I’m sitting in a café on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, having taken the train down from Chiang Mai a few days ago. My last day was more relaxed than I’d feared it would be – drop the last of the donations at the charity shop (somewhere out there is a refugee child drowning in the ginormous only-one-left-when-I-got-to-the-stack VSO shirt I used to sleep in during the winters); go for a last massage at the place next to the Sunday market; have one more bowl of khao soi, my favourite Northern Thai dish (TWO KINDS OF NOODLES!); and gratefully accept a lift from my landlord to the train station. I watched the sun slipping behind the mountains, turning everything – highway, roadside shrines, rice paddies, houses, motorbikes streaking home – pink and gold, until we headed into the jungle and the light dimmed. I am going to miss that town so much.
It’s a weird feeling. I know I’m ready to move on – more than ready. If you offered me another six months in Chiang Mai, I wouldn’t take it. There’s new and exciting work to be done when it comes to Burma’s (potential) transition to democracy, but most of it’s not going to be done from the Thai border, and a lot of it can’t – and shouldn’t – be done by foreigners. And one by one, the friends I’ve made here have mostly trickled away, both the farangs and the Burma folks. There will only be one VSO volunteer in Chiang Mai after I leave (poor woman), and she’s following me in a couple of months. It’s time.
But I will miss it, and a lot of what I’ll miss will be the specific, sensual things: tastes, smells, the particular red of the sun as it sinks behind Doi Suthep. And it’s not that these are all better sensations than those in London. For every plate of fried noodles or red curry, every faceful of jasmine fragrance or languid breeze over the water at the reservoir, there’s a lungful of mixed car exhaust and paddy field smoke; a whiff of the moat water in summer; a bite of oh-God-that-isn’t-frosting; a night so hot and airless that trying to sleep has me almost in tears. It’s strange, but loving a place doesn’t necessarily untangle the good from the bad. In some ways, I’ll miss choking on tuktuk fumes as I speed down the highway past tire warehouses as much as I’ll miss incense and jasmine. Maybe more.
It’s been a curiously vivid period in my life, and, I think, an important one. I learned a hell of a lot in these past few years. Not all of my lessons were the ones I expected, either. I learned how to communicate in simple words, or none at all, when the language gap is too wide – tough for someone whose instinct tends to be to throw more words at any given problem. I learned several dozen ways to keep ants out of a computer. I learned that I can ride a motorcycle, and trust me, no one was more shocked than I was (except possibly my pre-departure driving instructor in London, who’d informed me that I would never be able to get it). I learned that politeness can be a particularly nasty weapon, but one that’s double-edged. I learned that a completely nomadic existence, as some NGO workers have, doesn’t suit me much better than a completely fixed one, and I’m happiest somewhere in between. I learned that adventure is doing what scares you, personally, and everyone’s will look different.
I’d expected to learn who I was, by facing hardships and dangers and coming through them. What happened instead was that I learned who I was when all my excuses – I just need to change cities/get a new job/meet more people/pursue this dream of working in the developing world, and then everything will finally be okay – ran out, and I had to turn and face myself.
And once I did, I found a way to be comfortable in my own skin.
That is always going to be the legacy of this time, for me, and it’s a legacy I can carry with me. That makes leaving feel a little bit more okay.
One more list for y’all – the Top Ten Things I’ll Miss About Thailand.
10. The setting. It’s easy to forget, living in the city, but the area of Chiang Mai can be breathtaking. It’s all mountains and thick forest and rolling fields, with birds everywhere. There’s a moment when you’re driving through the jungle around Huay Tung Tao reservoir when you come out of the trees and the world just falls away to either side of the road – water on one side, a steep drop down to the yellow-and-green rice fields below on the other – and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
9. The ease. I could get out of work at five (often having rolled in mid-morning), pick up something hot for dinner from the local market, and easily be home before six. Virtually nothing in Chiang Mai was more than a half-hour’s drive away. Going back to, “I’ve just gotten in and it’s 8 pm and I still have to cook,” isn’t going to be an easy transition.
8. Being an expat (and specifically a white expat). It gives you a certain freedom, knowing that Thais are going to cut you extra slack and will put down any odd behaviour to you just being a crazy farang; and it also provides an instant in if you want to strike up a conversation with fellow expats. You’re suddenly and visibly part of a community. It’s not always a community you want to be part of, mind (don’t get me started on a certain breed of drunken backpacker, or a certain strain of NGO worker), but it’s there if you need it.
7. The arts. I’ve gotten so used to seeing gorgeously intricate hilltribe fabrics piled up on every market stall, walking past gilded and gabled temple roofs, and being served water out of the same beautiful silver vessels used to make offerings to the Buddha. Again, it’s not that Everything Is Prettier in Thailand (there are definitely times when it isn’t!), but that there’s a certain set of aesthetic details I like that I won’t have around me anymore.
6. The attitude towards life. This is a pretty broad statement about a culture that I freely admit I still only shallowly understand; two years isn’t enough time to really grok an alien culture, especially if you spend those two years with one foot in the West and one in Burma, and only have one hand braced in Thailand for balance (yes, I am basically breakdancing in this analogy). But there’s a general approach to life in Thailand that combines a relaxed pace (a meeting that starts at 9 am farang time starts around 9.45 Thai time – and “vaguely 11-ish” Burma time, for reference) with a placid tendency to roll with the punches (if the restaurant doesn’t have it, it doesn’t have it; if the thing is broken, it’s broken; if it’s raining, you just don’t go; if you don’t have 250 baht for the stallholder, then whatever you have is okay) with an often astonishing kindness and emphasis on going out of your way to help strangers. Okay, so “help” is sometimes spelled “get all up in the grill of” in Thai, but it’s well-intentioned and rather endearing. I may not miss having people shout after me, “Where are you going? Did you eat dinner yet?” but I have a feeling I’m definitely going to miss being able to smile at folks on the street.
5. Markets. Food markets with pigs’ heads and tubs of live eels and morning glory piled up with heaps of tiny eggplants and chunks of pumpkin, and row after row of curries in neat stainless steel trays right next to pyramids of fried cockroaches. The other kind of food markets, with stalls peddling noodle soup and stewed pork leg over rice and pad thai, and customers from all the various stalls sitting elbow-by-elbow at shared tables to eat their dinner out of pastel plastic bowls. Craft markets with stunning embroidery and antique silver jewelry; hilltribe markets with dusty piles of carpets and gorgeous traditional costumes; cheesy tourist markets with black velvet paintings of Muay Thai boxers, knock-off DVDs, and stalls peddling everything from nunchucks to brass knuckles. All of them packed with loitering shoppers, stallholders riveted to portable TVs showing Thai soaps, and tiny carts selling skewers of grilled meat or bags of dumplings hot from the steamer. Markets are such a fundamental part of my life here.
4. The people. My colleagues sometimes drive me nuts, it’s true, but I’m really fond of them. Not having K. sneak up and hug me from behind, sweetly chirping, “Busy, Cat? Busy busy?” as a way of softening me up for another assignment; not coming back from lunch to find S. barefoot on the bench outside, dozing under his hat, with a cigarette still dangling from his fingers; not getting drunk on cheap whiskey with Green Bob and talking about comic books and climate change late into the night – that makes me sad.
3. Safety. This is going to be one of the biggest changes. Chiang Mai was ludicrously safe. You could leave your computer on the coffeeshop table when you went to the bathroom. You could leave the rent for your landlady in her unlocked office. Most importantly, though, it was personally safe. If I wanted to go for a walk or a drive at 3 am, the most I had to worry about was the soi (alley) dogs. After pretty much weekly street harassment living in Leyton, I was cat-called precisely once in Chiang Mai. In my last week there. By a farang.
2. Food. I’ve already raved about the incredible variety of delicious, cheap cooked dishes you can find down pretty much any street, but it isn’t only that. There are the vast piles of mango and jackfruit (my favourites), and also mangosteen, lychee, longon, and fruits I can’t even name. There’s also a limited variety of really good Western food that I’ll (perversely) miss, especially soul food, Mexican food, and American-style diner fare – stuff that’s not as common in London (although I understand that it’s increasing since I left). And as I mentioned in my “weirdest things” post, I may even find myself missing the stuff that I don’t particularly like, like Thai tea (a sweet orange-coloured powder) or gloopy rice-flour desserts. (Although I doubt I’ll ever miss sugary butter.)
1. Arcee! I realised moving out here that it can be, in certain ways, harder to say goodbye to pets than to people. People have an abstract existence; you can communicate with them remotely until you see them again. Pets, though, can’t really interact with you unless you’re physically there (with the exception of the time Margaret held her phone up so that I could baby-talk one of her cats and he flew at the screen, claws akimbo :)). Well, it turns out the same is true of motorcycles. I know it’s my fault for anthropomorphizing the hell out of my bike, but it was a physical wrench to leave her, worse than almost any of the other goodbyes (with the exception of a couple of my closest friends here who aren’t leaving). Arcee brought me safely through so much: thunderstorms and floods, road trips, mountain drives in the dark, the time Moray and I had to steal her back out of a locked parking lot. I feel like I’ve bonded with her. More than that, she represented something to me: a terror of driving that I met head-on until I was able to deal with it – and then until I adored it. I’ll always have that, I suppose, but the trusty cherry-red bike I went through it with, I’ll probably never see again.