Everything I’ve been telling you is true, it’s cheap! I’ve paid rent in both Orlando and Los Angeles, and my Thailand costs have averaged at least one third of my previous living expenses.
Part of why I moved to Chiang Mai was because I had this suspicion that I could maintain a fun and full life, without all the worrying about expenses if I lowered my cost of living. I’m still building up an online income for myself and paying off one last small piece of debt. The best way for me to not go further into debt is, frankly, to stay outside of the US.
In recent posts, I’ve talked about how I’m a bit lost right now in terms of knowing precisely the direction life is taking. Each time I sit to write, that single truth stands out above the rest. I’m in a transition, and those feelings and thoughts manifest in my writing; when I try to ignore them, I feel uninspired.
Instead, I’ve embraced this nostalgia, shining a light on my travels these past years through the only perspective I have: my own. I find myself mulling over what precisely Southeast Asia holds that motivated me to circle back to that region many times over, both literally and figuratively in the past four years.
When I’m in North America, I catch myself in an everyday circumstance—a coffee at Starbucks or dinner with friends—with my thoughts flying tens of thousands of miles across the world on a brief mental trip to Asia. I flit away on side-trips for several seconds before jolting to the present. And with the nature of my ongoing travels, those thoughts eventually propel me back to Asia; I have spent weeks of my life in transit waiting for the giddy relief of stepping out of the airport and breathing in the scent of warm, sticky air tinted with deep-fried food, car exhaust, and possibilities.
I visited Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia on my first year traveling around the world, and I was captivated to the cadence of life. But friends, plans, and a trip itinerary that first year pushed me into motion and I left Southeast Asia for India after just two months backpacking the region.
In subsequent years, I lived Chiang Mai for a time, and I fell in love with the city so much that when I decided to travel with my niece in 2011, my thoughts immediately circled around the community and welcome I feel when I land in Southeast Asia.
Each time I returned, the culture gave me something I needed, something I craved in my soul, if that makes any sense. There’s a simplicity to traveling in Southeast Asia—it’s easy in terms of a tourism infrastructure, communication, and other traveling friends. Over the years, the region fostered an environment that allowed me to sink into the experience as I couldn’t do in some other countries and cultures. And as I spent more time in Southeast Asia—visiting Myanmar, Malaysia, and Bali, too—I found increasingly more things to love its understated charm.
A helping hand and shared snacks on endless bus rides.
All these things are mere pieces of a whole that is hard to describe, and no single aspect pulled me back to Asia.
My stories about Southeast Asia are some of the most popular on my site, and I have so much I still haven’t shared over the years: tidbits of my observations, anecdotes of funny/touching/meaningful moments, and even pervasive cultural norms that I deeply love.
And so, to the extent that I have never really talked about the region in the broad sense—the dominant Buddhist religion, the modern and ancient temples, and how food integrates into life in a way foreign to my culture back home—I began to think about the bigger picture that drives me back to Southeast Asia countless times.
Religion is one of those taboo topics for me on this site, and in my personal life if I am honest. The topic is too polarizing to discuss outside of trusted friends, so instead of pinpointing specifics, I’ll note that a motivation when I left to travel back in 2008 was to come to terms with my brother’s death, and the quandary of faith I had in the years since that happened. I went through a tough time figuring out where I sat in my soul with religion after he died, and my personality quirks necessitated that I find more possible answers to the big questions in life. How to other cultures handle death and the afterlife?
Definite answers will never come, but I found new knowledge and belief systems that shifted my perspectives. Although the entire journey changed me, it’s my time in Southeast Asia—meditating and learning more about Buddhism—that opened my mind, allowing me to find peace within myself, and within the world’s disparate religions. There is a peacefulness inside holy places of every faith that I’ve come to love.
The churches of Europe.
The temples of Asia.
The mosques of the Middle East.
These places contain the energy of every person who has ever visited.
The energy in Asia healed me a place in me I didn’t think it was possible to repair.
We often have blinders on to the commonplace, to our familiar surroundings. It’s not that I couldn’t have found my way to peace back home, but more that I didn’t even know where to begin looking.
In Asia, although locals may be accustomed to temples, this wasn’t the case for me. I loved sunrise walks through the cities and towns as the initial rays of light glinted from the gilded tips of temples, washing over flame-tongued dragons flanking the entrances, and illuminating monks tidying temple grounds.
The temples, called wats, in Chiang Mai are beautiful, and the old city has temples on every corner. In fact, temples were so pervasive that I taught Ana the layout of the city by the location of nearby wats—they are among the easiest ways to orient yourself in the city, to look at the map and find the closest wat!
And on the topic of Ana, I believe Southeast Asia was a beautiful first introduction to the world for her. I chose our destination with forethought because I knew this was my chance to open her mind at an influential time in her life.
While I surely could have done this in South America or Europe, Asia provided stark contrasts in nearly every way.
I wanted to jolt my niece out of complacency and force her to think about the givens in life that, at 11-years-old, she thought were universal to all people and cultures. The religious differences, and how that manifests in every aspect of life, was a very tangible experience for Ana—and for me in the early days of traveling too. But other aspects leap out as influential as well.
Before we traveled, Ana took a page out of my book on the food front—we have to eat each day and that’s about as far as the conversation goes. The food culture of a place didn’t much matter to me when I first left to travel either, but it was the river of flavors (to use a phrase from my friend Naomi Duguid) that opened my eyes to the subtle joys of trying and experiencing new foods. I will never be the most adventurous eater because I’m vegetarian, but in Southeast Asia, for the first time in my life I found myself excited at the adventure of wandering fresh markets, peering over open flames, and following scents to unexpected new flavors and dishes each day.
Food connects us if we allow it to, and meals are often a shared experience in Asia in a way that is completely foreign to us in North America. You sit, knees at your chin and crouched on small plastic chairs, with steaming, fresh plates of food. The hustle of motorbikes, families, and children all pulse nearby, and no person is off-limits for a conversation.
In this part of the world, more of life takes place on the streets than back home. I love this connection to others merely by spending time outside as a part of your daily eating experience. I wanted Ana to see for herself that things we take as truths—you maintain a bubble around you when in public in the U.S. and you do your best never to bump into the bubble those nearby—are not universal truths.
As I have noted, it’s hard to pin down exact reasons I love Asia, they shift and morph each time I revisit the country.
A year and half ago, I knew I needed more time in the region, I needed to take Ana and show her what I loved, to share the things I had learned and learn more alongside her. I was drawn back to Southeast Asia over the years, and I learned and grew as a person. Much of the perspective shifts I talked about in my recent post, How Four Years Traveling the World Changed Me, occurred from my time in Asia. Traveling there healed a place in my soul.
And yet, now it’s time to move on.
It occurred to me recently when talking to a travel friend that I am done, for now. I don’t know why I’m done, but the draw is gone. I have pangs of nostalgia for the insane honking of tuk-tuks while smells of nearby street-food pervade the air, but not so much so that I want to return, not at this juncture in my life.
For now, I head to Mexico, as I mentioned last month, and I hope for a new set of adventures in 2013 that continue the travel journey. I leave for Mexico in a few weeks, but yet I’m still processing thousands of photographs from my travels over the past two years. My memories of the temples, and the sounds and sights of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam that I will miss in the coming year inspired me to write today’s post, but I am eager to find new experiences and new opportunities for growth. :)
Is there a place on your travels that you return to often, or where that calls to you in some way?
There is a textbook definition of the word “journey”: an act or instance of traveling from one place to another. Within the framework of our collective consciousness as people, however, the true meaning of a journey lies within ourselves. The word can imply the growth of very specific ideas and understanding within a set time frame; or perhaps a long and hard-earned internal challenge, met through overcoming emotional obstacles and hurdles. There is always a change on a journey. More than the simple act of moving from one place to another, the journey morphs the journeyer throughout that move into a different place—either mental or physical, and occasionally both.
Two years ago I met Lee, a coffee shop owner living in Chiang Mai, Thailand but originally from a small hill-tribe village about four hours away. Lee is on a long journey, but it’s not a voyage of distance. He runs Akha Ama Coffee, a fair trade coffee shop. It wasn’t until I met Lee, and went on a Coffee Journey with him that I came to a deeper understanding of what it means when something is sustainably produced with a mind toward fair prices paid to the people producing the coffee, ie., fair trade.
Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world.
Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy today, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people tend to feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world. That’s the assumption, right? I use these words in my blogging and with regards to my volunteering, and have heretofore felt confident in my apt usage and understanding of the concepts. During my travels I looked for ways to support social enterprises, or rather for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission: businesses like Lee’s. On the trade winds of my physical journey, I gained a deeper, more profound understanding of what these catchphrases mean—both literally and to the people affected by the “fair” part of “fair trade.”
Through my friendship with Lee over the past two years, I began to look more closely at how Westerners perceive the impact of our actions when we consume something innocuously labeled as sustainable and fair trade. What does that mean? As a writer who has ever emphasized the need for each traveler to begin understanding how intrinsically linked we are on this planet, I found myself humbled by where I myself was apparently situated on that continuum.
In 2011, I first came to Chiang Mai, Thailand and took up residence as a nomadic expat—I lived there, but for just five months. I landed in Chiang Mai knowing other travelers and expats living in the city, but I was acquainted with few locals. After finding a place to live and dispensing with other practical matters, my first order of business in any new place is tracking down a decent coffee shop—not only because locating caffeine and fast wi-fi are integral parts of me feathering my nest, but because I’ve found with experience that this is the best way to meet new people.
This is how I initially found myself at Lee’s Akha Ama coffee shop. His name is known in the local expat community, and with good reason: he is young, charming, and the kind of character who seems to attract a bevy of fast friends. To no surprise, I bonded quickly with Lee. Getting to know him better, and experiencing that gradual break with sonder that tends to happen in new acquaintanceship, however, was how I discovered that Lee’s story—the unspoken history underpinning his actions—is what really makes his personal journey stand out.
Lee is the face of Akha Ama Coffee, and organizes a biannual trip that takes a dozen people to his family’s remote village, where the coffee Lee sells and markets at his shop is grown. Lee calls these trips a “coffee journey.” That’s not hubris, either—the technical basics of making coffee are rather simple and can be covered with a quick overview (such as the two-hour trip through the Finca Filidefia plantation in Guatemala I took a few years ago). Lee’s trip, on the other hand, is a three-day journey toward understanding just what goes into a cup of sustainably grown coffee. It’s about the journey his village is taking toward operating as a sustainable, fair trade farming cooperative, and the human story and struggles behind each cup of coffee.
I took my first Coffee Journey with Lee during those initial five months I lived in Chiang Mai. Having cherished the experience and come to call Lee a friend, I returned with my niece Ana in tow to again make the journey over New Year’s weekend as we welcomed 2012. Ana knew Lee only as the nice guy from the coffee shop at that point. I shared with her his powerful story, and by the time we departed, she knew that Lee not only sold coffee, but was the front-end funnel for a community coffee production collective.
The Akha Ama Coffee Collective represents 14 families from the Maejantai village area that have joined together under one brand to increase their ability to control, market, and command fair prices for the coffee they grow. They formed the collective so each family could bring in more money and thus assure themselves fair wages with which to obtain education for their children and modern conveniences.
The coffee journey to Maejantai village is not a cushy, high-end tour, nor is it intended to be. Participants sleep in homes graciously offered by one of the 14 families, and they eat family-style meals replete with hand-picked greens grown on the surrounding farms. For Ana, I knew this trip would be unlike anything else she’s experienced. Going into it, I hoped her existing friendship with Lee would give her a unique window through which she could view and understand the paths and choices people make to change their lives when they are given far different circumstances than the ones Ana experienced in her suburban American life.
Our journey began in Chiang Mai, early on a Friday morning during coffee harvesting season. Participants arrived at the coffee shop with enough gear for a weekend, and piled into the back of the yellow songthaews (covered pickup trucks). With our thighs squished tight and shoulders wedged against one another, sheer proximity made a surprisingly effective safety harness against the bumpy ride outside of town and eventually into the mountains surrounding Chiang Rai. Hours later, with just a quarter-mile of jolting progress up the mountain remaining, children from Lee’s village began chasing after our truck. Seeing Ana’s young(er) face among the coffee journey participants excited and fascinated the kids, and their huge smiles and waves were our first welcome to Maejantai.
Shaking the pervasive red dust from my hair, face, teeth and eyes, I trooped upstairs with Ana to introduce Lee’s mother, the business’s namesake. (Lee belongs to the Akha people. In the Akha language, “ama” means mother.) Lee’s mother reserved a special hug for me, one of the few participants making a repeat journey. It touched me that she remembered my face from last year.
Lee’s Back Story
Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture.
As his mother welcomed us and prepared tea for the group, Lee launched into his back story: the tale of how Akha Ama came into existence. The Akha people, who share a common language, have nonetheless been scattered throughout Thailand, China, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar) over the past several hundred years as the result of civil wars and demarcation disagreements. These hill-tribe groups have largely been separated from rapid Westernization, owing to both the isolation of the regions in which they’ve settled and the fact that they generally don’t speak the main language of the countries in which they live.
When Lee grew up, his mother urged him to leave his village and gain a formal education in nearby Chiang Rai. He became the first and, to date, only villager to obtain higher education. Lee studied Thai and learned English from passing tourists. Gradually, as he discovered the value in community-sourced projects, he began plotting a way to help the Akha farmers and villages in his region. Lee’s mother supported his idea and was the catalyst in bringing together the 14 families that today make up the Akha Ama collective.
There is always strength in numbers, but the collective succeeds also because the 14 families are working together toward sustainable agriculture that not only produces an organic crop, but avoids the use of expensive, harmful pesticides as well. New methods of crop rotation are the key to sustaining these eco-friendly products in the long-term, and the collective has implemented processes that will take years to fully bear out. This is the foundation on which the families formed Akha Ama, and out of necessity, it is a gross simplification of Lee’s story.
Before the farmers in Maejantai village formed the collective, they had only one means of making money—sell their coffee beans at the going rate to whomever was buying. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture, however, and at that point Lee and his family saw an opportunity to see the beans completely through the process. Consequently, farmers could see more monetary returns on their time and effort. Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap.
Lee’s village may be remote, but the influence of Western culture and advancement has taken root even in Maejantai. Villagers must pay for their children to attend a nearby school, and the demand for conveniences like cell phones have necessitated a move toward a more monetary-based system in the villages. Akha Ama’s goals are both social and economic: to not only grant villagers control over what they produce, but to funnel the money back into the community as well.
The Coffee Process
Understanding the political side of Akha Ama is just one part of the Coffee Journey. Hands-on participation in the labor-intensive process of making coffee is just as much a component of the experience, and was no small part of why I wanted to bring Ana along. Throughout the three days, Lee took us through each stage of the coffee process—from picking the beans out in the fields all day, to drying, husking, processing, bagging, storing, and transporting them. Once Lee is back in Chiang Mai, he roasts the beans, packages them, and sells them through Akha Ama and a handful of other coffee shops in Thailand.
On the second day of our Coffee Journey, Ana and I walked for 45 minutes to Lee’s family’s coffee fields, where he explained how the plants are grown and harvested. Then he handed us each baskets and instructed us on how to properly twist and pluck the ripe coffee cherries. Ana enthusiastically joined in the picking, and by lunchtime our baskets were filled with shining red and yellow cherries.
At lunchtime, we ate a plentiful lunch on huge banana leaves. Right after, we headed back into fields for round two. It’s hard to say at which point, for Ana, that the fun of plucking and twisting gave way to an understanding and appreciation of the work that it really is. As our baskets filled, Lee and other villagers eagerly replaced them and encouraged us to continue picking. After several hours, my hands and arms cramped with the small, repetitive tasks. Ana continued to work respectfully, but it was clear that the “game” aspect of this all was gone.
Mind you, none of this was exactly miserable—far from it, since the weather was a perfect mix of cool breeze and warm sunshine. The reality of the task, however, of picking all day for your survival and livelihood, had sunk in for our rag-tag group of 20 or so participants. While we worked, Lee’s family gathered vegetables and prepared dinner for our group. Feeding twenty ravenous people is no small task, either!
And as it happened, on this second Coffee Journey, at the end of our long day in the fields, Ana and I joined the group around a large bonfire under a sky filled with more stars than Ana had ever seen in her life and welcomed in the New Year with new friends, new realizations, and perspective shifts on what it takes to live and enjoy life.
The realities of processing coffee continued unabated the next day as we watched Lee’s sister sort through the coffee berries, discarding the under-ripe berries we unknowingly plucked. A machine then separated the beans from the husks, after which the families took these wet coffee beans to huge tarp-covered pallets so to dry out in the cool mountain air.
Dry beans are then bagged and stored until they are ready for the journey to Chiang Mai, where Lee roasts the beans, bags them, and either sells them or grinds them for coffee.
The Realities of Sustainable Crops
At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process — the community growing your coffee, chocolate, cotton — have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay.
Lee’s village is beautiful. The people and smiles were open and welcoming from the moment our feet hit the compact, dusty red earth. Our welcome was genuine and each villager we met was willing to open up to a group of strangers in the hopes that we would take away an understanding of all that lies behind the Akha Ama brand.
There are people behind that logo. A community of children, mothers, and fathers exist behind each package of coffee Lee sells in his shop. The money from each sale is a tangible investment in a remote community living on a faraway hill-side. Ana watched the young children in Maejantai play games around her, using their imaginations to fuel epic staged battles between good and evil that echoed the games her little brother regularly plays back home. I didn’t have to point out the similarities. Anyone can see that they exist—our common humanity is as clear as day.
Our Coffee Journey lasted three days; Lee’s coffee journey is ongoing. As the face and front-end of Akha Ama, Lee is actively working to promote the brand as a sustainable, fair trade, organic coffee brand. Only through talking with Lee and then visiting his village’s collective did I realize the lengthy and expensive process that goes into legally using many of these buzzwords. When he conceived of Akha Ama, Lee embarked on a process that could secure the future of his village for generations. Beyond farming, there are few viable economic opportunities for such a remote community. In recent years, the lure of modernization has taken much of the youth out of the village and into the big cities. But with money, an operation, and something to back and believe in, Akha Ama is changing opportunities for each family of the Maejantai collective.
Over the years, news stories have indicted the idea of fair trade as flawed and unable to substantiate on a large-scale. We hear discouraging stories like the scandal that came out of Victoria’s Secret in late 2011 when one of their suppliers of certified fair trade cotton in Burkina Faso used child labor to pick and plant, contravening established fair trade rules. It’s easy to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and give up on the whole idea, given the negative press.
Through meeting Lee, and visiting Akha Ama, however, I was able to put a face and an experience on the entire process. At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process—the community growing your coffee/chocolate/cotton—have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay. Too often, that means selling below costs just for the sake of having some money in pocket.
This is not to say that the process is without flaws; far from it, actually. At the end of the line, we consumers remain completely removed from the true back story and from the people and lives involved in the products we buy and use. But Akha Ama’s story, with Lee as the charismatic and affable face of this operation, is but one example of social enterprises and fair businesses operating around the world so communities can better themselves—create a future for their children. It may not be perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.
Further, Lee’s story opened my eyes to the human effect our purchasing habits have on the entire global community. By lifting the common consciousness, by seeking out the simple ways to support and give back in everyday life, we will be able begin lifting up the global community. It’s usually a small thing to tweak our buying habits. For myself, a habitual purchaser of coffee and chocolate, my new-found awareness has led me to seek the chance to support companies making an extra effort. I will spend more to ensure that the root communities behind our goods are treated with respect. Stemming from my physical journey to understand coffee came a new journey to match my actions to my belief in our shared humanity and the common good.
To Lee, thank you. The Akha Ama Coffee shop was my refuge in Chiang Mai, and the community of expats and locals you have assembled in the coffee shop are a testament to the goodness and possibilities that are out there if you look for them.
This post blends time and space and represents the sum of the two Coffee Journeys I took with Akha Ama; the photos from each journey are interspersed. For more photos, enjoy the additional photo gallery and Quick Tips information.
Quick Tips for Visiting Akha Ama Coffee
Where: 9/1 Mata Apartment, Hassadhisawee Rd, Soi 3. The coffee shop is in the Santitham are, just off the Northwest corner of the moat in Chiang Mai, Thailand: directions.
When: The Coffee Journeys take place twice annually and sell out months in advance. Lee is open with his story, however, and you can support Akha Ama Coffee by visiting the shop, buying coffee as souvenirs for family, and supporting their efforts to grow the Akha Ama brand.
Why: Because Akha Ama is a social enterprise (a for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission) worth supporting–it’s a community grown initiative and empowers the Akha villagers to support themselves and their families for years to come.
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 and 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.
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.
Generosity Comes in All Sizes
Having friends was a major concern for my niece before we left, and I had hopes that Ana and Em, the nine year-old from the GotPassport family, would hit it off. And they did.
Em, 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 Myanmar and for your generosity every moment of our time together.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 rehydration 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, 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 everything.
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.
The sweat cooled from my skin at 7:30am Christmas morning as I pondered this holiday travel experiment with Ana; on the opposite side of the globe my nephews back home slept in eager anticipation of heaps of presents, but instead of a big traditional Christmas here in Thailand, I gave Ana an entrance ticket into a 10K run in the Chiang Mai Christmas Marathon…roughly 6.2 miles of running at 6:00am on Christmas morning…
Not exactly the same.
Okay fine, not even remotely the same.
But I faced a challenge traveling on the road with my niece. How do I illustrate my views on traveling lightly, ditching rampant materialism, and valuing experiences with people over things…all without crushing the spirit of a pretty lively and typical 11-year-old girl who really at the end of the day loves her iPod and hair accessories?
I’m not so much with the preachy-preachy about how to go about Christmas, it’s all good whatever works for each of us. And let’s be honest here, I gleefully remember tearing into Christmas presents as a child, with red Santa Claus wrapping-paper wildly flinging around the room as my brothers tackled their new cars/figurines/swords/video-games/etc.
But from a practical standpoint, it just wasn’t possible for me to buy her heaps of presents because we flat-out don’t have the room in our backpacks. And from the goal standpoint, when I mentioned the six things I hope Ana learns on this trip, gratitude and the seeing the possibilities in the world were in the list. And they’re pretty high on the list, right up there with addressing materialism and the mass consumption model in the US through real-world examples.
So with all this in mind, I worked on crafting a day of experiences and fun events as the focus of our day, and filled red Christmas hat with a few cute (small) gifts as an addition, but not the focus.
To start the holiday festivities, Ana and I joined a group of traveling friends for Christmas Eve bowling, and what a hoot that was! Lanna Bowling in Chiang Mai is the cleanest bowling alley I’ve ever seen and we spent several hours swapping stories and chatter while I bowled two games in a row that came in well under 80 (yes, how awesome are my mad skills!).
The next day, after a Christmas Day nap to recover from our run, we hefted some of our makeshift cookie supplies over to a friend’s apartment to make some wackily improvised Christmas cookies. There are no ovens in the apartments here in Thailand, so we made do with packaged cookies and wide crackers for the gingerbread houses. Shawna and Chais (of the Full Course Travel blog) provided the mulled wine and Christmas carols while we frosted in contentment, decorating with such delicacies as: coco puffs, chocolate chex, mini-M&Ms, nerds, Nutella, pirouettes, and other fun sweets.
Which brings us back to the other main event of our holiday, the Chiang Mai Christmas Marathon. Yes indeed my friends, I gave my niece a long and tiring run for her holiday present. Ana and I ousted ourselves from bed at 4:15am and met up with Paddy, a friend and fellow expat, for our 6am 10K run.
When Paddy cracked a joke of this being possibly the “worst Christmas present ever” it gave me pause, because even though she was pretty much joking, there’s a truth to it…I would have boycotted this gift if I was given it inside the cozy house I grew up in throughout childhood.
But traveling is different and being only temporarily in one place means the “norms” change– I had to find something neat/interesting/different that wasn’t trying to poorly simulate Christmas back home. And, beyond just the run, the act of training for the Christmas run over the past weeks actually gave us a purpose, and gave us both an outlet for some “joint” alone time as we pounded the pavement with our iPods securely tucked into our ears.
Then there’s the accomplishment aspect of a run.
Ana didn’t think she could do it.
In fact, she really didn’t think she could make it the entire 10K and she made me promise we could stop at 6K (which was the most we ran during our training). But she did finish; we both jogged across the finish line just one hour and 23 minutes after that burst of adrenaline first took us off into the dark, pre-dawn hours of Christmas.
And though exhaustion masked some of the sheer exuberance bubbling underneath, I could tell she was proud of herself at the end.
And heck, I’ll be honest, I type away at least six hours each day, so I hadn’t been sure we could do it either.
But we did finish. And we did it together! It wasn’t typical, and she openly proclaims she never wants to do one on Christmas again to be honest…so, maybe it will take years before she fondly remembers this odd Christmas that involved running, Christmas eve bowling with other expats, and wonky cookie decorations, but I am pleased with how we shaped and changed the more traditional holiday spirit to work into something that embraced the holiday spirit and our current traveling lifestyle!
How did you spend your Christmas? Any fun/unique/out of the ordinary Christmas traditions? Anyone else do a run, I hear Christmas marathons are actually a pretty popular tradition?!
Cheerful, poppy Thai music suffusing the expansive temple yard, the music at odds with the swelling solemn energy in the crowd as thousands of amber lanterns were held in firm grips. Groups of friends shared a last moment amidst the frenzy making urgent, unspoken wishes for their new year.
I watched in wonder as our plain white rice paper lantern, a khom loi in Thai, filled with hot air. I looked around me and my breath caught. We collectively waited for the signal to release our lanterns into the night; a sea of open-faced hope surrounded me.
Expressions indelibly etched on each person’s face showed hope and the lure of infinite possibilities, the promise of a clean slate. It was no doubt written clearly on my face too. I took those last moments to tune out the cheery music and quickly take stock of the previous year, and to look forward with my hopes for the coming year traveling with my niece. I filled my mind my wishes, hopes, dreams and fears and propelled each one into our group lantern. As I yearned to fill the lantern with that hope, the go-signal gently swept across the huge crowd.
On a pulse of energy, the lanterns slipped from our fingertips. Ours took one unsteady lurch before jolting upward, the cool nighttime breeze collected our orange orb and swept it away from us, into the dark sky. As more joined ours, each illumination shifted the night sky from an impossibly dense black to a deep blue. The sheer number of hopes and wishes seemingly overpowered the night’s ability to stay dark.
The release lit a spark of sweet hope for this coming trip with Ana. The collective energy swelled around us, filling me with enough giddy anticipation to do a little dance to the cheery Loy Krathong song still pumping from the speakers.
The lantern release takes place a bit outside of Chiang Mai, at a temple complex near Mae Jo University and the evening event jump-started an entire week of Yee Peng festivities. Yee Peng and Loy Krathong coincide on the Lanna Thai calendar and the joint celebrations make for one massive maze of lantern parades and krathong ceremonies throughout the week.
In the months leading up to Yee Peng and Loy Krathong, the most predominant imagery on the internet associates this week with the lantern release—and while the group lantern release lit wonder in hope in me as I watched them all float away, the festival traditions are more fully rooted in the krathong release, with the paper lanterns a more modern accent to the handmade and carefully crafted banana-leaf krathongs.
When is Loy Krathong and Why is It Celebrated?
Loy Krathong occurs at the end of Thailand’s rainy season, a period of time when water nourishes the rice for a productive harvest season and the rivers flow, full and swift, toward the Gulf of Thailand. The ceremonial releasing of these small lotus-shaped rafts takes on a dual role, it serves as an offering of gratitude—a symbol of appreciation for the rains, as well as a releasing of the bad habits, grudges, anger and negativity in one’s own life.
Earlier in the day, Ana and I joined two friends for a late morning craft party as the crisp sunshine filled the room with clean light. The sounds of the motorbikes weaving through Chiang Mai’s streets created a distant hum nine floors below as my friend Naomi proffered the supplies she purchased at the nearby market: banana stem bases, deep green banana leaves, and an array of fresh flowers, candles, incense and sparklers.
The process of making a krathong is both fun and complex, suffice to say we worked diligently for several hours until we fully decorated each base and prepared them for release that evening.
Releasing Krathongs in Chiang Mai
As the sun sunk low over Doi Suthep, a nearby mountain peak, we bagged our krathongs and wove through the light crowds. Our group started with drinks at Brasserie, a restaurant on the Ping River, where we chatted until full darkness settled over the city—well, as full darkness as expected on a full moon night.
We allowed several hours to pass with easy conversation. The river began to fill with candlelit rafts. The sky lightened once again as thousands of lanterns from all over the city danced like fireflies in the night.
Several hours later, the crowds swelled across the river. Our small group of four gathered our handmade krathongs and stepped down to the quiet river’s edge on the restaurant’s peaceful private dock. We re-positioned misplaced flowers and jostled incense sticks before lighting the candles, making one last wish and hope. Then we released them one-by-one into the water.
I watched my handmade krathong join Ana’s meticulously decorated raft near the shore-line; we stared at the river, captivated by the flickering candlelight and stream of fragrant incense creating patterns in the dark night. We gently splashed the water until our krathongs caught the swift current on the Ping River and became indistinguishable from the herd of floating krathongs, each one an offering hope, a chance for atonement, gratitude and thanks.
And beyond the beautiful, there’s something magical about learning about the culture through these festivals. For that reason, releasing our handmade krathongs alongside the Thai people was magical. Our rafts of hopes and wishes joined thousands of others, meeting on a river and moving beyond the realm of language, culture, or religion. We used that raft and the river’s water to cleanse the mind and spirit and start this new year fresh and open to the possibilities.
If you’re heading to Chiang Mai, Thailand and want a handful of the best things to do in town – well, you’ve come to the right place! I offer up a selection of my favorite vegetarian eats around town. The sights you shouldn’t miss, places to stay and even some of the more popular (and ethical) of the day-trips around Chiang Mai.
I’m going to miss my home-away-from-home and this wonderful city is well-worth of a visit when you’re traveling through Thailand.
Like a warrior prepping for battle, I cranked the faucet on the sink of my apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand and listened impatiently to the glugging sounds as tap water slowly filled my water gun’s reservoir. Day one of Songkran festivities were ramping up, (and a day ahead of schedule I might add!) and celebratory shouts for the Thai New Year bounced into my apartment from nearby streets.
I’ll admit, I was psyched!
Every year, Thailand and the rest of the region, including Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and nearby parts of China, welcome in their New Year with water, prayer and rituals.