Cultural Magic in Chiang Mai

Physically, as well as mentally and culturally, it’s so easy to get lost — and then sometimes surprisingly quickly found — in Thailand.

I was reorienting myself to Chiang Mai, a beautiful city in northern Thailand I have loved for over two decades, but every orientation includes some disorientation, too. Even more so, perhaps, due to my longstanding occidentation from living in the U.S. Thailand is easy and accessible, fun and familiar to me, yet still always different; it is still Eastern and, dare I say, exotic as well as exoticized, even as it continues to modernize and Westernize, for better and for worse — and it is clearly both. It is easier to reorient, of course, amidst delicious veg food, refreshing smoothies, soothing massages, inexpensive prices, and ubiquitous smiles.

Physically, as well as mentally and culturally, it’s so easy to get lost — and then sometimes surprisingly quickly found — in the maze of alleyways in town. As is so often the case for me, serendipity has been a good guide.

the chime of a bell
pulls me along one alley
a flower the next

Being in a Buddhist country, it is especially apt to think about my delusions, attachments, sufferings, insights, liberations, compassion. I couldn’t help but notice that no one bothered to honk — let alone curse or scream — as a motorbike with three adults on it was going the wrong way on the busy one-way ring that runs inside the moat of the Old City. The Thai philosophies of sanuk and mai pen lai are amply evident here and I became their diligent disciple.

Sanuk encapsulates the belief that everything can and should be enjoyed in its own way, even if it’s not inherently enjoyable. Life should be fun! Mai pen lai simply means never mind, it’s not important, don’t worry about it. And so they don’t, which leads to having more fun. But radical calmness may also have a downside, as when Thais simply accept what might otherwise be unacceptable.

Here on a service-learning adventure where they volunteer with local non-profit organizations and we put their experiences into cultural context — working at Chiang Mai University’s Regional Center for Social Science and Regional Development, a boarding school for disadvantaged youth, a bar owned by sex workers, a temple school for novice monks, helping dogs and elephants — my university students from California have fallen in love, saying they don’t want to leave and yet also want to return. That paradox is yet another that is easily accepted here. (I’m reminded that the Old City is what Chiang Mai, which means New City, was, when it was founded over 700 years ago. The New City has become the Old City, so what is old becomes new again, and what is new, to paraphrase Rav Kook, can become as holy as the old.) As do I, my students love the smiles, the generosity of spirit, the warmth and kindness, the omnipresent beauty — natural, built, human, and otherwise — in Chiang Mai.

Despite their giving through volunteering, or perhaps because of it, most of my students report having gotten back so much more than they have given, or even could have imagined: smiles, praise, friendship, flowers, food, pouches, certificates, invitations, gratitude, and other heart-warming moments and tokens of appreciation and Thai kindness. “My heart is forever altered, elevated, and purified by volunteering”, my student Cassidy reflects. “My mind is strengthened and enhanced with wisdom, ultimately improving my mental health and leading to improved physical health. There are many benefits derived by giving. To give is a form of receiving.” As Anmol Arora remarks, “Volunteering is the most authentic way to experience a place and meet locals.”

My student Kalli was taking needed breaks to cope with the extreme discomfort of bleeding blisters on our trek. Our multilingual guide Montree repeatedly wondered in disappointed amazement why she was wearing “shopping shoes” — his derisive description of her low-top black Converse — instead of appropriate hiking shoes. There was no satisfactory answer, yet there was an unexpected solution. Montree literally took the shoes off his own feet and swapped with her, even though her inadequate shopping shoes were not big enough for him. He simply flattened the backs of her Converse, wearing them as too-small sandals, and we continued our trek through the lush Thai countryside, Kalli now considerably more comfortable and Montree less so.

And this was by no means the only kindness that Montree (and others) exhibited that day. Feeling humbled and in awe, I realized how what I considered my kindness and generosity rarely put me in a worse position to better someone else’s, making me question what those concepts really mean.

taking the shoes off his feet
selflessly giving

There is so much cultural magic in Chiang Mai.

To paraphrase Basho, the great seventeenth-century Japanese haiku master:

even in Chiang Mai —
hearing the gecko cry out —
I long for Chiang Mai

Dan Brook, Ph.D. teaches sociology at San Jose State University, from where he organizes the annual Hands on Thailand (HoT) program. Dan also has an ebook of travel inspiration called GO! Travel Quotes to Send You Off. More info about him is available on his page.


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