Chiang Mai, Thailand: August 5, 2018 – February 5, 2019 | Including trips to Bangkok and Chiang Dao
It’s often said in hindsight that it’s about the journey and not the destination. The destination is but a moment in time, often filled with unmet expectations. Whereas the journey is where the memories are made, the stories are told, and the knowledge is gained.
Yet, the destination is more than the culmination of a journey – it’s more than a single moment. It’s a period of time be seized, reflected upon, and appreciated for however long it takes to cherish and learn from its result. This is especially true when the destination is completely unexpected.
When my wife and I arrived to Chiang Mai for the first time two years ago, we had no expectations. It was simply one city on a short list of places to visit in South East Asia. Our only plan was to visit the unofficial Digital Nomad Capital of Asia for one month, check it out, and move on to explore other cities in the region. We had no idea that after three years of living nearly half of each year in this gem of Northern Thailand that we would fall in love with the place, the people, and the possibilities it creates.
After leaving that first year, we couldn’t wait to return. It was no different in the second year. In this third year, the excitement was palpable. We had endured an unexpected month of summer heat, humidity, and general angst in Da Nang, Vietnam. Our light at the proverbial end of the tunnel was the solace of knowing that we would eventually be rewarded with a return to Chiang Mai.
Yet each year we arrive in Chiang Mai, the comfort and calmness that it affords stirs up a cluster of conflicts within me. Since our departure last season, I spent the year “Taming the Voice of Should” (Valencia, Spain), working on making the most of each moment (Europe and the USA), focusing on the fundamentals (Da Nang, Vietnam), and learning to enjoy experiences “Without the Eyes of Expectation” (Taipei, Taiwan). Each of these experiences prepared me to address a realization that hit me soon after our mid-summer arrival in Chiang Mai. It’s one that I’ve been socialized to believe and pursue throughout my entire life.
Two Beliefs and One Fallacy
One can argue that the entire premise of western, consumerist culture is based on two beliefs and one fallacy – you can be anything and you can have everything, but it will never be enough. We are raised with those two beliefs and constantly reminded in culture and media of its own self-fulfilling fallacy. As a result, we spend much of our lives pushing for perceived perfections, only to reach those plateaus and wonder if the feeling we experience upon reaching them is enough.
“Is this it? What next?”
It’s as if we spend so much time attempting to reach a goal (or destination) based on expectations of happiness (in however we personally define such a loose term) that we; 1) have issues with actually enjoying ourselves once we’ve reached the goal (because expectations never match reality), and 2) we don’t give ourselves enough time to learn how to enjoy the goal before we get so depressed and disillusioned that we beat ourselves into setting higher goals.
This third season in Chiang Mai I wanted to use the lessons learned throughout the past year to flip the societal fallacy on its head. Instead of navigating the internal angst of solving these two short, yet loaded questions (that often arise during my times in Chiang Mai), I simply wanted for nothing – nothing but to be there. To enjoy the weather, the scenery, and the midday motorbike rides. Enjoy my friends, favorite foods, cafes, and places of comfort. I wanted to simply “BE.”
The goal was to simply focus on enjoying the destination as part of my life’s journey. I never expected this place to become such a focal point in my nomadic voyage. For all of the challenges that the year presented, returning back to Chiang Mai was the goal – the destination. I was resolved to enjoy it, for everything it was and wasn’t. Through familiar places, faces, and spaces, I learned to relax the pressure, fight the fallacy, and appreciate the magic of seemingly mundane moments.
Sweet Sounds Through the Raindrops
August 5 – Oct 3, 2018
“Sawaadee ka!” It was the only sound I craved to hear after spending the last 4 weeks in Vietnam. That simple phrase is the Thai equivalent of “Ciao” or “Hola!” It’s said everywhere – all the time – by everyone. After weeks of deadpan looks, motorbikes zooming past my ankles, and construction trucks and tour buses constantly honking to warn others of their impending demise, I simply wanted to hear that phrase. It’s a phrase of welcome, a phrase of comfort.
Time is a funny thing based totally on perception. When you’re somewhere you don’t want to be, it seems slow. Yet, when you’re in a place of comfort, enjoying yourself, it seems far too fast. The previous four weeks in Da Nang felt like four months, each week a month in and of itself; whereas our first sixty days in Chiang Mai flew by faster than an angry Asian hornet.
We had never arrived in Chiang Mai earlier than late September. We had never experienced the area during the second half of the rainy season. It’s quite the conundrum being there during that time. It doesn’t often rain for more than an hour or so, and right after the rain stops and the clouds open, the air is clean, crisp, and feels fresh.
During the day when the sun shines, the temps reach near 30° C (86° F) and as soon as it’s blinded by a cloud, the temperature drops quickly to 25°C (75°F). After surviving near 100°F degree heat in Taipei and Da Nang during our first five weeks of this Asian summer, the raindrops in Chiang Mai were a comforting change.
Chiang Mai is all about comfort for us, though. It’s the place where we quickly drop our bags, setup our lives, and are off to eat our favorite foods in less than an hour. We arrived at the airport at 6pm and by 7pm, we had already made it back to our same apartment unit from last season, unpacked our bags, organized all of our belongings, and headed out to bite into the first of our cravings.
In between discovering that some of our favorite places had closed and discovering new ones that would take their place, we settled into our productive routines. My wife hitting the pool to swim 100+ laps nearly each morning and I, hitting the gym in the afternoons for one of my “workouts around the world.”
The city is relatively quiet in the late summer months, and so most time was spent reconnecting with familiar faces in familiar places. Leaving Chiang Mai always feel like the end of a school year. So many memories are made, friendships forged, and we all wonder if we’ll be so lucky to see each other again. Though we do our best to stay in touch throughout the year, life happens and sometimes we never get a chance to make new memories with old friends. So when patience and perseverance are rewarded, we find ourselves cherishing the good fortune of friends, food, and fun conversations.
It’s what has made this place feel like home in a way no other destination along our nomadic travel journey has become. It was totally unexpected and yet has been carefully cultivated over these last 3 seasons. It was never intended to be THE destination but the people, the place, and the beautiful spaces have made it a central part of our journey.
The Precious Time in Life In-Between
Oct 7 – Nov 28, 2018
Something tells me this isn’t a good idea. We’ve just returned from our relaxing visa run getaway to Singapore and rent is due tomorrow. Exiting the baggage claim area, my wife makes a beeline to the first ATM that she sees. My gut tells me to say, “Don’t use that one!” but my mouth is slow and my brain says, “let it go.” The yellow and charcol-colored ATM will have a sting like that of an Asian hornet.
She presses the “OK” button and the machine starts the transaction. Then it stops, the screen goes blank, and no money is returned. Thankfully, the machine reboots and returns the ATM card, but it doesn’t return the 20,000 Thai Baht ($600+) we attempted to extract – although the bank app says we withdrew the money. What a way to start our second 60-day stint here in our personal paradise!
But in Chiang Mai, things always seem to work out, if you are little patient. They may not always happen exactly when you want them or how, but you learn to let things be, push when needed, and appreciate the precious time in life that passes in-between.
And time is precious when you realize how fleeting it can be. Our second 60-day stint started with welcoming a visitor from seemingly another lifetime, who was taking her own 2-week nomadic trip. With just six hours on the ground in Chiang Mai, I whisked this friend from afar to the places near to my heart and, in doing so, opened her to explore the deepest parts of her life.
She was taking this trip to explore herself and her history, and yet Chiang Mai was never part of her original plan either. But when she found out that I was there, she made a quick day-trip up to say “hello” to an old friend – an old friend who used to dream about one day living his dream abroad. Now she was rediscovering her own dream and dealing with her own demons, and in those six hours filled with motorbike rides around town, Kao Soy dishes, rice plates, and magnificent landscapes, Chiang Mai spoke to her in a way she never expected.
This place has a way of rekindling old friendships and cultivating new ones. In the early fall months the temperatures start to rise, as do the numbers of visitors; both visitors to the city and visitors in our lives. For as much as Chiang Mai feels like home, California is always in our hearts. And there’s nothing like sharing a part of our hearts with friends from home. Strangely, we’ve had more people grace us with their presence in Thailand than I had in my entire 12 years of living in California. But it’s understandable – Northern Thailand is a special place.
It’s special in both its landscape and its love for the simplicities in life. From raindrops to waterfalls to sunset mountain views in the latter months of fall, the city starts to open up and speak subtleties to all that grace its old walls. If you look long enough and listen hard enough, you can hear the whispers of wise souls through the raindrops and see guidance gleaming through the rays of the orange sunset haze.
I often sit and ponder during my time in Chiang Mai. It’s so comfortable that if you allow it, life here can pass you by or smack you in the face. Instead, I choose to sit and listen to the whispers and read the signs between the sunsets. At the end of this second 60-day stint, a sign emerged that would awaken my spirit for valuing the precious time of life in-between.
Time is Undefeated
Nov 29, 2017 – Feb 5, 2018
It’s a month before my 39th birthday and we’re sitting in a café next to Rajavej Hospital in Chiang Mai. We’ve spent the last two hours running through a series of well-organized annual health checks, and now we’re waiting for our results. We hadn’t had a full health check-up since leaving on this journey nearly three years ago, so you can imagine we might be in for some unfortunate surprises.
Age is undefeated and so is time. But fortunately, today we are both winners in our own right. My tests come back amazingly well…all of my numbers are in the comfortable middle ranges. My wife has one high number but it’s totally manageable. Life on this day has taught us two lessons and given one gift:
- Lesson 1 – This lifestyle has been better for our health than that which we left in California.
- Lesson 2 – It’s always better to know what to manage than to realize it’s too late.
- Gift – The recognition that though we’ve won today, age is still undefeated.
I walked away from the hospital that morning with a sense of gratitude that I hadn’t ever felt in my time in Chiang Mai or along this journey. Many times, the place and space that this lifestyle affords provides me with too much time to question myself, my path, and my future. And yet, time keeps moving along whether I like it or not. Perhaps it would be best to enjoy it – my health, freedom, and good fortune – while I have it, rather than worry about when it may all fade away.
Whereas the first two months of time in Chiang Mai felt like two weeks, the first four felt like just one month. Now we only had another 60 days to enjoy our precious time of life in-between. Seemingly every mundane meal become more memorable, every moment spent with friends became more valuable, and every midday motorbike ride through the mountains more majestic.
During a one-week trip down to Bangkok (BKK), I spent the mornings away from the chaos of the city in the quietness of its parks with a book in-hand and a friend nearby. Though David and I have both experienced the craziness of BKK in the past, this time we were set on enjoying more of its softer side. Whether it was spending the mornings sharing thoughts from our reads, midday pauses smoking a cigar with afternoon teas, or evening dinners along the riverfront of lights before peering out over the city on a rooftop at night, we enjoyed the precious time that life afforded us in-between.
Two weeks later, my wife and I found ourselves gazing up at the lantern-filled New Year’s Eve sky with drinks in-hand and new friends nearby. Friends that soon became like family in our brief time this period in Chiang Mai. Starting the New Year with them at our side was a fitting way to welcome their new friendship into our lives.
And just three weeks after that, we had a rendezvous with our Canadian crew through the mountains and towns to north of Chiang Mai. There’s nothing like moments made motoring around the countryside to see waterfalls, climb temples, and dip toes in tepid spring waters. When you begin to realize the precious time of life in-between, the way you see, feel, and experience the people and the world around can become a bit more serene.
The smile of a gracious café owner that remembers you from the year before; that sip of coffee made in the style she remembers from your order the day and even the year before; that bite of cheesecake like no other you’ve tasted; and that guided walk through her fields tasting fruit some from the vines she bore…those moments are magical and meant to be cherished ever more.
Fighting the Fallacy
The destination is part of the journey, especially when you realize that life itself is the journey. We may place different goals in our sights along the way, and while each is a challenge in its own right, they are all part of a larger exercise; an exercise of understanding our best ways to enjoy the precious moments of life in-between.
This period in Chiang Mai, the place and time whispered to me the western world’s two beliefs and one fallacy. Through its raindrops, waterfalls, sunsets, and landscapes it taught me that whether I’m here, there, or everywhere, I can be anything and have everything – yet those definitions are up to me. I can define what it is to “BE” and what having everything means for me. And in doing so, I have the power to measure whether it’s ever enough.
Like everyone else in this world, I have no idea what will happen in 2 days, 2 months, or 20 years. I can prepare and I can plan, but I can’t predict. Instead, I can learn to leverage the lessons that this lifestyle continues to teach me and value the freedom that it allows. So regardless of where I am in the world, I can close my eyes for a moment in time and reflect on the memories made and the lessons learned during my third season in Chiang Mai.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.