Cleo Margaret Abramian
You know you’re truly in a foreign place when the country smells different—when it swelters with layers unidentifiable to the virgin nose. It takes time to pick these layers apart. You must sit in them, let them seep into the fibers of your clothes, and explore the corners from which they’re drifting. The air in Chiang Mai smells like coconut rice, tamarind trees, diesel, sweat, fried pork, chili paste, cigarettes, and impending rain. But it took me the entire month I was there to identify each one and experience them in their individual roundness.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand, nestled in the lush mountains of the tropical jungle. If you leave the city walls, travel several miles from the bustle, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of vegetation that attempts to swallow everything in its path. Even within the urban city, vines creep up on every surface and slurp the rainy season’s downpour. Some days it rained so hard, it sounded like machine guns plummeting the roof. When it wasn’t raining, the air was so thick I wanted to swim in it. It was a density heavier than humidity, one that made everything look mirage-like.
During the week, I lived with a host family outside the touristy city center. It flung me into local life and cut me off from my westernized comfort zone. My host family spoke very little English, and my Thai lessons creeped along at snail speed. I, therefore, relied on hand gestures, pointing, and awkward smiles as my main means of communicating. Thai religion, food, and mannerisms were all alien to me, and I rarely knew how to act. It was this sense of unfamiliarity that made me realize I was halfway around the world.
Walking home late at night, I meandered cautiously down the residential streets. The air hummed with cricket chirps and the occasional motorbike, and all I wanted was to lose myself in the heavy scent of jasmine that dangled from the trees. But stray dogs lurked in the alleyways, barking angrily and threatening to attack. I was told to carry rocks and never run, so I walked on in pretend bravery. Such became my nightly routine. When I finally made it back to the house, the day was caked heavily on my skin. My family’s house didn’t have hot water, so I learned to hold my breath and plunge under the freezing showerhead. Geckos and spiders rimmed the bathroom walls, and mosquitoes feasted on my foreign skin as I slept. Dengue Fever was rampant that summer, and I scratched at each new bite with apprehension. I was thankful for the modest Thai dress code, in which women kept their shoulders and knees covered; it concealed the majority of my mosquito-pocked body.
Buddhism’s influence was deeply felt in Chiang Mai’s culture. The temples shimmered with regality, each intricately unique and bedazzled with Buddha statues. The whole city oozed sacredness. Monks walked the streets in clusters, their orange robes peppering the traffic like a reminder. If touched by a woman, they are required to go through an extensive purification ritual (just women, not men). Over-packed busses were thus divided with monks and men on one side and women squeezed on the other. I looked out the window to conceal my indignation. That’s one thing about traveling—there’s a fine line between observation and overlap. Paying respect is a huge part of Thai culture, especially concerning religion, elders, and social position. One must constantly adjust their vocabulary, intonation, and body language, which can be extremely difficult for foreigners to grasp. It’s strange to think about where you rank. I engaged in many conversations I later found out were inappropriate. One day I asked my host mom about drinking water and she blushed.
Eating in Chiang Mai was another major adjustment. Before arriving in Thailand, I considered myself a spicy food champion (I always put jalapeños in my Sunday eggs). This confidence was quickly drowned, however, in the blazing inferno of Thai cooking. I can honestly say that I struggled through two-thirds of the meals I ate and felt my intestines on a constant slow sear. Strangely, though, I began to crave the paralyzing spice and was sad when I returned to the monotony of American food. Basic noodles are one of Thailand’s most common local foods. Concocted in small streetcars lining the highway, the noodles are cooked to order in scalding broth. At first, I was reluctant to breach these makeshift kitchens that displayed heaps of raw meat. Vendors hacked at chicken legs with Jack the Ripper cleavers, which didn’t seem to bother swarms of flies from perusing them. Nonetheless, I wanted to be fearless, so I shed my inhibitions like snakeskin and tucked fear deep within my tourist moneybag. I soon became addicted to street noodles, drowning them in bean sprouts and chili powder bliss.
Through uncertainties, mishaps, and many tear-stained pillows, I began to feel empowered in my solitude. The world I had always understood dissolved from my grasp and left me open to the culture around me. There’s a beauty in vulnerability, in stripping away protection to inhale the newness. I gave in and started digesting my environment, slowly settling into the fabric of Chiang Mai. Accepting my isolation forced me to become self-sufficient in navigating daily life. I grew more and more adventurous and confronted my newfound independence.
One weekend, a friend and I ventured to Pai, the ‘hippie town of Thailand.’ Pai is nestled in the heart of the jungle just three hours north of Chiang Mai. We took a small bus up the planet’s windiest road, driving about 100-miles per hour. I curled into a nauseous ball, while seasoned expats chatted nonchalantly and noshed on banana chips. When we finally arrived, I staggered off the bus and immediately knew the drive was worth it. Scattered with Rasta art, dreadlocked locals, and wheatgrass juice bars, Pai is unlike anywhere else in Thailand; I met a local whose life dream is to go to Burning Man. The town is surrounded by enormous waterfalls, but they’re only accessible by motorbike (or a ridiculously expensive taxi). In our newborn audacity, we decided to rent a motorbike and navigate to the falls. As neither of us had ever driven one before, we chugged along the rural roads and tried—with several close calls—to avoid crashing. We dodged stray chickens pecking at the road and somehow managed to run out of gas within 10 minutes of driving; however, nothing penetrated our liberated spirits, and we laughed even harder with each clumsy hurdle. The back roads were luminous, canopied by towering branches and lined by wood huts. When we finally reached the waterfalls, we watched them cascade from vine-braided bridges and swam in a watering hole as it began pouring rain. As I bobbed, plummeted by raindrops, I felt myself breathing normally again. I looked toward the sky, opened my mouth to monsoon clouds, and praised the world’s inconsistencies.
Cleo Abramian is a junior at New York University studying Comparative Literature with a focus on Creative Writing and French.