Today is Sunday, July 13, 2014. Two years ago today, I changed my life. I hopped on a Trans-Pacific flight to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, to begin anew. To work with my hero, Lek Chailert, and help raise awareness about responsible elephant tourism with Save Elephant Foundation.
A lot can happen in two years. And, there are plenty of lessons I’ve learned as those 24 months have come and gone and left me, standing here, marveling at how quickly time passes. At how much life morphs and grows and condenses and grows again. It’s been two years of ups, two years of downs, and two years of sheer beauty in a place that draws awe from those who come in contact with it.
Life as an expat in Chiang Mai is not always easy. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times where I have come home, crawled into bed and had a good cry. I’d be lying if I said there aren’t struggles. Living in a foreign country and not speaking the language (although I can get by), not having my own transportation, not knowing anyone when I arrived, definitely has its challenges.
In the two years here, I have made some of the best friends in the world. Friends who don’t even live here anymore, but friends who came into my life and never left. Thanks to the internet, its easy to stay connected. And, regardless of distance, these friends have a hold of my heart. But those friendships have also proved some of the most challenging times for me here, because when these friends left, my life changed. It’s a roller coaster of relationships here. Being a city where people come and go so quickly, the revolving door of people I love, well, revolves. And, waking up to a city where just yesterday there was a support group to a morning when there isn’t one is incredibly difficult. But, it also forces me to meet other people. To get to know myself better, so that’s ok.
I get a lot of questions about life as an expat, so if you have questions about what it is like living in Chiang Mai, please feel free to leave it in the comments. I will be putting together a post later to answer your questions.
Today, to celebrate my two-year anniversary, I want to share what it is I am grateful for. The things that chase away the expat funk and take me back to this beautiful world. What it is about this city, this life, that makes it just so damn amazing. And perhaps to inspire you to head to Chiang Mai (or tour through Thailand in general), if for nothing else, than at least a visit and a fruit shake with me!
1. I live in a city surrounded by a moat
On days when I start to feel down, the solution (aside from going home and having the pity party, which doesn’t make me feel better and almost always results in pathetic e-mails to my mom) is to go put on some shoes and walk the three minutes to the moat. There is nothing like putting my life here in perspective than just standing, walking around this ancient moat.
2. My neighborhood is like “Cheers” but with more people
Sometimes, I yearn for privacy. To walk down the street and not know anyone. But, as I have mentioned before, the expats here — love them or not — are a family. At least in my neck of the woods. We all look out for each other. We all care about each other. There is something so heartwarming about walking down the street (even on days when I feel antisocial) and having people wave and smile and ask how you are doing, and mean it. On my worst days, I have people here who will stop, make sure I am ok, and then make sure again. Just because. We’re all in this together.
3. A bottle of water is around 20 cents
For 14 baht, I can get a liter of water. It is always one of the top reasons I give for never being able to go and live in America again. I can’t fathom spending more than that.
Life with elephants is something I wish every person could experience at least once. I learn so much from them. To be at Elephant Nature Park regularly, to sit and watch these creatures whose lives used to be horrific, and see them now, happy, is one of the most beautiful and moving things in the world. The fact that I can go there and be with them, observe them, love them, is one of the most healing things for the soul.
My office is home to about 10 dogs. The park is home to about 500 (note: if you’d love dogs, Elephant Nature Park Dogs is always in need of volunteers). Like with the elephants, being around these pups just makes any day better. When I go and visit ENP, I always head to the dog runs and spend time in one of the runs with my favorite pups, including Moshe, a one-eyed boy from the Bangkok floods.
I first met Mr. Lucky on my third day as an expat in Thailand. This tiny kitten, dying on the street, stole my heart. Today, he and I have a lovely little partnership. He moved in with me a little more than a year ago, and there are nights when he and I just sit together, cuddling, grateful for each other. At least that is my human emotions projected onto him have decided. With him and my other girl, Penelope, we’ve got this adorable little family.
7. Jungle beauty
I cannot escape the tropics here. The jungle and all of its beauty is around me, always. While the palm trees are reminiscent of my Vegas life, that’s it. The flora, the fauna, the humidity, quickly move me and remind me where I am and why I am here. I love the days when I am walking somewhere and the scent of flowers wraps around me. And don’t even get me started on the massive, beautiful trees. The roots, the intertwining of the body, wrapping itself around each other … breathtaking stuff, I tell ya.
Geography, in general, is sexy, and I cannot get enough of natural beauty. The mountains here — so long as it is not burning season when they are cloaked by a yellow-gray haze — are stunning. Crisp and green during rainy season, thick clouds hanging over them as monsoons roll into town. Love.
9. Proximity to the airport, and then BKK isn’t so far away either
I could walk to the airport if I wanted to. Seriously. It is that close. With killer deals to other parts of SE Asia and beyond, thanks to budget airlines like Air Asia and Nok Air, it makes impromptu trips a breeze. Plus, Bangkok is a quick hour flight so when the need for hustle and bustle strikes (which is rare for me since I love my laid-back city so much more than the crowded capital), it can be arranged.
10. The constant flowing in of friends
I don’t like the exit of friends, but it is pretty safe to say that when someone leaves, a new person comes in. Or an old person comes back. The revolving door of Chiang Mai expats constantly keeps me on my toes, albeit the “see you soon’s” definitely get old.
11. The creative atmosphere here, thanks to the abundance of digital nomads
There is nothing I love more than calling up my friends and having weekend work parties at coffee shops. There is a huge digital nomad scene in Chiang Mai and a large support system which has been created to encourage meetings, mingles and more.
12. I can walk anywhere I want to go
Up until a few days ago, this was a major plus for me. Then, I totally bit it and totally hurt my tender ligaments in my ankle. When the doctor told me to stay off my foot and not walk for a few weeks, I burst into tears. Chiang Mai is incredibly walkable and there is nothing I love more than just putting on my sneakers, popping in my headphones and wandering. So, while I normally can walk anywhere, right now, I cannot. But, once my ankle is healed, it is Game On.
13. The gym is cheap
Generally, the cost of living in Chiang Mai is far lower than the western world. For a one-year gym membership, I am set back 9,500 baht. My personal trainer costs around 600 baht a session. Sure, the equipment isn’t always the best, but I get to work out for cheap, have a trainer and get into some great shape for far less than I would back in America.
14. Food is cheap
30 baht noodle soup. Sushi dinners for under 500 baht. Fruit shakes for 20 baht. I can eat well (and deliciously) and not have it break the bank. A definite bonus when trying to save up those pennies.
15. Rainy season
Coming from the desert, where I only get to enjoy rain a few days out of the year to Chiang Mai, where there is an entire season, scared me at first. I didn’t know how I was going to react to clouds and rain and wet. But, I love it. Absolutely love it. Those humid, sticky days that turn to thick evenings that lead to gorgeous thunderstorms that shake my little teak house just make me feel alive. Rainy season is, by far, my favorite time of year.
16. Winter season
17. Health care
The stupid ankle injury last week required me to report to the hospital to get an X-ray. So, off I went to the western hospital in town, Chiang Mai Ram. I was quickly placed through triage, met with a doctor, X-rayed, then met with the doctor again to find out what was wrong. After that, I was brought to the cashier, then the pharmacy to get my medicine. The entire visit cost me 1,400 baht. I was in an out in one hour. Last year, I had to get a medical check-up for my work permit. A full work up of my blood and a doctor visit cost me under 3,000 baht. I went to the dentist for a deep cleaning. The cost? 1,500 baht. It boggles my mind how inexpensive medical visits are here. Although, I should mention when the doctor told me I could get an air cast for my ankle if I wanted to, he also said the cost was pretty ridiculous: 15,000 baht. Of course, I passed.
Every street has a massage shop. I’ve found my favorites in town (and will be telling you all about them) and try to make it in for a head/neck/back/shoulder/arm massage at least once a week. For 200 baht for 60 minutes, I really should be going more.
I know this is kind of weird to put on my list, but I love how Nag Champa floats through the air in the mornings when everyone makes their offers to their spirit houses. It reminds me I am in Thailand, in another world.
The wats. The holidays. The monks. The smiles. All around me, the beautiful Thai culture thumps and pulses. It is intoxicating and inspiring and unlike anything I have ever experienced in my old life.