Food is one of my great joys in life. I love eating it, cooking it, watching other people cook it, looking at it… So needless to say the fact that I’m not able to cook right now due to the lack of a kitchen in my hotel room has caused me some distress. In Illinois I cooked dinner for my family almost every night (to the great pleasure of my mom), and I miss it dearly now. But the food in Thailand brings other joys with it. And many adventures. I’m not able to cook, but I can certainly eat. And eat I do. I have started to settle into something resembling a routine after the chaos of figuring out where some of the good food is. I usually eat breakfast at one of two cafes near my hotel, a quick, simple lunch near the school where I’m taking my TEFL certification course with my classmates, and dinner is usually at a restaurant with friends, or a to-go meal from one of the markets. And if I decide to treat myself (I usually do), I indulge in one of the many delightful Thai desserts. I’ve discovered that Thais don’t shy away from sugar. This has presented a problem for me since I’m quickly getting addicted to the delicious green tea lattes, Thai teas, fruit smoothies, and rotee. A good problem to have, I suppose. Or at least a tasty one. I’m also slowly developing a taste for mildly spicy food, which I always shied away from in Illinois. It’s somewhat necessary here—the Thais love their chili peppers. I have also found adventures in exploring the markets. They’re cheap (I can usually get a meal for about 70 cents), they have a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, and prepared meals and desserts, and there is always a diverse group of people to wander among as you search for your next meal. In Illinois I loved strolling through the aisles of the grocery store, and roaming through the open air markets here isn’t dissimilar. It’s louder, more crowded, and significantly warmer, but it provides a delight (or an over stimulation, depending on how you experience it) for all of your senses, and you get the added entertainment of watching your food being prepared by the street vendors’ right in front of you. Wander through the markets for only a few minutes and you will see a variety of crazy-looking fruits including lycee, dragon fruit, star fruit, durian, and jack fruit. I often have to ask the vendors what a particular food is because I can’t identify it. But as the Thais say, Mai bpen rai (no problem). I was able to spend Saturday taking a Thai cooking class, learning about Thai fruits, vegetables, spices, and herbs, collecting some from the farm where the class took place, and learning to put them all together to make delicious Thai food. It made me more determined to find an apartment with a small kitchen after finding a job. I’ll survive if I don’t get to cook my own meals over the next year, but it will certainly help me adjust and bring me a great deal of joy if I’m able to sit down to my own home-cooked Thai food every once in a while.
Elephant Nature Park
Spending a day at Elephant Nature Park was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far. The park rescues elephants from around Thailand and Burma and does not cater to tourists seeking to ride the elephants through the jungle. Many people don’t realize that elephants aren’t made to carry humans. It’s hard on their bodies and their minds since they must first be broken before they can be ridden. It’s a cruel practice and one that I wasn’t about to participate in. Instead, I spent the day bathing, feeding, and walking through the jungle with the elephants. And as an added bonus, the day also included an hour of white water rafting. Thailand is much more laid back than the US, and that includes its rules. Want to jump into the river while we’re rafting? Go ahead. Mai bpen rai. Needless to say, the day was incredible. Walking next to the gentle giants that are Asian elephants instilled a constant sense of awe in me. The elephants each had personalities, which I quickly discovered while walking with them. One really loved bananas, and she wasn’t thrilled when I ran out as we were walking; she showed her disapproval by smearing water and mud all over my face as she searched me for more food. All I could do was laugh and do my best to clean myself up, which wasn’t hard since a few minutes later I was in the river, drenched alongside an elephant named Happy as I threw water on her back to help her cool down. I think Happy and I were both very happy that day. It was the Thailand I’d been dreaming of for the past two years with its jungles, mountains, picturesque valleys, and open hills, and connecting to the peaceful countryside, the playful elephants, and the Thai culture during this day trip helped me begin to see some of the hidden beauties of Thailand.
A Night at the Cabaret
Chiang Mai has one of the best cabaret shows in Thailand, featuring a diverse group of gra-teuy (lady boys). For those of you who still aren’t catching on, lady boys are women who were born men. Many of them have received or are in the process of going through gender realignment surgeries and hormone treatments. Thailand has a fairly large population of gra-teuy, and they’re great. Walking down the street, you would never know that these lady boys were born as men. I saw some of the most beautiful women I’ve seen in Thailand at this show. The show was great fun and of a very high quality. It offered me more laughter than any other part of Thailand so far. It was beautiful and funny and so entertaining. Several of the performances did a really nice job of acknowledging the hardships that many of these lady boys go through. Thailand is fairly accepting of the lady boys, mostly owing to the Buddhist belief that “If it is this way, then it was meant to be this way.” But, as in many of parts of the world, there are some who still resent their divergence from tradition. Watching them that night really opened my eyes to an important part of Thai culture and helped me develop a more compassion for those who are brave enough to be different.
A Day in Chiang Rai
Yesterday I woke up at 5 am and walked to the bus station with my friend Li, passing by the monks doing their early morning alms routes as the sun began to rise. Li and I caught a bus to Chiang Rai, three hours north of Chiang Mai, enjoying a nap and the beautiful mountain scenery along the way. We spent five hours touring the countryside on bicycles with the guidance of a wonderful tour guide named Bee. Bee took us along the paved roads of the city, on the dirt roads winding between expansive green and gold rice fields, and over bridges crossing muddy rivers. Rolling down the hillsides, passing the women working in the fields, and smiling at those who yelled “Farang, farang!” (farang=foreigner) as Li and I passed allowed me to experience yet another side of Thailand. It was peaceful and invigorating (I haven’t been able to get any significant exercise since arriving, to my significant displeasure) and so much fun. We stopped for snacks several times, once finding a soccer ball in a field and spending a few minutes cultivating our inner child as we ran around, kicking the ball in the middle of the Thai countryside. After riding around for about three hours, we went to the White Temple, one of the most famous landmarks in Thailand, and certainly the most famous in Chiang Rai. It’s unlike any other temple I’ve seen here. It’s a glistening white, and its edges are covered with tiny, hand-glued mirrors that force you to squint as you stare at it. As you walk over the bridge to the temple, you cross over hundreds of white hands grasping up at you, attempting to drag you to hell. After you have made it safely across, you are greeted by a beautiful entrance, flanked by intricate guards. The mural on the inside of the temple is very philosophical and political, which surprised me since Thais typically avoid confrontation and any discussion of political or social issues. But this artist did not shy away from it. In the center of the mural, above the doorway, is a demon, and in the demon’s eyes sits George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden. It doesn’t get much more political than that. Across from the doorway is the traditional golden Buddha being greeted with the highest level of wai (the traditional Thai greeting) by the Buddhists visiting the temple. Not Buddhist? It’s fine. Just enjoy looking around the temple, kneel to pay respect to it (recommended but not required), and then make your way out when ready. The tour ended with a ride around a tea plantation in Singha Park. The plantation is miles of stair-stepping hillsides covered in bright green tea plants. At this point in the tour, Li and I were sore and exhausted, and looking out over the rows of tea offered us a much needed moment of stillness and beauty.
My first days in Chiang Mai forced me to experience the most intense loneliness I’ve ever felt. It’s hard when you start living on your own for the first time and even harder when you start living on your own for the first time in a new country. I had no one here. I could talk to family and friends, but there was no one here to hug me when I was sad, no one to sit on my bed and listen while I ranted, no one to share in the frustrations and uncertainties of navigating my new home. I was on my own. But Monday came, and friends came with it. I started my TEFL certification class, and within a few days I was going out to eat, exploring markets, and going to meditation classes alongside my classmates. By Friday, I could confidently say that I had made some friends. I had mentally prepared myself to be alone in Thailand, and I still could do it if I had to, but my friends here have made adjusting so much easier. I have people I can talk to about the difficulties of living abroad, and receive empathy since they’re going through the same things. I hadn’t realized the comfort that would bring me. I started to laugh again after finding friends, started to feel like this place could be home. It helped me get my bearings and feel that I could make a beautiful life here. The power of human connection is not one to be underestimated. Independence is an important thing to learn, but independence does not require loneliness. It simply requires the knowledge that you can do things on your own and be okay. Friends do not interfere with that. They simply make the times when you don’t have to be alone more enjoyable, and the times when you are alone a little easier to bear.
Thailand has thwarted many of my expectations, and met many as well. It is giving me great challenges, greater joys, and helping me build my confidence and expand my worldview. I miss my family and friends in the US. I miss talking to my mom over a bowl of cereal, playing tennis with my stepdad, laughing with my sister, walking with my dog, and so many other things about home. But as I adjust and discover the daily adventures of Thailand and create my own daily life here, it feels more and more like a home, like a place where I will fit, like a place where I will be happy.