Winter Wonder [Thai]land, Part I

As that harsh reality sunk in that I would likely never see my ex again, I struggled to look ahead. My birthday was fast approaching but the last thing I felt like doing was celebrating getting older. My mother, with a moderate sympathy for my situation but a penchant for celebrating birthdays, constantly pressed me for gift suggestions. I pondered for a time but was at a loss for ideas. What I wanted was to not feel this pain anymore and no amount of clothing or accessories would eradicate that. After her fourth email in the span of one week I shot back that all I wanted for my birthday this year was for my mother and sisters to visit me. 

I grew up in a small east coast town. I am the only one out of my family, inclusive of aunts, uncles, and cousins, to relocate to a place that requires a plane ride to reach. I had my mother’s full support when I chose to attend college on the opposite coast. She and my sisters made the journey to move me in and again to watch me accept my college diploma. Nine years, two boyfriends, four apartments, three jobs, and hundreds of new friends later, she hadn’t returned. She has an aversion to flying and doesn’t share the same curiosity I have about the world but desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. I was experiencing the kind of pain that only mothers can remedy. This was the first time since I was a college freshman adjusting to life on my own that I called my mom and requested her physical presence because the struggle was too much to bear on my own. 

She inundated me with a list of excuses and sent birthday money instead. Well, for the first time since the break up I was able to look ahead. I looked ahead to my Christmas break – one month away – and saw a near three-week hiatus from work. I envisioned myself going back to that small east coast town, the place I celebrated my previous two Christmases with Earl. I pictured my sister and her husband, my other sister and her live-in boyfriend, I saw the questions, I saw the judgment, I saw a reflection of a grieving person consciously place herself in an environment that emphasized the heartache she was trying to overcome. I saw someone returning to LA more dubious and forlorn than when she left. It was a picture of a very bleak Christmas. 

After several sleepless nights I made a decision. I would skip Christmas this year and travel – somewhere - with my passport. Travel is the only solution I saw for myself at this confusing time. Travel offers me hope, comfort, and a sense of self and purpose. Surprisingly, both of my (divorced and remarried) parents were supportive. I don’t know if it was the lingering guilt weighing on my mom after my birthday but I didn’t ask any questions. I immediately booked a flight to Thailand and Australia.   

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I immediately booked a flight to Thailand and Australia.

On a gloomy mid December morning, I packed a carry on suitcase and headed to LAX, embarking on a journey unlike any I’d ever taken before. I love to travel, I thrive on it, I squeeze it in as much as feasibly possible. I spent a day or two alone in various cities like Paris, Medellin, Madrid, and London. But as independent as I claim to be, it wasn’t until this trip that I sought out a full week alone in a foreign country in which I’ve never been previously. There were moments of fear but mostly pride and anticipation as I began the 18 hour journey to Bangkok. 

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My first stop was Chiang Mai

My first stop was Chiang Mai, a city in the north known for its abundance of temples and cultural exploits. I spent each day surprising myself by being more bold than the day before. I navigated the city’s temples by tuk-tuk, songthaew, and foot. I took a meditation class taught by a Buddhist monk and got lost in the vast night market stalls. I ate street food while exploring the festivals and discovered Thai ice cream. I veered off the beaten path to a Lady Boy Cabaret show that took an hour to find, sat at the bar, drank a Singha and watched in admiration. 

I was hoping to have a groundbreaking moment of clarity on my trip but I wasn’t expecting it on day three. I sought out a temple I had read about, built high above the countryside on one of the tallest peaks in Thailand. There were no tours, but Thon, my trustworthy B&B owner and unofficial Thailand insider explained he could hire a driver for me for one day at a reasonable price. The driver spoke no English but was a family friend of Thon’s and based on the kindness the native people had shown me so far I eagerly accepted the deal. My driver picked me up at 7am and we drove for two and a half hours in silence, with the occasional genuine smile and nod. 

When we pulled up I didn’t see any buses or large groups or signs of mass transportation. There was a small parking lot where people drove themselves. My driver gestured to a stand, and for 100 baht I obtained a pass for a songthaew (an open air truck with seats in the bed). The songthaew carried me and about ten other Thai passengers up a steep hill. The scenery along the climb was already spectacular. After arriving at the top everyone scattered in different directions. There weren’t any guides and the only signs I saw where in Thai. I looked around, spotted a long path, and decided to start walking. Sometimes, you just have to walk to find what it is you’re looking for… 

Not having a set agenda and enjoying the freedom to explore the unknown was exactly what I was seeking. It had been a long time since I traveled that way, and unprecedented on my own. I came to a twisting staircase with no end in sight, and so I climbed. I eventually passed a few others who were descending the staircase, all Thai, all smiles, all polite. I was the only Caucasian and the only solo trekker.  Thirty minutes later I reached the top and I couldn’t stop saying out loud, ‘This is incredible.’ The temple spires built high on the mountain peaks were now right next to me. The Shikharas that appeared in the photo that first inspired my pilgrimage to this place were now below me. And though there were people there, it was not crowded, everyone was silent, and it felt as if we all realized how special it was to witness this. I paused several times to take it all in, reflect on what led me here, and for once I didn’t feel stressed about life. I felt at peace. 

Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat Phrachomklao Rachanusorn, Lampang

Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat Phrachomklao Rachanusorn, Lampang

I was not keeping track of time but in my best estimation I was perhaps at the highest point for two hours. After praying at the open air temple on one of the peaks I was putting my shoes on when I discovered a familiar face. It was my driver. He was sweaty and tiresome and said something in Thai as he flashed his bright white smile. To this day I still don’t know if he made the climb because he wanted me to hurry the fuck up or if he just wanted to see the view. 

As we climbed down together he called Thon and handed me the phone, I suspected to translate. Before Thon could get a word in I went on to apologize profusely and explain how I lost track of time. Thon replied simply, “Are you happy?”  

Huh? I was mystified. Am I happy? I let it sink in for a minute and in that minute I realized a great deal. Earlier that morning I visited an elephant sanctuary and the trainer continued to ask me if I was happy. I reassured him several times that I was happier than I had been in a long time. Here it was, only a handful of hours later and I was faced with the same question. It was profound, even in its simplicity. These were strangers, Thai men with families of their own, concerned about my well being. Sure I was paying the driver a modest fair for the day, I paid Thon to stay in a room at his simple B&B, but their benevolence was beyond my selfish American comprehension.

As we continued to descend the mountain my mind lingered on that question and my tears streamed uncontrollably. I couldn’t recall a single time when Earl asked me if I was happy. He apologized for causing me pain and sadness, he told me a couple of times that I make him happy. It was always one sided. What does Earl need to get through his divorce, what do his parents need, what does his ex need, were the questions I asked. When was my happiness a factor? Not often enough. Ironically, the only thing I wanted was him completely. 

I know in life we aren’t supposed to look back or have regrets because it doesn’t accomplish anything, but man I wished I had realized this sooner. From that moment forward I vowed if I ever got involved with a man again that he should ask, ‘Are you happy?’ It seems simple enough to me. I had never meant it more when I responded to Thon with an emphatic ‘yes, I am happy.’ 

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand