we’re like horses returning to their stables. Suddenly everything is easy. The traffic flows, the tuk tuk sings. There are no polluting trucks spewing diesel fumes in our faces. And before I know it, I’m standing outside my hotel again, handing Som 200 baht for a one-way trip to nowhere, plus a little extra for his trouble.

As I walk back to my room, I feel oddly relieved. It seems fitting that an hour and a half of noisy driving in crazy traffic didn’t get me to the real centre of the universe, and reminds me of something I love about Thailand: its sense of possibility, and people’s willingness to give anything a go. Besides, finding the real centre of the universe probably would have been an anti-climax. This way, it’s still out there, bright as a candle-lantern rising into the sky, waiting for me to find it the next time I’m in Chiang Mai.

Pics: Louise Southerden

Fact box: Bangkok Air flies from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (1hr 15mins) several times a day. The Real Centre of the Universe is open to non-guests from 7am to 7pm daily. Pool entry starts at 80 baht ($A2.50). Check the website before setting off!

Follow Louise’s travels at No Impact Girl or Twitter @noimpactgirl 

1 comment:

  1. Louise, I am so sorry your tuk tuk driver could not find us, even though he phoned several times. I remember suggesting he stay put at the entrance to Baan Ing Doi ("The next person we ask is a security guard manning the imposing entrance of a gated community") and wait for me to arrive on my motorbike to lead him in. But when I got there 5 minutes after his call, he'd already gone! So I started getting frustrated too as I drove up and down the freeway in search of a lost tuk tuk diver with a foreigner in the back.

    We are 1 kilometer away from Chiang Mai's International Exhibition and Convention Centre (which you would think every Chiang Mai taxi driver should know as it hosts a number of prestigious events each year) and just 2 kilometers from the Phucome Hotel - one of the oldest and biggest hotels in Chiang Mai. If a taxi driver is unable to travel direct to either of these landmarks within 15 minutes from the city (outside of the rush hour) then I suggest they should not be on the road!

    As you mention, our website contains very detailed instructions in English and Thai as well as my mobile telephone number to help with directions in either Thai or English.

    Road/street names mean very little to most tuk tuk drivers who rely on reaching destinations via a series of landmarks. Next time (if there is a next time!) please phone me from your hotel/guesthouse and I will organize a taxi to come to your accommodation and bring you here directly..

    If it is any consolation at all, I circulated your photograph of Som to our regular taxi drivers - almost all of them recognized him instantly.

    And he now knows where we are!