Chiang Mai

A month or two before the Christmas holiday, an opportunity to travel to Thailand with my friend Dani and her family opened up to me. At first, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to go. I was hesitant, but after having several encouraging conversations with friends (encouragement such as: “Haley, if you don’t go, you might regret it for the rest of your life!”) and budgeting out a financial plan several times, I ended up buying my tickets in a Starbucks at the beginning of December. 8 days later, I was in Thailand. I wanted to blog about my experience here as I’ve just returned with everything fresh in my mind, because otherwise I would inevitably forget details that I would like to remember. (Note: The trip consisted of three parts over a span of two weeks, so I will be writing three separate posts to give each their space and time).

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The first city we stayed in, Chiang Mai, sits in the northern part of the country. My first impression of Thailand was the people – they call it the Land of Smiles, and that is so true! Most of the people I interacted with were so cheerful and always greeted us with a smile. My friend’s dad was born in Thailand, so he speaks fluent Thai. One of the greatest things on the trip was whenever he would order his food in Thai, because the waiter would usually freak out – “how can you speak such good Thai?!” To help us non-Thais out, he taught us some phrases that we could use, such as “hello”, “thank you”, “where is the bathroom”, “how much does this cost”, etc. I loved being able to communicate with the people I met in this little but meaningful way, even though most of the time I absolutely slaughtered the pronunciation. I think I need to work on tonal inflection for my next trip.

The food in Chiang Mai gave us our first taste of Thai cuisine. Although there are a lot of touristy places, such as international restaurants and Asian-fusion restaurants in the city, there are also some more authentic sites with classic dishes like pad thai, tom kha, tom yum, chicken satay, green curry, and a ton more. My favorite thing that I ate (and continued to devour throughout the whole trip) was tom kha… there wasn’t one bowl that was bad. I’ve decided that I am going to attempt to make it myself in the upcoming months. Sitting in the open-air restaurants, feeling the Thai humidity, I kept thinking – how much better of an experience would this soup be if I ate it on a frigid day in the city? Well, it might not be a better experience at all if my attempt fails in deliciousness, but there’s only one way to find out. If someone has a good recipe, please share it with me!

One night, we went to a traditional Thai dinner and show. The food was pretty much the same as I described above, with the exception of fancy cocktails and fried pig ears (which were surprisingly delicious). The show aspect was great – there were a few presentations of beautiful, traditional Thai dances, a Thai boxing match (obviously super staged, but nonetheless entertaining), and live music. The final part of the show featured a bit of crowd participation. Dani and I were off to the side, sipping on a mai tai and enjoying the spectacular, when we were approached by two of the dancers to join in. After brief hesitation, we shrugged and went to the floor – “why not?” I’m not sure how successful I was at the dance, but I remember laughing most of the time because it was so much fun. In summary, I have fond feelings about my introduction to Thai dance, even though I probably looked ridiculous.

On the final full day in Chiang Mai, we went to the highest point in the city, with is a mountain called Doi Suthep. On top of the mountain is a huge Buddhist temple. The temple is a sacred spot in the area, but many tourists also visit to see the beautiful art and architecture as well as the incredible view of the whole city from the summit. It was wild seeing the city from above – it honestly had felt much smaller to me than it actually is. I think it’s because of the streets and clustered buildings – it’s not a vertically dense city, but more widespread across the intersecting streets, with little shops and restaurants crowding the blocks and corners. I did not go into the temple itself, mainly because I couldn’t tear myself away from the incredible rosy sunset view, but was able to see a lot of the temple grounds. A few of us explored the temple grounds and admired the rising moon as it perched itself above the temple. The grounds are decorated with flowers of many colors, bright paper lanterns, religious art, various lookout points, and Buddha statues. There were some monks in their orange robes, which is a fairly common sight in Thailand, but seeing them walking around the temple grounds, solemn, tranquil, content, and in their element, was a really special thing to me. One monk that I saw had a dog calmly flanking his heels as he glided around the grounds, checking to make sure all was in order. I found it extremely fascinating.

I’ll share one final anecdote about Chiang Mai. Before Doi Suthep, we went to an orphanage/daycare about 30 minutes outside of the city. Dani’s family has mutual friends with the director of the orphanage, which is called House of Love – the overarching organization is called Hope for Hilltribes. We were able to go visit the kids in the daycare and introduce ourselves, and then they each introduced themselves to us – then sang us a few songs and danced for us. It was so special to be able to see their sweet smiles and watch them perform, and to see the joy that they got from singing and dancing for us, their new friends. After, we toured the orphanage and sat down with the director, a kind American woman who had been living in Thailand for 34 years working in the orphanage. She told us all about her experience, the joys and sorrows that she has seen in her three decades in Thailand, and more about how the non-profit works. It was very interesting to hear the story of House of Love and how she got involved and ended up staying so long. I left feeling very inspired from her life story of altruism, the work she and the organization have done in northern Thailand, and the visit with the kids. Hope for Hilltribes has really made a difference in so many lives and their work is needed and important. If you’re interested, I would encourage you to read more on the website I’ve linked above.

I was totally in my head on the ride back to Chiang Mai, asking myself questions like: how can I make a difference in the world like this woman has? How can I use my life to change others? It’s an essential question that I think about often, but after experiences like this, I am always filled with inspiration and motivation to think about ways that I can better the world around me. It’s an alignment of my head and my heart that is one of my favorite feelings – like I’m falling upwards, progressing more into the person I want to be. It’s an alignment that I want to seek more often. Encountering places like House of Love and seeing absolute selflessness and quiet service in action amidst sadness and devastation is like finding a space for the divine in the midst of an absolutely confusing and hectic world. I hope that you have found spaces of inspiration like this in your life, and that you can think of thin places like this for yourself, dear reader.

Thanks for reading. Part 2 of the trip will be posted soon, and part 3 after that! I’m excited to share more. If you have any thoughts, questions, or a Thailand experience of your own, I’d love to hear. Share over at my contact page or tweet me.