I knew the holidays would be hard here. And they were. What I didn’t know is that they would also be uniquely beautiful and would offer me memories of days that I won’t soon forget.
Thanksgiving came and went without much fanfare. In general, the Thais seem to know that Thanksgiving is an American holiday, but they didn’t seem to understand the meaning or purpose behind it, and it wasn’t something they were necessarily interested in learning about or acknowledging. So it passed without any attention except from my foreign coworker and me. I video chatted my family when they were all gathered at my aunt’s house for the huge meal and family time that always come with the holiday. The call certainly made me homesick, but it also made me feel like I wasn’t completely missing out. I got to talk with most of my family members, hear their voices, and see their smiles, and it was enough to help me feel like I was experiencing the holiday with them. My foreign coworker, Wesley, was kind enough to bring me leftovers from his own family Thanksgiving a few days after the holiday, so I was able to get a small taste of Thanksgiving deliciousness. Of course, it was no replacement for my aunt’s incredible spread that covers every surface of her kitchen each year, and it didn’t make me stop thinking about the bits of turkey I usual steal as I help my uncle carve the bird, or the fire that’s usually burning next to the tables of my family members enjoying warm rolls and mashed potatoes, or the laughter that constantly echoes throughout the house, but it was nice to have a little reminder of the tastes of the holiday.
There was no way I was going to let Christmas pass without some kind of celebration. It’s traditional for my family to have a big celebration on both Christmas Eve and Christmas, so I mimicked that tradition as best as I could here. Christmas Eve was the big Christmas party at my school. Obviously most Thais don’t celebrate Christmas because the vast majority are Buddhist, but they do find the holiday very fun and interesting, so most schools will recognize it and celebrate it in some way. At my school, it was a day filled with talent shows, singing and dancing, fashion shows, contests, and games. I was Santy (Mrs. Claus) for the day, complete with red and white striped socks and a red cape, and Wesley was, of course, Santa. We acted as official candy-throwers throughout the day, as well as the MC’s for the talent show. We also threw in a small performance of We Wish You a Merry Christmas after our MC duties were complete. The preparation for the day was long, and sometimes tedious, but the day itself was joyous and so much fun. It made the day feel like a holiday here, which I was very grateful for. Christmas Eve evening, I went out to eat with some of my friends/coworkers and organized a small Secret Santa with them. We ate at a restaurant that served what came close to a Western meal, exchanged Secret Santa gifts, and ended up having a really great evening just chatting and laughing. My coworkers have become part of my family here in Thailand, and spending that part of the holiday with that part of my new, chosen family made the day very special.
Christmas morning came. I didn’t wake up with my family; I didn’t sit by the tree and open gifts with them; I didn’t eat cinnamon rolls slathered with icing; I didn’t run around the house with my sister as we followed the clues of our annual Christmas scavenger hunt. I had to work on Christmas. The sound of the songthaews that always pass by my apartment around 7 warned me that I was late. I jumped out of bed, faced a chilly morning, took a quick shower, and ate my breakfast while video chatting with my family. It was Christmas Eve in Illinois, and my family was gathered, as they always are on Christmas Eve, at my grandma’s house. The phone was passed around, I got to see everybody, talk to everybody, wish everybody a Merry Christmas. I got to laugh hysterically as my cousin attempted to say hello to me in Thai, got to hear the usual background chatter that fills my grandma’s small house every Christmas Eve, and got to go to work thinking of their smiles. It was a hard day for both me and my family. They missed me; I missed them. And I missed all the things surrounding the day that I had missed out on: the way my house smells when I’m baking; the way the tree looks the first time we plug in the lights; the warm fire that I like to curl up next to on the cold nights; the extensive present wrapping that I always do because my mom hates it; the late night shopping trips with my parents because they always wait until the last minute; the joyful holiday itself. What I didn’t miss, though, was the materialism of it all. I’ve gotten very tired of the piles of gifts that are placed in front of everyone on Christmas Day, the lack of recognition for what the day really should be about, and the ridiculous amounts of money that we spend on gifts that people don’t need or even want. Here in Thailand, I received one gift, and it was more than enough. The people that I spent the holiday with were more of a gift to me than anything else. They made my day special. They made me feel loved. And they helped me feel the gratitude that the holiday should be about.
After finishing my typical Friday work day, I headed to the city to spend the evening at my friend Toni’s house. Only a few days after breaking two ribs in a small motorbike accident, Toni hosted an amazing Christmas party with the other part of my Thailand family—the friends I made during my TEFL course when I first arrived here. We were a big group in a small apartment, but we all squeezed in, and the physical closeness only added to the wonderful coziness of the evening. Tables were laid with chips, Oreos, cake, and cheese and crackers (yes, my friends, we did get our hands on some cheese here in Thailand). And that just got us started. It was soon followed by Toni’s homemade egg nog, complete with a bottle of Sang Som (Thai whiskey). We snacked and drank our way through the evening until the main course of American style chili and garlic bread was ready. Even with only mostly Thai ingredients to work with, Toni managed to make an incredibly tasty meal that was shockingly similar to something I would imagine eating in America. Toni and some of my other friends who were lucky enough to be off for the holiday even went to the trouble of making small paper stockings with everyone’s name on them and hanging them above the TV screen where a fire was burning brightly with the help of Comcast and Youtube. It felt like Christmas. It felt simple and special. I got to spend it with people I love, in a country I love. When my friends went to the roof to relax and enjoy a view of the full moon at the end of the night, I stayed in the apartment, the only light and sound coming from the crackling TV fire, and enjoyed a few moments of peaceful solitude before calling my family once again. This time it was Christmas morning in Illinois, and my mom, stepdad, sister, and brother-in-law were all gathered and getting ready to open gifts. For those few short minutes, we were all together, just like we always are on Christmas morning. And I was happy.
For New Year’s my school had a four day weekend, which gave me the perfect opportunity to travel. My friends were scattered all over the country that weekend. Some were in Krabi, some in Lampang, some in Bangkok. I went to Mae Hong Son province and spent the weekend in a small town called Pang Mapha. The trip started out with a very unfortunate incident that almost got the trip cancelled. I was about an hour outside Chiang Mai when I looked down and noticed my IPhone was no longer nestled in its usual place in my motorbike caddy. I always put it there for easy access to the map, and it wasn’t there. I pulled over, checked my pockets hoping I had mistakenly stuck it there, panicked, and then realized it was gone. I must’ve hit a bump. It must’ve fallen out out. I drove up and down the highway four times looking for it. I didn’t find it. I couldn’t get to Pang Mapha without a map. I wouldn’t be able to call for help if I broke down or crashed. There was no way I was doing a six hour motorbike ride without a phone. I turned around and headed for home. The trip was over. But no. Calm down, Jen. This isn’t the end of the world. It’s just a cell phone. It can be replaced. And replace it I did. I went back to the city and bought an $80 Android from my service provider, and I was back on the road to Mae Hong Son. Yes, it was an awful start to the trip. Yes, I was very upset about it. But I didn’t let it stop me from having an incredible weekend. It was just a phone. It was gone. There was no reason for me to dwell on it. So I moved on, and, three hours behind my original schedule, I booked it up to Pang Mapha. Afraid of not making it before sunset, I think I only stopped three times during the six hour ride on the curving, occasionally rocky and bumpy roads through the mountains. The road into Mae Hong Son is notorious for its curves. I think there are more than 1,000. My friends who have attempted the ride complained about how rough the drive was, but I actually found it very enjoyable. There were certainly stretches of the road that produced some anxiety, but they were few and far between, and I just took it slow and made it without any trouble. The curves were fun, the scenery was gorgeous, and the cool weather was refreshing.
I made it to Pang Mapha without any more incidents and settled into my private bungalow at Cave Lodge, an amazing guesthouse nestled in the forest next to a small river. It’s called Cave Lodge because of its proximity to Tham Lod (tham = cave, lod = to go through), a very impressive cave in Pang Mapha. My body and mind relaxed almost immediately. I took a walk by the river, lazed in a hammock, ate a delicious meal at the lodge’s restaurant, and curled up with my Kindle for a few minutes. After the long day of losing my phone and driving, I got tired early. It was New Year’s Eve, but I didn’t have the motivation to stay up until midnight, so I was in bed by nine. What I didn’t account for was the fireworks that would start going off next to the river at eleven. They were only about a hundred feet from my bungalow, and every explosion sounded like it was going off right outside my window. Every time there would be a short break, I would drift back off, only to be woken up minutes later by another blast. So I gave it up. I grabbed my coat, went onto my balcony, rested my chin on my knees, and watched the fireworks erupt over the water. The celebration ended with the lighting of a huge straw man that the lodge owners built and named Donald Trump. He went up in flames around 11:50 and was soon followed by the cheers of the New Year, a good dose of gratitude from me for being able to be in such an amazing place to welcome 2016, and finally a good night’s sleep accompanied by the sounds of the river and insects.
I spent New Year’s Day exploring Mae Hong Son city, which was about a two hour ride from Pang Mapha. It’s the capital of the province and is located in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains and rice fields. It’s home to a popular wat on a mountain, Wat Phra That Doi Kung Mu, famous for the incredible view of the city that you get from the top. The adventure to the wat was followed by an exploration of Pha Sua Waterfall just outside Mae Hong Son. It wasn’t the most beautiful waterfall I’ve seen in Thailand, but it was still lovely, and waterfalls always bring some peace to my life. The adventure ended with a stop at Tham Pla Fish Cave. There is no cave to be seen at the fish cave, so I was confused about the name until I read about it and discovered that it is so named because the water channel at Tham Pla comes out of a small, submerged cave. What you can see at Tham Pla is series of ponds that hold a massive number of fish. Vendors are stationed around the pond selling fish food and dead bugs. It was a touring day, so I conformed to the tourist expectation and bought my own bag of dead bugs to feed to the already overfed fish. Mimi and I were both tired by the time we got back to Cave Lodge, but it was a great, worthwhile adventure and a beautiful start to the New Year.
My last day in Pang Mapha was dedicated to peace and relaxation. I started the morning with a short kayaking trip through Tham Lod. The river runs through the cave and makes it feel otherworldly. The only thing I can compare it to is a sort of death. The cave is consumed in darkness, except for the small circle of light that looms ahead of you at the cave exit. The only sounds are the slight rustle of the water as bamboo rafts push their way along the river. White, ghostly fish surround the kayak, moving slowly through the water like lost spirits. I felt like I was floating through an ethereal passage, and when the kayak emerged into the sunlight at the end of the cave, I was plunged once again into the complex brightness of the tangible world. I came out on the other side with a sense of peace that I still carry with me. The trip through the cave was followed by a short caving adventure. Our guide led us into the depths of the cave via a jungle path and descent through a small hole in the side of a rocky wall. We appeared inside a large corridor that connected to other corridors, halls, and beautiful cave formations. The only light came from the flood lights on our hats and a more powerful flood light that the guide carried. In one hall of the cave, the guide turned off all three floodlights, and we stood in silence to experience the incredible darkness and silence there. There was no movement, no sound. The world was a blank slate. For those few moments, I existed in a beautiful nothingness. The rest of the kayaking trip led us through the surrounding jungle and ended with a steep plunge off a small dam. I attempted to follow the kayaking trip with a ride to “the big Buddha.” I’m still not sure what the big Buddha is because I never made it. The road was in terrible condition, and Mimi was screaming at me to turn around. She wasn’t going to make it, and I wasn’t going to risk it without her full consent. Instead, I went back to the lodge, grabbed a towel, laid it out on a grassy outcropping next to the river, and dozed off to the sounds of the water sliding over the rocks. When I woke up an hour later, there was a herd of cattle crossing the river nearby, the bells around their necks swinging back and forth in unison with their leisurely steps. I sat there, watching the cattle and admiring the beauty of the lush mountains. I sat there for another hour, listening to the laughter of the kids staying at the lodge as they splashed through the water and watching a group of Thai boys casting their net into the water to catch some fish. As the afternoon began to come to a close, I and a friend I had made at the lodge made the twenty minute trek to the exit of Tham Lod to watch a true phenomenon of nature. Every evening at sunset, thousands upon thousands of swifts enter the cave. They start slowly around 5:30. A few begin to circle overhead, occasionally diving down into their nighttime home. By 5:45, there are thousands in the sky, and more and more join as the evening passes. They emerged from every direction, sliding into the continuous circle as others made their dive into the cave. We were right under them and had an amazing view of this spectacular show. It was 6:20 when the last swift finally entered, and it was almost pitch black outside. There is supposed to be a second show that follows the first as the bats leave the cave for their nocturnal adventures, but with the sun about to completely disappear, we waited five minutes and then decided to head back to the lodge with the little light left to us.
I reluctantly departed the lodge around eight the next morning and made it back to Hang Dong by three. I was exhausted, but my psyche felt rested. The trip had brought me back to nature, peace, and an amazing adventure, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the time I got to spend in Pang Mapha.
I am back to work now, back to the adventure of my everyday life. 2015 passed quickly, as every year seems to do now, and this New Year brought me a reminder that 2016 will also likely go too fast, end too soon, and that my time here in Thailand will be over before I know it. It made me remember to cherish each big and little adventure here, the wonderful friends I have made, and the beauty of the life I’ve created.