It was October 2009, and I was on the first leg of my round the world trip. A trip which I had quit my job for and gone out into the great unknown, just me and 2 friends against the world.
Around 3 weeks into the trip, and I was starting to find my rhythm. I was 23, confident and curious. And nothing would stand in between me and the adventure of a lifetime.
This sense of curiosity had brought me and my travelling buddies to Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. A walled city with an awesome moat, famous for its close proximity to the Thai jungle. Great for elephant treks, learning more about ancient Thai culture and for being guided home by a clan of ladyboys. But enough of that. This story is not about ladyboys. It’s about curiosity.
It was evening and a new moon occupied the sky so there was very little natural light. Perhaps this is why we saw them so clearly. Hundreds and hundreds of lucky red lanterns dotted the sky in a line so clear you could almost pinpoint the location they were coming from. What could it be? Some kind of cultural festival? I knew one thing, I was going to find out.
We approached the source of the lanterns through a busy market towards the water front. That’s when I heard it. A kind of distant thudding or rumbling. We walked closer, the noise got louder. And now we heard another layer of what we knew now to be music. Wait. Is this drum n bass? Nahhhhhh, can’t be. We’re in Thailand!
Yep. Definitely drum n bass. And look! Chav cars! Had we gone completely off-plan and ended up in Croydon? We wandered through a car park of souped up cars. All with shiny alloy wheels, blue lights shining onto their ridiculously overworked sound systems and all lowered to within an inch of their lives. Shuffling through this awkward scene to get to the source of the lanterns we did get a few odd looks, but nothing to be too alarmed about.
Finally we arrived at what I had convinced myself was the ‘cultural festival’. It was massive! At least a thousand people milled around, everyone having a fantastic time. There were families sitting on blankets, people on a giant stage singing, some kind of buffet area and even a dance floor of sorts, all out in the open air and at the far end of the party were those elusive lanterns.
We made our way through the crowd, very aware of how Western we looked. As a blonde girl I was the subject of huge scrutiny, and before long, we were surrounded by Thai people all jabbering away at us and offering us all sorts of foodstuffs and drink so strong it would put hairs on your chest! Unfortunately, my grasp of Thai was somewhat limited so I did my best to look gracious and thankful, and after a few minutes tried to continue my way through the crowd.
This is where it gets weird.
People started taking pictures. Lots of pictures. People started lining up to get pictures with the three of us. Everyone was laughing and posing. Not wanting to be rude, we posed for some photos, but the line just got longer and longer, and the people were laughing harder and harder.
It was all a bit overwhelming so we made a break for it and pretty much ran for what we thought was the exit at the end of the party; only to find…. a dead end. There was no option but to turn back through the crowds which had now got to at least one hundred people, all pointing at the group of Western girls.
Then the music stopped.
The man who was a few seconds ago singing a deafening karaoke version of I have no idea what, had stopped, and was now staring directly at us. He said something in Thai and then started moving down into the crowd to greet us more closely, all the time keeping hold of his microphone and providing a running commentary.
He handed someone his mobile phone and started to pose next to us. So we obliged, and there we stood grinning like the idiots we were, with around a thousand people staring at us in near silence. Then the very weirdest thing to happen so far occurred. The man broke into song. He sang into his microphone at my friend Amy, getting down onto one knee and really going for it. All to the rapturous applause of the crowd. What the hell was going on?
Finally, someone came to our aid. A lady who spoke English make her way through the cheering crowd and began to explain.
“You see”, she said “This is the annual police party. Every police officer in the city and their family is here tonight.”
Oh dear. We had unwittingly wandered into a private party. And not just any party – the party of the entire police system of Chiang Mai.
She explained that the person serenading us was in fact the Chief of Police, which is why everyone thought it was so hilarious. And those photos all those people were taking? Oh, they’re for the staff room walls. Three dumb Western girls wandering into their party was the funniest thing they’d seen all year, and as we walked away through to the front of the party, past the chav cars, with a thousand people laughing at us, we were comforted by the closing thought from this lovely police woman.
At least if we ever got in trouble here in Chiang Mai, all we had to do was call the police and no matter who came to our aid, they would know who we were. The chief of police had made sure of that! The ‘Smiling English Dummies‘ would forever be safe in Chiang Mai!