I have just returned via overnight train from a 10 day trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chiang Mai is in the north in the mountains, and some of you may remember it from my description of the time a 50 year-old Thai man expressed his desire to obtain a green card by marrying me. My trip this time was a little different, seeing as I traveled with all 33 of the other people in my group, as well as Father Kelly. Ten days is a lot to write about, but I’ll limit myself seeing as I have a plane to catch in an hour.
Our first day in Chiang Mai, we visited a temple on a mountain called Wat Doi Suthep. The temple was impressive, with more than 300 steps leading to the entrance of the wat. The bannisters of the staircase were designed to look like the body of the Naga (a sea serpent), and little girls in hilltribe costumes dotted the steps using their smiles to coax money out of the passersby. Inside the temple I discovered that I was born on a Thursday (something exceedingly more important to Buddhists than to westerners), which is the day that the Buddha is in mediation pose, reminding me to take time to clear my mind. I also received my fortune, which was mercifully lucky, and a bracelet from a monk at the temple. Apparently I am “immuse” from illness, which would impress me more as a fortune if I had not started to develop an ear infection 3 days later. Over the next two days we checked out a traditional umbrella making factory and went zip lining in the jungle. Zip lining was slightly more thrilling, and I enjoyed the feeling of sailing through the air above the trees.
On our third day up north we began our four day trek, the main attraction to our group trip. Each day we hiked between 5 and 11 kilometers, and each night we stayed with a different hilltribe in their village. We got dirty and sweaty during the day, and showered in the cold river and drank Thai moonshine at night. The first two nights my smaller group of 12 stayed with villagers of the Karen tribe. The Karen people have been pushed out of Burma by a communist dictatorship, but they do not often enjoy the rights to citizenship in Thailand either. I am sad that their traditions are not respected in either country, but touched that they keep their traditions anyway and were more than willing to share them with us.
The third night of our trek all 34 of us were reunited, literally on top of a mountain, in a village of Lahu people. The view from the village was breathtaking. Mountains and clouds collided in colors that don’t occur outside of the natural world, and the itty bitty lights of Chiang Mai slowly flickered on as the day began to fade. Our house for the night was made only of bamboo, but it was sturdy and on the best piece of land I could imagine. People would pay millions of dollars for the view I had out of the bedroom I shared with 12 other girls that night, and this tribe was living there with so little. The Lahu people, like the Karen, fled their government in Tibet, and have moved to Thailand where, similarly, they have few rights. However, the Thai government did put solar panels on one of the tribe’s buildings so that the children could do their homework at night. Education and family are the two most important things to the villagers - a simpler way of life than we entertain in America.
I woke up at dawn on the last morning of our trek - the morning when we would walk down the mountain, wash away our soreness in a larger than life waterfall, and walk away from the hilltribes of Thailand to our newest adventures - and I was sad. But sad did not feel like the appropriate emotion, so I left our hut solo to stand on the balcony while everyone slept and watch the sunrise. As I watched the sun come up over the mountains in the distance, first red and then a deep, deep orange, I realized that it was not sadness I was feeling, but a feeling I cannot exactly put into words. I felt fulfilled by the fact that for the first time in my life, I completely understood what the words “Money can’t buy happiness” mean. I took a look around and I saw for the first time that simplicity is not poverty. Simple living is not poor living. It took climbing to the top of a mountain and looking around to rejuvenate in my mind some of the things that I have known for a long, long time. And maybe I was feeling a bittersweet feeling because I was finally realizing that this is what studying abroad is all about. About relearning yourself, and revamping the same ideas you’ve always had into new shapes that fit the mold of your new and older mind. And finally, I just felt different in a way that I cannot put into words other than to say that shivering in the cold on a mountain in Thailand, watching the sun rise by myself, I, for the first time in my whole life, felt like an adult. I’m growing up.