Kumail Rizvi


A Pakistani in Chiang Mai: On building things and getting lost in Thailand.

January 2011

I had wasted half of my gap year. I had finished school six months earlier and floated on by since. I was working as a maths tutor at a local afterschool tuition centre for kids. The youngest I tutored was 7 and the oldest was 17. There was nothing strenuous about my life.

I had decided to, upon recurring suggestion from my Dad, to do some charity work. And if I could travel at the same time? Great. I had heard about Habitat for Humanity, and looked up where some upcoming trips would be. I had never been to the Far East.

Emails were sent, phone interviews to make sure I was of sound mind made — the only issue left was the money. I needed roughly £1300 in a month. Google eventually led me to a call centre job doing ‘Market Research’. I’d work every shift I could for 2 weeks, making call after call to people who did not want to talk and expressed it in their…unique ways. Sunday shifts were the worst. They really got angry for what is supposed to be a day of rest. I caught a fever during week 3 and couldn’t work the entire time. I had no appetite, I was tired all the time, and alternately was hot and cold. At least I lost some weight.

Once I eventually recovered and earned enough money to book the tickets, I quit. Never was I so happy to lose a job.

I was going to Thailand.

Habitat for Humanity’s vision is “for a world where everyone has a safe and decent place to live through the elimination of housing poverty and homelessness.” I had decided that that sounded like a better use of my time then another couple weeks of just watching the NBA. It wasn’t even the playoffs yet.

One of the first things I saw on my trip. An excellent sign of things to come. Photo by Chris Sebilia.

One of the first things I saw on my trip. An excellent sign of things to come. Photo by Chris Sebilia.

April 2011

Chiang Mai’s airport is the smallest I had ever been through. My single piece of luggage arrived 30 minutes after the last person had left with theirs. I requested a taxi, and was taken to my hotel 40 minutes away. Driving through the the streets that first morning in the airconditioned vehicle — I had no idea what the city would be like.

That first night, in the effort of getting to know each other, our team had a dinner at a tourist-y Thai restaurant. It was exactly as awkward as you think it would be. I was joined mostly by Americans, Canadians, a single Australian and a British Expat who resides in Hawaii. My roommate for the trip would be a Bostonian who’d just finished school like me and has now grown to be a pretty good friend. The next day, we woke up at quarter to seven, then headed to the outskirts of the city in a songthaew. We had a house to build.

The only thing I had ever really built by myself before this was a set of drawers from IKEA. I followed the instructions precisely and worked efficiently, in silence. It fell apart after a month. I was nervous about how I would do this time. When we arrived all that stood was the roof. We were to construct the foundation, floors and walls. The foundation,as you might expect, came first. My first job was cutting rebar using a guillotine half my size. I had to jump on it to cut through the steel. Eventually the joint gave out and we ‘fixed’ it by filling it with short off-cuts of rebar. I had to jump higher now.

Next, and probably what I had to do most often, was mix concrete. Hours of pulling and pushing a hoe back and forth, creating an ever more viscous combination of cement, sand and water. I was an expert by the time the foundation was set.

A house in progress

A house in progress

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.

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My Elephant’s name was Jojo. They all had names. One baby elephant who happened to come from an Artifically Inseminated birth was named A.I. We were at a conservatory maybe 2 hours outside the city. The elephants were kept there (including 1 or 2 of the King’s) and we’d spend the weekend with them. To help pay for the running of the center, the elephants would do shows for tourists, usually with their trainers, except this weekend — we were there trainers. We performed with them, fed them, bathed them (Jojo took particular joy in dunking me under the water with him) and he even picked up my shoes and passed them back to me after we were done.At the end of the first night I took him to his spot of the jungle where he sleeps (under the watchful eyes of the actual trainers). Parts of the path, were downhill and I think Jojo enjoyed that. I feared for my life at the speeds he was moving at. Eventually we got to the spot, just as the sun had begun to set. I said goodbye, walked back to the shack we were staying at, and played cards into the night, while a soundtrack of screaming monkeys played in the background. The next night, we went through the same workday, Jojo and I. I picked him up in the jungle, we performed, had lunch (he had a particular liking for sticky rice and the bananas the visitors would feed him after a showbathed, and called it quits. We had dinner, fell asleep and the next morning I said goodbye to Jojo. I had a flight back to Karachi that evening.

By the time I had to leave for my flight, there was only a couple of us left. I hugged and gave a sad goodbye to my roommate for the trip. We had grown close, and he even asked his parents if he could join me in Karachi for a little while. For whatever reason, they said no. I arrived 2 or 3 hours early imagining my time getting through security to be something akin to Karachi International or Heathrow. This was Chiang Mai after all, the second biggest city in Thailand, I thought to myself. I was through in less than 25 minutes. I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay while I waited, and made small talk with some Singaporean students who had solid British accents and then finally boarded my Thai Airways flight. I got comfortable in my seat, or as comfortable as one can get in economy, my headphones plugged in with Explosions in the Sky on repeat and waited. The wheels started rolling past the fields that surrounded the runway and the plane lined itself up and began accelerating. The sun was in my eyes as we took off and Chiang Mai began shrinking, a daytime reflection of the city I had seen from the mountaintop. I remember thinking to myself, “I have to come back one day”.

I made a promise after all.

Kumail Rizvi is an Architecture student in the UK, graphic designer and ever since this trip he’s had a love for travelling. If you liked this, you might like some of this stuff too. Or you can contact him here.

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