Discovering the Value of Slow Travel – Why We Chose to Stay in Chiang Mai
When I made my first packing list for our RTW sabbatical, I included maps and guidebooks but I never thought of bringing along a paper calendar. At home, we have one in just about every room of our house, but for some reason, I thought time would be less relevant on the road. The truth is, it can be hard to keep track of months, let alone days when traveling long-term. That’s why I now keep a paper calendar in my bag everywhere I go. And according to that calendar, we are just about to start a new year.
So here we are, sending holiday cheer from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
We have been living in Chiang Mai for almost six weeks.
Which is kind of insane, especially when I look back to what I was thinking last March when this trip was only first becoming a reality.
My husband and I were sitting in my office, working with our travel agent on our path around South East Asia. There was a window between the end of our Australia adventure in October and our January arrival in Bali. I suggested that we take the last six weeks of 2018 to backpack with our kids through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – a wildly inspired idea I got my husband to agree to. We both saw promise in trekking around South East Asia.
It was going to be us at our most radical, sharing our love for rugged travel with our kids.
Before I knew it, we had signed on the dotted line. Our travel agent booked us into Chiang Mai and out of Bangkok six weeks later. The time between was all ours. We intended to fill it with adventure.
All photos courtesy of the author.
If you had told me back then that we would spend the entire six weeks in Chiang Mai, I would have been about 90% disappointed (which tends to look like devastated on me) and 10% resigned to make the best of it. To be clear, I most definitely did not want to stay put on this part of the trip.
The kind of authentic travel I was gaming for involved erasing reliance on taken-for-granted creature comforts. It involved absorbing as many world heritage sites as possible and eating on the cheap at side-of-the-road warungs. It involved living with nothing but the packs on our backs.
I believed that modeling a truly nomadic lifestyle for our kids would challenge their desires for material things and open their eyes to the beauty and joy of immersing oneself in different cultures.
How very noble of me. Noble and naïve.
The plan in my head looked something like this:
We would explore Chiang Mai long enough to ride the elephants and experience Loi Krathong and Yi Peng, two Thai festivals that have been featured on traveling family bucket lists all over the internet. Then we would do some bussing, overnight training and ferrying around Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam, making sure to hit Angkor Wat, Luang Prabang, and the Mekong Delta. We might end in Bangkok with a volunteer gig at a drama school for local children or we might island hop in the south of Thailand.
The thought of it all had me swooning with wanderlust. Did I expect this to be the hardest part of our trip? Of course, but that’s what would make it the most rewarding! We had six weeks to prove that we were serious travelers, and those six weeks would be the ones we would remember for the rest of our lives.
We had six weeks to prove that we were serious travelers.
Yes. That is what I believed. Truly.
Well, midway through our Australia leg, my husband began to voice his concerns. With some real family travel now under our belts, he was reluctant to stick to our original plan. He started talking about settling in somewhere, investigating a school or regular activity for the kids, finding a location with lots of green space. I resisted.
Then, Tokyo confirmed what we already knew about our children. Let’s just say they don’t do cities particularly well. Too many risks and too many rules. Chiang Mai is a big city, my husband insisted, let’s get out of there quick and find a better place to call home. But I kept my eye on the prize.
Elephants and lanterns!
That’s all I needed to see. Traveling families all over the world will tell you that riding an elephant with your kids is one of the most memorable things you can do with them in their young lives. Images of Loi Krathong and Yi Peng lanterns win photojournalism competitions and make travel magazine covers. I wasn’t about to let any of that slip through my fingers.
I convinced my husband to book the full week in Chiang Mai.
Elephants and lanterns, and then we would move on. To where? We’d figure it out as we went. That was the whole point.
Honestly, we almost didn’t make it through that week.
Our accommodation was on a major highway and far from the adorable pedestrian streets that make up parts of the Old Quarter. The kitchen there was not much more than a mini fridge and a counter. We couldn’t cook and with kids who don’t do restaurants well, each meal was a challenge. The city has a surprising lack of public parks and playgrounds. The only places where kids have space to move about are the temple grounds and while there are many, they did not exactly fit the bill as ‘kid-friendly.’
To make things worse, the more we investigated the Loi Krathong and Yi Peng festivals, the more we realized it might mean enduring New-Years-Eve-In-New-York-type mayhem and ridiculously high admission prices.
And while stories of riding elephants read like the stuff of fantasies, there’s little mention of the way the elephants have been treated to tame them into the kind of submission that makes that “ride of a lifetime” possible.
Each day ended in a long debate about whether we should stay one more day or leave the city in the morning. If there was a groove to be had in Chiang Mai, we had not found it.
So what happened? Why didn’t we just fly the coop, take off for another locale? Why are we still here, loving life, a month and a half later?
The long and the short of it is that we turned the ship around.
On the fourth day of our Chiang Mai stay, we took a morning trip to what we deemed to be an ethically-sound “no-ride” elephant retreat. On the ninety-minute drive back, my husband went deep into an internet search while I played I-Spy with the kids out the open back of the red truck taxi.
A few moments before we reached our accommodation, my husband rerouted the driver to the Kiddee Daycare and Kindergarten. He had gone down the online rabbit hole of “What to do with kids in Chiang Mai” and found a school that had a daily drop-in program. We got there at 3pm.
When we went in to chat with the head teacher, there were no students about, but our kids sniffed what was going on. This was a place for children, a place for them. Not even the elephant sanctuary had spoken to them in kid language. But once they stepped inside and saw the foam mats, the play structures, and the children’s library, their true spirits took over. The school was essentially empty, yet we had to drag them out the building and promise them that they could come back. Yes, we swore, we will bring you back here. Yes, you can go to school tomorrow.
Sweet relief, we thought. This will get us to the end of the week and as soon as Loi Krathong is over, we can journey on. But the next afternoon, the boys came home with unmistakable contagious joy. It was a kind of joy we had not seen in them since the first morning they woke up in a tent on the crest of the Badlands National Park.
So, instead of pulling the plug on Chiang Mai, we listened to our kids. We let them lead.
We would not just give them another day here, or another week. We would let them stay.
Two days later, we signed a month lease on an apartment in a high rise overlooking the river for $33 a night. I give my husband all the credit for getting us here, to a life where we have structure, space for (and from) our children, and a place to call home.
We did stay for Loi Krathong, but it looked nothing like I thought it would. We celebrated at a quiet restaurant upriver from the lantern departure point. The boys brought home their own krathong (floating lanterns) from school that day and released them into the river themselves. Because they had made them with their own hands, they knew how krathong were made. They knew what they meant. They even explained parts of it to us.
At the restaurant, the boys met a few other children from expat families and played along the dock while my husband and I chatted with the other parents. We sipped wine and watched dozens of lanterns as they were launched from the temple across the river. It was a lovely evening. The food was good, the kids were happy, and the candlelight on the water reflected a gentle glow on our decision to stay.
Our Loi Kathrong will never compare to the fabulous photos found online. It may not translate through photos at all. But that night, the city extended a welcome to us. She held her arms wide open.
As I set my floating candle out on the water, I released the nitty-gritty definition of “traveler,” I had been holding on to for dear life. Even a traveler can have a home, I told myself.
We would make Chiang Mai our home for now. To my surprise, having a home felt like a solid plan.
It’s not that I haven’t looked back with regrets or questioned our decision to stay. I had some losses to mourn. We never did get to Laos or Angkor Wat or the Mekong Delta and I am still a bit sad about that. But it’s an okay sad.
We love Chiang Mai.
We love the few neighbors we’ve met in our building. We love the small vegan shop down the road, where we buy the most delicious fresh rolls each morning. We love our kids’ teachers and the care they take in teaching Thai language, customs, and culture. We love that we can see a billboard for a show that looks interesting, use Google translate to learn more, and then actually go see the show two weeks later. We love the sunset we see from our balcony, night after night after night. We love that when we go out of town for weekend excursions, the boys talk about how excited they are to come “home” to our apartment on the 10th floor. We love our walk to and from school with the boys and our Friday afternoon ritual of stopping for ice cream at Bud’s. We love that we know our two local wats. We even love when we have to call a repairman to fix the toilet. Spider Monkey befriends him and asks a million questions about the job he is doing. We love all of that.
Our kids know they are travelers. Even though we stayed put, they know.
Chiang Mai has reminded us that being a traveler does not always mean moving. Sometimes it’s important to lace your fingers through those of another culture and hold on long enough to let the relationship grow.
Choosing where to go when you travel is a bit like internet dating. Luang Prabang had a fabulous profile, but I’m glad Chiang Mai got a second date and then some.
Last weekend we made our last excursion from Chiang Mai to go see the White Temple in Chiang Rai. It was definitely cool, and I’ve got the photos to prove it. But the best moment of our visit there, and possibly my favorite moment of all our time in Thailand, is the one I did not capture on film.
It happened inside the White Temple, where photos are not allowed. It happened as I first stepped into the center of the main temple.
There I discovered my boys kneeling in silence before the Buddha.
Both had their heads down and hands in positions of prayer. I looked at my husband, who was holding their shoes in his hands. He shrugged. We waited. I don’t think either of us took a breath. Then Bird stood, leaned into his brother, and whispered, “Have you finished your kind thought yet? You just stay here until you’ve finished your kind thought.” Spider Monkey nodded, took another moment, and rose to his feet. Bird quickly reminded him to “shhh” and he did. Then both boys exited in silence.
I have tried a million ways to get Spider Monkey to “shhh” and I have not succeeded! I am still not sure what to make of all that. It was something. Something they learned at Kiddee? Something they had heard about before coming?
Was it just that five weeks into our stay, they had been exposed to so many Buddhist temples, so many peaceful moments of prayer, that they just absorbed some piece of this culture and made it their own?
I didn’t ask. It was the first evidence of a spiritual practice that I’ve seen in my children and I want it to remain theirs. Maybe this Christmas-loving-Jew and Athiest-Scientist-Unitarian are raising two Buddhist children. There are worse things that can come of six weeks of travel.
It’s dawning on us now that very soon we’ll have to say goodbye to this place.
The planning of a sabbatical trip around the world focuses almost entirely on the hellos, the arrivals, the places you will land. There is very little thought given to departures, to goodbyes, to letting go.
So, while I am excited to spend the next three months in Bali, the thought of being in a new place feels a little overwhelming. Somehow, without realizing it, I’ve fallen in love with the familiar. It’s Christmas today and I am hanging children’s artwork on the walls, planning thank you gifts for the boys’ school teachers and deciding which of my favorite dishes I should order from the restaurant downstairs.
We may be about to travel again, in the purest sense of the word, but our travel here is not yet over.
We are still living abroad in Chiang Mai.
And Chiang Mai is still home.