I’ve been in Thailand for exactly a month and I still haven’t cleaned my purse. I tentatively peeked in there the other day to find wads of toilet paper (#1 travel necessity), sunscreen, malaria pills, a headlamp, clif bar wrappers, my passport, a Chinese herbalist’s business card, a piece of paper with my fortune written on it, an advertisement for mango sticky rice and a passel of SIM cards. You’d think that this would qualify me as the Mary Poppins of Thailand, but, despite my apparent preparation for any situation, my efforts are continuously inadequate and almost always in vain in the Land of Smiles.
Here in Chiang Mai, the largest city in the North, life is not as blissful as the google image search of “Thailand” suggests. Even now, in the “cool season,” it is hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. I constantly feel like that egg. The tuk tuks and the motor bikes speed down the street with reckless abandon, threatening to flatten pedestrians with even more gusto than New York’s yellow cabs. Air in Chiang Mai is approximately 87% diesel fumes, and I am eyeing the patterned pollution masks at the night market with increasing enthusiasm. My appearance? I am always drenched in sweat. Nicely put by one sweet old man, “face VERY shiny.” I obey the cardinal rule and keep my mouth shut during my showers, even though this pretty much puts a cap on my morning/nightly singing sessions (luckily for my neighbors). Every night I fall into bed and have such bizarre dreams that dreamdictionary.org is diagnosing me with ‘extreme lack of direction,’ ‘major life changes and/or loss of control’ and ‘feelings of powerlessness.’ Every interpretation ends in concern, much like my parents’ texts.
But life here is good. Today, I bought a fruit smoothie for 56 cents (20 thai baht) and I almost wept thinking of that one time I willingly forked over 12 DOLLARS at Juice Press (for reference: 425 THB). There is grandeur here in the midst of noodle shops and modest apartment buildings because there are temples (“wats”) glittering throughout the city with their golden spires, flared roofs, animal motifs, proliferation of gold leaf and orange clad monks.
Chiang Mai is home to nearly 1.5 million people (and *roughly* 4 billion cats). 20% are ‘farang’ like me (foreigners- many from the UK and Australia) and 80% are local Thai. 100% of them are warm, kind-hearted and eager to feed and assist anyone and everyone.
Maybe it’s just the New Jersey in me or the constant conditioning to ‘stranger danger,’ but my initial reaction to this pretenseless kindness was suspicion. After watching residents leave their bikes unchained, their purses on the back of parked motorbikes, and their doors and windows open, I realized that trust and respect is a current that flows throughout this society. Here, smiles abound, even if someone does not get his or her way (I’m taking notes, parents). Here, ‘mai pen rai,’ is commonly used as a follow up to ‘thank you,’ but its core meaning is quite literally, ‘no worries.’ After the breathlessness of life in New York, this change of pace is growing on me. Yes, the first few weeks in Thailand were a combination of heat rash, fear of MSG overdose and the refusal to risk my life to cross the street, but as my first month here draws to a close, I pass the fruit markets, the open air jazz concerts, the friendly soi dogs, the monks receiving their alms, and I realize that here, life is golden.