One Month in Chiang Mai

In Journal Snippets
-Kate Szambecki

September 18, 2021

I am currently sitting at the laundromat. It’s outside (covered) and you must take your shoes off. It’s very nice.

We flew to Bangkok, then Chiang Mai, and were greeted by YMCA staff and university interns, and drove to the YMCA. I napped, we ate, then went to the mall. I spent the first ten-ish minutes in my room thinking we had no AC or power, which was a bit of a panic moment, but we’re all good. Fooled by the key system. The room is much less luxurious than our Phuket hotel (to be expected) but I like it. It feels like a home. I’ll miss the water pressure, though. 

Walking through Chiang Mai to the mall felt like a dream. The air was cooler, I was with friends, and we saw so many little shops and restaurants with warm, inviting lights. I am so happy to be in a city with a safe, warm home with my friends, learning new things.

I can’t wait to make friends with the university students.

September 20, 2021

Yesterday was our orientation at the YMCA. I know some of it was exhaustion, but I found myself holding back tears several times while the staff talked about their excitement and our itinerary for the semester. I could feel the importance of our presence here for the YMCA (due to COVID, they have not had any groups like this in a long time), and the excitement of everyone to have us overwhelmed me. Also, the massive list of things we get to do here… I had no idea. I think my mouth was hanging open for most of the presentation—I was just so in awe of all the incredible experiences the YMCA has planned for us. How did I get so lucky?

September 22, 2021

Today we went to a massive market after class and lunch. I loved every minute. The fabrics and handcrafted items are all so vibrant and intricate. I also had a GREAT curry at the restaurant afterward. 

I’m struck over and over by the difficult nature of most interactions here, yet, I almost always enjoy them. I know that comes from a place of privilege—my interactions are never of dire consequence, legal or otherwise—and so I am still able to experience uncertainty in a safe way. I feel grateful for this and acutely aware of how different this is for immigrants, etc.

Something else I’ve been thinking a lot about is the culture of politeness/service in Thailand against my mental backdrop of feminist thought. There is so much discourse in the US about women taking up more space, being louder and more assertive, apologizing less, etc. in order to subvert patriarchal norms. I want to explore this phenomenon here, because it is so counter to Thai societal expectations for all genders. The Thai ideal of being as least burdensome as possible to others is the opposite of our American individualism.

September 26, 2021

Last night I was laying in Nicole’s room with a fairly big group of us, and I had a very euphoric moment. I was touched by our little family—everyone was chatting and laughing, splitting the food we had just ordered—and my heart swelled. While I know host families would have been a formative and wonderful experience, I am grateful for the closeness of our group that comes from living on the same floor. 

September 29, 2021

Today I had my first truly unsuccessful Thai interaction. I was trying to ask the owner of a tea stand if one of the drinks had caffeine. I was fumbling over the few Thai words I know and motioning with my hands, and he grew only more confused. Not my best moment. Got the tea, though.

It has also been a tough last couple of days, content-wise. We’ve reached some controversial chapters in the book we’re reading, and this, paired with an intense presentation on gender-based violence and human trafficking in Thailand, has led to a lot of introspection and discussion. We have a diverse group in terms of gender and sexuality, and the lenses through which each one of us ingests this kind of information will never be aligned. It leads to solid discussions.

I’ve been struggling with the idea that in Thailand, traditionally feminine qualities are much more respected across the board, yet gender discrimination is still rampant. It almost seems as if femininity is highly regarded, yet women themselves are not. This is only a broad generalization, however, and I’m interested in exploring this more. 

October 1, 2021

Today we saw elephants for the second time, and, unlike in Phuket, I did not full-on sob. I may have teared up a little when they wrapped their trunks around me, though. And technically I did cry when I later learned that the reason these elephants were swaying around so much was because they were stressed. My deep love of elephants has been quite a surprise. 

Yesterday’s hike in the rain was an unexpected joy. Once I accepted that I would be fully soaked, I could lean fully into the chaos. I had a really bizarre moment about halfway through, when I realized that my mind had been almost entirely blank for the last five minutes, give or take. I had achieved that few times in my life, and certainly not during our meditation sessions…

October 6, 2021

Last night after dinner, several of us went to a thrift night market. It was surreal. They have a massive courtyard filled with stands, some under small tents and some with goods just spread out across the bricks. There was music playing, string lights draped across the entire place, and young, hip people everywhere. The clothes were cheap and good, and I just wandered around by myself for a while. I feel like I found the pocket of Chiang Mai that I connect with most.

October 13, 2021

I really loved our two border trips these last couple of days. I’m not sure what exactly it was about them—the long drives or the views, the light rain and sun—but I felt blissful and grateful. I also felt as though I was seeing something important. The Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, is such a beautiful place but also a key part of Southeast Asia’s history.

I’m glad that we went after visiting the Opium Museum; that gave us important context to experience the sight itself. 

Maybe it was the brief trip to Chiang Rai (a four-hour drive north), or maybe it is just because we’ve reached about the six-week mark, but I’ve been feeling inklings of homesickness. I miss my parents and my friends, and I miss fall in Virginia. 

October 18, 2021

We’ve now been at the YMCA for exactly a month. We have visited a myriad of temples, a couple of villages, elephants, museums and MANY restaurants. We’ve learned about Thai cooking, Thai language, issues of deforestation, human trafficking, and gender and sexuality, Thai ethnic groups and culture, and Chinese history (thanks, Myrrl!). Tomorrow we learn about Thai boxing…

This place is beginning to feel like a kind of home. I feel comfortable going out in our free time to explore, and I have familiar places that I have already grown to love: the Korean BBQ across the street, the LaundryBar where we do our laundry each week, the grocery store only a few blocks away in the basement of a mall, the piano practice rooms hidden in that same mall, and the gym where I now teach (as a volunteer, don’t worry visa officials) a Zumba class to five or so locals—long story. We are looking ahead to presentations, some trips in smaller groups, and countless more adventures. I am so grateful.