Arrival in Chiang Mai

Look who was one of the first people to greet me in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Sawadee Ka, Ronald McDonald. You sure do get around!

It feels good to be back in a buzzing city after a week of “quiet time” in the islands of southern Thailand. Chiang Mai resides in northern Thailand and is a pretty mellow, as far as cities go. There is a sweet serenity about the place, something I recall from my time here more than a decade ago. It’s one of the reasons I opted to return. Typically, I don’t like to visit the same destination twice. Not unless there is something special or someone special pulling me back.

What brings me back to Chiang Mai: Thai massage school. I will be attending the Thai Massage School of Chiang Mai (TMC), Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The intent isn’t to become a licensed masseuse or anything like that. Rather, this is an opportunity to learn a new life skill. A thorough understanding of anatomy and massage will make me a better yoga teacher. But more importantly, it will help me overcome my hesitation to touch — not only yoga students, but people in general. I am not very touchy feely, not as genuine as I’d like to be anyway. This course will force me to work through it, face it, touch people.

There is something so special about being touched. We don’t get enough of it, not back home in America anyhow. The exchange of energy through a lingering touch of the arm, a heartfelt hug, a carcass of the face, a massaging of the neck and shoulders — it is one of the simple life pleasures that I love receiving. Hopefully this course can give me new skills and new confidence in giving it to others.

Atop this intention, it will be interesting to note my experience this time around — how Chiang Mai effects me as a 34-year-old woman. I’ve matured from my time as a twenty-something backpacker. My lens on the world is slightly different, as is bound to happen with experience and maturation. Being in Chiang Mai again is like re-reading a timeless classic: I am bound to take something new away from it. With luck, it will be a few new things.

When I came here a decade ago, I was only meant to spend a day in the city before traveling by train back to Bangkok. Instead, I ditched my group to spend several more days here. It was a truly spontaneous move. But I loved the city and didn’t want to shortchange it. On that trip, I wound up purchasing a beautiful Buddha painting from a Chiang Mai street artist for US$40. It has been hanging above my bed ever since. I’ve looked at it each morning and each night. It’s a prominent reminder of my time in Chiang Mai. Perhaps the tangible take away as a twenty-something — a souvenir painting — has manifested into a return visit as a thirty-something?

Whatever the cosmic reason, I am now here and quickly getting settled before classes start on Monday. I spent my first day roaming the streets near the Thapae Gate, comparing local guesthouses for my stay in the city. Guesthouses abound in Chiang Mai, and I didn’t want to pre-book one sight-unseen. After touring six or seven that looked relatively inviting and safe, I decided to confirm an air-conditioned room at Jimmy’s Home Stay. Jimmy is a friend of my Aunt Eileen’s brother — so the personal connection helped in my decision. At 450 Thai baht ($14) per night, the cost is a bit more than I wanted to pay. You can get a fan room for as little as 250 or 350 Thai baht ($8 to $11). But, I went with my gut. Plus, it is centrally located and the air-conditioning is already proving a nice luxury.

Here is my massive room, complete with the creepy cat jigsaw puzzle that hangs above the bathroom door.

With that logistical stress (housing) out of the way, I continued roaming Chiang Mai without an agenda. I observed an interesting yin-yang at play. For every beautiful Buddhist wat speckled with orange-robed monks, there are a handful of touts trying to sell tours and massages on the streets nearby. For every locally owned smoothie cart blending fresh coconut, banana and pineapple concoctions, there is a Starbucks or some other coffee chain nearby. For every sweet Thai woman offering an innocent smile, there is an old white guy with several scantily-clad, young Thai women hanging on him. And yes, there is a McDonald’s and a Burger King in the heart of the city, directly across from one another. Both are open 24 hours.

For kicks, here is a typical exchange I noticed while getting a pedicure on the street yesterday.

I think that I am really going to enjoy sinking into this city. Chiang Mai has a unique blend of Buddhist serenity speckled with flecks of 21st-century commercialism. Neither is fighting with each other nor aggressively competing for the attention of people walking its streets. It’s a great co-existence of old ways and tradition with the modern. Everyone greets each other by making prayer hands and saying “Sawadee Ka” (female) or “Sawadee Kup” (male). And everyone smiles.

Yes, I think I am really, really going to enjoy sinking into this city.

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