My Chiang Mai Story

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I’m still plugging away at Chimera, my first published collection of stories. There’s something almost amusing about these oh-so human efforts of mine to conjure this first book. Maybe it’s the theatrical range of emotions that the process seems to call up. It’s not uncommon to feel triumph, despair, doubt, satisfaction and frustration–all in the same sitting. I’ve never admired the writers I admire more, if that makes any sense. It’s also funny to think that, at some time or another, guys like Tolstoy probably felt a little suspicious of themselves, too.

So with all that in mind, I thought it would be cool to take a look back on what got me to where I am now by sharing with my blog readers a little slice of my Chiang Mai story. I’ve recounted this particular story to so many people, especially fellow travelers, and I always get similar feedback: “That’s such an inspiring story, I wish more people could hear this sort of thing!” I think there’s a lot to that statement. With all the solitude I’ve been experiencing here in the deep winter of Salt Lake City, I’ve realized several things. One of them is that all of us have an inherent need to share our personal story with others, not just because we want to be seen and heard, but because somehow the act of relaying that story to another person brings the story back to life for us.

And for mysterious reasons, that’s kind of important for our journey!

The story of my time in Thailand can be summed up as “a tale of two cities”: Chiang Rai for my first year, and Chiang Mai for the following two-and-a-half years. And while the two towns are only separated by a three-hour drive through the mountains, their realities are really worlds apart. They were both founded in the 13th century by King Mengrai, but their destinies have in many ways diverged. Chiang Rai is a  sleepy town close to the border of Burma in the famed Golden Triangle area, and despite the region’s racy reputation for drug-trafficking coupled with its unparalleled beauty, Chiang Rai is still somewhat off the beaten path for the typical Asian backpacker. I spent a lovely year in Chiang Rai following the traditional narrative of an isolated American ESL teacher working at a public school.

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As conventional as that first year was, I suppose, my experience in Chiang Mai was exceedingly unconventional. My first experience of Chiang Mai was sleepily stumbling out of a van at 7 in the morning after having completed a visa trip to Laos. I was dropped off at the Lanna Guesthouse, which is smack-dab in the middle of the historic district of Chiang Mai, right across the street from Wat Phra Singh. After a restless catnap on a wooden bench besieged by mosquitos, I decided to take a stroll through the misty cobbled streets as I waited for my van back to Chiang Rai. The interior of the temples at Wat Phra Singh were beyond my imagination, and right then I knew I had to return to Chiang Mai for a more extensive visit. I often marvel at this moment in retrospect; it was so brief, and almost accidental, yet so pregnant with the possibilities of what was to come for me and that city.

Of course, I managed to return to Chiang Mai the first opportunity I got, which was a Buddhist holiday weekend. I went right back to the Lanna Guesthouse and wound up becoming great friends with the owners. It turned out that Lanna had something of a closet bohemian scene going for it, as often you could go up to the roof and find a circle of travelers from all over the world playing guitars, beating on drums, engaging in sing-alongs, drinking beers and reclining on colorful pillows–in short, having the time of their life. I embraced it and quickly started making connections with fellow expats and backpackers. It was the splashy week of Songkran 2013, however, that finally married me to the city of Chiang Mai. Songkran is known as the best water festival in the world, but it’s also a celebration of the Thai New Year, a time of rebirth and new beginnings. I can certainly testify to that!

I had finished the school year in Chiang Rai and was, by this time, contemplating whether or not I should move to Chiang Mai, despite the lack of any concrete arrangements. A good friend of mine (D.S.), whom I had met down in Phuket during the putative Thai TEFL course, had been teaching at a homeschooling co-op in Chiang Mai with this American guy whom, he said, I just had to meet to believe. The alternative circumstances of D.S. working at this co-op, parallel to my experience of slaving away in a public school as a farang novelty, had piqued my curiosity and I was eager to learn more about how the whole thing worked, in addition to meeting this educative dynamo that my friend had so many stories about. The stage was set, and amid the watery war-zone of Chiang Mai’s Old City we all converged at the Lanna Guesthouse.

I met Mark Beaumont in the thick of a jam session, and that introduction went on to characterize the productive and creative relationship that we’ve carried on ever since. I remember he had his Thai daughter with him at the guesthouse too, 8-year old Jade (at the time), and we also instantly hit it off. My first impression of Mark was how sharp and conceptual he was, and how enthusiastically he expressed his ideas as he tuned his guitar. When D.S. introduced us, we both quickly realized that we shared something in common: we had both attended George Mason University, me for my Bachelor’s and Mark for his Master’s! I remember doing some spotaneous freestyle rhymes over his acoustic guitar riffs that evening and getting a round of applause from everyone on the roof. DSCF0122

In my memory, Mark and I almost immediately went from improvising music to discussing when I could move into his house. It was a startling turn of events, but I realized that, indeed, the writing was on the wall and that Chiang Mai was calling my name, both in English and in Thai. Mark and his Thai wife, Pim, and their daughter Jade were at the time living in a wonderful, spacious home out in the Hang Dong district, which is just south of the city and features a lot of upscale, Western-style neighborhoods where a large swath of Chiang Mai’s foreigner population lives.  While it was hard to say farewell to Chiang Rai, I suddenly found myself living with an awesome family in an extremely American, gated community with a bakery two blocks down the street! I couldn’t believe it, but here I was–living in Chiang Mai.

Because this is a blog post and not my memoirs, I can’t go into all the fun details of my time at that house, a time that saw me become a part of an interracial family on the other side of the world. Mark and I continued to make music, and because the two previous homeschool teachers were unavailable, I became the new homeschool/unschool teacher in all my dreadlocked glory. Just like that, the narrative had changed. The only thing now was getting a visa, which was kind of a big deal. When I was teaching in Chiang Rai, the school automatically provided me with a work visa as per our contract. But now that I had moved on, the question of where I could get another solid visa became an increasingly urgent one. I took several side teaching jobs, motorbiking to and fro across Chiang Mai as I doggedly attempted to scrap a living together for myself.

Two other significant things happened during this period: I developed a relationship with the Sangdee Art Gallery, and I met a guy named Roh playing basketball one evening at an indoor basketball court. Synchronicity is such a funny thing.  In the moment, its operations are muted and under-cover; it’s only when you look back later that you see the full blueprint of its happy coincidences. I started DJ-ing on Friday nights at the Sangdee Gallery purely for fun, as I have a little background in doing radio shows and really enjoyed the idea of playing my music somewhere. Mark and I had done an open-mic performance there together one evening, and soon I returned and ended up talking to a volunteer about filling the void on Friday nights. It was all so innocent–at the time I didn’t see a connection between Sangdee and my visa question.

julian at sangdeeThe first time I saw Roh he was going off from behind the three-point line in a full-court pick-up game, and I had to admire his form. In Chiang Rai I didn’t have the opportunity to play with foreigners, so Roh’s accuracy from the arc stood out in contrast. We spoke between games and I learned that he was a Philipino guy from Toronto who also was in Chiang Mai teaching English…and he was also an MC! I realized that I had seen him rapping on stage at a random hip-hop event I had gone to just a month before. We ended up getting dinner together that night with one of my Thai friends and exchanged numbers. I quickly learned that if you know Roh, then you know a lot of other people that also know Roh! He’s one of those guys that allows you to be within two degrees of separation from just about everyone in the city.

One Friday night Roh came over and chilled with me while I played my set at Sangdee. The Sangdee Gallery, I should say, is one of those exquisite places that is only possible in Thailand. It’s a real art gallery in the trendy Nimmenhamen district that curates art exhibits from artists all over the world, in addition to facilitating open mics, author readings, theatre dress rehearsals, fund raisers, and all types of other stuff. It’s also a bar and lounge that attracts a very, very peculiar cross-section of the foreigner crowd–you’ll meet just about anyone there, and the possibilities of conversation are limitless and often improbable. Add in a grand piano and disco lights and you have yourself quite a scene. Anyways, Roh and I that evening, out of boredom more than anything, plugged a pair of microphones into the PA and started rapping over different tracks. The Thai staff came out and encouraged us to continue. It was like a set of light-bulbs popped up over our heads all at once.  julian roh marcus sangdee

We came up with an event called the Saturday Night Lyricist Lounge, made up flyers and started inviting everyone that we knew. The concept was an open-mic where the two of us would freestyle over beats and also offer the mic to anyone who wanted to join and improvise with us in a cipher. The first night was a moderate success and we started doing the event on a monthly and even bimonthly basis, noticing that each open-mic was different and unique in its own way. Sometimes there’d be a bunch of people rapping and singing with Roh and me throughout the night, and other times it was just the two of us with a handful of people watching. We never knew exactly what it would be like, but it was always a great time.

Actually, the first night was perhaps more than a “moderate” success for me personally, and that’s because it was the scene where I met my current girlfriend, Jenifer Marie. She stepped up to the mic and shocked us all with some incredible, soulful singing, which won her a free bottle of wine that night and instant notoriety among the Sangdee crowd. Who was this girl? Well, it turned out she was from Utah and that she was volunteering at a dog shelter out in Hang Dong. What were the chances? I certainly hadn’t counted on running into someone from Utah at a hip-hop party in Thailand! We began a great friendship that slowly turned into something greater. The timing of our friendship, by the way, couldn’t have been better…but that’s another story!

The Saturday Night Lyricist Lounge had become a success and my network in Chiang Mai was seemingly broadening on a weekly basis. Mark had decided to look into an opportunity outside of Chiang Mai, so I sadly bade farewell to the Beaumont family for the time being and wound up moving into a cool townhouse with Roh in the Paded area, just east of Chiang Mai along the Mae Ping River–but only after I had bounced from a room at an Old City guesthouse to sleeping on the couch at the Chiang Mai Baha’i Center, which all together represented a period of about five weeks. It was during this time that I cut my dreads after four years of having them, as it felt symbolic of yet another rebirth. julian jen EJ

There was still the matter of my visa, though, and to reference De La Soul, the stakes were high. The Thai government, fraught with unrest and the changing of regimes, had changed its policy on tourist visas, effectively making it far more difficult to string months together in Thailand as a foreigner by constantly crossing into Burma and back into Thailand. This is what I had been doing, and finally one of the border officials looked sternly at the multiple stamps in my passport and warned me that this was the last time I’d be able to do this. I had one month to get some sort of long-term visa for myself; it was do-or-die. Ever since I had come to Chiang Mai I had been committed to an alternate lifestyle, much like my great friend D.S. before me, and I was reluctant to try to get another school job–especially with how competitive it is for such jobs in Chiang Mai.

Then, I had an idea.

I went to my friends at Sangdee Gallery and asked if they would grant me a volunteer visa. My relationship with the gallery had really blossomed ever since Roh and I had started our Saturday gig, and the staff, management, and various regulars there already saw me as part of the fold. One Saturday night, as our party raged on inside, the manager took me outside, looked at me, and beamed “Welcome to Chiang Mai!” After over a year of having little more than vagrant status, it was official: I was now a Sangdee volunteer. And not only that, but I was able to get a new homeschooling gig with another awesome American family in Hang Dong, Mr. Ken DeVellis and his daughter Katie. I had met Ken through Mark the year before and started writing content for an app he was developing for teens called Digalator Teen. Katie and I had a great school-term with each other, and I supplemented it with several ongoing tutoring sessions with Thai families and one Korean family.

Let me tell you, when you’re in a state of grace in Chiang Mai, you’re really in a state of grace. International cuisine, jazz music, bookstores, people from around the world, mountain trips, the lovely moat around the Old City with its gnarled, overhanging trees reflecting in the water–it’s all like a dream, and the creative energy is almost palpable in the air. I was able to complete two of the short stories that will be included in Chimera, and I also started work on the collection’s novelette in Chiang Mai. I even did something else that I never thought I would: I became a vegetarian, and I’m proud to say that I remain so to this day! I learned so much from the vegan and vegetarian Chiang Mai community about nutrition and the benefits of eating organic, to the point that I almost didn’t have a choice…one day I asked for my usual khao soi at the market with the provision of “mai sai gai”–without chicken. And I  just went from there…

I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is to look back at my time in Chiang Mai. All these disparate elements had to be woven together just so in order for me to have the experience in Chiang Mai that I did, and that experience was life-changing. Obviously, I wouldn’t be here in Salt Lake with Jenifer writing this post if the delicate chain of events hadn’t happened the way that I’ve just related. Although I decided to go back with Jenifer to Utah, I know my relationship with Chiang Mai is still an open book, and the connections that I forged living there are stronger than ever. I’ve been collaborating with Mark and helping him to edit his upcoming book about unschooling as well as his new collection of haiku, which I’ll tell you more about in upcoming posts, while Roh and I continue to make plans for further music collaboration. If you want to check out some of the songs we’ve done together, just go to my music page. Oh, and I call Jade, who’s 11 years old now, my Thai niece. Chiang Mai family!

If you have any questions about Chiang Mai or Thailand, don’t be afraid to ask. Chiang Mai is a special place, and I wish more people could have the chance to experience it and learn from it. For those of us who have, we are very lucky indeed.

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