Story by Hilary Cadigan. Photos by Rob Royall
In this month’s edition of Stuff White People Like, we explore geocaching, which I just recently learned was a thing.
What is geocaching, you ask? A fair query. According to the official geocaching website, it is “a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices” that has been going on under our noses since the year 2000. In other words, it is a way to force indoor people (I didn’t say nerds) outside without separating them from their screens or the internet.Initially it was called the “GPS Stash Hunt” (which sounds a lot more exciting to me), but apparently this name was dropped because it was attracting the wrong sorts of people. Now it’s geocaching, which is derived from the word “geo” which means earth and “cache” which means treasure trove but is conveniently also a tech term referring to information stored in a computer’s memory.
The aim of the game is to find a series of “caches” which can be anything from a thimble-sized canister to a large bucket filled with shitty prizes. Once you find a cache, you add your name to the paper logbook inside it as well as the virtual one within the app.
Discovering geocaching is quite a revelation. There is an entire culture built around it, and the official geocaching website features interactive maps, a glossary of special geocaching terms and acronyms for those who can’t be bothered to type out actual words (“FTF” means “First to Find” and “TFTC” means “Thanks for the Cache”) and an online store filled with all manner of strange, seemingly worthless geocaching gear, from “geocoins” to “hitchhikers” (which are little trackable items, also known as “trackables,” that can travel across the world, from one cache to another, by way of geocachers).
It’s all slightly overwhelming, but people are into it, y’all.
At time of press, there are over six million geocachers and 2,527,582 geocaches hidden around the globe. And guess what? About four dozen of those are in Chiang Mai province. Betcha didn’t know that.
Personally, I hold no affinity for games or looking for things, but I do like not being in the office. I also like prizes, even shitty ones, so I decided to give geocaching a try. Here is my story.
Preparing for the Hunt
One of my favourite things to do is to go around my house and collect various useless items to give to people as gifts. (This, friend, is why your Christmas present last year was a large ceramic cow with a candy logo stamped on her hindparts.) In this case, because these would be presents for people I don’t even know nor had to make eye contact with during the giving process, I was especially excited. So I spent most of the morning going around the house and gathering up crap. Chosen items included a holographic tree frog bookmark, a teddy bear keychain stamped with the words “I’m love-holic,” a McDonald’s Happy Meal Barbie, and a dysfunctional toilet paper holder shaped like a kimono.
I happily loaded these items into my little green backpack, which perfectly accompanied the outfit I’d selected for this outing: jean shorts and a tank top from the Night Bazaar printed with a tree, meant for camouflaging as a backpacker and also a tree.The next thing I had to do, which I probably could have done ahead of time but didn’t, was to get 3G access on my phone. To the mall! Twenty confusing minutes at the AIS store later I was hooked UP. Hilary, girl of the 21st century. I left the mall with a swing in my step, returning the salute of the doorman on my way out with unprecedented enthusiasm.
Now, without further ado, it was time for my first cache, which just so happened to be mere steps outside the mall. So I pulled out my newly functional smartphone, opened the official geocaching app, zeroed in on the closest marker, and clicked “Start.” While I was doing this, I was also walking, so I fell down a small flight of stairs. But no matter. The hunt had begun.
My First Cache
As it turns out, I am really good at geocaching. Actually Rob, my trusty photographer/boyfriend, was the one who found the cache in a telephone pole hole while I was saying something along the lines of “how the hell are we supposed to find this thing?” (the official hint given by the app was “telephone pole hole”), but I was the one who poked it out with a pen. Sadly, there was nothing inside but a paper logbook so I just got to write down my name and the date, neither acquiring nor dumping – I mean gifting – any treasures. But the thrill of the hunt had opened up a strange aquifer of greed and desire within me. I wanted more, more, more! The next cache, while not far from the first, proved a bit harder.
I had a small tantrum when my 3G stopped working (sorry for yelling at you, Rob) and then reached my hand into a nest of fire ants trying to retrieve what turned out to be a piece of trash. But, just when all hope seemed lost, miracle of miracles! My 3G started working again.And with that, another cache was found (!) despite a number of curious Chinese tourists (a.k.a. “muggles,” which is how geocachers refer to anyone who is not a fellow geocacher) trying to interfere. Again no treasures were inside, but in a rare burst of generosity I decided to donate my lucky monk-blessed string bracelet which I have been wearing and not washing for the past month. You’re welcome, future geocachers of Chiang Mai. Also, I met a friendly dog.
To the Old City
At this point in the day, my backpacker camouflage ensemble proved to be a smart choice. For the next batch of geocaches that popped up on the map, we would have to venture to their mecca: the old city.
The first old city cache turned out to be a dud. It seemed that several of my forebears had reported DNF (a shame-drenched designation which stands for “Did Not Find”), which meant it had been a) stolen b) eaten c) knocked into the moat or d) really, really hard to find. Ain’t nobody got time for that, so we skipped it and paid a visit to the haunted house on the northwest corner of the moat instead, which is quite a nice place.
Next up: Buak Hard Park, which allegedly houses not just one but TWO caches. We found neither of them, but I admit I didn’t care very much because I had my hands full eating a coconut I bought at the park shop. And also the app said they were too small for treasures. So we said f*%k it and journeyed across the street to the much lesser known – and as a result quite peaceful – Kanchanpisek Park, a hidden stretch of green bisected by a dodgy-looking little stream. Here, legend had it (and by legend I mean the official geocaching map), was one of the only geocaches in Chiang Mai that actually has space for some treasures, thanks to the local Boy Scout Troop that planted and maintains it.
At this point, my phone battery was down to six percent, and dying fast (geocaching is to phone batteries what Keeping Up With the Kardashians is to the moral fabric of America’s youth, plus I forgot to charge it), but I was determined to obtain at least one treasure on this journey. For awhile, I was trapped like a rat on the wrong side of the dodgy stream, but eventually I found a bridge (phew!) and with four percent left to go, acquired my third successful cache, this time with TREASURES.
These treasures turned out to be a goddamn seashell and a “trackable” that required you to move it in the direction of a tennis court in Malaysia (?). This seemed like an unpleasant degree of responsibility so I left it behind and opted for the shell. In exchange, again in a curious fit of generosity, I left not one but TWO treasures behind: a seed bead necklace of unknown origin that has been hanging on my towel rack for the past year and a half, and a small lady made of wooden beads that I bought for 20 baht because it was the cheapest thing at a charity fair I once went to. I chose these items because they were the only ones in my collection that would fit into the very small cache box.
Happily Ever After
At this point, all the strenuous caching was making my compatriot Rob and I quite hungry. Conveniently, there happened to be another cache just outside SP Chicken, so away we went. We considered looking for the cache upon arrival, but instead decided to order all the chicken and pork ribs and som tam we could afford.After feeding, with one percent left to go, I made my most heroic cache of the day, finding a bottle cap sized cache magneted to a sign, with nothing of any worth inside.
I upped the ante by leaving behind a 7-Eleven stamp and one baht.And there you have it. With a dead iPhone, one seashell and happy hearts, we returned home. Was my first day of geocaching a success? I will answer that question with another question. Is any day wasted when it is spent outdoors, discovering new places in a familiar neighbourhood? I don’t know, but I sure felt good about the fact that I didn’t have to go into work on a Thursday.Ultimately, however, the biggest winner of the day is whichever lucky friend of mine who, this holiday season, gets to receive the toilet paper kimono that I still have in my possession. Merry Christmas to you.
In case you’re interested: http://www.geocaching.com
Originally published in the Dec 2014 issue of Chiang Mai Citylife.