Sarah’s Thailand – Fall 2012
I’m in a writing state of mind today, no doubt thanks to a bit of a positive boost from this morning’s rain (read about it here).
And I promised you a piece on our Thailand trip. So here it is – Northern Thailand, through my eyes…
When I lost my job in June and I decided to take a few months to regroup and experiment, one of my goals was to travel abroad. Nowhere in particular, but somewhere far away from my day to day.
I thought about going back to Europe/UK, since my lovely friend Y and I had only been to London and some surrounding cities, back in 2010. But Europe/UK was expensive (the unfortunate result of the exchange rate between the USD vs. the Euro or GBP), and to be honest, seemed a bit too similar to home. I wanted something really exotic and different. So I turned to Asia, as many countries in this region (China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Tibet, Thailand, Vietnam) are high on my travel list. Plus, many of my closest relationships are to Asian Americans and I’ve always been very interested in Asian culture past and present.
Y and I had talked about going to China, and I thought Dan might want to visit Vietnam one day, so I settled my sights on Thailand.
Originally I planned to travel on my own but not alone, so I researched various small group tour companies. After consulting a variety of travel blogs and news articles, I ended up selecting Imaginative Traveller and their partner, Intrepid Travel. I knew I wanted to travel for about 10 days (I would miss Dan too much if I was gone for more than a couple weeks), and I wanted to keep costs to a minimum, so I settled on their Explore Northern Thailand tours, which were listed at 8 days.
While in the final planning stages of this adventure (literally, within the week or so I planned to book everything), I happened to connect with my friend S from grad school. We were catching up over email and when I revealed my plans to go to Thailand and asked if she’d like to come, she said yes!
And from there on, our adventure began.
We met in NYC and flew to Bangkok (by way of Shanghai) in mid-September. We stayed in the cities of Bangkok, Sukohthai, Lampang, and Chiang Mai, over the course of the 8 days. You can view the trip itinerary on either Imaginative’s or Intrepid’s websites (Explore Northern Thailand trip option), but basically we:
– Bangkok: Rode on a longtail boat, visited an open air market, saw the Giant Standing Buddha, visited the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha, and walked along Khao San Road
– Sukothai: Visited temples, bicycled around ancient monuments, picnicked with locals, stayed at a guesthouse and almost got caught in a flood
– Lampang: Went to an elephant conservatory were we rode an elephant, watched elephants bathing, and fed injured elephants (with prosthetic limbs!)
– Rural Chiang Mai: Made an offering to a monk, bicycled through valleys visiting a rice farm, mushroom farm, local sewing shop, taught English to Kindergartners, stayed with a host family, ate traditional Northern Thai food and experienced some of the music and dances customary to that part of the country, and visited a hot springs
– Urban Chiang Mai: Learned a few facts at the Cultural Museum, took a Thai cooking class and learned how to buy produce at a local market, experienced a Fish Spa and a foot massage, shopped the Night Bazzar, saw a lady boy (transvestite) cabaret, and bought some custom made clothing at a tailor
And throughout it all we experienced: long distance train and bus travel (even an overnight sleeping car on a train!), Rickshaws, Songteaus, Tuk Tuks, taxis, pit toilets, sleeping under mosquito netting, Buddhist culture, new foods, and the company of a few Australians, a couple from Belgium, a couple from Ireland, and a lady from England, as well as our phenomenal tour guide, Boom (a native of Thailand who grew up on a Chili farm on the West coast).
We even picked up a little bit of Thai, for instance: Sawadee ka – Hello/Goodbye; Ka poon ka – Thank you (both as said by a female and spelled phonetically).
I’m still in the midst of editing the photos I took (of which there were hundreds), so I’ll add in a couple of them to this post, later on.
It was an incredible trip and one that I will carry fond memories of.
Okay, I’m here.
“Is that it? You went across the world and did a whole bunch of stuff, and that’s it?”
Well, I mean, that’s what we did in Thailand.
“Yeah but, anyone can go to Thailand and do those things. What did Thailand mean to you?”
Oh you mean, why did I go and what did I learn about myself from the experience?
“Yes, yes. Of course. You always reflect on things.”
Well, you are right. 🙂
Per the usual, one of my intentions of going on this trip was to reconnect with myself.
These last few years have been pretty transient and tumultuous for me due to a variety of reasons (e.g., grad school applications, back injury aftermath including the lawsuit, family relationships, loss of employment, etc.), and well, for me – the best way to get in touch with my inner self is to remove me from my surroundings and force me to be present in the moment, and to learn.
Perhaps serendipitously, I had Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (EPL) with me (phenomenal book by the way, if you haven’t read it), and even though S was by my side and shared many a conversation and beautiful moment with me, Gilbert’s writing in some ways could’ve been the codified version of the narration in my head.
For those who haven’t read the book, Gilbert experiences a heart wrenching divorce and travels to Italy, India and Indonesia in search of a sense of self and wholeness. So the section of her book on reconnecting with pleasure and desire in Italy, the one on devotion and spiritual renewal in India, and the one on finding balance in Bali, all rang true to me in that:
In these last few years I’ve had to really learn how to let pleasure in to my life. For years I had worked very hard with the idea that, like the proverbial ant, work came first and play came second. Suddenly life decided to take me off that rat race in both the form of a back injury and being laid off and I was forced to come to terms with my human yearnings for fun, adventure, and joy. Not that I hadn’t had these before, it was just that I didn’t appreciate them – I simply viewed them as weigh points in between times of intense work/diligence. So I’ve been learning how to allow myself languid pleasures, and pure fun.
Furthermore, even though I have wonderful people and relationships which bring me countless joy, I had to realize that I’m the primary caretaker of me and if I need more fun, more happiness, more elation, I can’t look to others in my life to make it happen. Sometimes self care means loving yourself and creating your own fun. My recently renewed passion for photography has really helped in that regard – it’s something deeply creative and technical, but also so incredibly fun and satisfying! Plus, I love being able to capture moments for myself and for others.
This also coincides with a bit of a romantic rebirth for me. Prior to dating Dan, romance lured me but relationships rang a death knell. Previously, I’d been in some pretty disastrous involvements which had negatively impacted my self-esteem, body image, and sense of self. I won’t say all these personality aspects are 100% rosy now, but being with Dan has really allowed me to love both myself and others again. It’s also allowed me to come to terms with my human (and sexual) self as a adult, in ways I really can’t put into words. Suffice it to say, Dan has really helped me recognize what self and other love can be, and certainly our relationship, as well as the ones I share with my closest friends, have all really helped me to be more open to the love and joy that can be found in human connectedness. I am deeply grateful for these experiences and deeply committed to these individuals I love.
Furthermore, I am coming to understand the value in balance. I can’t have it all (or truly, as close to “it all” as I can get), without recognizing my needs across all the valid areas. I have physical needs (e.g., hunger), mental needs (e.g., to learn), spiritual needs (e.g., to feel at peace), emotional needs (e.g., to feel love) – and while I might be able to foist off or ignore a need for some amount of time, eventually they all cry for attention, and I must tend to them. In fact, it’s preferable if I try to tend to all of them a little bit at a time and keep the scales even, vs. drastically flip flopping from one to another.
And in acknowledging balance, I also have to allow myself to let go. It is incredibly hard for someone like me who relishes the structure and stability of plans, diligence, and ambition, to accept that the world is largely out of my control. It’s great that I feel empowered; it’s great that I want to play an active role in the world and in my life; but I’m still me – an individual who is subject to all the systems and processes of the world at large (e.g., political structures, organizational hierarchies, governments, etc.) and just things beyond my purview entirely (e.g., illness, catastrophe, weather, inconveniences, etc.). And though I still wrestle with the idea that my life is a much larger story greater than my most dedicated efforts at crossing off to do lists, I am starting to understand that: 1) my best is good enough, 2) there is always (except in rare cases, re: catastrophe) a tomorrow, and 3) I am the best advocate for myself (re: self-care).
And I’m sure there were more nuggets of awareness, but as you can see, EPL really provided a springboard for me. While we were flying across the Pacific, traversing the railways across rice paddies, riding the roads to Chiang Mai, and I was reading Gilbert’s thoughts, I was deep in a state of murky self-reflection.
In fact, perhaps the largest take away was a sense of inner peace.
After all the up and down and side to side of the last few years, my ego finally sat still and rested. The moment I remember it best was when I woke up to a beautiful sunrise somewhere about 2 hours outside of Bangkok on the sleeper train. I was one of the first folks in our group to wake up and I just laid there feeling very much still.
I rolled over to one side and gently drew the bright blue curtains to quietly reveal the soft glow of a pink and purple sunrise. I found my camera and snapped a photo, and in that moment I just knew that it was finally okay to let go of everything I’d experienced in the last few years and move forward. I’m not sure why there, why that moment, and why Thailand, but for whatever reason, internally I took a breath and made the first movement forward. I thought of Dan and felt very warm and comfortable and that’s when I knew that even though the future is a bit amorphous, things were going to be okay.
And so, if I hadn’t had the opportunity for so much dedicated self-time, I might not have been able pull all the pieces together and reach said conclusions.
Furthermore, being in a place like Thailand, once you’ve lived in a place like the U.S., just reminds you of the things you take for granted. For example:
– Western-style plumbing (you might laugh at this, but I seriously did not enjoy pit toilets, the lack of free toilet paper in public bathrooms, or outdoor showers – though the showers were significantly less offensive to me than the toilet situation)
– Emergency response (we sat in Bangkok traffic on the way to the train station and an ambulance had moved approximately 1/8 of a mile in 30 minutes – I sure hope the person who called in was okay)
– Education (while Thai’s can attend public schools housed in monasteries, they are certainly less able to educate kids with the aid of technology and cutting edge resources)
– Climate (while I’m not a fan of Texas’ hot summers, it sure beats having to constantly apply sunscreen and mosquito repellent on threat of Malaria or Dengue fever)
– Safety (I can walk my neighborhood for hours without fear of pick pocketing, mugging, or unwanted attention; I can also drive without having to wonder whether a Tuk Tuk or Moped will pop out of nowhere)
– Freedom (Thai’s deeply revere their monarchy, and while I respect that, I also appreciate my ability to speak freely about our government without fear)
– Food/Hygiene (while I LOVED the Thai food we ate on our trip, I was sad not to be able to eat raw produce or have cold drinks with ice)
Anyway…so that was Thailand through my eyes.
Have you ever been to Southeast Asia? If so, I’d love to hear your stories. And if you’ve never visited, I highly, highly recommend it.
Thanks for reading.