While I have washed away the copper coloured dust from my clothing and shoes, the sense of richness and aliveness of the fertile clay soil in Northern Thailand still remains in my cells and mind. There’s a certain awareness that comes from traveling abroad - you cannot help but become more present and focused on each moment as you navigate foreign languages, currency, time zones and daily interactions.
The biggest obstacle personally was battling with the dramatic transition from cold, dry Canadian winter to hot, humid and polluted burning season, with the worst air quality in years concentrated near Chiang Mai, where we stayed for three weeks. In response to this shift, my body responded with its own purification process, working its way through my nose, throat, mouth and chest and eventually digestive system. I also knew this ahead of time (in my obsessive preparation for this trip) so I brought a good quality mask with me that I purchased on Amazon.
Eventually relief was found was after we heard from Prasang, the Chief of the Lahu Hill Tribe village north of Chiang Mai where we spent most of our days, studying at the Sunshine Network Thai Massage school, that the “clouds had been seeded for rain”. After more than a week of daily yoga, meditation, massage and intuitive movement, I was caught up in the mystical, spiritual imagery of what this could mean and how he could know the exact time of precipitation. I laughed when I later learned that the Thai government actually has a Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation department to release chemicals into the atmosphere via planes in order to make the water molecules heavy enough to fall from the clouds and remove toxic pollutants from the air. It’s that bad!
Anyway, despite the poor choice in time of year to travel to SE Asia, I truly believe that every experience has its own perfect timing and that you are presented with the challenges in your life according to what you can handle in any given moment. I should also mention that most of our days in Northern Thailand were spent giving and receiving thai massages, practicing yoga and vipassana meditation. One really can’t complain too much considering the blissful atmosphere and energy that was laid out for us.
I fell in love immediately with Chiang Mai as an international, progressive city, complete with Digital Nomads, Expats, Ladyboys, inmates giving massages, stray dogs and cats and smiling people among ornate temples placed casually throughout its narrow winding streets lined with scooters and coffee shops. I felt immediately at home in its walkability, though navigating my way on foot through competing traffic of tuk tuks (their taxi which is essentially a scooter with a 2 seat canopied bench), songthaews (red mini buses that will take you and up to 12 people wherever they decide the limit is in the moment and becomes cheaper the more people who ride), scooters and trucks swerving along the left hand side of the road was a bit unnerving.
Notwithstanding the lovely chaos, everything runs in an orderly fashion, with queues established organically and nobody pushing or rushing anywhere. The ornate buddhist temples on nearly every corner make it truly a special sight and you feel as if you’re part of a communal, energetic party. Brightly coloured fabric wrap old twisted root trees and miniature houses with tiny ladders are adorned outside of businesses with offerings of flowers, figurines and jaffa (incense) sticks - a beautiful homage to the spirit world, religion and their ancestors. Nearly everyone spoke a little, if not a lot, of English!
The culture of rituals struck me as something that makes up the identity of Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai, which translates to “New City”, was influenced by both Burmese and Chinese leadership until a Siam ruler fortified the city during the Burmese-Siamese war, enclosing it with walls and became the new capital of the Lanna Kingdom until it became part of Thailand in 1776 rather than remaining an independent region up for grabs by the English or French. The Thai people in this region offer prayer before their workday and observe some charming superstitious acts like placing chimes above their front door at home or work and touching everything in the shop with the money earned on the first sale each day. They even abstained from selling or serving alcohol 24 hours before the national election! We learned the election results are still uncertain, but it looks like the pro-military party was leading the popular vote, even after 5 years of being under martial law.
Even with such strict rules imposed by the pro-military government, such as not speaking any ill of the King, the Thais are simply and utterly joyful. To say I rediscovered my sense of joy and playfulness would be an understatement. Without any words for time in the ancient thai language, there is a timelessness about the days that would give even the most organized minds a chance to unravel enough to stop and pet a stray cat while waiting to cross the street. They seemed so relaxed and happy and were always making fun of each other and most definitely making fun of us foreigners or, farangs, as they say, which happens to be the same word they use for papaya because we love it so much.