I am currently sitting in a cafe in Nimman, Chiang Mai, a place I like to think of as the SoHo of Thailand. The streets are filled with hip restaurants, massage studios and thrift stores. The cute cozy cafes offer a place for free Wifi and cups of caffeine for around 30 Baht ($0.80). Jazz music softly plays in the background as I reflect on the past month and how I got to this exact spot.
If I look at this question quite literally I got here by taking a songthaew, which is like a mix between a pickup truck, uberpool, and school bus doused with red paint and left open on one side to allow passengers to hop on and off as they please. I then walked for a few minutes until stumbling upon a black metal sign that had some Thai lettering on it and underneath, “coffee.” Due to my minor bamboo river rafting injury from yesterday I have decided to skip the planned day trip to Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand, and sit on this plush leather chair instead.
But if I look at this question from a different perspective – how did I get here? – I bring it back to a single dinner during Spring Break 2016: A night at Busboys and Poets in Washington DC. My sister and I were sharing stories of our travels, and she told me about the adventures she had during her year of studying abroad in Hong Kong. She told me that I needed to experience the diversity of the Asian continent, and in the course of a few hours, I was convinced. Seeing the spark in her eye as she told me about the natural beauty of Taiwan and the street food of Thailand, I knew that this would be my next spot.
It took months of preparation and planning, a semester crammed with extra units and 4-hour labs every day, working 30-hour weeks and sacrificing expensive meals for beans from a can so that I could be sitting in this very chair at this very moment. It was all worth it.
Thailand has opened my mind to incredible new experiences, realizations and relationships. So for my first blog post, let me walk you through a day in the life.
Eight a.m. comes easily as I wake up in my apartment bed with my Loony Tunes comforter wrapped around me (which is seen as very cool for a 20 year old to have here). I spend the next hour sharing the bathroom with my Thai roommate and new friend, Tam. I take the first of many showers of the day. Thais are extremely hygienic people, and with the tropical climate I constantly have what I’ve diagnosed as “sweaty butt syndrome.”
Tam and I practice the few Thai phrases I know, which mostly consists of her laughing at my tonal words; apparently I give them brand new meanings. Thai Language consists of five tones: low, mid, high, falling or rising. So that word that you’re saying that you think means “may I have” now means “neck.”
I then put on my school uniform, a white button-up shirt and a black pleated skirt which falls far from my usual attire but is oh so convenient. I grab a dragon fruit, mini banana or rose apple from the local market and run down stairs to meet some friends to walk to class with. We walk down our soi (alley) that is lined with local restaurants and cafes and until we hit the main road close to Chiang Mai University. We talk about our readings for Buddhism class, plan our next weekend getaway or laugh about the night before.
Chiang Mai University is seen as the Yale of Thailand, consists of many different faculties and covers 725 acres. Rubbing shoulders with the next prime minister or member of the House of Representatives on the way to class is not an exaggeration.
Walking into our 30-person classroom, we learn more about the Thai culture through religion, government, art or language and put together the pieces of the puzzle, “What is Thailand?” Learning about the strong beliefs of Karma and selflessness help to understand why asking a Thai person where a cafe or temple is, ends in them walking you to the exact location instead of a simple pointing gesture. Learning about the Hierarchy of Thailand sheds light on why Thai students work so hard to get into a position that gives them high status. The relationship between the architecture of the temples and the ancient beliefs of Buddhist realms can be seen when you visit an immaculate temple and stare up at a beautiful stupa.
After class, the evening can end in many different ways: sharing new dishes and laughing together at a rooftop restaurant; walking through a night market, eating questionable but delicious street food for less than one US dollar, finding a new bar or club to dance in and practicing your Thai with a little liquid courage, or going to a late-night meditation session and learning the importance of being in the present. No matter where the night ends, you can be sanguine that you will learn something new. You could learn how you have better bargaining skills than you thought and should maybe consider a career in sales, or that saying “five” for how spicy you want your dish will lead to an uncomfortable evening.
The room for self growth is never ending in this beautiful city of Chiang Mai.
So as I sit here in this cafe with the scent of ground coffee beans and fresh pastries filling the air, it is safe to say, I have a great five months ahead of me.
Molly Hohle is a foods and nutrition junior minoring in Spanish. This spring she is attending Chiang Mai University in Thailand.