While strolling around a village about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, my wife Rebecca and I got inevitably lost amongst the dry rice fields, the occasional passing motorbike, and dogs popping out of every other driveway to inspect each flourish of activity. The landmarks on our hand drawn, photocopied map–phone booths, wood carvings, fish pond–provided little guidance.
But there was no reason to worry, as our overall experience in Thailand confirmed what many people had told us: the Thai people are almost otherworldly with their hospitable and friendly nature, putting most Americans to shame in this department.
Within minutes of standing at a junction that was supposed to have four turns, instead of three, two cars stopped by, asking in halting English if we needed help. No, we’re fine, I said, determined that my normally sound sense of direction would prevail. It didn’t, and after about ten more minutes pondering where to go under the shade of some banana trees on the side of the road, we flagged down the next person we saw.
The man on the motorbike didn’t stop speaking an incomprehensible blend of Thai and English, but he determination to return us our rustic guest house was clear, so we meandered around the local villages, two unlikely passengers clinging on to each other while balancing on the scooter.
The list of firsts and memorable experiences from our two-week long honeymoon expedition is lengthy, but writing about travel is tough. How can I encapsulate a trip that will provide us with a lifetime of joyous memories? Should I review places like street food vendors (eat the Khao Soi noodle dish in Thanin Market, Chiang Mai), guest houses, and temples? Should I try and convince others to travel to Southeast Asia?
For me, reading The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti provided a spark. In the book, the author embarks on a personal quest to uncover the story behind one of the world’s greatest cheeses, produced in a tiny village in the Castile region of Spain. He meets Ambrosio, the cheesemaker, and becomes entranced by his powerful personality and the village’s ancient way of life. Paterniti eventually moves his family to Guzman, Spain, in order to fully unravel a compelling mystery of the cheese’s rise and fall, but the tale ends up being about more than curds and whey–the writer reflects and finds his place in the world. It’s a delightful read, a tale of idealism, adventure, and local food customs.
More than once in Thailand, Rebecca and I imagined packing up and moving abroad. How could we not choose to live in such a hospitable, enchanting, affordable place? When would be a good time for us to pack up and leave the United States for a stint in Thailand or another place? Rebecca imagined being home with a child (one that doesn’t exist yet) while I worked as an English teacher.
Certain travel experiences undoubtedly unearth a sense of idealism and adventure, providing visitors to new places the sense the grass is greener. I couldn’t help but feel this at certain times in Thailand.
We ate many delicious meals for about 30 Baht, or one dollar, took advantage of public transit that cost between 10 cents! for a train ride to five dollars for a two hour van taxi, and I possibly overdosed on cheap massages. We saw thousands of Thai lanterns lazily rise and dance in the sky over Chiang Mai on New Year’s Eve. The only sign of aggression or discord from any native was a man in the village who slapped his dog after it barked at us; everyone else we encountered seemingly smiled or assisted us in some way. Heck, even most of the animals were friendly.
But after we began considering the possibility of living in such a different place, we realized we’d probably never learn much more than how to say hello, thank you, and where is the bathroom? in such a challenging language. And it’s so far from our home in Kentucky and families in New Hampshire. We even got tired of eating delicious coconut, lemongrass, chili, and lime infused flavors by the end of the trip. (But if I had to only eat one type of food the rest of my life, Thai would be high on the list.)
“What am I doing here?” Paterniti finally writes in The Telling Room after realizing he’d never feel truly at home in Guzman. “It hadn’t occurred to me to try and tame the “madness” of American life rather than tame it, to bring the lessons of Castile back to American life.” I reread those words while sitting on the porch of a hut at the village guest house, and I shared his words with Rebecca. We wondered aloud about what insights or behaviors we might bring back with us to the United States.
I’m probably continuing to idealize, but being in Thailand provided a great reminder that the American way of life–striving, attempting to make more money to buy more things and bigger homes, to accept 40 hour-plus workweeks as unbending–isn’t the only paradigm out there. Being in a place where Christianity isn’t the dominant religious was eye-opening, too. What affect does Buddism have on a place where, for the most part, people seem so accepting and calm (recent political riots, notwithstanding).
We’re now back in Kentucky, braving the frigid temperatures, readjusting back to our busier lives. But our travel bug is solidly reestablished, as is the possibility that someday, somehow, we could choose to live abroad. It was entirely refreshing to visit a place so different and yet so great in so many ways. The world may be shrinking in some ways due to digital technology, but there are still countless places out there where we’re reminded and challenged–wherever we come from–that there is more than one way to live our lives.
How about you? How you you write about travel? What eye-opening moments have you had in domestic or foreign places? When you travel, what do you seek? Relaxation? Adventure? Escape? Experiencing different cultures? Thanks for chiming in.