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A Little Thanks … For the Lessons We Learned from the People We Met

Traveling with my niece last year through Southeast Asia has taken on a surreal quality over the past several months since we returned home. Intellectually I know that it was not so long ago that she and I were side-by-side on an airplane, a grin on her face mixed with equal slices of fear and enthusiasm for her first plane ride…and a doozy it was. It took us nearly two days to get to Chiang Mai, Thailand, but once there, it felt like a return to home for me – it is a city I know quite well – and for my niece Ana, it was a safe spot for a new adventure.

The adventure turned out so much better than I could have hoped for when we decided homeschool and travel. That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges – we had no idea the adjustments that were in store for both of us – but over the course of the months we grew closer as we found activities and interests that coincided and helped us explore together. And we met new friends. Many, many new friends from all walks of life and each one with a lesson to share that went far beyond what I alone could ever teach her.

And for each of those people who came into our lives in Southeast Asia with a lesson, a friendship, and a shared idea – well, to each of them I owe a sincere thank you. It is with the influence of the community of people we met along the way that our more than six months abroad were so successful. Though this list is not exhaustive of the lessons learned and friends met, it is more a sample of the nature of friends on the road the value I found in exposing my niece to people from all walks of life. It’s a thank you through the lessons and ideas each person has inspired in Ana and me:

Ambition and Action Cause Real Change

The friends at the Akha Ama coffee shop in Chiang Mai were the very first faces we saw when arrived in town and they set the tone for the many new types of people we would meet over our six and a half months on the road. Lee, your inspiring story of how you worked to bring a better income and future to your community of Akha villages is a clear example of how much a single person can accomplish. After visiting your rural village, it struck Ana as remarkable that you purposefully and passionately pursued your education, and then took that education and built a business that catalyzed lasting change for your community. Whenever we visited the Akha Ama coffee shop in town, I knew you and Jenny, your assistant, would have a quick smile and friendly humor to greet us.

riding in a pickup truck

Lee, Ana, and Sean ride in a pickup truck to Lee’s village in the hills around Chiang Rai, Thailand to learn about coffee production and how Lee’s village produces the coffee used at the coffee shop Ana and I loved to visit.

Embrace Joy and Lifelong Learning

With the responsibility for my niece’s welfare, I sometimes forgot to enjoy the simplicity of pausing for the moments of joy in our days. Jodi, thank you for bringing the silly, the fun, and the occasionally absurd into our lives. We laughed. A lot. And you made us both think. Thank you for always asking Ana thoughtful questions about each new experience. Education is a life-long journey to be lived outside of the classroom and you are a living example of the curiosity I hope Ana shows for learning throughout her life.

fun times in Chiang Mai

I believe the top one is Jodi explaining the Bangkok riots to Ana, and the rest are the two of them being goofy all over the city…a fact that baffled many of the people who saw us bowled over laughing on a daily basis :)

A fun gif of Jodi, Monique, Ana and me on a street corner in Bangkok trying to simultaneously jump. We failed but had a blast doing it!

A fun gif of Monique, Jodi, Ana and me on a street corner in Bangkok trying to simultaneously jump. We failed, but had a blast doing it (and thoroughly entertained a whole lot of passing Thais!).

Generosity Comes in All Sizes

Having friends was a major concern for my niece before we left, and I had hopes that Ana and M, the nine year-old from the GotPassport family, would hit it off. And they did. M, your vibrancy and imagination made every day trip and outing an adventure for us – I love looking back at the many imaginative ways you two found to interact with the world we explored together (jumping, sliding, digging, coloring, tasting…you name and you two found a way to do it somewhere along the lines). Thank you to A and J, both of you take a very hands-on role in educating your daughter, and I was so grateful to spend time with you on the road in both Thailand and Burma and for your generosity every moment of our time together.

Ana and M take in the sunset over Bagan, Burma

Ana and M were fast friends and they enjoyed taking in the sunset together in Bagan, Burma

New Friends Inspire New Goals

When we left the United States, Ana had a very specific framework for her dreams – her life experiences up until that point influenced who she thought she could become. So to Dani and Jess, I say thank you. You both were such a positive influence on Ana, and she looked forward to each time our paths crossed throughout Southeast Asia (first in Chiang Mai, then Laos, then Chiang Mai again, and we capped it off with a week in Cambodia). Dani, you have truly inspired Ana to learn your native language, German. And then French, Spanish, Mandarin…well, once she discovered how great you were, she realized that learning other languages opens up the world to so many new possible friends, ideas, and opportunities. Jess, you are so much “cooler” than me in teen terms…which made you an idol of sorts and a confidante when life on the road became overwhelming for Ana. You both have opened her mind to friendships and opportunities that span cultures, languages, ages, and lifestyles.

Jess, Dani, my Aunt Shannon and me at Tiger Kingdom, we were meaner than the tigers!

Dani, Jess, Ana and I goofed around as we visited the baby tigers at Tiger Kingdom in just outside of Chiang Mai.

Children Learn Through Doing

Naomi, thank you for your unique understanding of how children work, and for your guidance in those first few weeks of our trip. The ideas and projects you suggested on ways to engage my niece with the world were spot on. We hunted down beads for bracelet-making projects, and took in artists and workshops throughout our trip to keep Ana’s hands actively doing, which in turn engaged her mind every day. Ana made traditional stencils in Laos and learned first hand how the monks paint the intricate designs on the Buddhist temples. We learned how to dye and weave silk, we made traditional crafts to match the local holidays, we hiked, we rode bikes down bumpy roads. Each activity was an adventure in its own right and we both thank you for your many kindnesses and your friendship.

Stencil making in Luang Prabang

Ana used a set of chisels, and, under the instruction of a former monk, she learned how to cut out a set of stencils that monks traditionally use to decorate the temples.

Kids Can Impact the World Too

The time we spent regularly volunteering with the We Women Foundation in Chiang Mai impacted Ana in ways I am still witnessing months later. Twice a week for several months Ana and I taught a Burmese refugee how to speak English. Ana and I planned our lessons together, came up with games and activities and spent five hours a week teaching English to a twenty-something Shan refugee. We didn’t change the world, I was honest with Ana and upfront about how each person can only take tiny steps to cause positive change. What Ana left with though, was the knowledge that one person in this world now has more job opportunities and the ability to perhaps earn money for her family because we started her down the road of learning the English language. It was a small act, but tangible. So to We Women, and to our motivated and eager student, thank you.

volunteering chiang mai

Ana and I tutored a Burmese student from the We Women foundation twice a week while we lived in Chiang Mai.

People are Inherently Kind

Our media in the United States is quick to paint the rest of the world with twin brush strokes labeled: dangerous and strange. Thailand is a wonderful country for a first-time adventure, I chose Thailand specifically because I wanted my niece to see that warmth and kindness are traits offered freely by people all over the world. Ana laughed daily with the street vendors who patiently corrected her beginner Thai and delighted they delighted in the fact that she was learning their language. And in Burma we found a sweetness of nature and hospitality that belied the only stories that seem to make international headlines. Ana played games of kick the ball with children all over Southeast Asia who shared a common love for play; a language far more important than spoken language.

Tha Suang, Laos

Ana and the children in Tha Suang bonded over a box of colored pencils and some paper while we whittled away a six hour wait for our tuk-tuk in Laos.

There is Always Time for Gratitude

My life got busy this summer, and though I wrote pieces of this story months ago I somehow never quite finished it. But gratitude is important. And so, thanks goes to the many other people in our lives over the past year.

Sean and Eva, thank you for the conversations and friendships. And doubly thank you for taking Ana to the movies and bringing me young coconuts for re-hydration when I was sick. Paddy, thank you for running the Christmas 10K with us; being accountable to you helped us stay motivated to train for the run and wake up at the ungodly hour of 4 am. Monique and Steve, your joy was infectious and we loved having friends with whom we could wander and explore the busy streets of Bangkok. Dustin from Skinny Backpacker, thank you for always asking about Ana’s school classes each time we met up, it drew her into even the most adult-centric of our gatherings and made her feel welcomed.  And thanks to Catherine Bodry, Dan and Lindsay, Christine and Drew, Chais and Shawna, James, and Anna in Phnom Penh.

Impermanence and Change are a Part of Life

Life on the road is a series of ever-changing circumstances, and I’d go so far as to say that’s a quality of life as well. I know I am not alone in a desire to cling to structure and fear change. But change is natural and many experiences in Ana’s life will be impermanent. Although children thrive on structure and routine, there is a time and place for every thing. We had our routines in place while we traveled, our patterns for eating, school-work, and exploring. But beyond those guidelines, life is messy. We had to say goodbye to good friends and people Ana may never meet again. We found tiny towns we loved deeply, and left knowing even if we returned, we would never fully return to this moment in time. This is far more philosophical than the rest of the lessons, but I value adaptability and I think life on the road has given Ana resilience, adaptability, and an acceptance of change that we learned through each person we met and each lesson they taught us.

~Shannon


  • Thanks for sharing all of this, and giving us even more ideas.

  • So beautifully said. The lessons that your niece learned along the way (and for you too) are ones that will obviously never be forgotten. As a child, I was always fearful of change, and I’m sure living in Chiang Mai has taught her how to adapt! I love all of the hands on activities you did as well!! Now I want to go make stencils with the monks :)

    • ShannonOD

      If you pass through Loas again, it’s a fun course and a neat souvenir (I am all about interesting souvenirs with a story rather than another do-hickey for a friend’s shelf). Hope you are well Laura! :)

  • Joanne

    LOVE IT! Great article – really summed up your experiences and how much Angela was affected by each one. Just FABU!!!! xoxo (oh and I did this from my ipad and somehow it won’t let me give you positive stars, so it is showing that I gave it -11 – which is not true!! You need to delete my stars! LOL!

    • ShannonOD

      Thanks Jo! And good to see you’re cruising around the interwebs on the iPad…no worries on the stars. xoxo! :)

  • It is so important to be thankful and appreciate all the lessons learned. This is an incredible reflection of your time and your experiences. What a powerful way to say thank you to everybody who helped you and Ana during your adventures.

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Chrystal, it was on coming back here that I really looked back, as Ana and I talked about the people and experiences we were feeling nostalgic for, and realized how much the people along the way affect our travels! :)

  • OMG…makeagif.com and the trademark Shannon jump – together at last!

    • ShannonOD

      Heh heh heh, the others give me a run for their money though; Ana has gotten pretty good at doing some of her crazy jumps! :)

  • Andi Perullo

    I love love love that you did this! Seriously, you are truly inspirational!!! You have changed Ana’s life forever and I have no doubt that she’s going to do something incredible with her life because of this experience with you. Bravo!!!

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you for your positivity Andi, I hope you are doing well well, and that we will meet one of these days :)

  • Amy

    This is so inspiring for me. Your niece gained so much from this experience and she will be forever changed because of her time traveling with you. I am so excited to show my own children the world!

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Amy, on the road, it’s amazing to watch them learning and absorbing so many nuances of life that we would never think to teach them. Can’t wait to read about your own Asia adventures when you head out with your wee ones – I saw that you have amended the plan to six months on the road, and I think that’s such a valuable thing to have learned this early in your journey. Like you, I like to have a homebase and to explore from there, and I know my niece was keen and eager to relax back into her home culture for a bit before we head out again :)

  • Anna is extremely fortunate to have someone like you in her life to give her exposure to the world at such a young age. Jodi in the shopping cart is classic, and I love the jumping GIF.

    PS – Get ready for a team chiang mai reunion in NYC :)

    • ShannonOD

      I love the shopping cart shot, it cracks me up every time. Be seeing you soon Drew! :)

  • Lindsey

    This was such a beautiful thing to read! I wish I’d had someone like you in my life to share experiences like this with when I was growing up.

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Lindsey, I am lucky to have traveled with her as well — if you have nieces, nephews, etc, I highly recommend taking them on an adventure — their ideas and observations are so very different than what we see when we travel. Good luck on your upcoming trip! :)

  • Callie

    This is great – what an amazing experience for both of you!

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Callie! It was so great to travel with my niece :)

  • Rebecca and the World

    SUCH an amazing experience for the both of you! I wasn’t lucky enough to travel when I was young (got on my first plane at the age of 21!!) but want to make sure my nieces and nephews get to experience the world as much I can. She looks like she had such a great time. PS. you guys got some air in that jumping photo!! :-)

    • ShannonOD

      Thanks Rebecca, it was such a neat trip to take with her, and see the world with a child’s eyes. Hope you are well and enjoying PNG — that is such an amazing opportunity and I love exploring it through your photos until I can get there myself! :)

      • Rebecca and the World

        Thanks, loving it here, so much to see, so little time. Plus have many more photos and pics to post, just never seem to find five minutes to do it! Thanks Shannon, safe travels wherever you currently are in the world.

  • bessiejulia

    This is beautiful on so many levels, Shannon. What an amazing gift for both of you to have spent this time together, and to have connected with so many extremely awesome people in different places that could touch your lives, is just exactly the reason why we do this crazy thing we do – of living travel.

    Kudos, Shannon, and I so look forward to seeing you!

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Bessie, the connections made with Ana were often on such a different level than on my own, it was an education for me to meet people through that bridge, of having an inquisitive child along.

  • Linda

    Hi Shannon,
    I am a homeschooling mom from Malaysia. I am planning to go Chiang Mai in January 2013. Really love the stuffs you are doing with your niece. We would love to explore more than the usual tourist place. My kids’ main interests are animal, conservation, nature, art and craft. We plan to spend 2-3 weeks in Chiang Mai. I am very interested with visiting the village to see the coffee production, silk weaving and craft workshops. Is it possible for us to arrange personally? Do you mind giving me more details with the contact details if possible? Would also appreciate your suggestion for other interesting things to explore culture of the locals. Thanks in advance.

    • ShannonOD

      Hi Linda, great to hear from a fellow homeschooler, if you’re going to be in CM in January, you may just be able to make a trip to the coffee village. Lee, the owner of Akha Ama owns it (http://www.akhaama.com/) and he only runs two (one in Dec, and one in Jan) that fill up quickly, so I recommend that you email him now! :) Silk weaving class was in Luang Prabang, Laos at Ock Pop Tok (http://www.ockpoptok.com). Chiang Mai also has cooking classes if your kids are older and interested in that. And, there are a lot of bike tours and that sort of thing in the area, my friends did one and had positive things to say ( http://globetrottergirls.com/2012/03/cycling-spiceroads-chiang-mai-thailand/. And finally, January is the Bo Sang umbrella festival just 10k outside of Chiang Mai, and your kids can see how the craftsmen paint the umbrellas and/or you might be able to find someone who you could pay to teach them for an hour or so; my post on it was here: http://alittleadrift.com/2011/01/bo-sang-umbrella-festival/

      Hope that gives you some ideas! Happy travels :)

      • Linda

        Thanks Shannon. Will definitely check out all the links. Cheers.

  • Hi Shannon. It’s been very interesting reading. It’s been such a great experience for you. I also travelled in South-East Asia this summer, currently staying in Siem Reap and I also enjoyed myself a lot and met so many amazing people. Bless you!

    • ShannonOD

      Siem Reap is a great town and I appreciate you stopping in and reading. Enjoy the temples and small towns (and I found Battambang a delightful mid-size city … there aren’t many like it in Cambodia if you happen to head that way :)

  • That was very inspiring, along traveling surely we will meet new people that might inspire us and value friendship regardless of culture,Just like Ana and M.

    • ShannonOD

      It’s wonderful to leave the bounds of the United States and see there are people we can connect with on levels other than a shared culture/country. Safe travels and best of luck :)

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