Escaping the heat of Chiang Mai

One of the biggest challenges as a foreigner living in Chiang Mai is finding the balance between the “farang” tourist scene and “authentic” Thai life.  Finding tourist hotspots is easy- just follow the flock of elephant pant-wearing white folks clutching Lonely Planet guides.  Places like Wat Doi Suthep and the night bazaar are well publicized.  I have nothing against a pretty wat on top of a mountain or a market where I can find hippie pants for $3, but sometimes these places can start to feel like tourist traps.

This is why I loved this past weekend.  It began with the Lanna World Music Festival on Thursday night, which featured a lovely mix of Lanna (a region including parts of northern Thailand, Burma, Laos and probably more), Korean, African and even American artists.  I went to the festival with a few friends and was introduced to several new ones there through a mutual friend.  We ate some delicious stall food, enjoyed a few beer towers and relaxed, enjoying the music and atmosphere.  We all hit it off so well that we agreed to go out again the next night.  And again the following afternoon. Our Saturday afternoon destination? Huay Tung Tao, a lovely lake about 25 minutes outside of the city.  As a tourist, you probably wouldn’t hear about this place, or if you did, it could be a bit of a stretch to get there.  This is how we spent that afternoon…

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Enjoying some snacks and cold beverages in our own personal tiki hut!

One of the best parts was that I don’t think I saw any other huts of farang, or foreigners.  Not that I’m anti-farang, obviously almost our entire gang was comprised of ex-pats, but it’s nice to find a place where you don’t feel like just another dot in a sea of tourists.  Not to mention the sunset…

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Beautiful, pink sunset over the lake. No editing required.

Needless to say, it was a wonderful afternoon.  Getting out of the city is necessary when the daily average temperature is hovering just around 100 degrees. Even if we didn’t swim, courtesy of the snake David almost grabbed in the water and the bits of trash floating around, the breeze was fabulous. For only a 20 baht entry fee, it’s well worth it.  I highly recommend Huay Tung Tao to anyone currently suffering through the oppressive heat of Chiang Mai!

Cheers,

J

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Some Reflections on SE Asia

When I arrived in Chiang Mai back in January, I had never set foot onto Asian soil.  This city was my first exposure to Asian life and culture.  I’ll never forget my first experience riding down Huay Kaew road on the back of Dave’s motorcycle: I thought I was going to die.  Everything seemed so frenzied, with cars, tuk tuks, motorbikes and pedestrians darting everywhere.  The sights, sounds and smells of the city were a full on assault on my senses.  Despite the initial chaos, I quickly adjusted to this foreign place and Chiang Mai became a kind of home, my baseline Asian city.

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Home sweet home! And our new ATMA SEVA office!

It wasn’t until I left the familiar comforts of my apartment in Chiang Mai to venture south to Bangkok that I realized just how good I have it here.  From the moment I arrived in the Bangkok train station to the great pleasure of the dozens of taxi and tuk tuk drivers vying for my baht, I realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, as the saying goes.  From there things only got more aggressive, heading into Cambodia where the poverty is much more prevalent and in your face.  Walking around Angkor Wat, you can’t go twenty feet without ten cries of “Lady! Fresh pineapple for you! Very cheap!” or a dozen little girls following you along the road trying to sell you postcards and other small trinkets.  At first it’s easy enough to smile and say no politely.  At 2pm when you’ve been climbing around temples since 5am in 100 degree plus heat and approximately 147% humidity, it’s much harder to put on your happy face to turn down vendor #493.  I can sympathize with their position, but at some point, it’s just exhausting to constantly have to say “no” ten times before someone hears it.

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The streets of Saigon. One of the many vendors who will approach you on the street, peddling his wares. As he repeatedly told us, he didn’t JUST sell sunglasses, but he had an impressive collection of lighters too! Unfortunately, we were not in the market for either.

It’s the same with tuk tuk and pedicab drivers.  The only time you’re safe is when you are physically in another tuk tuk.  Until then, you are fair game and you will be hassled.  I remember one afternoon we were in Hue, Vietnam trying to walk around the old Imperial Citadel.  This is a large complex of restored buildings, old gates, crumbling walls, and other sites.  After spending 75% of the previous day in a car, we were ready to explore on foot.  A helpful pedicab driver pointed us in the right direction to the Citadel.  Starting to understand how the game works, I knew we hadn’t seen the last of him.  After waving and thanking him, he continued to follow us all the way to the Citadel, repeatedly offering us a ride in his pedicab for lower and lower prices.  I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t the price- we just didn’t want a pedicab ride- to which he replied, “you never try, you never know!” Clever, sir.  Unfortunately all we wanted to do was walk around and he did not seem to be getting the message.  It took us a solid ten minutes to lose him, at which point I’m pretty sure Anna, my traveling companion, was on the verge of snapping his head off.

Similar scenarios occurred in every city we visited in Cambodia and Vietnam, although this particular experience in Hue was the worst.  It really opened my eyes to comfortable my life in Chiang Mai is.  Everyone always says that Thai people are extremely friendly and welcoming and I can personally attest this to be true.  In Chiang Mai, when somebody says hello to you on the street, 99% of the time they are just being friendly and have no agenda.  When a tuk tuk driver pulls over to offer you a ride, if you say no, they nod and drive off.  I was absolutely astounded by how different the culture in Chiang Mai is to the rest of the parts of SE Asia that I visited.  Granted, I went to mostly tourist hot spots and didn’t even make it to Laos, but overall, I was amazed at how artificial the friendliness felt everywhere we went.  Sure, that lady with the basket of donuts is all smiles and cheer until you say “no, I don’t want donuts” for the fifth time, at which point her face drops and she stomps off to her next target.

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Classic Hanoi. You can find everything on the sidewalk except for pedestrians!

There are plenty of things that I loved about Cambodia and Vietnam, which I’ll be writing about soon, but this feeling of fake friendliness is one of the biggest things that stuck out to me throughout our trip.  Had I started in Hanoi, I would have had a very different understanding of SE Asia.  It just goes to show how relative our impressions are.  Also, although the cultures do share a lot of similarities, this trip highlighted how different these three countries and the cities within them are. It makes me very grateful to have found such a warm, welcoming temporary home in Chiang Mai!

Cheers, J

p.s. For more thoughts, check out my latest blog entry for the ATMA SEVA organization blog, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Schedule. Another entry with pictures coming soon!

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I’m Alive!

Well hello again! Things have been quiet here for the past two and half weeks while I’ve been traveling through Cambodia and Vietnam with a good friend from college.  I barely have time to breathe back here in Chiang Mai before taking off tomorrow morning for another trip to the Lawa Village where I previously lived for three weeks back in February.  I’m eager to get back and see all the kids, including possibly my favorite baby in the world (she was just on the verge of being able to walk when I left.. I’m hoping she may be walking this time!)  

This trip to Pa Pae will be a welcome vacation from my vacation, which was amazing but quite the whirlwind and rather exhausting.  Trying to get through Cambodia and Vietnam in just two weeks is hard.  Most people take 3-4 weeks in each country, fully maximizing the 30 day visas.  We spent 4 days in Cambodia and 10 in Vietnam (and 1 in Bangkok where we met up.)  Amazingly, everything went pretty smoothly!  Details and pictures will be posted next week when I return from Pa Pae, but I’ll leave you with one as a teaser…

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Relaxing on an overnight cruise through Halong Bay. And yes, I’m rocking quite the flip flop tan.

Highlights included Angkor Wat (NOT overrated), Starbucks in Saigon, touring the DMZ with a former ARVN officer, Halong Bay, successfully crossing roads in Vietnam, and lots of pho and rice paper spring rolls.  As much fun as it was, I’m happy to be back in Thailand with my pad thai and only slightly frenzied traffic.  Man did this trip open my eyes to how much I love Chiang Mai and how (relatively) quiet it is. Anyways, I’m getting ahead of myself. I am alive and well and will share more soon once I’ve had time to process it all (and sort through the 700 photos I took!) 🙂

❤ J

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Scouts… dance!

Scouts... dance!

My response to “A Word a Week Photo Challenge- dancing”! During a recent “scout camp day” in Pa Pae, Thailand these girls had to perform a short routine to earn dismissal from our station and continue their hike onwards! Not your classic ballroom, but equally enjoyable to watch 🙂

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Humming along to the pace of city life

Today I looked at a calendar and realized that it’s been six weeks since I left the US of A.  Six weeks?!?  It’s funny how time has a way of passing both quickly but also leaving you with a feeling of timelessness, like I’ve been here forever.  Especially now that I’m settled back in Chiang Mai with an apartment, I actually feel like I live here in Thailand.  As I was walking home tonight, the question of the last time I operated a motor vehicle popped into my head.  Six weeks ago.  It’s also been six weeks since I’ve slept on a mattress that can be described as anything other than “extremely firm” or eaten a bowl of cold cereal.  I’m not complaining, just thinking out loud.

So now that I’m all settled, I leave in less than a week for my big trip to Cambodia and Vietnam with my good friend Anna!  We haven’t seen each other since college graduation almost two years ago, so I’m thrilled that we’re finally reuniting and in such an epic manner.  I’m taking the train down from Chiang Mai to Bangkok as she flies from Erbil, Iraq to Bangkok as well.  From there, it’s a two week whirlwind through Cambodia, across the border to Vietnam and up the coast to Hanoi!  As annoying as crowds of tourists and being on the same route as thousands of other backpackers can be, I’m looking forward to being part of that pack for a short time.  Living in Chiang Mai is great, but there’s nothing quite like the energy of being on the go and meeting other travelers along the way.  Single-serving friends met in hostel lounges can be the best.

I’m most looking forward to Angkor Wat, the views along the coast of Vietnam, and Halong Bay in the north of Vietnam.  There are sooo many places I wish we could visit, but with only two weeks we need to do some major prioritization.  And as I’m often reminded, I’ve gotta save some stops for my next trip! 🙂 It doesn’t look like I’ll be making it to Laos this time around, so someday I definitely want to come back to see Vietnam in more detail and explore Laos’ natural beauty.

In other news, it looks like I won’t be attending grad school this fall, so I’m back in the oh-so-fun (crowded) boat of twenty-something year olds who have no idea what to do with their lives.  Yay!  Maybe that Laos trip will happen sooner than I think…  Honestly, I’m bummed but not heart broken.  I’ve always had a million interests and I know that I’ll find another direction that suits me just fine.  It just 1) sucks to be rejected and 2) is frustrating to, once again, have no idea what to do next.  I’m keeping my eyes and ears open to all kinds of possibilities- maybe NGO work in another part of the world?  Revive my Espanol and head to South America?  It’s both exciting and overwhelming to have endless options yet again.  Oh well- I’ll figure it out and all will be well, I’m not panicking 🙂

Anyways, I’m not even halfway through my time here in Thailand, so I’ve got time.  I’m also trying really hard to get better at living in the moment, something that’s always been a struggle for me.  I should probably sign up for one of the many “mindfulness retreats” while I’m over here.  Speaking of which, there are so many things I want to do while I’m here!  I need to make a list and make sure I actually get to them (Chiang Rai, Mae Hon Song loop, etc.)  It’s too easy to get caught up in the day to day life of living abroad and forget to take advantage of the amazing sights outside of your “home” town.  Can’t let that happen!  (Side note: I’m open to any and all suggestions of other weekend trips from Chiang Mai from fellow travelers!)

I guess that’s about all for now.  My next full post may not be until I’m back from Vietnam on the 26th, but I’ll try to at least get some pictures up between now and then.  In the meantime,  check out the latest post on the ATMA SEVA blog that features some sweet pictures from a trip Alexis (another intern) took down to Koh Chang recently.  Some insane sunset shots!

Until next time,

J

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Serenity.

Serenity.

Some colorful flowers and Buddhist philosophy spotted on the hill of Doi Saket, about a half an hour outside Chiang Mai.

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Precious.

Precious.

Just one of my favorite shots from Pa Pae. Two girls hunting for candy as part of a Scout Camp day!

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Ah, civilization. I missed you so.

Well, I made it back to Chiang Mai! As promised, English speaking company, delicious food and a beautiful apartment were all waiting.  We arrived back in the city Saturday afternoon and by bedtime I had moved into my apartment (upstairs from the new ATMA SEVA office!), gotten a much needed massage, eaten a delicious plate of pad see ew gai, and spent several hours spewing as much English as I could to Katherine over said delicious dinner.  All in all, a great first night back in the city.

I have to say that the highlight of being back, other than the food and being able to communicate, was a spontaneous trip to a nearby district last night to celebrate Sangha Day,  a relatively important Buddhist holiday that occurs on the full moon of the third lunar month (thanks, google!), which coincided with the dedication of the district’s new wat.  We were invited to go out to this wat for a “ceremony,” which I took to mean a relatively quiet evening at the temple with the monks performing some sort of ritual.  I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, this is what we encountered:

Dancing our way to the wat!

Dance party… or ceremony at the wat? … or BOTH!

Yes, that is at the wat. And yes, that is a dance party. We arrived around 5:30pm and went straight to a party at a friend of Natch’s, one of the teachers at Wat Doi Saket.  The best comparison I can give for my American readers is that it felt like a 4th of July party.  There were about 30 people already there, food lined up on long tables (including a “make your own noodle soup” station) and beer aplenty.  There was even a DJ with massive speakers, not a sight unique to our party.  As we drove down the street, we must have passed at least ten houses with the exact same set up.  There may or may not been hours of Thai karaoke involved.  It was quite the event.  After stuffing ourselves, and I mean stuffing- the hosts kept bringing over more and more food, including a plate of recognizably barbequed pork… SO GOOD- we finally made our way to the wat. And by “made our way” I mean literally danced our way down the street to the wat followed by a truck loaded up with speakers and disco lights. There were people stopping to light off firecrackers, Thai ladies dancing with us, and plenty of singing and revelry.

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Needless to say, this was completely unexpected and, I think, a wonderful way to celebrate the dedication of a new wat and holiday that celebrates the Buddhist community.  No quiet, subdued ceremony, but a full on dance party that lasted well into the night with delicious food and fun new friends.

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Dancing their way down the road! Katherine, Michael (right) and I were the only farang I saw at the event, which made the experience even more awesome and authentic.

It was a wonderful first full day back in civilization!  I’m looking forward to many more random adventures like this now that I’m back in Chiang Mai.  On the horizon is Songkran, arguably the biggest holiday in Thailand, which is held during the hottest part of the year and involves everyone going outside and throwing water on each other.  Yup, this is a national holiday.  One I’d like to bring back to America.

Until next time,

❤ J

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Polish? You’re Polish? Oh… PO-LICE. Like, Police.

It’s funny what you end up missing.  When I departed Chiang Mai a little over two weeks ago for village life, I thought I would miss the comforts of the city, like western style toilets and showers.  I thought I’d start craving some random farang (foreign) food like pizza.  Turns out, two weeks in, I really don’t miss any of these tangibles that much.  I’ve gotten used to my cold bucket showers, taken around the same time everyday after my late afternoon walk around the village, categorizing the experience as “refreshing” rather than “frigid.”  Honestly, they feel great.  As far as the rest of the bathroom situation goes, I’ve adjusted to the idea of the squat toilet and now the idea of sitting on a toilet seems weird.  It’s funny how quickly we can recalibrate to a new culture if we’re just open to it.  It’s human nature to initially have the knee jerk reaction of “they do WHAT? HOW? Why?? I’m not doing that!!” but eventually the question flips- we start to wonder why we do things the way we do.  Who decided that sitting on a toilet was a better idea than squatting over one?  (This is a legitimate question.)  Seeing more of the world has made me more introspective, thinking about how I do certain things and why.  The whole idea of perspective starts to become a reality instead of a buzzword thrown around by world travelers.

The things that I have missed while in Pa Pae are less palpable.  I’ve missed the comfort of being able to communicate easily.  To have a thought and know, instantly, how to convey that idea to another human being via speech.  It’s something we take for granted in daily life. This has given me a newfound appreciation for anyone who has ever left their homeland for a foreign country with no knowledge of the native language.  It can be hard as hell.

But the flip side of this, or the progression, is the realization that the experience of hitting a linguistic road block actually can be great fun.  Passing the handy Thai-English dictionary back and forth can make for an entertaining afternoon, with both parties learning a new word and laughing at the other’s mispronunciation (I don’t think I’ll ever get the “ng” letter/sound down…!)  There’s also something great about the moment when your message is conveyed.  Like the other night…

So Friday night around 6pm, a thunderstorm rolls through the hills.  It didn’t hit Pa Pae too hard, but it was enough to take out the power.  I noticed this at my tee bahn (home) and went back to a friend’s for dinner, bringing with me the news that the power was down.  Using my limited arsenal of Thai words, I pointed to the light switch and the ceiling light and said “mai mee,” meaning “don’t have.”  Of course, my hosts were confused.  Holding up a finger to wait, I pulled out the dictionary and found the word for electricity.  A-ha!  Now they understood, flipping the light switch and exclaiming in Thai that yes, the power was in fact out.  Another win for the dictionary.

The title of this entry refers to another entertaining exchange involving a 23 year old Lawa man telling me repeatedly that he was Polish.  I was confused, trying to figure out if this was possible or if he was mixing up the word (hey, how do I know, maybe a Polish person came to visit Pa Pae once? Maybe I found a long lost relative!)  Eventually, and I mean like 30 minutes later, we figure out with the help of a friend that he means police.  Not Polish.  Ahhh, bummer.

It’s little moments like these that I’ll look back fondly on, not for any special reason, just for the unique and utterly exotic experience that they represent.  My stay here has been both extremely challenging and very fun, often at the same time.  Sometimes I find myself thinking of the common interview question “tell us about a challenge you faced and what you did” and think that I’ve found my answer.  I mean, after this, grad school should be a breeze!

I have two more nights solo here before Katherine and a new friend of Atma Seva arrive on Wednesday.  Despite the fact that I’m now comfortably living here on my own, I’m looking forward to a friendly face and some English-speaking company!  And then we all head back to Chiang Mai early Saturday, where I’ll move into my new apartment!!  Stay tuned for more news as my Thai adventures continue 🙂

❤ J

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Check out my first post for the official ATMA SEVA blog! In addition to my own personal blog, I’ll be contributing about once a month to the organization’s blog. Check out the “photography corner” for some sweet shots from other ATMA SEVA members taken all over SE Asia! Some of my shots from Pa Pae will be up there within a couple of weeks.
Cheers!
❤ Jamie

ATMA SEVA

Sawatdeeka, everyone!

I’m Jamie, the latest on-site intern with ATMA SEVA!  I’ll be in Thailand for four months helping primarily with social media, and also some program development.

My first few weeks in Thailand have been quite the whirlwind!  I arrived to a balmy Chiang Mai night in late January and was greeted at the airport by several familiar ATMA SEVA faces- David (programs director), Nid (Lawa village director), Katherine (on-site intern), Alexis (on-site intern), and Natch (English teacher at Wat Doi Saket).  From then on, it’s been non-stop action, with a few curve-balls thrown in (despite Alexis’s repeated refrain, the title of this entry!) Some of these include an unfortunate, but relatively minor, motorbike accident involving Alexis and Stu (another friend of ATMA SEVA who has his own charity stuandthekids.org), getting stranded in Chiang Mai after finding out that the songthaews (a kind of a shared taxi) stopped early…

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