You guys… I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to become a backpacker cliche.
You know the ones… the ones who travel to Southeast Asia (specifically Chiang Mai, Thailand) to find thrills and indulge in good food, all while (and most importantly) living on the ridiculously cheap. And the ones who inevitably settle down there because, why else would you go anywhere else now?!
But I have something to confess. I LOVE Chiang Mai too!
I love it so much that I already dreading the day I have to leave. I’m already thinking of everything I’m going to miss so much, and if the same things from any other place will ever measure up. And I’ve even succumbed to wearing the stereotypical backpacker/expat outfit, with the baggy elephant pants and tank.
And I feel no shame!
I didn’t love Chiang Mai right away. If I had to choose one word to describe my first impression, it’d be “skeptical.” Chiang Mai is so popular on the backpacker and expat trail that foreigners are just as common as the local Thais. Our first night here, we were too tired to do much besides buy some essentials from the 7-11 downstairs and then walk across the alleyway to the nearest street stall for dinner. But even in those few short strides, we saw foreigners everywhere. Lined up around us at the check-out counter, perched on tiny stools at the street vendor stalls… I mean, geez, I kinda expected it, but it was still slightly disheartening.
I thought, oh great… we left the western world only to come be with our own people.
But it turned out, it only took one day to fall in love. Everything I’ve ever heard about Thailand rang up true: the amazing food, the rich culture, the always smiling people.
And as it turned out, even with the abundance of foreigners, Thailand is anything but familiar. Even the most mundane things are different and intriguing.
My heart always holds a special place for the first city I visit in each new area of the world, and Southeast Asia is all new to me. Chiang Mai is my first introduction to the ways of this world – to a world where the best foods are cooked streetside, where monks in saffron robes walk the streets, where tuks-tuks and scooters zoom by dangerously close, where just a few dollars get you an hour’s massage… it’s a different, more simple kind of life.
It’s kinda humbling being in a completely different environment from what you’re used to. Like learning how to function as a human all over again. It’s a new world where even the smallest, most simple things bring about a huge sense of accomplish. Yes! I crossed the street (where drivers drive on the wrong side of the road, mind you) all by myself without getting almost run over! We managed to order food like the locals do! I wrote the order down in Thai (by painstakingly copying the lettering from the menu) and they read it and brought out the right things! It’s weird, but oddly satisfying, to be so proud of yourself for the most ordinary things.
It’s been almost 2 weeks here and life has taken on a sense of comforting familiarity. We’ve been less about seeing the sites and have instead been thoroughly exploring our little neighborhood and integrating ourselves in the community. We know where to go for the best dishes to satisfy particular cravings (Thai breakfast, fried chicken, noodle soups, mango sticky rice, iced tea/coffee). We know how each place wants the order placed. We say hi to the alleyway vendors when we happen to bump into them somewhere else. We know who to ask for at our go-to massage spa. I’ve finally started trying out some Thai words (kob kun kaa), the words coming out faint and unsure as they leave my lips.
But most of all, I’ve loved slowing down. This past summer of constant movement has exhausted us and I love having somewhere to call home again (even if it’s only for a month). My clothes are hung up neatly in the wardrobe and my makeup lined up on my vanity (the rest of the apartment though… not so neat). On a shelf over the bed are some keepsakes of my favorite things from back home. It’s nice to fully unpack and make a little home for a bit.
Who knows… maybe someday we will make a real home for a while. Free free to find me and berate me for becoming a backpacker cliche if that happens. I’ll be one of the hundreds of expats in poofy elephant pants. :P
A few snapshots of my favorite moments in Chiang Mai so far:
Have you been to Chiang Mai? What were your impressions?
Are you ready to come fall in love with Chiang Mai too? For accommodation ideas in Chiang Mai, check out Where to Stay in Chiang Mai: Nimman or Old City by HotelsCombined, for a list of the best unique hotels and accommodation.