I'm scared of turning 30. I'm scared of what I don't know. I'm scared of having kids, or not having kids. I'm scared of getting married, or not getting married. I'm still scared of making mistakes. I'm scared of not being successful, of never writing a book, of never getting published in The New York Times. I'm scared of regret. I'm scared of getting cancer, becoming weak and frail. I'm scared of dying.Read More
When it comes down to it, I guess I just feel ready and have that gut sense that it's the right time to go back. Does it make me all kinds of emotional? Oh yeah. I've already had several nostalgic crying spells and expect more before I leave. But it's still the right call. I miss the people, I miss this place that was always home before and maybe could be again.Read More
In spring 2013, right around my 28th birthday, I came back to one core desire. I wanted to meet someone with whom I could build something real. What that would look like or how it would happen I wasn't sure. But I wanted it. I was ready.Read More
I'm a freelance writer, but to what end? Presumably the writing I am doing now should be building toward something, should be part of a body of work that can be used to achieve a next goal. But what is that next goal?Read More
When you're removed from the realities of a place, it's easy to think you know the whole story, to think you can prepare yourself to be there, to understand what's happened. I didn't understand. I couldn't comprehend the realities. The recent past was present in nearly every conversation I had.Read More
It's been a little while since I concluded my series on my year of living in Chiang Mai. I hadn't planned on taking a break from posting on here after I finished that, but it appears to have been a good time for a break. Writing that series helped me get closure on a lot of things that happened during my first 12 months in Thailand, appreciate everything I've had here and cleared some mental space for what's next.
I went into the last full month of the summer somewhat uncertain of what the rest of my year would look like, but knowing I was feeling restless and ready for some changes. Since turning 28 in April, I have noticed an underlying sense of...urgency, perhaps, to figure out what comes next, a feeling that I've entered a new stage of my life.
Birthdays have never freaked me out; I never fretted about turning a year older. After all, another year on the planet seems a cause for great celebration, not despair. But 28 did freak me out. It's close to 30. It's firmly in the late 20s. Suddenly things that I used to put on the mental backburner seemed much more urgent and important: my health and overall well-being and what I was doing (or not doing) to maintain it; my finances; my professional ambitions; long-term goals for a romantic relationship and starting a family.
Earlier this year there was a lot of buzz about Meg Jay's TED Talk on Why 30 is Not the New 20. While watching it, I had a moment of fleeting panic - what if I've wasted my 20s? What if I've gotten everything wrong?
The panic subsided when I evaluated just what I've been doing for the past eight years of my life, and considered the investments I've made in myself. I graduated from college and grad school, gained valuable professional experience working at a newspaper and freelancing for reputable publications, traveled, evaluated long-held biases and embarked on a path of learning about people and the world that has changed my life.
Most importantly, I have invested in self-growth and development, which has changed the way I see myself, solidified my values and laid the groundwork for the types of enriching, supportive, healthy relationships I want to maintain and cultivate.
So all of that is great, and I'm thankful for the experiences I've had up to this point. It's been an incredible ride so far.
But that doesn't mean that there isn't room for growth (isn't there always?) and that it's not worth asking questions about what comes next, where I want to live and travel, whether my priorities are shifting and if so, what are they, where do I want to be focusing my energy going forward.
I still haven't answered all of those questions for myself, but some priorities have become clear. The top priority is my overall health and well-being. Once I started reading seriously about fitness and nutrition, I was alarmed to realize how much of my diet and lack of exercise were likely exacerbating my feelings of anxiety and depression. I won't go into all the gory details here, but suffice it to say that some changes needed to be made.
This is an ongoing journey for me, but an important one, so vital to making real progress in any other area.
I'm not sure what the future of my work life is and for the first time, that excites rather than terrifies me. I love writing and will focus on creating a body of work I'm proud of, though I am eager to learn new skills, such as design, that will allow me to do more professionally and creatively. I'm excited to think beyond my self-imposed constraints of “I'm a writer and that's it; that's all I will ever be” and see where that takes me.
I'm also not sure where I will live next, though I have some ideas in mind and all of them have some great potential benefits. In the meantime, I've continued hanging out in Chiang Mai and have decided to visit America this fall.
It will be the first time I've been back since I moved to South Korea, and I am deliriously thrilled to have booked the trip. For a long time, the prospect of visiting the States seemed daunting for a number of reasons, not the least of which was how much I've changed and how much my relationships with people there have changed.
But I've wanted to go back for a visit for awhile now, and decided that this fall would be the time to do it. The idea had been there for months, and then one night, I found an incredible deal on a flight and took the plunge. I expected some waves of anxiety or a feeling of “What the frell did I just do?!” but to my pleasant surprise, all I felt for the first week after booking the ticket was elated.
The response I got from people when I told them I was coming to visit was so warm and enthusiastic, it was impossible not to get swept up in the moment. I felt totally at peace with the decision, and genuinely happy to plan for the visit.
I fly out a month from today and will be there six weeks. It's a short trip for having been gone such a long time, but I'm going to make the most of it. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone, to visiting some of my favorite places in the States and to spending some time in cities I've never visited before.
I planned the trip for October in part because that is my favorite month and I have missed autumn in America something fierce. I'll get to enjoy all the fall colors and the pumpkin and apple treat goodness for the first time in three years. To say I'm looking forward to that would be an understatement.
Oh and the food...I'm already fantasizing about the food.
It will be an emotional trip, I have no doubt. I also think it will be an opportunity for me to reflect on where I want to live next, what I want out of my lifestyle and what I'll do in the coming year. There are some trips that I just know are going to be great opportunities for growth, which adds to the excitement and eager anticipation. This is certainly one of them.
2013 has been interesting so far, with many highs and some lows. But fall has always been my favorite season, and I'm going into this one looking forward to some wonderful things.
As far as Spinning Free goes, I'll be posting more frequently, and am working on moving the blog to a new platform that I think will give it a more elegant, enjoyable look. I hope to have that ready to roll out in a week and look forward to sharing it.
This is the fifth and final post in my Unexpected Year in Thailand series. To read the other posts in the series, click here. It is now exactly one year since I arrived sweaty, tired and elated in Thailand, not knowing that I would spend the next year of my life in Chiang Mai.
Even having looked back and seen my struggles with depression and anxiety during the past year, I find that what I feel more than anything else is gratitude for all I've experienced in these 12 months. Playing in the world's biggest water fight, releasing lanterns at the Yi Peng ceremony, sleeping in a bamboo hut in a hill tribe village in the mountains, volunteering with elephants, hanging out with friends at a (vegetarian) piranha fishing resort, interviewing a world-class chef in Bangkok. The list goes on and I know years from now, I will still treasure those experiences and what they taught me.
But most of all, I will treasure the people with whom I've shared those experiences. I've written a lot about the negatives and how badly I felt before I came to Chiang Mai. But to close out this month of reflection and this month of blog posts about this year in Thailand, I want to talk about the people I've met here and who are so important to me.
Back in September, when I found out my friends Will and Skeeter were planning to come back to Chiang Mai as well, I was stoked. Skeet was heading back to the States in October so I knew he'd only be here a short time (he has since returned to Chiang Mai with his partner - I'm telling you, this place has a way of getting under your skin) but Will was also planning to go back to Beijing. We figured we'd hang out in Chiang Mai for a little while and then head to China, just in time for a bitter cold winter.
But then people started giving us all of these reasons to stay: "You can't miss the Yi Peng festival or Loy Krathong; people come from all over the world for those!" and "The winter months are the best time to be in Thailand; not humid, not rainy, just perfect weather!" (This was quite a selling point for someone like me, who hates the cold.)
The real reasons to stay, it turned out, would be our friends. When I arrived in Thailand last summer on a quest to get my head on straight, I didn't expect that the journey would be aided by other people. I already had good friends in China and the States; I didn't expect or think I needed to make close friends in Thailand. I thought I'd find maybe a few interesting travel companions at best.
I don't believe in God or fate or destiny, but I believe deeply in the power of the unconscious and its intuition for what we need in order to heal ourselves and grow. I needed Thailand. I needed Chiang Mai. I needed a space to break down, really break down, to be afraid, to face my fears, to be sick, to be sad, to grieve. I needed that so much more than I realized, which is something I was unwilling to accept or see clearly until recently.
I needed to allow myself to be happy and appreciate the beauty in the world, too, and to really, fully enjoy being healthy and alive and engaged. And I also really needed friends and love and compassion; I needed to receive those things and to give them. And I had that, in an abundance that humbles me and makes me grateful in ways I'm not sure I’ll ever be able to fully express.
There are so many people I've met in Chiang Mai who have inspired me, impressed me, given me much to think about and been a pleasure to know. But there are a few in particular who I now count among the dearest in my life, and who I hope to know for many years to come.
Will has been my closest friend for several years now, and this whole Chiang Mai experience - the good, the bad, and the outrageous - would certainly have been less exciting and less enriching without him. He's a better friend than even he probably realizes, is one of the most genuine, smart, thoughtful and inspiring people I know, and a fantastic human being.
Ruby, Mika and Hilary - affectionately known as my biscuit sisters - will forever be woven into the fabric of who I am. Ruby, who taught me the meaning of Minnesota nice and who delivers even the harshest truths with love and support; Mika, who inspires me with her willingness to defy conventions and her passion for the oppressed; and Hilary, who I knew was a kindred spirit from our first meeting, when we talked religion, corporate America, writing and a million other things over beers.
There have been so many smart, interesting, passionate, kind women I've met here - Kailyn, who reminded me constantly to be generous and nice simply by so embodying those qualities herself; Sarah, whose effervescent personality and willingness to be unique and embrace the world (not to mention amazing dance skills) made me want to let loose and enjoy life more, too; Alyse, who is friendly, giving and game for a laugh no matter what else is going on; Jules, Laura, Agnes, and so many others who touched my heart and who I'm so glad to know.
Before I came to Chiang Mai, it had been a long time since I had had a close group of girlfriends and here, I was fortunate enough to become friends with a group of women who are all passionate, hilarious and warm. They reminded me of how vital it is to have a community of women you can relate to, cry to, and with whom you can drink copious amounts of wine and just really be yourself - scars, mistakes, dreams and all.
The men I know here are wonderful as well. In contrast to the stereotypes put forward about men's inability to emote and empathize (which I disagree with, by the way), Neil and Rob are both sensitive, compassionate, intelligent, well-read and also hilarious. Neil's earnestness and integrity, and Rob's candor and unique sense of humor make them both so much fun to be around. The romantic relationships between Neil and Mika and Rob and Hilary have taught me a great deal about relationships, and inspired me in their closeness, intimacy, and honesty.
Skeet and his partner, Ally, came back to Chiang Mai later than everyone else, but it has been great having them here, too. I have long been impressed by Skeeter's talent, creativity and passion for music, and his commitment to being a good person and standing up for what he believes is right. Ally continually reminds me to question my own biases, to consider the other side of the story or argument, and to be just in my considerations, an area that remains a challenge for me - but a worthwhile one.
Then there are May and Num, the wonderful people who run the guest house where so many of my friends and I have lived. They have really made Chiang Mai a home and made the place where we live somewhere special.
And there are so many others I haven't mentioned who have made this experience as great as it has been. Together, these people have taught me so much about relationships, honesty, bravery and about the world, and I only hope to be able to return the favor. And they have made me laugh, endlessly, which is such a gift in and of itself. It is a privilege to know each one of them.
A special bond developed among our group and while many have left Thailand to travel to new places and start new chapters, we'll always have Chiang Mai, and the hopeful plans to reunite and be part of each other's lives in another part of the world.
When I stop to think about all of the special occasions, the hangouts, the jokes, the stories, the experiences I have shared with the friends I've met in Chiang Mai, I feel overwhelmed by a sense of love and gratitude.
To commemorate this year in Chiang Mai, I decided to make a short video with some highlights of the time I've spent here. The music is "Safe & Sound" by Capital Cities. I chose this song because while listening to it one day, I thought, This is exactly how I feel about our Chiang Mai crew.
I'm not sure where I'll head after Chiang Mai or when exactly I'll go just yet, but I do know that I will always look back on this time as being among the most special in my life, and will be so grateful to have lived in this special place with such wonderful people.
This is the fourth post in my Unexpected Year in Thailand series. To read the earlier posts, click here. About two months ago, I was talking to a friend about feeling like I was in a transition period in terms of my professional life. I was trying to decide what types of stories I want to be writing, the type of work I want to be doing, and mapping out my goals for the rest of this year and beyond. A few days later, this friend sent me a link to "The Desire Map", a book by Danielle LaPorte.
Admittedly, some might read that title and roll their eyes, writing it off as New Age-y fluff about living your best life. And sure, there are some things in there that don't resonate with me, like aligning your chakras. But there is also a lot I have found quite helpful, not the least of which are suggestions for shifting your perspective from bitterness and negativity to one that brings your outlook into alignment with your desire to be happy and fulfilled.
LaPorte invites readers to identify their Core Desired Feelings, or CDFs. These are what you want to feel regularly in your life and can include everything from happy to sexy to wealthy to inspired - pretty much anything you can think of.
So I considered my own CDFs, and came up with a list that included happy, abundant, safe, debt-free, creative, loved and loving, and a range of other words. But the one that really stood out to me was generosity.
I've always considered myself a reasonably generous person. I enjoy buying gifts for people I love, I like doing things to brighten their day, and am usually happy to help a friend in need, whether that's with money or time or some other type of assistance. One thing I don't ever want to be considered is miserly.
But this past spring and early summer, I started to feel...well, like a miser. Not only when it came to money, but when it came to my time, patience, empathy, compassion. I found myself getting impatient with people, and with myself. And I stressed out more when lending people money, or covering a dinner here and there.
To put this in context, my year got off to a pretty rough financial start. I was robbed on New Year's Day, and had to spend money I had saved to cover my living expenses replacing some of what I had lost.
So that sucked. But it wasn't the end of the world. I knew I'd get back on my feet and that the whole episode would just be a good story.
But getting back on my feet was harder than I thought it would be, and I started to feel badly about myself. I kind of got stuck in a rut when it came to work and my finances, and those negative feelings made me crabby about other things more often than I would have liked. I was aggravated that I felt I always had to monitor my bank account, annoyed with myself for not making more money faster, and then even more annoyed with myself for not doing something to stem the tide of frustration I was feeling in general. This was all exacerbated by the fact that I was trying to decide where in the world to move next and what I wanted to do creatively - which are really exciting decisions to make, by the way. But I was blinded by my crabbiness and negativity and saw all these opportunities for growth as added stressors.
I really wanted that outlook to change. The negative thought spiral was hampering my creativity and drive, and I'm smart enough to know that you have to step out of that cycle and get some perspective in order to move forward.
So one afternoon, I took myself to lunch and went shopping for art supplies, deciding I'd try a new creative outlet. I read some of "The Desire Map" during lunch, and found that one passage in particular really resonated with me.
LaPorte wrote, "In the toughest of moments, what makes me feel better is thinking about my core desired feelings." Instead of staying stuck in a negative thought pattern, she reflects on the way she would prefer to feel in that moment. This helps her make choices that will bring on those feelings, rather than just bitching about how bad things are.
I loved this idea. I like to think I'm generally a happy person, but I have been known to latch onto a bad mood or a grudge, sit down in it and refuse to move for long past the sulking expiration date.
I decided to try LaPorte's tactic that afternoon. Rather than stress out about the cost of my lunch, I thought, "I desire feelings of generosity and gratitude, and a sense of abundance." I didn't want to be miserly with myself, or with other people. I wanted to do good things for myself, and feel positively about that, not go stare at the numbers in my bank account and raise my blood pressure by berating myself for spending $5 on lunch.
Armed with this consciousness of my desires, I set off to finish up some last-minute errands. It was hot and I was tired after eating, and annoyed that I couldn't easily locate the local post office. But I was determined to not get cranky. For every negative thought: "It's hot out", "I have work to do and this is taking forever", "Who insists on mailing hard copies of documents anyway?", I recognized those complaints but then countered with some gratitude. "I'm grateful I'm healthy enough to walk around and run these errands without assistance", "There's plenty of time to get things done today; I'm not on deadline"; "I'm excited to be working with this new client, so it's a positive that I need to go to the post office at all."
Surprisingly, this actually helped. And the more I was able to shift my mood, the more goodness I began to notice. I was grateful for the generosity of the cashier at 7-11, who not only gave me directions to the post office but walked me there herself and translated my request to the clerk who mailed the documents. I found myself feeling increasingly grateful to be in Chiang Mai at all, and reflecting on the many times people in the city had shown me kindness and generosity, even though they didn't know me.
When I arrived home to the guest house where I'm living later that afternoon, I found several friends and fellow residents gathered around a table on the porch, sharing food. They invited me to join them and before I knew it, I had a full plate of food, a glass of whiskey and a shot of some other type of alcohol that had been fermenting for a year and had just been opened by one of the guest house owners. He and one of the other men encouraged everyone to eat and drink, making sure we all had enough or did not go wanting.
Here, I thought, are abundance, generosity and so many things to be grateful for.
For the first time in awhile, I made myself sit down and relax and socialize in the middle of the afternoon, rather than rush to my room to get back to work. I enjoyed the food and the company and the warm, breezy weather. And I allowed myself to really reflect on all I had to be grateful for, and be thankful that I was in Thailand, among friends, surrounded by people who were willing to give and share what they had.
And I considered all of the people I have had the opportunity to meet this past year, all of the strangers who have shown me kindnesses, and the friends who have been generous with their time and patience, and with sharing their own stories with me. I'm not saying money isn't important or isn't helpful, but I think it's easy during lean months to get caught in a web of scarcity and forget that abundance and generosity aren't only the products of financial wealth.
I've been trying to be more conscious of when my thoughts and feelings turn toward annoyance, frustration, impatience and this overall sense of being in scarcity mode. And I try to shift out of that now by doing something for someone else, or treating myself to a massage or just thinking about what I could be grateful for in the situation. It usually does help and has made me appreciate all the positives in my life, rather than living in the negatives.
While working on this series of posts about spending the past year in Chiang Mai, I thought it might be useful to write about the city itself and what makes it so appealing for the many ex-pats and travelers who make it their temporary, and in some cases permanent, home.
If you've ever lived in a major city, such as New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Seoul, Sydney, or many other metropolises, Chiang Mai seems more a large town than an urban center. Once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai still bears the ruins of its ancient past.
A red brick fortification, albeit a somewhat dilapidated one, still rings the old city. The faded spires of old wats, or temples, peek over the roofs of guesthouses and busy streets choked with traffic from motorbikes and songthaew taxis. Chiang Mai is also the place to be when celebrating important Buddhist festivals, such as Yi Peng the lantern festival, and Songkran, the massive water fight that marks the Buddhist New Year.
Chiang Mai draws an eclectic crowd that includes backpackers, teachers, NGO workers, yoga instructors, would-be masseurs and masseuses, and online entrepreneurs. Western influence is evident in the shopping malls and variety of international restaurants throughout the city, but Chiang Mai has a heart and culture that is distinctly Thai.
As many who have lived here will tell you, it's a great place to write a novel, start an online business, take a massage course or simply allow yourself to be. And as many, myself included, can attest to, it's also a place that sucks you in and holds you far longer than you ever intended to be here.
Chiang Mai offers much in the way of things to do, but the people are what make this place feel like home. There is a generosity of spirit here that I have rarely experienced anywhere else, with the possible exception of Bohol, in the Philippines. The husband and wife who run the guesthouse where I live are two of the kindest people I've ever met, and their care for everyone living here has created what one friend and fellow resident described as a “little dysfunctional family”. They look out for us when we’re sick, offer us whatever food and drink they have, check in to make sure everyone got home safely after a night out, and keep (playful, not intrusive) tabs on our love lives.
Everyone has stories about the kindness of the locals in northern Thailand. That's not to say that such kindness doesn't happen in the islands down South. I'm sure it does, but I have only been to tourism-heavy islands where the relationship between local business owners and tourists was more antagonistic. I felt I had to be more on my guard about not getting ripped off, especially on Koh Phangan. Read my post on spending the holidays on Koh Phangan and you’ll see why my sense of caution was justified.
This sense of antagonism seems to be a product of a vicious cycle in which obnoxious and disrespectful tourists are rude to local people (I've witnessed some genuinely embarrassing interactions), and local business owners such as taxi drivers blatantly overcharge tourists, simply because they can. So as beautiful as the islands are, I strongly prefer the North. Which is stunningly beautiful in its own way.
Traveling Northern Thailand
Chiang Mai serves as a convenient gateway to this part of the country, as it is the largest and most well-known city in the North. From here, you can get to Chiang Rai, close to the Burma border; Pai, a backpacker paradise, and a number of other lovely but less popular towns and getaway spots.
I can be hyperbolic in my descriptions but I am sincere when I say that the landscapes of Northern Thailand are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. On bus rides to and from Chiang Rai, I found myself unable to tear my gaze away from the green fields and mountains. Having now been here nearly a year, I feel I'm spoiled but still try to appreciate the scenery whenever I get outside the city.
The area immediately surrounding Chiang Mai is like a treasure trove of amazing places, such as Bua Thong, or the Sticky Waterfalls. Despite water cascading down on you, the limestone that makes up the rocks is sticky enough that you can actually walk up the waterfall.
It seems totally counterintuitive to go climbing up a waterfall but there you have it. Naturally, being the very un-outdoorsy person that I am, I still managed to slip on a moss covered rock at the base of one of the falls but successfully navigated my way back up.
Then there are the floating houses at Mae Ngat Dam, where you can spend a night in a hut built on the water, or Huay Tung Tao, the popular lake just outside the city. The views of the sun-kissed mountains at both of these places are surely what people have in mind when they think “serenity”.
Cost of living
This certainly has played a factor in my willingness to stick around Chiang Mai as long as I have. I was lucky to have been in Thailand when I got robbed on New Year’s Day, because I knew I could stay in Chiang Mai and survive my personal economic recovery thanks to the low costs for essentials such as rent, food and occasional medical care.
Rent varies depending on where you live in the city, but I currently pay about $220 a month for a furnished room that is essentially a private studio. I have a spacious living area, queen-sized bed, private bathroom and shared balcony. That $220 includes all my utilities: water, electricity, fast and reliable wifi. And I can get my clothes laundered right downstairs for $1 a kilo. Not bad.
When it comes to food, meals run the gamut from street food to pricier Western meals - and when I say pricey, I'm talking $6-7 for a decent platter of ribs or a gourmet pizza.
There are street food markets every night of the week where you can buy delicious meals for $1 a serving. My favorite is from a stand at the Chiang Mai Gate market, where a surly woman serves up one hell of a pad kra pow, ground pork and basil over rice. Most street food meals, such as soups, curries and stir fries are about $1 a dish, and the prices don't get much steeper than that. And then there are the fresh fruit shakes and smoothies, the best of which is also found at the Chiang Mai Gate Market from Mrs. Pa, for a whopping $0.64.
Booze is probably the biggest entertainment expense and even that isn't expensive when you consider beer prices in many American, European or Australian cities. A large domestic beer costs between $1-3, getting up to about $6 for a good imported beer.
Most people go in on bottle service with their friends, which sounds all kinds of glam and high-end until you learn what “bottle service” means in Thailand. You typically get a bottle of Sangsom, a brand of Thai whiskey, served with a couple of Cokes and two bottles of soda water as your mixers. All of this usually costs about $12 for the set.
For the record, I usually compare Thai prices with the U.S. prices I was familiar with before moving abroad. I had been living in New York City and Washington, D.C., so the prices here seem almost laughably low compared to living in both of those cities. One month of my rent in D.C. would cover about four months here. And I pay more than a lot of people do in order to live in the Old City. If you look outside the moat area, rent drops significantly even for beautiful, multi-story homes. One friend who used to live here rented a five-story home with two other guys, so each had his own floor, with plenty of space for entertaining. Total monthly rent? $500.
Another perk is the affordable health care situation here. A friend of mine was hospitalized overnight for a stomach infection and paid less than $500 total for a private room, round-the-clock care, and all his IV drips, antibiotics and other medications. That was all completely out of pocket.
The pharmacy around the corner from where I live sells a decent range of birth control pills, including my preferred Canadian brand for $1.68 a pack. That's right. Birth control costs me less than $2 a month. I think I was paying $20 per month as a co-pay when I was living in the States. Other occasional necessities, such as paracetamol, anti-anxiety meds, muscle relaxers, inhalers, vitamins, and antibiotics are also extremely affordable. I don't think I've ever paid more than $6 for any of them.
None of this is to advocate not having insurance or to say that the care and standards here are equal to those in the States. In many cases, they are not. The hospital my friend went to is a highly recommended and American-accredited hospital in the city, but the small, rural hospital I went to on Koh Phangan was pretty primitive.
Sure, it only cost me $400 total for two nights in a private room, the costs of my IVs and medicines, but I would have gladly paid more for better care, as the staff seemed barely competent at best (things like feeding me greasy pork dishes while I had a stomach infection, and not knowing when it was time to change my IV bag didn't inspire much confidence). But it is nice to know that you can afford health care and medical supplies if you need it, and even if you're broke and can't afford insurance at the time.
Travel within Thailand is also extremely cheap. A bus ticket to Pai, a great little town three hours north of Chiang Mai, costs about $5 one-way during the off-season. A train ticket for an air-conditioned sleeper car for the 13-hour journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok is about $26. I'm pretty sure I've paid triple that for the three-hour journey between Wilmington, Delaware and Washington, D.C. on Amtrak.
Obviously, you get what you pay for. Cheap travel can be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking when you see how keen the drivers are to speed around tight mountain curves, and there are legitimate concerns about the level of cleanliness and maintenance at a budget hostel. But it is great if your priority is stretching your travel savings as far as it will go, or are in the process of a career/life change and aren't flush with cash, or are starting a business and trying to limit personal expenses.
Growth in progress
I was thinking the other day about how grateful I am to be in Asia right now, and have the opportunity to see cities changing and developing before my eyes. I often felt that way in Beijing, where neighborhoods seemed to shift overnight and the constant openings of new bars, restaurants, malls and shops gave the city an air of chaos and excitement.
I feel similarly about Chiang Mai, and am so thankful to be here when so much change is happening in this part of the world. There is so much opportunity here, yet the city has to this point retained its distinction and charm. I'm sure it will look very different in five or 10 years so I'm glad I'm having the chance to see it now, while it's still in flux.
Thanks to Mika Darja Machalek for the Sticky Waterfalls photo.
Read the first post in the Unexpected Year in Thailand series here.
The day I decided to return to Chiang Mai last summer didn't start on a high note. In fact, it was one of the lowest days I had had in the past couple of months, and that was saying something. I woke up around 11 a.m., exhausted as I had been when I went to sleep the night before and with a dark mood festering before I even got out of bed. My body ached with the effort it took to sit at my desk and work for a few hours. The pall of numbness with which I was becoming all too familiar had enveloped me by lunchtime and breaking through it felt like too great a feat to even attempt.
While making a decadent grilled blue cheese and olive oil sandwich I thought might cheer me up, I noticed a few bottles of wine leftover from the housewarming party my roommates and I had thrown a couple of weeks before. I wasn't necessarily fiending for a glass of wine at 1 p.m., but it occurred to me that wine usually brings out some kind of emotion in me, whether happy or sad. Perhaps if I got a little drunk, I could at least feel something. Lying in bed crying all day would have been preferable to this nothingness.
I sat back down at my desk and drank a few glasses of wine, waiting for rage or sadness or even an unlikely jolt of happiness to break through the malaise. I finished the bottle and crawled back under the covers.
Nothing. Still fucking nothing.
A few weeks earlier, I had finally confronted the fact that I was likely depressed, and that my life was in need of some major changes. On the surface, all was well - living overseas, career as a freelance writer, surrounded by good friends, lots of opportunity. But inside, I felt like my soul was being crushed slowly but steadily under the weight of cement blocks.
The intense feelings of despair, exhaustion, lack of direction and interest in certain parts of my life and general emotional chaos had been coming in increasingly large and long-lasting waves since sometime in May, but I refused to deal with it at first. Too many other priorities, too many deadlines, too many places to be, people to please.
One afternoon, I was editing some writing for a client named Noch Noch Li, who has written extensively about her experience with depression. I was reading over a passage about the symptoms of depression when something clicked. Headaches, lack of interest and motivation ... It all sounded too familiar. A cold sweat washed over me as I finally let my focus settle on one thought: “I'm depressed.”
The irony was that I had been working with Enoch for months at this point, and while I greatly admired her courage and strength in sharing her story, it never occurred to me that perhaps her work resonated with me for a deeper reason.
I realized then that this was not the first time I had gone through depression. Once I allowed myself to say the words out loud, I could clearly see the other times in my life when my internal world was screaming out for my attention and I refused to pause and give myself what I needed.
My first semester at grad school had long been a source of shame because I had dreamed of getting into Columbia Journalism School for years, and then felt I had let myself down entirely when I started to spiral into a place of darkness, discontent, and poor health. People would ask about my time in journalism school and my first instinct, rather than be proud of my accomplishments and the writing I had done there, was to rattle off some quick response while internally reciting a litany of perceived failures: I didn't network enough, I didn’t challenge myself enough, I didn't pursue more interesting stories, I didn’t spend enough time enjoying New York, I should have spent more time in Brooklyn, I gained too much weight, I didn't go on any dates. I recently reread some old emails sent to a college friend at the time, and see now that I was in a pretty rough state emotionally, and should be proud that I accomplished anything at all during those months.
The same happened a couple of years later, when I was living in Washington, D.C. On the surface, everything was great - good job, lots of opportunities, living in a beautiful house, close to college friends. But I spent entire weekends sprawled on the mattress in my basement bedroom, ordering Domino's takeout in my robe because I just could not muster enough energy or interest to leave the house on my days off.
And here I was again, longing only for the comfort of my bed, where I could sleep for hours on end and check out from the world.
When I realized things were off track in Beijing, I felt ashamed that I had gotten to this point again. Shouldn't I know better? I had worked with a therapist, valued self-work and personal growth, had invested hours and hours of my life in improving myself ... and I was depressed?! How mortifying.
Part of my emotional journey this past year has been to pause and gently shift gears when the shame and negativity spiral kicks in. I've learned how deeply parts of me fear negative judgement from other people, and dread the idea of being perceived as a “failure.” On some level, I thought if anyone knew I was depressed, they'd think I was a fraud, a poser, who didn't really understand or value self-knowledge, or who had burned out, wasted years of my life, become a loser.
I know this is harsh self-talk. I know it. I would never talk this way to someone else. But that's been another part of the process: learning to treat myself at least as gently as I'd treat someone else, and learning to compassionately unpack the negativity one fear and false belief at a time.
The day I realized I was probably going through depression in Beijing, I knew I wanted things to be different this time around. They had to be different. I had tools now, resources. I knew how to take care of myself, could see the changes that needed to be made. I was scared as hell but I vowed that I'd get through this and come through stronger on the other side.
After I finished working, that is. After this month’s client projects were wrapped up. After the party I planned to attend on Saturday night. After I had pitched another story, edited another page, scheduled one more date, one more lunch, one more interview.
I’d tell myself that the important thing was that I was aware that I was struggling, and aware that I needed a break. I'd take one. Eventually.
So looking back, it's really not a huge surprise that a few weeks later, I was still struggling to get out of bed, still seeing my future through a fog of gloom, still feeling like I was just barely keeping my head above water.
The tears refused to come that afternoon in spite of my best attempts at a wine soaked breakdown. But they came later that night, when I (soberly) started hysterically crying, finally admitting how scared and lost I felt, and finally able to say “Something's gotta give” and mean it. Drinking wine with lunch in order to feel something was not how I wanted to cope with my problems. I knew better than that, deserved better than that.
That's when I decided to get a change of scenery, slow things down for a bit. And I felt positively giddy about doing that in Chiang Mai. In addition to the slower pace, I looked forward to traveling again, which always brightens my spirits.
It's funny, the things that happen when you finally start listening to what your body, your moods and your emotions are telling you. When you finally stop pushing the most important things to the back burner and being honest with yourself. I wasn't immediately spry and chipper again after booking my flight to Thailand, but I felt more relaxed, more optimistic. I was taking steps toward helping myself. Things would get better.
At the time, I kind of thought that two months would be enough - I'd go to Chiang Mai, relax, write, journal, and come back to Beijing with a new outlook on life and a brand new approach to work. All would be well.
The thing is, my ability to work hard and achieve was never the problem. I had always worked hard. I can hustle. There has never been a major goal I’ve set for myself that I did not achieve. Which is great. And I love that about myself.
The problem was that I had long neglected certain parts of my inner world. Long-held, intense fears about failure, loneliness, shame, humiliation. Those don't go away overnight after a few good crying jags. And neither do ingrained habits, like working all the time, taking on assignments that don't yield that much in the way of pride or financial benefit simply because you can't conceive of not working, ignoring your own preferences and priorities because you think it's what you should do for someone else’s benefit.
These things take time to understand and change, and require consistent attention to and compassion for yourself as you move toward a healthier place.
And I knew that, on some level, when I started down this new road on my personal growth journey last summer. But that didn't stop me from falling down many more times and learning it over and over again during this past year.
My one-year anniversary of living in Thailand is coming up at the end of July, and while reflecting on the past 12 months, I decided to write a series of posts on this most unexpected year in my life. When I flew to Thailand last July, I planned to stay two months. I wanted to heal from burn out, ease back some of my work commitments so I could take care of myself mentally and physically and work on creative projects I had set on the back burner for some time.
I knew I needed a break back then, but I didn't know how badly I needed it, or the extent to which some serious emotional healing needed to happen. I expected to return to Beijing by the end of September 2012 and more or less resume life as it had been when I left.
I ended up staying in Thailand for a number of reasons, all of which I will cover in forthcoming blog posts, but wanted to say a few words of introduction to this series of musings.
The past year has been one of the most beautiful, difficult, emotional, messy, exciting, maddening, and rich I have lived so far.
As I wrote in a post last summer, I initially left Beijing for a couple of months because I was burned out. I love Beijing, and fully intend to return at some point. But last summer, I just needed a break.
I was working to the point of exhaustion most of the time, often on things that didn't mean much to me. With the exception of a few projects, I didn't feel I was building a body of work that I could be proud of. I started to feel ashamed and unhappy, angry at myself for what I perceived to be a squandering of the opportunities and experiences I had had in the past.
My personal relationships were also in flux. Some relationships became strained, while others were strengthened. It took me a long time to realize how deeply those shifts affected me and contributed to my endless feelings of exhaustion.
There was a lot of good in my life at the time, but sometimes I just felt like I was drowning. I was often sad and angry, but more than anything else, I was just so damn tired. No matter how much sleep I got, I was always exhausted. Things that once seemed appealing now seemed either altogether uninteresting or simply too much effort to even conceive of doing.
I had been in Thailand earlier in the year and wanted to spend more time in Chiang Mai, so that seemed an obvious place to go for a change of scenery The city is small, and manages to be both lively and relaxed, which seemed a good mix for me under the circumstances. It's a place that attracts those who are trying to "find themselves" or are making big changes in their lives, and the idea that I'd be around other people trying to figure some things out appealed to me. The cost of living is generally significantly cheaper in Chiang Mai than in Beijing, so that also made it seem a good choice of place to stay while I wouldn't be working as much.
Despite an exercise in extreme travel frustration when it came time to leave Beijing, I arrived in Thailand at the end of July and knew immediately that I was right to have come. What the subsequent 12 months have brought me has been unexpected and wonderful, and I will treasure the time I have spent here for many years to come.
When I decided to write something about this upcoming anniversary, I quickly realized that a single post wouldn't do. So I decided to write this series, which is not only about Thailand, but about friendship, depression, doubt, self-care, travel and growing up.
The topics of these posts have been bouncing around in my mind for awhile, but I couldn't bring myself to write them until now. I'm so grateful for all I've had and experienced and shared this past year, and hope that by writing about it, I'll come to appreciate and learn from it all even more. And if anyone reading these posts relates to some of what I've felt and been through, so much the better.
To read the posts in the Unexpected Year in Thailand series, click here:
Back in May, I had the opportunity to visit Chai Lai Orchid, a small resort in Mae Wang, in the mountains outside Chiang Mai.
I had heard interesting things about the resort, which is run by an American woman and employs at-risk members of local hill tribe communities. Many of these employees are women who, due to economic circumstances, were at high risk for being trafficked.
The people of the ethnic minority groups that make up northern Thailand's hill tribes face a precarious situation in this country. Even if they are born in Thailand, they are not considered Thai citizens and therefore are not entitled to the same rights, protections and opportunities afforded ethnic and natural-born Thais. In many cases, this leaves them ripe for exploitation, an all-too-common situation for disenfranchised groups in this part of the world.
These ethnic minorities have rich and in many ways self-sustaining cultures and environments, and I have had the privilege of getting to visit a few. My experiences have been but a glimpse of what the villagers’ lives are like, but they've moved me all the same.
Last fall, I spent a short amount of time in a Lahu village, where I was struck by the beauty and generosity of the children living there but also by the abject poverty in which many of them live. I later visited a Karen village and had a chance to observe stunning women wearing traditional Karen clothing, men weaving bamboo baskets and preparing freshly harvested coffee beans, and get some sense of life in the village.
I am eager to learn much more about the political and cultural background of these tribes, and so was intrigued when I learned about Chai Lai Orchid’s mission.
I spent only one night and two days there, but the experience was both uplifting and jarring. The resort itself consists of several cozy and elegant bungalows built in a clearing on a mountain. These overlook the Mae Wang River, and the resort sits directly across from an elephant camp, which means that you can enjoy your morning tea while gazing at elephants or listening to the river run by.
The staff are friendly and attentive, and it's just overall the kind of place you want to escape to for awhile. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was offered free accommodation for a night at one of CLO’s bungalows, and wrote about the resort for Travel Wire Asia. The positive review was not a condition of the free accommodations; my opinion of this place is genuine.)
While I enjoyed all of this, I wasn't at Chai Lai Orchid to enjoy the view. I was there to interview Alex Pham, the resort’s founder.
Pham is from the United States but relocated to Thailand to commit herself to combating human trafficking and helping women here. She has long been involved in anti-trafficking work, but wanted to be involved at the ground level and decided to open a resort where she could help women develop job skills that might keep them off the streets or being exploited.
“It's great to be here and see the girls and guys here getting stronger and to be able to do more preventative work,” Pham says.
The women who work at Chai Lai Orchid go through a training program, spending about three months a piece in different departments, such as cooking, accounting, housekeeping, and working in the resort cafe. Pham also teaches English classes, in the hope they will develop a skill set that qualifies them for a range of jobs if they decide they want to move out of the villages.
None of the current employees are victims of trafficking, but live in communities where there is a risk for that. Pham said she hopes to eventually be able to employ women who want to leave the sex trade but said she does not yet have sufficient resources to make that a viable option for them (such as offering counseling treatment).
Pham recently hired a mahout, or elephant trainer, from the nearby camp. She invited him over to join us while we talked, and Ning, her Thai business partner, translated for me.
We sat and drank a couple of beers and I learned that this man, whose back is covered in traditional Shan tattoos, is originally from Shan State in Burma and was once a child soldier in the Shan army. Like other ethnic minorities in Burma, the Shan have long faced violence and aggression from the government.
As has increasingly become the case since I started traveling in Southeast Asia, I found the contradictions in this part of the world staggering. Here I was enjoying a couple of cold Changs in a beautiful mountain resort while talking with someone who has faced challenges in his life that I can never fully understand. The women surrounding me grew up in a community that gave them no incentive to pursue an education or life outside the village, and have essentially become trailblazers for their villages. And here was Alexa, who has centered her life around the work she does at Chai Lai Orchid and in the surrounding areas.
Pham also does sexual education outreach in the villages, teaching people to use condoms and offering free and discreet HIV tests to anyone who requests one. She has a strict policy that any employee who gossips about someone who takes the test will be fired. Not only would it be invasive and insensitive, but the stigma could ruin someone’s life whether they were HIV positive or not.
Pham is only a couple of years older than I am, and I was humbled to hear how much she has been able to do for these women and how much she has overcome to make Chai Lai Orchid a success. The resort has not yet been open a year, yet she has had to grapple with a former business partner who ripped her off badly (and never disclosed to her that he once facilitated the trafficking of women), cultural politics, and corrupt police.
But she has also clearly developed a strong bond with the women and men she works with, and her passion for her work is clear.
Chai Lai Orchid isn't the biggest or most elaborate resort you will find in this country, by a long shot. But the people who work here and the mission behind it (not to mention the quality service and gorgeous surroundings) make it so worth visiting. Everyone there left a lasting impression on me and made me aware of how many people in this country, and this region, fall through the cracks of society and are at risk for being exploited and abused in horrifying ways. My visit there reminded me of this darker side of Thailand, while also reminding me of the astounding beauty, warmth and generosity of the people who live here.
Pham invites volunteers who want to teach English or work with the local community to get in touch with her. If anyone in the States wants to donate or help Alexa’s cause, she welcomes donations of Oraquick tests, over-the-counter home-use oral HIV tests that are available in the United States.
The Buddhist New Year festival, Songkran, was celebrated in Thailand this past weekend. It's the biggest festival of the year and the celebrations go on for at least three days. These celebrations are not your average holiday festivities, however. Songkran is a massive, multi-day, city-wide water fight. Everyone buys water guns and buckets and plays outside for three days, the only goal being to soak everyone who passes you as much as humanly possible. It's quite possibly the greatest holiday in the world.
Friends who had been in Chiang Mai for the holiday before had been telling stories for months, getting the Songkran newbs pumped for what promised to be the most epic waterfight we had ever seen.
I marveled at the stories; I watched the videos; I saw the pictures. I was not prepared for all that is Songkran.
The day before the holiday officially began, people were already lining the streets with Super Soaker knock-offs, PVC pipe syringes, buckets and hoses, ready to take down anyone who crossed their paths. Street vendors lined Chiang Mai's famous moat selling sausages, sweet corn, spring rolls, water and beer.
My friends and I donned t-shirts we had made for our crew, the Songlorious Basterds, and spent a wonderful pre-Songkran afternoon eating home cooked Thai food and drinking Sangsom, a sweet Thai whiskey, in between bouts of unleashing hell on every passerby who dared walk past our guest house.
Already, the holiday was off to a glorious start. But even that didn't prepare me for the real deal.
In some ways, words fail me when I try to describe Songkran. On the first full day of the festival, we took to the streets and found the best party you could ever imagine: an entire city playing, eating, drinking and dancing in the sunshine. It's absolute mayhem and you can't walk two feet without getting soaked to the bone. There's no place for vanity or reservation. You simply jump into the fray and enjoy.
Celebrating Songkran in Chiang Mai was, without exggeration, one of the most wonderful experiences I have had since moving overseas. There were many times when I couldn't stop smiling from the sheer joy I felt at being there, and being surrounded by friends and a city full of people in celebration.
There were countless instances and interactions that made me smile or laugh out loud: getting covered with foam and dancing in front of Thapae Gate, having children smear talc on my face to stave off the heat, being beckoned by a laughing old woman eager to throw her bucket of freezing water on me. But I will never forget the way I felt on the first day of Songkran.
The water symbolizes a time of cleanse and renewal at the start of the new year, which is why it factors so prominently into the celebrations. On Saturday afternoon, the first day of the festival, rain clouds rolled over the steaming hot and already drenched city. People had been in the streets all day, blasting each other with water guns, dumping buckets of ice water on each other's heads, clinking cans of warm Chang beer in a toast to the new year. But then the sky opened up, punctuating what had already been a perfect day.
If I was Buddhist, or religious in any way, I would have taken the rain as a sign from God that the coming year was a blessed one. Instead, I stood there in the middle of the street, arms wrapped around my friends as we laughed and hugged one another and I was grateful that I, and they, are alive.
That's the kind of celebration Songkran is. The generosity of spirit, the abundance of people and food and drink and water and music - it makes you happy to be alive. And when you're dancing to Bruce Springsteen in the middle of a reggae bar, sopping wet and surrounded by people who are just so damn happy they could burst, you can't help but love them.
And when you start teaming up with Thai kids to attack trucks full of people with squirt guns and buckets, and see groups of strangers helping a drunk old man who's done a little too much celebrating for the afternoon, you can't help but really like human beings as a species. And when you watch a little girl celebrate her first Songkran with shrieks of delight and demands to be doused in water, you want to cry a little out of happiness because it's moments like those that make you think that maybe humanity does deserve to exist.
Songkran is the sort of holiday that helps you continue to believe that people are good, even when you wake up the morning after it to the news that people were murdered and maimed at the Boston marathon and that 55 others were killed in Iraq on the same day. Yesterday morning, when I read about this wave of horrors, I held on to the memory of Songkran. Seeing people in such a pure, happy state, in a communal moment of joy, sharing and celebration ... I have to keep that in mind in the face of senseless tragedy, and believe that decency will eventually triumph.
A young man sat at the desk of the COPE Centre in Vientiane, Laos, working at his laptop. He went by the name of Peter Kim, which was embroidered on his t-shirt. He had a slight build, shiny black hair styled into a bowl cut, and brown eyes.
Peter went about his work, shuffling through his backpack, plugging a USB stick into his laptop, discussing business with a member of the COPE Centre staff. He looked for all the world like any other young Laotian guy.
Except that Peter had no hands. And he was blind.
Peter, whose given name is Phonsavath Souliyalat, was 16 when he suffered the tragic accident that left him blind and maimed.
"My friend and I went for a walk one day, and we were playing," Peter told me. "My friend picked up a bombie. He didn't know what it was and he threw it to me. It exploded and I lost my eyes and my hands."
The "bombie" Peter referred to was a cluster sub-munition that had been dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. It and millions of others failed to explode on impact, rendering large swaths of the landscape extremely dangerous.
Peter's left arm ends just below his wrist; his right a few inches below the elbow. Scars from the explosion mark his face.
Peter recounted this gruesome tragedy to me in a matter-of-fact voice, then hurried on to tell me that he had taught himself English in the three years since his accident. He also described his advocacy work with the Ban Advocates, an activist group that pushes governments to ban the use of cluster munitions like the one that robbed Peter of his hands and sight. He seemed eager to move on from his injuries and focus on what he had achieved since the explosion. Peter was proud to tell me that he had met former United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her visit to Laos.
Then Peter asked where I'm from.
"The United States," I responded, cringing.
His face lit up. "Oh, the United States! I like it there. I want to go there someday."
Having spent the last hour and a half learning about the ways in which the United States government had destroyed the lives of millions of people in Laos, I couldn't fathom why. I'm not the type of person who feels guilt for the misdeeds of my country's government, but I was baffled nonetheless that Peter spoke so cheerfully about America, without a trace of (rightful) hate in his heart.
The UXO legacy
Peter Kim is one of thousands of Laotians who have been maimed or killed by unexploded ordinances (UXO) left over from the United States' air campaign against communist forces in Laos during the Vietnam War. Between 1964-1973, the United States Air Force dropped 260 million sub-munitions from cluster bombs, known locally as bombies, on what is now the Laos People's Democratic Republic. Thirty percent of those did not explode on impact, littering the Laos countryside with literal time bombs that continued to detonate in the three decades since the war ended.
According to the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action Center in Laos PDR (UXO-NRA), roughly 50,000 people were injured or killed in UXO incidents between 1964-2008. Three hundred are maimed or killed annually.
There are several types of UXO in Laos, the most prominent of which are cluster bombs. These devices are dropped from planes and detonate in mid-air, spraying dozens to thousands of bomblets across an area. They are highly effective at decimating a region, causing widespread casualties and lasting financial and psychological ruin, especially in a poor country such as Laos.
The COPE Centre in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, houses a small but powerful exhibit educating visitors about the UXO problem and the lasting traumas the bombing campaign wreaked on this impoverished country. The centre is run by COPE Laos, a not-for-profit organization that provides free prosthetics and therapy for those who need them. Their patients include children who were born missing limbs or with medical conditions such as club feet, and people who have lost extremities due to leprosy. Thirty percent of COPE's patients were maimed or disabled by UXO.
The COPE Centre exhibit highlights the UXO issue, a problem exacerbated by the country's poverty. One display involves a collection of prosthetic legs that were gathered from locals. These are makeshift pieces, cobbled together out of scrap metal and wood. COPE provides quality prosthetics and rehabilitative therapy to those who would otherwise spend their lives limping along with these unsanitary and unsafe false limbs.
Elsewhere in the exhibit is a replica of a typical Laotian hut, where the audio to a BBC documentary plays, providing the chilling backdrop to what is seen in the museum.
"This incident is part of the deadly legacy of the Indochina War, which continues to haunt the people of Laos..."
Visitors can watch an interview with two parents whose son died from sub-munition injuries in 2004. The boy, Hamm, was nine years old when he was killed. He and a friend followed a group of scrap metal collectors working outside their village, picking up pieces that were discarded by the adults. Unable to tell the difference between scraps that were safe for carrying and those that were explosive, Hamm picked up a live one that ripped his body apart.
Hamm's parents were summoned and found their son gravely wounded, but not dead. They hired a driver who took them from hospital to hospital, none of which had supplies of blood and oxygen. Eventually, the driver told them he did not want the boy to die in his car for fear of the death bringing evil spirits, and Hamm was taken home to die.
A deadly legacy
There are countless stories like Hamm's, and like Peter's. Scrap metal is a precious commodity and can bring in desperately needed money for rural families. Collecting it, however, means that men, women and children are going into areas that could very well contain explosives that will go off when disturbed.
Because so much of the land remains contaminated, once thriving farming communities are unable to work large portions of it, contributing to a vicious cycle of poverty.
Before that moment, I had never before consciously felt embarrassed to tell someone I'm American. I'm not one to take ownership of the behavior of the American government, or make apologies for "my country." But I felt embarrassed nonetheless. I had had no idea about the atrocities committed in Laos, and could not recall ever having learned much, if anything, about this country before arriving in Asia. The idea of being even remotely associated with any of the horrors that continue to be visited upon the innocent people of Laos made my stomach turn.
Efforts to clear Laos' landscape of UXO continue to this day, and the work is slow-going and dangerous. All 17 provinces were hit, and a third of the land is thought to be contaminated.
Though Peter's optimism and the COPE Centre's commitment to providing health aid to those who need it were inspiring, I left the effort feeling helpless and enraged. I thought not only of the thousands killed during the actual U.S. campaign in Laos while it was in progress, but also of the thousands who have died needlessly since. How could someone like Peter reconcile himself to the fact that he lost his eyesight and his hands because of a bomb that was dropped on his country before he was even born?
Whenever I visit places like this, I try to take something positive from it - inspiration from people who have overcome adversity, are able to rebuild their lives from tragedy, do something in the service of humanity. But this time, I couldn't muster it. I did admire Peter and COPE's work but all I felt was disgust and despair because the same kind of tragedies and war crimes are being visited upon other people in other countries all the time, to this day, always with someone's justification.
All photos in this post were taken by Will Moyer and reflect the natural beauty of Koh Phangan, as opposed to the side of the island described in this blog post
6 a.m., January 1, 2013
"Bao, there are two people fucking on your front lawn."
The four of us gathered in the doorway of Bao's ramshackle bar and indeed, there beneath a gnarled tree, were two people having sex.
"Time to get a room, guys," Bao yelled. "This is my home. You can't do this thing here."
The man, a blond Brit wearing a bright orange singlet, grinned and waved. The woman, a Brit wearing nothing more than a pink bikini top tied loosely under her fully exposed breasts and a patch of mud smeared across her lower back, didn't even break her rhythm.
Bao laughed. "They're happy. Let them go."
Of course there were two drunks fucking at 6 a.m. in front of the bar.
It was the only appropriate ending to the night. To the whole vacation, really.
Prelude to misadventure
I spent Christmas and New Year's Eve of 2012 on Koh Phangan, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. I was with six friends: Will, Ruby, Hilary, Rob, Suzanne and Katz.
We had chosen Koh Phangan as our holiday destination mostly to go to the Full Moon Party for which the island is famous. The Full Moon Party is a massive festival of debauchery involving tens of thousands of people, lots of cheap booze, drugs, sex and overall mayhem. I had been on the fence about wanting to go to a Full Moon Party ever in my life, but I figured that if I'm going to be in Thailand for half a year, I might as well go see what it's all about.
The plan was to spend the first half of the trip on Srithanu, a quiet beach on the northwestern part of the island. We figured that we would be far enough removed from Haad Rin, where the Full Moon Party is held, to get in some relaxing beach time before the madness. We were looking forward to uninterrupted days of swimming, sipping cold beers in our beachfront hammocks, getting massages and having as drama-free a vacation as possible.
Of course, this is Asia - more specifically Southeast Asia - where the likelihood of bad, ridiculous, random, insane shit happening increases exponentially. And lots and lots of it did.
The not-so-relaxing island Christmas
I had been on Koh Phangan for all of a day when the first signs of a bacterial infection reared their ugly head. At first, I assumed the shooting stomach pains and bouts of nausea were symptoms of a standard upset stomach. Refusing to be deterred from enjoying my vacation, I boarded a boat with Will and Katz to Ang Thong National Park, an archipelago of 42 uninhabited islands.
I assured myself the stomach pains would be gone by late morning. We went snorkeling in the pristine waters that surround the islands and saw enormous black sea urchins, purple anemones and electric blue fish. I even made it through lunch and a short hike to see the emerald lagoon. Then the vomiting started.
Great, I thought. Food poisoning. At least it should be gone by Christmas.
False. For the next two days, my body rejected everything I put into it: water, medicine, plain noodles, peanut butter toast. I threw up partially digested meals I had eaten four days earlier (There is no mistaking the distinct flavor of samosas, on their way in or out.).
The end result of this grossness was that I was admitted to a local hospital for two days and put on an IV. The doctors, who were of questionable competence, diagnosed me with gastroenteritis, an infection of the stomach and small intestine.
Koh Phangan Hospital was a rather primitive medical facility. The nurses were friendly but mostly inept. I had to inform them when it was time to change my IV bags, had to instruct them on what medicines I should be taking and had to call them three times when I got blood in my IV tube before they did something about it.
I will admit that I started crying when the doctor told me I'd be spending Christmas night in the hospital. I was exhausted, frustrated and intensely hungry but also intensely nauseous. I knew I needed to be in the hospital but I was scared and I hated it.
Fortunately, I have good friends. On Christmas night, Will brought me pizza and watched movies with me so I wouldn't be alone for the holiday. The next night, everyone came, bringing pizza once again, as well as smoothies and other Western treats.
Being in the hospital was a frightening and uncomfortable experience, but it was also an exercise in practicing gratitude. I allowed myself bursts of anger and frustration but after each one, I reminded myself of the good people in my life and the fact that my health was on the mend. Life could be a lot worse.
Besides, I thought, once I got out of the hospital, I could enjoy the rest of my island stay worry-free. It turned out my commitment to that Pollyanna attitude would be tested more than a few times even after my release from Koh Phangan Hospital.
"I am boring of this!"
A friend of a friend had been nice enough to book bungalows for us at Seaview Rainbow, a small resort on Srithanu. The price was right (about $7.50 per person each night), the beachfront location sounded great and the restaurant and reportedly fast wifi were bonuses. We planned to stay there at least through the end of Christmas week. We could hardly believe our luck at getting a reservation at this place. It seemed almost too good to be true. Which, of course, it was.
Something seemed off about the owners of Seaview Rainbow from our first interactions with them. They refused to provide basic amenities such as soap or adult-sized blankets, and gave us only small fleece throws that looked like they had been purchased at a Disney store. Then they hemmed and hawed over giving us a blanket or towel to use on the beach because "they would get too sandy"... which seemed odd, given that the resort is located on the beach.
There were other weird nickel and diming issues, but no major problems, and the location was as convenient and beautiful as we had hoped, so we let the small things go.
And then, three days into our stay, the owner lost all sense of professionalism and, it seemed, his mind.
On Christmas Day, when I gave up thinking I could fight whatever ailed me by lying in the bungalow and willing myself not to puke, I asked Will to come with me to the hospital. He of course agreed, and asked the Seaview Rainbow owner, Mr. Ko, if he would give us a ride. Ko said he would, for a fee.
I grabbed my bag with my laptop and wallet, just in case the doctor decided to keep me overnight, and told Ko we were ready to leave. He glanced at me, then turned to Will.
"My friend, can you help me with something? Can you talk to your friends for me? They have been very disrespectful to me."
The night before, Christmas Eve, Suzanne showed up to Seaview Rainbow around 7 p.m. only to be rudely informed that her bungalow reservation had been given away. When Suzanne and Ruby asked why, Ko became emotional and screamed in Ruby's face. An aggressive shouting match, mostly fueled by Ko, erupted and Suzanne ended up spending the night on the hammock outside the bungalow Ruby and I were sharing.
I assumed this heated exchange was what had him smoldering now, but no. He had found something fresh to add to his list of grievances against us.
Apparently Hilary and her boyfriend Rob had made the egregious error of putting leftovers from another restaurant in the Seaview Rainbow refrigerator (she had asked a staff member for permission and been given the OK).
"My friend, I don't understand why they are so disrespectful," Ko told Will, his face reddening. "They cannot do this thing. I am running a business here. Why they disrespect me in this way?"
"I don't think they were trying to disrespect you, but I'll talk to them and see what's up," Will said. I could have slapped Ko at that moment for delaying my trip to the hospital, but I seethed silently and let Will handle it.
He walked over to the bungalow where Hilary and Rob were staying and told them they couldn't leave the food in the fridge. They accepted this with no complaints. Under any normal circumstances, that would have been the end of the whole thing.
Will explained to Ko that Hilary had asked a staff member to use the fridge and hadn't meant any disrespect by what she had done.
"Where do they think they are that they can do this thing? I am running a business! These guys fucking disrespect me. I am boring of this!"
We assume that by, "I am boring of this," he meant "I'm sick of this," though who knows for sure. He assured Will that the two of them were still friends, that "there are no problems between us but I cannot accept this thing from your friends," and loudly declared that Hilary and Rob had to go.
Keep in mind that while this was going on, Rob came out and apologized and tried to smooth things over. Ko would hear none of it. Rob and Hilary were kicked out of the resort, effective immediately.
Finally, after dropping that bomb, he summoned his wife or sister, I'm not sure what the relationship was, to drive Will and me to the hospital.
I missed the ensuing drama, which involved everyone leaving Seaview Rainbow on principle and scrambling to find accommodations for the rest of the week. Because so many people were arriving for the New Year's Eve party on Haad Rin, we were unable to get rooms for more than a night or two at a time and there was absolutely nothing available for Dec. 30th or 31st.
The circumstances were not ideal. It's hard to settle in or relax somewhere when you know you have to pack up and schlep to a new hotel or resort the next day. But it also wasn't the worst situation.
Everyone except for Will, Ruby and me was leaving on the 29th. A Thai friend of Ruby's had generously offered to let us sleep at his recently purchased bar for 100 baht (about $3) a night in exchange for helping him sell beers and keeping an eye on the place.
Again, when something seems too good to be true, it really probably is.
Will, Ruby and I were determined to put the drama and stress of the past few days behind us. My stomach was finally beginning to feel like that of a reasonably healthy human being and once we got to Bao's bar, we wouldn't have to move again.
Thinking we'd get to play the cool bartenders for a couple of days on Haad Rin, the three of us showed up to the bar in a chipper mood on a rainy Sunday night. Bao had warned us that he hadn't set up the guest house area yet, but the prospect of sleeping on the floor didn't faze us at that point.
The "bar" was little more than a sagging bamboo and wood shack covered in three layers of dirt and dust. The only alcoholic offerings were a few cheap Thai beers, unless you count the half-empty bottles of Sangsom strewn about the front patio. Worse than that, however, were the stacked plates of rotting food, trash bags leaking a black, oily substance all over the floor, and a front door hanging off its hinges.
As for the "guest house"... it was a room at the back of the bar, and the only indication that it was meant for sleeping were the stained pillows and single bamboo mat on the floor. This room, too, was covered in three layers of filth and had the added bonus of being filled with mosquitoes.
The bathroom was in an outhouse and in lieu of a shower, we realized we'd have to use the butt hose (a staple in Thailand, where the preferred method of cleaning up after using the toilet is a hose-down, rather than a wipe) for bathing.
To top the whole thing off, power had gone out on the entire island, so after doing a quick clean-up by the light of a few headlamps we found lying around, the three of us lie down in the pitch dark on the dirty bamboo mat and contemplated our situation.
"At least we have a place to stay" and "It will be fine once the lights come back on", became common refrains, heavily interspersed with "Where the fuck are we?" and "Of course this is where we've ended up."
"I'm going to write about this," I announced.
"Good," Will said. "Then everyone will know we laid here like three dicks in the dark, staring up at the ceiling."
Thankfully, the lights came back on 20 minutes later and shortly after that, a group of about eight Thai guys, all friends of Bao, showed up for a barbecue. What had looked like a potentially miserable stay quickly became fun and we enjoyed one of our best nights on the island.
Friends we knew from Chiang Mai came over, the guys cooked the best food we had tasted on Koh Phangan, Sangsom and Changs were flowing and there was a sing-along to acoustic versions of popular American songs.
It was a great night. A perfect night to lead up to New Year's Eve.
Which was also perfect.
Right up until we got robbed.
A very un-merry New Year's Day
During the week between Christmas and New Year's, there were three Full Moon parties: one on Christmas Day, one on Dec. 28, the night of the actual full moon, and one on New Year's Eve.
There were roughly 30,000 people on the beach on New Year's Eve, possibly more, the vast majority of whom were either incredibly drunk, incredibly high or both. Vendors along the beach sold buckets of cheap rum and whiskey mixed with Red Bull, and bars hung enormous banners advertising mushroom shakes, "special cigarettes" and laughing gas. Harder drugs were also available, or so I've heard, though they require a little more effort to obtain.
The Full Moon party is madness. It's a massive rave on the beach where everyone is dancing, guys are openly peeing in the water, and people are having sex about two feet away from where those guys are relieving themselves. An Australian drummer we befriended at the party told me he saw another dude pooping in the waves.
In the midst of all this chaos, the party was fun beyond all my expectations. The friends I was with were relaxed and happy, and the fireworks were incredible. Golden sparkles rained down over us in a spectacular display, and while it was probably a total safety hazard, it was a beautiful and exciting way to ring in 2013.
So it was a wonderful New Year's Eve and on the short walk home around 5 a.m., I found myself feeling utterly satisfied with the night, and optimistic about the new year.
It was about 5:15 a.m. when I walked in the door, contemplating posting a sappy Facebook status about what a great night it had been.
I glanced at my computer bag and noticed that not only was it open, but that my laptop wasn't in it.
"Hey, where is my laptop?" I asked Will, assuming he had used my computer when he got home.
"I have no idea. I haven't touched it," he said. "You probably moved it before you left earlier and just forgot."
There was little doubt in my mind that I had put the laptop and Will's Kindle in the bag and zipped it shut before I left, but I supposed I could have been wrong.
Then Will noticed something else that was out of place.
"Were our cameras on the counter when we left?"
Yes. That was exactly where our Canon and Nikon DSLRs had been. But they weren't there anymore.
Will jumped up to check his computer bag.
"My laptop is gone."
Ruby, Will and I stared at each other.
We had been robbed.
It's a surreal feeling to realize that someone has broken into your home, or what is passing for your home, and stolen something from you. It's hard to wrap your mind around the fact that not only are those items gone, but that someone had been pawing through your belongings, violating what is supposed to be your safe space.
It's even harder when the items that have been stolen are the very tools you use to make a living. I'm a freelance writer and Will is a web designer. Our livelihoods depend on our computers and cameras.
Ruby called Bao and we did a quick survey of our things while we waited for him to arrive.
We discovered that the bastard thief had stolen the following:
- My MacBook Air
- My Nikon D60
- My external hard drive
- Will's Kindle, which I had been borrowing for the trip
- Will's MacBook Air
- Will's Canon Rebel T1i
- Will's external hard drive
- Ruby's Nook
Whoever stole all of this had left behind Ruby's Sony laptop, Will's iPod classic and, inexplicably, my bank cards, which had also been in my laptop bag.
Fury, anger, fear and disgust all made an appearance that night and in the days to come. But we all agreed that what really mattered is that none of us had been home, or hurt. How often do you hear about botched burglaries that end in the victims being beaten or murdered? Who knows what this thief might have done if we had been home and tried to foil his plans?
It's possible that he wouldn't have tried to rob us at all if someone had been there but I'm glad we weren't around to find out. All of our things will be replaced with time. Our lives and our health are far more important than the loss of our electronics.
But it's still infuriating.
Bao arrived and offered to take us to the local police station to file a report but admitted that that would be useless.
"Even if they find your things, they'll probably keep them," he said.
Cool. Good to know there's crack law enforcement there when you need it.
Resigned to the fact that we were probably never going to see our stolen possessions again, we decided to get a couple hours of sleep before starting the three-day journey back to Chiang Mai. But Koh Phangan had one surprise left in store for us before we went on our way.
"Bao, there are two people fucking on your lawn."
Will spotted the fornicating couple after he and Bao did a sweep of the premises and gleefully pointed them out to us.
The two were either oblivious or just didn't care that there were four people watching them have sex in broad daylight.
Bao alternated between furious and amused at what was happening on his lawn. The Brits paid him no attention as they switched from woman-on-top to oral.
"Want me to chase them off with the broom?" Will asked, a gleam in his eye. It would have been hilarious and as much as they deserved, but Bao shook his head.
"No, they're having a good time. Let them be."
At least somebody was.
Anywhere else in the world and at the end of any other night, I would have been shocked at the brazen public humping that was going on a few feet from where I was about to sleep. But this was Koh Phangan and it was the morning after a Full Moon party and we had just been robbed and were sleeping on the floor of the most run-down bar in the hemisphere, so why wouldn't there be two people having sex in the mud in the front yard?
"Koh Phangan is not paradise!"
Two hours later, I woke up and stumbled to the outhouse, feeling like death might actually be imminent. I couldn't remember the last time I was so tired and was dismayed to find that being robbed was not merely a bad dream.
I pulled on the bathroom door. Didn't budge.
"Bao, did you lock us out of the bathroom?"
"No. Why would I do that?"
"Well, the door is locked and I can't get in."
Bao came out and banged on the bathroom door. No response.
He disappeared then came barreling out of the bar carrying an old Coke bottle filled with water. "This fucking girl," he muttered.
He clambered onto a chair and dumped the water through an opening between the door and roof. No sooner had the water splashed on the floor than the girl erupted in anger.
I breathed a sigh of relief. When she didn't wake up to Bao banging on the door, I honestly thought she might be dead.
"What the fuck are you doing?" she yelled. Then came a loud crash as she pulled down a shelf in her rage.
"Get out of my fucking house!" Bao screamed back.
The bathroom door swung open and out she came. I feared that she was going to take me for the person who had doused her in water and punch me in the face.
Instead, she began a monologue that was undoubtedly the ravings of a lunatic, or of someone who had taken a lot of drugs in the not at all distant past.
"Who the fuck would invite 40 people to a bar and then tell them to leave?" she yelled. "You know, it doesn't make me a lesbian if I'm doing things with a girl and then wake up three hours later and decide I'm not into it anymore. That doesn't make me a lesbian."
"Trust me, no one thought you were a lesbian," I said, recalling her persistent banging of the British guy.
"What the fuck is going on out there?" Will yelled.
"This place is not paradise!" she yelled back. "Everyone told me, 'Come here, come to Koh Phangan. It's so amazing.' This is not paradise. You should pay for my plane ticket back to England."
Will started laughing. Ruby, who is an exceedingly nice person, glared at her.
"Yeah...she's gotta go," Ruby said. "I can't deal with this girl right now."
We asked her if she had taken any drugs.
"If you're the type of person who wants to put things up your nose, then fuck you," she replied. She looked accusingly at Will. "Are you on something right now?"
"No," he said.
"Good." It was obvious that this girl was on something, regardless of her evasive response. She was erratic and irrational and had no idea where or when she was. She was also unaware that her right breast was hanging out of her loose-fitting tank top throughout her entire rant.
Eventually we stopped responding to her and turned to the more pressing topic at hand: should we stay on the island and search for our stolen property or should we catch our boat and start making our way back to Chiang Mai and deal with the losses when we got there?
We decided on the latter. The likelihood of finding our things was slim and there was no one on the island who would help us. We suspected that the thief was either one of Bao's friends or at least an acquaintance, but he was adamant that that was not a possibility.
The three of us packed up, exhausted, resigned and desperate to be home in Chiang Mai.
There was a knock at the door.
"Oh god, she's back."
The British girl stood in the doorway, a more subdued version of herself than we had seen before.
"I've...I don't have a bra," she said.
She looked pleadingly at Ruby and me. "Do you have one I could wear?"
Bao handed her a filthy strip of pink material. Her bathing suit top.
"Here, honey. This is yours."
She slinked away, apparently sobering up.
"I've never been so upset to see a boob in my life."
All that was left to do was catch our ferry to Surat Thani and begin the long trek home. The reality of having been robbed didn't hit for another few days, when the financial burden of replacing my laptop and other equipment began to sink in.
I don't know if I will ever return to Koh Phangan but I do know that I will never forget this vacation. For all the bad, there was a lot of good, too, including enduring the travel madness alongside friends, getting to ring in the new year with people I love at one of the biggest parties in the world, enjoying the breathtaking beauty of Thailand's beaches and meeting a lot of interesting people.
As for having my things stolen...it's a setback financially and hugely disappointing but in a few months, it will just be a crazy travel story and a cautionary tale. Life goes on and I remain as excited for 2013 as I was before any of that debacle happened.
So here's to lessons learned, memories made...and hoping with all my heart that the son of a bitch who robbed us got caught in a rainstorm and everything he stole was destroyed.
If I had been asked last Dec. 31 where I expected to find myself in exactly one year, on the last morning of 2012, I probably would not have said sleeping in the back room of a friend’s bar on an island in Thailand. But that is where I found myself this morning, and somehow, it seems a completely appropriate ending to the year that’s been. I’m in Koh Phangan, Thailand, and because it’s New Year’s Eve, and there is a Full Moon Party tonight, there are no available rooms and this bar is the only thing between me and sleeping on the beach.
I don’t remember exactly what I expected 2012 to be like, but it’s safe to say that it turned out far differently than I had envisioned in nearly every way possible. For a long time, I tended to think of the year as a bit of a wash, marred by stress, emotional upheaval, and professional frustrations.
But when I lifted that gloomy pall a bit, I saw that the past 12 months have been more nuanced than that.
Yes, there were some dark and low points. Yes, I worked to the point of burn out not once, but twice, this year. Yes, I went through bouts of depression and anxiety that felt at times like they would never end. Yes, some relationships that meant a great deal to me ended, in sad and less than ideal ways. And yes, there were times when I felt that unresolved issues from the past were too great to surmount.
However. There has been more to celebrate this year than there has to lament.
In the past 12 months, I’ve visited three new countries. I’ve lived with elephants for a week, experienced an intensely beautiful lantern festival I’ll remember all my life, and been to a rave on an aircraft carrier in China. My friends and I started a t-shirt company, and I had the opportunity to write for the Wall Street Journal and Vogue India, two publications that, when I was just finishing grad school a few years ago, would have seemed like a far-off dream. Some relationships ended, but new ones were formed, ones for which I am deeply grateful. And others have become stronger, more honest and rich throughout the shared experiences of the past year. I came through the other end of depression with more emotional clarity and a stronger sense of self than I have ever had before.
If there was one thing that I was searching for throughout the past 12 months, I think it was a sense of peace - an acceptance of the past, a putting to bed of old insecurities and grievances, a freeing of my mind, energy and attention to embrace all the possibilities of the present and the future.
It has been a struggle at times, but as I reflect on the past year, and all the curves in the road, the unexpected and often delightful experiences I’ve had along the way, I think I am closer to finding that peace than I realized. Perhaps I’m not quite there yet, but I’m finally ready for it. I’m ready to allow myself to let go of the regrets and struggles, the self-criticisms and the bad days. That’s not to say I’ll forget them, because all have provided valuable lessons I’ll take with me going forward. I’m just ready to put them to rest, forgive myself and move on. I’m excited for 2013 and about working toward the new goals I’ve set for myself.
I don’t want to sugarcoat 2012, but I don’t want to dwell on it either. As I enjoy the last day of the year, I will focus on one simple theme: gratitude. I’m grateful that among the bad, the stressful, the frightening, I have had so many beautiful opportunities to explore and learn about the world, to meet people and to gain a greater understanding of myself. And most of all, I am grateful to be alive to experience all of it, and to have the opportunity to move forward and create new memories, new bonds, learning from but not being imprisoned by the past.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Koob Kub, a Lahu hill tribe village, in the mountains of northern Thailand. I visited the village with members of The Christopher Robert Project, an organization created to help better the lives of children living in Thailand’s hill tribe communities. This was my first visit to such a community, and the experience was humbling and in many ways profound. The village is not without its issues - hierarchical corruption and rampant opium addiction among the men being but a sample of them, and I hope to write a more extensive piece on hill tribe history, culture and the issues they face at some point. In fact, that’s what brought me to Koob Kub in the first place, research on a people and tradition that fascinate me but about which I know very little.
Koob Kub left a lasting impression for a number of reasons but whenever I sat down to record those for the purpose of a blog post, all I could think of were the children I met there.
To say the community is poor would be a gross understatement, a fact underscored by the state of the children’s clothing and filthy hands and faces. There was certainly reason for concern for their health and well-being, and again, perhaps I will write more on that another time. But these children, through their energy, intelligence, and their warmth toward me and especially toward one another, moved me in a way I have not felt in a long time. I find myself thinking of these kids often, wondering how they are doing and finding myself drawing inspiration from their example.
Rather than attempt to wax poetic about what each of these children did to leave such an impression, I decided instead to go with a photo essay that I hope will give some insight into what their lives are like.
The next several photos are shots of the kids in the classroom and at play. I've included photos of the old school, which was mostly destroyed in a fire several months ago but is still used occasionally, and the new one, where students of all ages attend "class" together.
The following photos are of siblings from one village family.
Note: All information in this post is based on my experience, conversations with a Mae Tao clinic staff member and the clinic's 2011 report. Be aware that there are some disturbing images and descriptions in this post. All photos were taken by Will Moyer. I dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands and ground my teeth together. No matter what, I vowed, I would not cry. Not now. There’d be time for tears later.
The man lying in front of me was the victim of a horrific act of violence. The left side of his face was covered in a patchwork of black and red, of skin wounded beyond recognition. His eyes blinked rapidly but he barely moved. His exposed torso was partially bandaged but the cloth strips didn’t conceal the extent of his burns, which crept down his chest and toward his abdomen.
The man stretched across the wooden table was a day laborer from Burma. He had been brought to Mae Tao Clinic with severe injuries from an acid attack that had been meant for his boss. The boss’ wounds were minimal, our clinic guide told us. The man lying before us while his wife and young child looked on had borne the brunt of the attack.
“His wife tells me he has trouble sleeping,” our guide, Jue, whispered when we turned away from the man. “The acid got into his ear so he has terrible pain in his head. Cannot sleep.”
As we walked out of the surgical unit, I looked back one last time and smiled at the man, even though I cringed at the sight of him. It wasn’t his mutilated body that caused me to shrink back. But to look at his face was to imagine his pain and be horrified that one human being could do this to another.
A crisis of conscience
When Will and I decided to go to Mae Sot, Thailand, for a few days for a visa run, Mae Tao Clinic (MTC) had been at the top of my list of places to see. I had read that the clinic provided assistance to Burmese refugees and migrant workers and was eager to see the work being done there.
Until visiting the MTC, I had never before come face-to-face with the cruel realities of poverty and brutality. I had read countless articles about the atrocities being committed against ethnic minorities in Burma, about the crowded refugee camps in which thousands of people are forced to live, the high costs of health care, the plights of migrant workers. None of those articles prepared me for what I saw at MTC: a man whose face had been mutilated by acid; premature babies born in extremely bare-bones, basic conditions; and a prosthetics ward where land mine victims await new limbs.
When I first arrived at the clinic and saw people gathering outside the pharmacy and surgery areas, I felt a sudden pang of regret. This was a bad idea; I’m exploiting these people. My intention was to visit the clinic in the hopes of writing a piece about it, but suddenly I felt ashamed that I had been so eager to witness the suffering of other people.
And yet I also felt I had to. Having now spent nearly four months in Thailand since the beginning of 2012, I have gotten the distinct impression that there is a great deal of good being done here, but a great deal of suffering as well. I felt compelled to witness that, in order to better understand this part of the world, to grasp the horrors and the goodness happening in places like Mae Sot and, on a more personal level, understand what it was that had always drawn me to learn more about refugees and conflict zones.
By the end of the tour, my regrets were gone. It was one of the more important places I’ve visited in Asia and the experience left a profound impact on me.
The MTC provides free health care to refugees, migrant workers, and poor Burmese people who cannot afford care at government hospitals. Treatments here range from eye exams to surgeries to reproductive health counseling, all of which might otherwise be out of reach for the patients who visit the clinic by the hundreds each day. The work here is funded by donations and they are facing a critical shortage this year - a $320,000 shortage, to be exact. Without additional funding, they will have to cut services and staff, of which they are already in limited supply.
The maternity ward was one of our first stops on the tour. Nearly 3,000 babies were born at MTC last year. There is one delivery room, as well as a dedicated area for special needs babies. Expectant mothers sleep on wooden tables in a communal room. Some parents are too poor to buy clothes for their newborns. I am of the firm opinion that people who cannot afford clothes and health care for their children should not be having them, but as these women are already pregnant, that point is moot here.
To think that this is how so many infants come into this world is heartbreaking. I felt deep despair considering all the challenges these babies are up against before even leaving the womb. Many of them will likely grow up in poverty and in dangerous border zones, and on their first night in this world, they sleep in a hot, crowded room without the comforts of a private crib or bassinette, or the safety of a proper hospital bed.
To be clear, I think the work being done at MTC is remarkable and vital for the tens of thousands of people who visit it each year. I applaud their efforts at providing safe care to the many, many patients who rely on them and to giving newborns as much of a chance as possible at being healthy, under the circumstances.
The in-patient rooms for children and adults consist of a handful of hospital beds and tables. Sometimes there are more patients than there are beds, Jue explained, so some have to sleep on the floor. The ailments they see at the clinic vary widely, she said. Sometimes it’s liver and kidney problems, heart disease, hypertension. During the rainy season, there is an increase in cases of malaria and dengue fever.
The conditions at the clinic were quite basic. I thought of the few hospital visits I have had to make in my life, almost all of which were in the United States. The clean, sterile atmosphere, the curtains dividing the beds, the pillows, blankets, adequate amounts of food. Though I have visited a Chinese hospital in Beijing and found it lacking in a number of aspects, I had never visited anywhere like MTC before and it was difficult at first to reconcile the experiences.
One of the biggest impressions I was left with was how beautiful the people there were, and how quick they were to wave and smile. As we passed the children's recreation room, a group of young kids were holding hands and singing a song. Jue, who is from Burma's Karen state, smiled. "They're singing Karen songs," she said wistfully. The children singing amidst these conditions was bittersweet and I found myself once again fighting back tears.
Finding the silver lining
By the time we left the clinic, I was saddened by the amount of poverty and suffering I saw there but also inspired. Because of the work being done at Mae Tao Clinic, people who would otherwise go without have access to potentially life-saving health care and resources on keeping themselves and their families healthy.
The experience left me with the thought: in the face of so much suffering and sadness in the world, what can I do? Mae Tao Clinic is just one organization out of many around the world attempting to provide services and care for those who need it most. The volunteers and staff at MTC are proof of the goodness, generosity and empathy in the world and that’s what I want to be part of. The question is how…and I haven’t quite figured that out yet.
Update: The man mentioned at the beginning of this piece was transferred from Mae Tao Clinic to a facility in Chiang Mai, where he underwent surgery, skin grafts and physical therapy. He spent six months in the hospital, and was recently released and is now continuing his recovery at home with his family.
Click here to learn more about donating to the Mae Tao Clinic.
If there was one thing I was going to do when I arrived in Chiang Mai for the first time, back in March of this year, it was ride an elephant. Vain visions of myself communing with nature while riding atop a massive elephant as we ambled through the Thai jungle had been playing in my mind for weeks. And there are plenty of companies here that would have been willing to help me make that dream a reality. You can’t walk two feet in Chiang Mai’s Old City without seeing company posters promising a life-changing experience trekking through the jungle on an elephant’s back. As it turned out, I would have a life-changing experience with elephants in Chiang Mai, but it would not be quite the one I had expected. When a fellow traveler at a Couchsurfing meet-up mentioned he had heard that many of the elephants at trekking camps are treated badly, I began to rethink my plans. I had never been what anyone would call an animal rights activist, but I also wouldn’t go out of my way to hurt one or support cruelty. This same person told me about the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary about an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai. There was no riding there, he said, but volunteers and visitors did get to feed and bathe the animals.
Good enough for me. A week or so later, two friends and I boarded a minivan to the Mae Taeng Valley to explore this Elephant Nature Park. By lunchtime, I was so impressed by the work being done there, I promised myself that should I ever find myself in Northern Thailand again, I would come back to this place to volunteer.
Three months later, back in Beijing, I made a 4 a.m. decision to take a China break and return to Chiang Mai for a few months. My volunteer application to the ENP was submitted before I had even booked my flight.
A home for the elephants
The ENP sits on a large plot of land in the Mae Taeng Valley. Lush green mountains surround the park on all sides and a cool brown river divides it from a nearby village. Elephants roam the grounds, playing in the water, chewing stalks of bamboo and occasionally chasing down a baby elephant who's wandered too far from the herd. Without exaggeration, this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.
Nearly all of the 33 elephants here have been rescued from logging or tourist camps. Only four - Hope, Tong Suk, Chong Yim and Faa Mai, who have been raised at the park - have not been subjected to a brutal, barbaric practice known as the pajaan. This ancient custom is used to break young elephant’s spirits until they are submissive to their owners’ demands. Liz at the blog Gentle Living gives a good description of this disgusting practice and its purposes. Many of the older elephants at the park have been beaten, overworked, and in some cases made to participate in forced breeding programs. One female, Medo, had her hip broken when a bull mounted her during a forced breeding session. Between that and a broken leg suffered while working in a camp, it’s a wonder she can still walk at all. Sadly, most of the elephants here have similar stories.
The ENP was founded by a petite and courageous woman named Lek Chailert, who has devoted her life to saving elephants in Thailand and throughout Asia. She has faced down the Thai government, disgruntled peers, and even her own family in order to protect her herd and raise awareness about the plight of the endangered Asian elephant. For someone who has been profiled by TIME magazine and was recently named Thailand’s Woman of the Year, she is impressively unassuming, friendly and down-to-earth.
Meeting Lek and watching her comfort beautiful Faa Mai, a baby girl elephant who was crankily adjusting to no longer being able to feed from her mother’s milk, was one of the most amazing moments I have witnessed between a human and an animal. Lek can walk among these massive beasts without fear because they love her and respond to her in a way they don’t to anyone else. I have never seen anyone exhibit the kindness and patience she shows not only to the herd, but to the nearly 300 rescued dogs who also live at the park. Many of those are street dogs rescued by Lek and her crew from likely death during the Bangkok floods of 2011.
I arrived at the ENP as a weeklong volunteer the last Monday in August. One of about 20 volunteers who arrived that day, I was riding a high of excitement at being back at this beautiful place, though I had little idea of what to expect in the days to come.
The life of a volunteer
When I first signed on to volunteer at the park, I expected it to be hard work but wasn’t quite sure how hard. As I imagine many would-be volunteers do, I had visions of bonding with elephants, spending hours lovingly attending to their needs.
I realized early on that volunteering would not mean hanging with the eles from morning until night. The elephants each have a mahout, or trainer, who is with them the entire day. They see to the elephants’ needs and in most cases develop a deep bond with them. Even when visitors are feeding and bathing the elephants, the mahouts are never more than a few feet away.
The work we did as volunteers was harder than I anticipated. As someone who spends the vast majority of my work days sitting in a coffee shop working on my laptop, I don’t have a ton of experience with manual labor, and don’t have a particularly strong inclination to do it again. Planting jackfruit trees on a mountainside sounds like much more of a lark than it actually is, especially when you’re doing it in near 100-degree heat.
Of course there were moments when unloading pick-up trucks of fruit for the elephants, painting walls and shoveling remarkably large piles of elephant dung lost its charm and I started to lose my patience. The work was hot and tiring but after allowing myself a brief internal bitch session, I decided it was time to change my attitude.
I reminded myself that I came here to help the elephants in whatever capacity I was needed. I came because I was inspired by their stories, humbled by their resilience, and wanted to do something for them. The way I could do that was by planting trees, washing pumpkins and shoveling poop. I didn’t want to waste any of the time I had there being crabby; rather, I wanted to appreciate every moment I had at the park.
The most beautiful boys: Hope and Tong Suk
Were I to choose one highlight of the week, it would undoubtedly be a morning walk I took with Jodi, a long-time volunteer. Our walk ended up being mostly an extended conversation while observing Tong Suk, a young bull with a strong personality.
Tong Suk is magnificent. There is no better word to describe him. Others apply, certainly: young, ornery, strong, proud. But none suits him better than magnificent.
Because Tong Suk has never been through the pajaan, has never felt the end of a hook or nail gouge his thick but sensitive skin, he is fiercely independent and strong-willed. He is as close as it comes to a wild elephant in captivity at this park.
Because he is wilder than the other elephants, and because of his gorgeous but deadly tusks, visitors do not spend much time around Tong Suk and he doesn’t join the other members of the herd for bath time at the river. The family group, which includes the babies Faa Mai and Chong Yim, are fond of Tong Suk, however, and regularly pay him visits.
Since my first visit to the park back in March, I have admired Tong Suk from afar. Though I’ve heard affectionate stories about how he’s “naughty,” acting up when he’s in musth (a period elephant bulls go through during which they are particularly sexually aggressive), I always felt a particular fondness for him and for Hope, another young bull who was rescued from the jungle by Lek when he was a baby. My delight knew no bounds when Hope meandered over for some downtime with his friend and I had the chance to observe them together.
The two young bulls, who went through a competitive phase during which they were kept away from one another, have become friends during their adolescence. Watching them share food and wrap their trunks around one another was truly wonderful. That the elephants are capable of such great affection for one another and yet also possess such tremendous strength was humbling and inspiring.
My feelings about leaving the park at the end of the week were mixed. On the one hand, I had had my fill of manual work and was ready to return to Chiang Mai. On the other, I knew I would miss the elephants. Though they seemed even wilder and more mysterious when I left than when I arrived, I felt a great deal of respect for them.
The work being done at the ENP is important. The Asian elephant population in Thailand is seriously endangered. The people at the ENP aren’t just rescuing elephants who have been abused, they are trying to educate local communities about alternative ways of training the animals, to prevent the abuse from even happening.
Again, I’ve never considered myself an animal rights activist, but it is impossible to leave this place without being moved. Once you’ve learned about the emotional intelligence of elephants, seen what they are capable of and also what many of them have been through, it’s difficult to not feel passionate about this cause. As long as there is a market for elephant riding, painting, dancing and performances, elephants will be captured and forced to work against their will. Getting to see an elephant up close and touch them is amazing, but the more I learned, the more I appreciated Lek’s dream of a place where elephants can roam freely and safely, without human interaction or fear.
Since first traveling in Southeast Asia earlier this year, I’ve taken a greater interest in the region, particularly, for some reason, in Burma. I’m not entirely sure what sparked the interest. Perhaps the sudden global focus on the small country, the mixed stories of great business opportunities and unspeakable horrors still being committed by the government against the Burmese people. I began to read books and articles about the country whenever I had the chance. But I still haven’t been, and up until a few days ago, had never spoken with anyone from there.
While volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park outside Chiang Mai a few weeks ago, I worked alongside Burmese staffers but because of the language barrier, was unable to communicate with them outside of enthusiastic smiles and a few English words here and there.
While in Laos on a visa run last week, I had the opportunity to speak with a Burmese woman who was waiting in Vientiane to have a Thai work visa processed. The meeting was unexpected and inspiring, and has stayed with me since returning to Thailand.
This woman had been waiting for nearly a week to have her visa processed, as a series of bureacratic frustrations had cropped up and delayed her getting the document. She told me that because she is Burmese, she is only allowed to apply for a Thai visa at the embassy in Vientiane one time, a fact of which she had been unaware. Now she was there for the second time, banking on the kindness of someone in the embassy to give her a pass and put the application through anyway.
We spoke for a bit while I waited for my ride back to the border and out of Laos. She was hoping the additional documents she needed for her application would come through by the next day, and was looking at another four days in Laos, minimum. She laughed as she described her circumstances, in the way only a person who has accepted the frustrations of her situation and is trying to make the most of them does.
She told me a bit about her life in Burma, and how she had come to be applying for a Thai work visa in Laos in the first place.
She grew up in a rural area in Burma, and moved to Yangon to pursue her education. But, she told me, the cost of living was so high she needed to get a job, which meant extremely long days of work and study. She eventually crossed the border into Thailand and now works at a clinic in Mae Sot that serves Burmese refugees.
In addition to her day job and volunteer work, she is also studying online for a degree in sociology from an Australian university. But because she is still learning English, she is essentially studying a new language as well as working toward her degree.
Hearing her story prompted me to reflect on some of my own complaints about work in the past few months. That I was uninspired, unmotivated, felt directionless at times, unsure of what I want to come next. Suddenly I felt grateful to be in the position I am, to be more or less able to move wherever I want, and have the freedom and flexibility to do work I enjoy. Between visa issues, classes, work and personal demands, this woman said she “can’t see past tomorrow;” she has to go one day at a time.
Our conversation turned to life in her native country, and the changes, or lack thereof, seen in Burma since its opening up during the past year and a half.
“Maybe at the higher levels there has been change. But most people don’t see any difference. Life is still difficult,” she said. She added that it is extremely difficult for her to complete her studies or get any work done while in Burma, due to electricity shortages and slow, unreliable internet. Again, I thought about my own life and how if the wifi where I’m working goes down for five minutes, I’m aggravated and put out. And again, I realized I'm far more fortunate than I tend to appreciate.
“There is no trust,” she went on to say of the notoriously violent and repressive government. “For a long time in Burma, the people do not trust the government. Even when there is a cease-fire, the people don’t believe the soldiers won’t do anything.”
Our meeting was brief, but I was grateful to have had the opportunity to talk with this woman. Her determination to educate herself, help other people and her willingness to speak honestly about her hardships were humbling and inspiring.