For weeks now, I’ve been struggling to sum up my thoughts on Thailand. Photos, notes, and memories contradict one another, leaving me conflicted. Thais are the warmest, most sincere culture I’ve encountered thus far in my travels. The scenery- ancient temples and ruins, clear seas, tropical foliage, and fruit-bearing trees leave me longing to return. But, like any paradise destination, there are problems. At the time of my visit, Thailand had the world’s worst air quality. It also has the second highest death rate for roadway accidents, a thought firmly rooted in my brain each time I reluctantly got into a vehicle. This is the story of my recent visit:
In Chiang Mai, I’m transported to another dimension in a place like nothing I’d imagined. Joy’s House in Thailand is a small multi-generational run homestay teetering somewhere between luxury and basic necessity and where I am to spend eight days. Soft music and windchimes give way to the laughter and playful screams of small children. Aged-out-orphans from the Children’s Foundation cater to guests as receptionist, drivers, greeters, and room cleaners. The Italian restaurant next door runs similarly.
Children are housed a few doors down and I’m given the opportunity to interact with them and even share English lessons with the younger group. Most go off to public school each day, but the youngest and newest stay behind, some freshly surrendered from nearby mountain villages with parents unable or unwilling to care for them. Many new residents are unable to yet speak the necessary Thai language required for public education. Each of the village tribes, I’m told, have their own language despite the close proximity.
The children appear well cared for and happy and are given opportunities for further education or to learn the hospitality industry. Every child I meet is polite and eager to practice English. Older kids help care for the younger ones and one afternoon while touring the organic garden, I observe and listen as an older boy strums the guitar and sings, a dozen or so little ones at his feet. My heart warms at the sight.
For the first time in nearly a week, I begin to feel safe. There are no bad smells and my nausea is gone. Daily routine forces my mind and body to calm, despite the unfamiliarity of my surroundings. Mornings begin with private yoga. I lay out my mat beside the teacher that will later become my friend and we sit in the sweltering room amongst the dozens of Buddha statues and their offerings. We practice and chat and practice some more. The sanctuary with its colored stained-glass windows sits free-standing away from the clamor of breakfast guests. I sweat and shake and try to remain present, reminding myself to be grateful for the gifts the travel gods have bestowed upon me. I am here in a nation ten thousand miles from home. Not only will I survive my solo trip, I’ll go home with a collection of memories and a handful of new friends I’ll meet along the way.
Massage and multi-course dinners fit for a magazine spread fill much of my evenings. With a still slight appetite, I nibble not wanting to offend my gracious hosts. My meals are said to be vegetarian but there are bits and sprinkles I can’t name. Large windows surround my room filling it with sunlight. Sounds of children playing and older women sweeping the patio with natural straw brooms become part of my days, and the music I write to.
Riding a bike through neighboring villages, I pray not to get lost. Ultimately though, I do, ending up at a 7-11. Not surprising for Asia as they seem to be on every corner. I stuff a hand-basket with nuts and chips, foreign drinks, and candy in case my appetite returns. Lotions and skin care products laden with bleaching ingredients promise to make or keep your skin snail white, as they prefer on this side of the world. The irony occurs to me. In the states, we slather ourselves in bronzers and oils to bake in the sun. Darker skin here, I’m told, is associated with lower socioeconomic status- gardeners, farmers, and other unfortunate souls forced to endure the sun and heat to earn a living. Tan people in America represent sun-kissed, relaxed vacationers rather than those forced to spend eighty-hours week under the glow of fluorescent office lights.
I make acquaintances with different guests passing through- Madeline and her twin daughters who took a year off to travel the world, and an adventurous older German couple who recently became empty nesters. Both heading for Laos.
Lana Elephant Sanctuary is about an hour away. I endure a white-knuckled van ride, praying for safety along the way as the driver tails the cars and mopeds inches in front of him. At the park, three of us (a young German couple and me) are given clothes, a hat, and crocs to change into. We will get wet and dirty; our guide Gina explains. After feeding the elephants, rescued from riding or trekking businesses, we take mud baths and wade in a pond with them. Fear grips me throughout the day hanging out with the three-ton babies. Eating occupies much of their day and they demonstrate their phenomenal sense of smell from thousands of yards away when as I’m handed a basket of bananas, they come running. I wish I wasn’t afraid of being trampled. I wish, like the German couple, I had the courage to roll around in the pond at least with Crazy Lanna, the one-ton baby. Instead I remain knee-deep in the muddy water near the only exit where I can scurry up the hill each time one of the beasts decides they’ve had enough. Later from the safety of my room, I will come to realize what an unforgettable up-close experience this was.
Thor, my hired guide takes me to tour the city. We visit ancient temples, a school, and the famous market in the center of town. He explains that each Thai male is required to “be the monk” several times throughout life. Once after each parent dies, and once before marriage. Some monks are monks for life but others just thirty-days at a time. As a woman, you are never permitted to touch a monk and at one temple as a female, you are considered unclean because you menstruate and not allowed inside. I ask why young and old or pregnant women who don’t menstruate are also excluded from entering. Thor doesn’t know. In our last temple, I kneel at the feet of a monk, careful not to move and accidentally graze him as he ties a handmade bracelet on my wrist and blesses me. Temple alters are loaded with colorful gifts and baskets of food and goods meant for the monks. The community cares for them while they serve their time.
At the market, samples are available at most stalls. As we walk, I reluctantly repress my food safety and cleanliness obsession and accept Thor’s offerings. I taste sour mango slices, and dried durian- the infamous corpse scented fruit. For lunch we dine on a plastic-covered table in the center of the market. Bowls of garnish- pickled greens, crispy noodles, onions, sugar, and fried chilies sit in open bowls. We both have the vegetarian version of Khao Soi and it is the best food I will taste in Thailand. Thor surprises me with dessert- rice paper dumplings filled with various vegetables including garlic and purple cabbage, a coconut cream sauce drizzled on top. I force myself to swallow and smile.
Aboard an old rice boat, I cruise the Mae Ping river with a handful of foreigners, shrinking myself to the side beneath a sliver of shade. The sun is nearly unbearable. We make our way past river shanties and mansions to an organic farm where herbs are grown for medicine. The guide doesn’t speak English, so I absorb nothing. Thankfully many of the signs are in English, even if it is poorly translated. Thor and I reconnect and share fresh melons and juice before we wind our way back through the city to my temporary home.
Back at Joy’s House, the outdoor kitchen bustles with the noise of dinner preparation. Pots clang and foreign chatter carries across the patio. Each night as the sun goes down, a man’s tinny voice echoes loudly throughout the village from a PA system, sometimes for twenty minutes or longer. I have no idea what is said, but it makes me uneasy. Is he warning residents of something? Later I’m told it is neighborhood announcements, births and deaths, and upcoming gatherings.
On my last day, my yoga teacher Nok takes me to the six-level mall to buy a coat for the unplanned next leg of my trip. I spend the evening grateful and contemplating the past week in Chiang Mai. I ask myself if I will someday return to Thailand. Despite the pollution and traffic problems, and my fear, I believe the answer is yes.
Only next time I will be braver.