In the nights, we were allowed to go off on our own, explore the city and soak up Chiang Mai. The first night, I spent with the adults (they were horrified to realize they were teenagers when I was born) on an uneventful but pleasant dinner by the river. A karaoke rendition of Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” may have happened with the restaurant’s cover band. Who’s to say. Beyond that, I don’t remember the order of our outings or even some nights entirely. Like all memories, I remember some moments more than others. Sitting in the one reggae bar in Chiang Mai, as one tripmate danced with the Thai bouncer who owned an astonishing set of dreadlocks, all while my roommate engaged in a pullup contest from the rafters with two Swedes and another tripmate danced on the table. After a while there, I sat outside and read.
Another moment I remember, I was heading back from dinner in the city, so we decided to take a tuk tuk back. The only issue was there was one too many of us. So I sat in front next to the driver on what appeared to be an upside-down coke bottle crate, half my body outside the boundaries of the rickshaw. It was kind of exciting, skidding my feet along the road, holding on for dear life as this mad man of a driver made some unecessarily quick turns. It was exciting until the clouds decide to rain and it did so uncontrollably. When we finally arrived at the hotel the left side of my body was a full shade or two darker as well as a pound heavier.
One of the nights, we, as a group, went to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a temple that lives on one of the mountains that encase Chiang Mai in a valley. We climbed the 309 steps, bordered by dragons on either side, to the temple itself. At the top, we took off our shoes and entered the Holy Site for Thai people seeking spirituality and for tourists seeking photos. Dogs and cats roam the site freely or in the case of one particular cat, slept as still as the statues of Ganesh and shrines to Buddha that surrounded the slumbering feline.
In front of the largest statue of Buddha, 20 or so monks sat and prayed, rocking back and forth as they did. It reminded me of my mother as she sat and prayed, in her bedroom. She’d rock back and forth exactly the same way. Do we vibrate at a different frequency when we are at a higher spritiual plane? Or maybe it’s a state of intense focus? Maybe I’ve never focused that hard at anything. Anyways, there was a glass box behind them filled with all assortment of coins, notes (of different currencies) and a sign that read ‘Donations’ in English and Thai, lying against it. Although if you were running low on cash, there was a chip-and-pin card reader connected up next to one of the praying monks. Let me repeat that. A monk who lived only with the basic necessities of life, sat next to a chip-and-pin card reader.I love that image. After we savoured the irony, we walked out onto a terrace just as night had fallen. I walked past a Thai child chasing a stray dog and looked over the balcony. It was Chiang Mai. We were 15km from the city and — I’m not even sure how I high up but it was the entire city, all lit up. It was as if we were flying overhead, watching the glimmers and twinkles of the city, looking both bigger and smaller than it ever could. It was incredible. If the entire trip had gone terribly — if I didn’t get on with my team, the work was unsatisfying, if the people were all not so wonderful and friendly, the food so delicious and the city not so vibrant — that moment would have made the entire thing worth it.
On the final day of the build, we had finished the house. The foundations were set, the cement floor dried, the breezeblock and mortar walls stood tall (one of them even have my roommate and I’s names scratched into the brick) and the food was cooked. The family that would take ownership of the house after we left cooked for us everyday we were on site and it was the best food I had on the trip. It was home cooked food. I couldn’t tell you the names of some of the dishes, only that it involved a lot of rice, mango, coconut, cashews and chicken. It was delicious. The final night, after the completion there was a performance of a local dance which we all took part in, that involved long pieces of bamboo that would snap together in rhythym along the floor. As the dancer, you would step between them, moving through the sets as if you were avoiding the bites of a series of a musical crocodiles. I tripped only twice. Later they did some group awards, most of which I don’t remember other than, The ‘Joker’. I remember that one, because I won it. I flung empty chairs out of my way, jumped on stage and proceeded to do a pratfall. I took the prize of a comedic set of bunny ears with pride and wore them throughout dinner. Not dinner actually, it was more of a feast. Mountains of colourful rice, and tender chicken and seafood and more rice. I should have taken photos of this. This was worth instagramming if instagramming was a thing back then.After, we headed to a nearby temple where people came to have their ailments healed by the monks. The locals prayed and we watched. A statue of Buddha sat there, eyes closed, smiling at me. It was twilight now, and we had to leave. I remember the head of the family, a proud owner of a new home, something he hadn’t had before, hugged me and my roommate as we were heading to leave. He was speaking to us in Thai, unblinking, tears slowly moving down his face. Our team liason told us he was saying, ‘Thank you and that we had to come back one day to see what the house would be like’. We promised we would.Maybe this isn’t the best example of the excellent street food. It looked better in real life, I swear!
The final weekend of the trip started early in the day. Far too early. The previous night we walked into town looking for the college bars. We took a tuk-tuk at first, trying to explain to the driver who spoke no English where we wanted to go. He gave us the thumbs-up. It was when we saw the sign saying the Airport was 5 miles away we realized he had no idea what we meant. We eventually did make it to the place where the young people stay out till 3 in the morning, and we had a good time. We ate street food from a vendor who’s assortments of fried noodles, rice, rolls, seafood, fish and pork were stacked, lit under a lightbulb that made the food look even more delicious. I’m not sure what I ate that night but it was good and I did not get food poisoning. I consider that a success. At around 2.30, we were done being among the young people, and decided to leave. We couldn’t find a taxi so we thought we’d walk till we found one. We walked for an hour until we hit a sign that said we were heading towards the Chiang Mai zoo and if we kept going, towards the temple on the mountain, 15km outside of town that we had visited last week. We were lost in Thailand.
Walking back, eventually a taxi did pass us by, which we collectively screamed at. The driver overcharged us, noticing the desperation apparent on our faces but we didn’t mind. It was still cheap. By the time we got back to the hotel, it was 4 in the morning. A couple of us fell asleep in the lobby so of course a moustache was drawn on them. We were in bed and asleep by 4.30. We woke an hour and a half later. We had an Elephant Conservatory to visit.