Grab yourself a coffee and get comfortable. This is a long one. I’ve officially been on the road for 3 months now. The passage of time has been an interesting study, one which I’ll address in greater detail in another entry; but for now, this: Many of us know how fabulous it is to go on vacation for a week or two and lose track of what day of the week it is. Some say that this is how one really knows when one is finally relaxed and getting into vacation mode. We don a wide grin when we overhear someone mention that it’s Monday, and we had no idea. But have you ever experienced losing track of what month it is? This is a new one for me. When I got to Zagreb (my first destination) back on September 11, it was hot and sunny. Today is December 12, I’m now in Thailand, and it’s still hot and sunny. I don’t really have any schedule or anywhere to be. It’s December, but it could just as easily be May or October or February…and that’s really weird. Maybe it stands out more right now because I’m so accustomed to this month being overladen with Christmas music, decorations, advertising and other commercially-driven madness (not to mention snow and cold). Life here in Thailand continues as normal. Monks collect their morning alms and chant and pray through the fog of incense in their temples; tiny, aged women, strong as oxen, manouevre their soup carts up and down the busy streets, bell tinkling to let hungry workers know their in the ‘hood; locals tapping text messages on cell phones pack into skytrain cars and taxi boats bombing up the Chayo Praya and 3-deep onto their scooters as they head to work. Deck the halls with everyday life. There’s the odd decoration here and there to please the toursits, but you really have to keep your eyes peeled. This is gonna be a whole different kind of holiday this year. I keep reminding myself of the date….”it’s December 12th. December.” But then I figure…why? I’m still travelling, still happy, still safe, and as I said, I don’t have anywhere to be….so it doesn’t really matter what month it is. I’d never have imagined such an astonishing statement. My good fortune is of unimaginable levels. Being back in Pai was lovely. Aside from freezing our butts off the first night in a concrete bunker (our little guesthouse of choice was all booked up), our time there was everything we hoped it would be – which is essentially nothing. We picked up the all-important scooter and spent 3 days ******* around, re-visiting some of the familiar hillsides and valleys and discovering new ones. Fab even got to play petonques! It was definitely busier in Pai this time around. We arrived just before the King’s birthday, an event that sees the level of tourists from Chiang Mai and Bangkok increase tenfold due to the Friday holiday / long weekend. I was “forced” to pick up a scarf and hat, not only to keep warm while scootering, but during the super-chilled evenings as well! Seeing everyone bundled up in winter wear did briefly give everything a bit of a festive air, bu tit was more like a crisp September than December. Our last night in Pai, we launched huge paper lanterns into the sky. It works like a hot air balloon; you light a waxy coil in the centre and that fills the lantern with heat, carrying it up into the atmosphere. Thais set them off for any number of occasions and celebrations. We launched three, in honour of lost loved ones – one for my friend Stacey, one for Fabien’s mother, Michelle, and one for ourselves plus all the others who have passed on from our lives. It was a sombre and beautiful event as we willed the circular papers to soar ever higher, carrying memories of our loved ones into the night sky; so high that they seemed to become intermingled with the stars. They then flicker and start to fade, growing more and more faint until there’s nothing left but a barely-discernible pindot of light, reminding us how brightly life can shine, but also how fleeting it is. We hopped the Barf Bus back to Chaing Mai the next morning (many casualties this time, curiously, all of them Thai), and then the sleeper train on to Bangkok. The sleeper train is AWESOME! One minute you’re sitting on a vinyl bench seat watching the countryside whiz by the window. Then a smartly uniformed (military-looking?) magician-lady arrives, waves her magic wand, and suddenly there’s a set of bunk beds, complete with crisp linens, pillows and blankets, where you were just sitting a moment ago. Presto-change-o. There’s even a little curtain you pull across so you can get your shut-eye in relative privacy. It was like being seven again and building a little fort to hide out in. Unfortunately I didn’t sleep a wink, but it was still cool. It was strange to be back in Bangkok – not only to return to the city where Fab and I first met, but to the very same guesthouse! Khao San Road felt different this time….a bit draining, to be honest. Our main reason for being back here was to straighten out / rebook Fab’s cancelled flight back to France (due to the political madness at the airport in earlier weeks). That gave us a few unexpected bonus days together, so we used them to check out some different parts of the city: Chinatown seafood market (disappointing); Sukhumvit (really just to find the Emirates Airlines office); the river taxi and skytrain systems (easy, cheap, fast, relatively pollution-free!). It took us until Fab’s last day to finally find bicycles! Green Bangok Bikes is a great initiative, giving anyone (tourists, mostly) access to free bicycles for sightseeing tours around the city. We’d seen all the touristy sites, so we just used them like we always do: to bomb around, pop wheelies (impossible) and jump on and off curbs (Fab better than I am). It felt great to be back in the hot weather (around 30 during the day), but I’d forgotten how bad the pollution is here. We spent our last evening together at Vertigo, the rooftop bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel. It’s a 61st-floor, 360-degree view of the city and a perfect place from which to view the sunset – unfortunately there wasn’t one to be seen due to the toxic stew of smog blotting it out. Still, it was a fitting place for Fab to say his goodbye to the Big Mango, even if one drink there cost the same amount as we paid for a night at some guesthouses. Eh, you gotta splurge once in a while. It was a sad evening, culminating in a long and sad goodbye at the airport. Walking back through that huge terminal, suddenly all alone again….can’t really describe how it felt. I’ve lost my travel buddy. All tolled we spent 47 days together, 24 hours a day. We stayed in 25 different accommodations; 26 if you include the night train. We racked up a dizzying list of adventures throughout a rather large portion of Thailand during that time, laughing, singing and dancing our way through it all. Merci pour tout, Fabien. Tu me manques. You were an awesome companion. I don’t feel much like continuing on without him, but that’s life, and my adventure must move forward despite this rather jarring (even if expected) setback. It was inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Aside from the emotional aspects, it also presents a series of practical concerns: he was both an excellent navigator and a sharp negotiator. Which basically means I’ve gone back to being lost all the time and to paying too much for everything. A few people have been asking where I’m headed next, and even more have been asking when I’m coming home. The first one is a lot easier to answer: I’m going to Laos. I’m taking the night train tonight (did I mention how awesome it is?) heading northeast to arrive in Nong Khai, a Thailand border town on the Mekong River, by Saturday morning (back to hat and scarf weather). I’ll check out that town for a few days before crossing over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge into Vientiane, Laos. So, it looks like Christmas will be spent somewhere up there. Don’t ask me, I know nothing about the country except that it’s apparently even more laid-back/friendlier than Thailand, if that’s possible. Sounds good to me. I need a quiet place to hunker down for a while as I get used to being on my own again. Christmas Update: I found Christmas in Bangkok! It’s prominently / ostentaciously on display in, of course, the ultra-rich areas of Sukhumvit and Siam Centre. Here, billion-dollar stores fill zillion-dollar shopping centres with gazilllion-dollar public squares out front all bedecked for a holiday that means nothing to the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants. It’s all for the benefit of tourists and expats, both who have money to burn. I think I like my poor little undecorated corner of the city better (Banglamphu). Bangkok summary: I like it here! How odd that I could now so enjoy a city that I disliked so much in the beginning. How ironic that in all my travels so far, I have spent more time in BKK (almost 2 full weeks!) than in any other place. It’s fantastic!