October 2016, Thailand.
Chiang Mai is my escape.
By the end of our month in Koh Pha Ngan, I am tired of living with bugs, drops of blood on my duvet, and Remote Year drama. We only have about a week left before we go to Phnom Penh, but my frustration with the current situation combined with my dread of the travel Remote Year has planned to get us to Cambodia (an absurd two-day odyssey to the neighboring country) encourages me to immediately book a week away (as well as a direct ticket from there to Phnom Penh). I have no business spending the money, but I hope it will be the mental health break I desperately need.
Luckily several Remote friends have just been to Chiang Mai so they offer great suggestions for the temples to visit and places to eat. I book a hotel I find on TripAdvisor, the Shewe Wana Boutique Resort & Spa, and it is lovely. Included in the cost of my room are daily breakfast and spa treatments – perfect. I don’t really understand the layout of the city though, and I’m a bit farther out than I expected, but that’s okay… it just means more adventure.
Exploring cities on my own is a new normal for me and something I genuinely enjoy. I usually like to ease in as slowly as my itinerary will allow, but since I’ve already been in the country for a month, my acclimating time is lessened. I already know how to say “hello” and “thank you.” I’m on the local time and aware of local customs. Chiang Mai compared to Koh Pha Ngan is a dramatic change though — from sleepy island to a city with actual traffic. I love riding my scooter in Koh Pha Ngan, but my skills aren’t up to the task here, and I am not willing to try. Chiang Mai is not a big city by any means, but it feels like a metropolis after a month at the beach.
What strikes me most when I first arrive in Chiang Mai is something we saw little of in Koh Pha Ngan. The King of Thailand died earlier in the month, and while the whole country is in a deep period of mourning, Koh Pha Ngan isn’t shrouded in black cloth the way Chiang Mai is. King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s picture is everywhere throughout the city, impromptu and formal shrines alike. It is quite beautiful and remarkable to witness — such incredible respect for their leader. At this exact moment, my country is going through a brutal, horrible election cycle where the idea of “respect” seems a million miles away — in fact it is.
As I wander the old city and find myself in stunning temple after temple, I think about how safe I am traveling on my own. There’s no way to not look like a tourist. Am I okay walking at night? Nothing in particular makes me feel nervous or afraid, and I don’t change my plans in any way, but I wonder. In truth any hesitation I feel probably has more to do with my overall insecurity about my life choice to go nomad. I mean, what the hell am I doing anyway? Time on my own can do that to me… how could it not? The mind strays and worries… then it settles down when I realize how lucky — not lost — I am. Well, maybe I’m a little lost, but in a good way.
I feel especially lucky in Chiang Mai. The people are amazingly warm and lovely with the friendliest smiles — I am constantly laughing with strangers. And the temples humble me. Funny how buildings covered in gold can do that, but they surely can.
The temperature is incredibly hot. I’m sweating in a way that I’ve now become very accustomed to. It’s not a good look, but I surrender to my environment.
On my way to lunch one day I am inadvertently perusing the most extraordinary day market in Chinatown (Warorot Market, Kad Luang). It goes on and on and on and on.
I am spontaneously buying things that I really shouldn’t (harem pants, anyone?), but I’m so in love with the moment and interacting with the beautiful shop keepers. As I go from purchase to purchase, I’m simply too hot. Why didn’t I bring a hat? Because I don’t look good in hats and have a big head are no longer acceptable answers. I find a gorgeous compromise: a bright yellow parasol. I feel slightly absurd with it, but I get complements on every block of my journey. (This parasol, mind you, will eventually travel with me to Cambodia, China, Myanmar, and finally back to New York — that is $3 well spent).
Another market, the Saturday night one (Wua Lai Road), will prove to be a highlight of my time in Chiang Mai. It’s so visually stimulating, and I have the most extraordinary mango rice and papaya salad for dinner. I talk to a lovely couple from Argentina. I wander blissfully for hours.
As I’m leaving the night market, I walk by a guy selling CDs (!). His boom box is playing Laura Branigan’s “Self Control.” I’m drawn to his stall and to this classic 80’s song with no self control of my own. But as if by divine intervention, the minute he sees me approach, the soundtrack changes. “Xanadu” is suddenly blasting at top volume, and I’m in heaven. “A place where nobody dared to go… The love that we came to know… They call it Xanadu.” Indeed they do. He gives me an acknowledging smile. Am I wearing an Olivia Newton-John t-shirt? No. How does he know that I love this song? Sadly, I’ll never be sure.
By the end of my time in Chiang Mai, I’m relaxed and inspired. I’m also thrilled to have found a city where I feel so comfortable and happy — I will return here, and maybe it’s somewhere I’ll live one day.
As I’m about to re-join my Remote Year family, I realize that the best way for me to exist in the program is to always plan a few days on my own. This isn’t something I’ve factored into my budget yet, but having this time to just be and wander is invaluable. I need space and, contrary to how I’ve felt in the past, I need some time alone. Feeling newly invigorated, I’m excited about my choices and eager to meet up with the group in Phnom Penh. Thank you, Chiang Mai (and my instincts), for the brilliant escape.