Over fifteen years ago, my boyfriend and I wanted desperately to get out of our home town and thought that jumping on the teach-English-overseas-bandwagon, which was all the rage at the time, was the answer. We wanted somewhere far away, cheap and exotic, so we agreed on Thailand. Clearly what we lacked in completed degrees and money we made up for in enthusiasm and naïveté. We settled on the northern city of Chiang Mai because it seemed a little more laid back than Bangkok but still a busy city where we could find work and have some fun. We researched and researched and were all but packed.
Then suddenly, 9/11 happened.
One of the many by-products of that tragedy was that global travel security was up and hopping on planes with little education and one-way tickets was harder to do, so it seemed like our Chiang Mai dream would be just that. Thankfully, this prompted me to go back to school and get my degree(s) to become a “real” teacher which has led me on many different paths. However, I never quite forgot about Chiang Mai, so it’s no wonder that travelling there all these years later was bitter sweet in more ways than one.
Chiang Mai has a population of 160,000 and is the largest city in northern Thailand. It was founded in 1296, so it has a lot of historical and cultural significance in the province that bears the same name. It is modern and clean and full of life yet still feels a bit sleepy and preserved.
I spent countless hours walking the city mostly aimlessly, sometimes with purpose, often dizzy from all of the things to see. Chiang Mai has over 300 temples, my favourite being Wat Chedi Luang which was built in 1401 and is in the centre of the Old City. It was some kind of holiday or festival when I was there which meant droves of people were placing flowers at the feet of all the Buddha statues before praying, but I could never get a straight answer when I asked people what it was called. Whatever it was, it was beautiful and joyous.
I’m not into religion whatsoever, but it’s hard not to become interested, or at the very least, curious about Buddhism when in Thailand, for it’s so central to life there. It definitely seems to extend beyond religion and is more a way of life that teaches mindfulness, compassion, and a path to true happiness, which may explain the general friendliness and calm of Thai people.
In fact, it’s the only religion that I am aware of that widely accepts other religions and belief systems as equally valid – you’d be hard-pressed to find any wars or conflicts fought in Buddha’s name was what I had heard from many. It is so prominent in Thailand that it is practiced by almost 100% of the population and for the position of King, you are constitutionally obligated to be a Buddhist.
I also learned that almost all Thai boys live as novice monks during their early formative years and many do this as a means of receiving an eduction. By about age 20, however, they must decide whether or not to continue the life of a monk full time and go on for further education. At all of the temples I visited, I watched the young ones quite a bit and was happy to see most still act like “regular” kids in between some of their rituals – fidgety, silly and playful with their friends. They do follow strict rules for prayer, study and social relations though as talking with females or even accepting anything directly from a female is off limits, but it was nice to see their age shine through all that as well.
At Wat Phra Singh in the Old City I was fortunate enough to observe monks during their morning chants. At Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which sits atop of a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, I saw a group of monks blessing people. All of it so moving and fascinating that if I close my eyes I can still hear the bells and smell the incense.
Aside from my newfound love of temples and anything representing Buddhism, I spent most of my days wandering. I especially liked the walled and moated Old City, Warowot Market, China Town, and anywhere along the Ping River. I think I christened almost every coffee shop, food stall and park bench and most definitely went into every single solitary handicraft shop there.
The highlight though was meeting and speaking with locals as I usually do, and they were all warm and inquisitive about the world beyond its borders, specifically mine. I met one who wanted to know what I thought about American politics….oh boy, did he ever hear it from me. When I told another that I was from Canada, his remark was “you have so many trees!” …I’ll take that, I thought. Another guy wanted to talk solely about the food and eating habits of North Americans. Every time I asked him a question or brought up something else, he swung it right back to food. He meant business. He had heard that people in England ate bread every day. He was told Americans ate hamburgers at almost every meal, and he believed that we were all obsessed with potatoes.
Not much of an argument out of me on most fronts, I definitely stood up for his potato bashing. I told him that potatoes are to Westerners what rice is to many in his part of the world. His response killed me when he said, “but we have more than one kind of rice!” He was dumbfounded when I told him we had more than one variety of potato as well. He wanted names. He wanted descriptions. He wanted tastes, textures and ratings. If I had wifi I would have been on a potato-googling frenzy but he took my word for it when I rambled off all of the potato facts I (surprisingly) knew.
I was dreading the question about Canada’s cuisine that I knew was going to come up because I always find it hard to answer, so when it inevitably did, I told him about how many kinds of apples we grow, our famed maple syrup, love of beer, and fresh seafood at our disposal. I could see he was quite pleased to learn about all the food facts but was shocked when I told him I don’t drink soda pop and don’t even like it, another one of his stereotypes crushed I’m sure. It was such a funny conversation and I was actually happy to be the breaker of stereotypes for a change instead of finding people to break mine.
Aside from the incredible people I met, there is a lot to do there if you choose. I took a Thai cooking class through Thai Cooking Farm and it was amazing. You’re taken to a local market on the outskirts of town, and then to their farm to cook up your choice of dishes among a variety to choose from. It’s in a beautiful setting and the cooks are fun, class is light, and food is obviously incredible (and yeah, I made that shiznit myself!)
I also visited Elephant Nature Park, which is hands down the best elephant care facility in the country. I will rant plenty about the rampant abuse of elephants and specifically the disgusting practices of circuses and riding tours when I can process the brutality and ignorance I saw by Thai owners and tourists alike, but I will say that Elephant Nature Park is a champion for elephant rescue and was one of the highlights to my whole time in Thailand.
There are other activities that people do in the area such as hiking in Doi Inthanon National Park, zip lining through the jungle or visits to the nearby towns of Pai or Chiang Rai, but did I go to any of those? Nope. Do I feel shortchanged in not doing so? Nope. I loved every minute of my time there and would return to do more of the same in a heartbeat.
As I was leaving, I started to feel a bit sad, perhaps pensive is a better description – a lot of “what ifs” on what life would have been like had I moved there all those years ago. I tend not to have regrets though, so instead I boarded the plane feeling gratitude that I got to know the city and some of its locals for the time I was there.
Fifteen years later than expected, but at least I made it.