Thailand was a blur. It was also the slowest and sweetest six weeks of my life.
I am writing this from a coffee shop in Vietnam, but I still can’t get Thailand off my mind. I want to go back; I already miss the people, the elephants, and my canine friends. I miss the air and the way you could feel a storm coming on.
Saigon is painfully hot. We also haven’t had much luck with the food and Anthony is in bed, sick. My heart races while walking the streets because I swear I will lose a toe to a motorbike any day now. If not a toe, definitely my hearing - every driver has one hand glued to the horn. I like to imagine it as SE Asia’s New York City.
Northern Thailand is the complete opposite though - a quiet gem to be discovered. I didn’t anticipate how much I would love it; I originally wanted to go to India. If Anthony was going to trek through Nepal and see Everest, I wanted to do something edgy and wild too. I thought volunteering in Calcutta might be just that. Instead, I landed in northern Thailand and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I arrived in Chiang Mai on a Wednesday. It honestly felt great being on my own for a while. Anthony and I had spent a good part of our time in Europe arguing and trying to find our travel flow. But on my own, questions like, What should we eat? Should we take a taxi or the bus? What do you want to do? ceased to exist. For the first time, I was able to see the world from the perspective of one person. Standing in lines meant observing instead of talking, flights and taxis became silent and a time for reflection or reading, and, while I gladly choose to travel as a pair for the rest of our trip, I needed those weeks on my own.
A man from my volunteer project picked me up at the airport. He loaded my bags into his songthaew (a cheap and easy way to travel in Thailand) and off we went into the mountains. I would spend the next six weeks volunteering for Daughters Rising, an organization educating, employing and empowering ethnic minority women. The training and employment program is at The Chai Lai Orchid, an eco-lodge for tourists. While I was recruited to help with the website and online marketing, I mostly helped start a fundraising campaign to rescue elephants.
My new home was a 12x12 bamboo hut with nothing but a twin mattress, mosquito net, and floor fan. I loved this little house. I would fall asleep reading while watching the critters fly overhead. General Prime Minister, a black and white stray dog, sat guard all night on my porch. In the morning, I would wake up early to do a short yoga routine and spend time in contemplative prayer. This time was so precious for me.
Sometimes, I would spend a few days exploring the city. On one occasion, I decided to visit a Crossfit gym and completed the hardest workout of my life. On my walk home, I rewarded myself with deep-fried donuts.
I spent most days doing volunteer work, alongside the two most badass women ever, Allie and Alexa. We worked long hours and ate too many plates of french fries. We took breaks throughout the day to play with the elephants or grab ice coffee. I walked to my room like a zombie every night, feeling mentally exhausted. Seeing what goes on behind the scenes of non-profits left me feeling gutted and raw, in the best way possible. It opened my eyes to the cost of the good fight and what is required by those who fight for justice. It was beautiful, hard, messy, and rewarding all at once.
Chai died during my third week there and I was pretty shaken up. I later explained to Anthony it felt like being caught off guard by a wave. One moment everything seemed calm and the next, it was out of control. I ended up calling and begging him to book a flight to Thailand as soon as he descended the mountain. While he made his way across Asia, I sought out healing at a silent Jesuit retreat in the city.
Anthony arrived in Chiang Mai a few days later. From the moment we began talking, I knew his time alone had been life changing. During our songthaew ride to dinner, I watched his eyes glitter while talking about his trek and the ways God had shown up. Peace was found as he climbed that mountain. I can’t wait for him to write it out for you all.
Back at The Chai Lai Orchid, I continued my work while he spent his volunteer time teaching CPR and fire safety classes, as well as helping with odd end construction projects. We upgraded from my little hut to a larger one with a double bed. We even house sat for some new friends while they went away on vacation. We rented a motorbike to get to and from work every day - one of my favorite things ever! We got rained on more than once and my phone died (before being stolen in Vietnam) from rain damage. We made friends from all over the world and spent more than a few nights with a bottle of whiskey and karaoke.
During free time, we got Thai massages, went on double dates with Alexa and her husband, Bay, took Muay Thai classes, went to jazz concerts, and explored the many markets and temples of Chiang Mai. For my birthday, Anthony threw me a surprise party, with the help of the staff. He even found some chips and salsa! We had cake, fireworks, balloons, and sangria. We finished the night by sending off a sky lantern with my 25th birthday wish. We then trekked to a waterfall for some camping with friends.
We left The Chai Lai Orchid at seven in the morning on a Wednesday. It began to rain as we said our goodbyes and made our way across the bridge.
Our time in Thailand was so necessary and needed after a crazy summer bouncing all over Europe. It was the first place since we've left where I felt like a part of a community, and not a tourist or observer. In our last days, as we made the motorcycle ride through rice paddies and little towns, I felt so much peace. I kept thinking this thought that Kim Dinan sums up so well in her book, So Many Stories.
“[It is] only afterwards, in the days and months that follow, that you really come to understand what you did.”
For me, I know Thailand will continue to invade my soul and I won’t truly understand how my world unraveled in that jungle for months, maybe years to come.