It’s finals week in Chiang Mai.
People are saying their goodbyes, packing up their bags and heading back to America.
I am wallowing in the depths of happy memories and trying not to cry when I listen to my favorite local bands cover my favorite Thai pop songs.
I have 30 days left. It’s a Catch-22, the epitome of bittersweet. I never knew how I’d feel when this moment came, but it has hit me, and it has hit me hard.
I remember the first days of my time here. Choosing to live on the front side of campus because the area seemed safer. Having a hard time enjoying the Thai bands because I didn’t understand or recognize the music. Thinking I would travel to one other country, maximum. Eager to learn about the world, but no direct passion.
Reflecting back on those times have made me realize the extent to which Thailand, Chiang Mai, and studying abroad in general, have changed me.
I have never felt endangered or judged. I have come to embrace the times when I am outside my comfort zone, as those are the times I learn the most. I have traveled through seven countries and have met the most beautiful people. I have found my passion in the people of Southeast Asia. And I have discovered that some of my favorite moments come from watching the country pass by me through the window of a bus (or the open air of the back of a motorbike).
I’ve been meaning to write about these moments, but there’s something that continuously holds me back. There is a magic in these moments that cannot be described with the limitations of simple language. Some of my first minutes in a new country were spent looking through the window as I made my first impressions. Seven countries, seven different impressions, and seven unique memories.
1. Chiang Mai welcomed me with endless shades of green, so many, in fact, I thought maybe my childhood crayon box had been robbed. Endless forests passed by my window on the sleeper train from Bangkok. There were tall stalks of corn and shimmering rice paddies, the only thing missing was a monkey swinging through the trees. I had been to Chiang Mai before, but my memories of Thailand blurred together and I couldn’t remember anything specific. I was excited to see what I would be calling home, and the scenery didn’t disappoint. Glad to be away from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, I was ready to embrace a new, slow lifestyle. I was ready for Chiang Mai to teach me.
2. It was on the way home that I officially fell in love with Laos. That’s how the story goes, the classic, “you don’t know what you have ‘til it’s gone.” I was ready to be back in Chiang Mai after my first trip out of Thailand. The overnight bus from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai tested the limits of my comfort zone. The lady in front of me continuously pressed her chair back against my knees, and the air conditioning didn’t work. I had a hard time sleeping and the drive was crazy, especially since it was dark and I couldn’t see the road ahead. But the morning drive made all the discomfort worth it. I woke up somewhere along the Northern border between Laos and Thailand, to glittering rays of sunlight illuminating the most amazing mountain range I have ever seen. It was like a movie, bright green mountains, yellow-gold sunrise, and locals walking along the road in their daily traditional wear, carrying bamboo-woven baskets and riding bicycles to school. There wasn’t one building in sight, other than the huts that accompanied each rice paddy. Laos kissed me goodbye with this beautiful scene, reassuring me and begging me to return someday.
3. Although there were no glass panes involved in my favorite impression of Cambodia, there were plastic ones. Our last day in Phnom Penh ended with a sudden rainstorm in the middle of a traffic jam. Stuck in tuk-tuks, our kind drivers pulled down the plastic coverings to shield us from getting soaked. But that was to no avail – in order to catch our bus on time, we ended up having to ditch the tuk-tuks and run through the middle of standstill traffic, in the pouring rain. We passed by multiple trucks with the beds packed full of local workers, each one ecstatic to shout “Hello!” as they watched us run by like crazy foreigners. After offering a man with a ride-along basket attached to his motorbike a sum of money to take us to our hotel, and after his serious consideration but eventual decline, we accepted our demise and chose to try another tuk-tuk. Traffic didn’t get any better, but bonds were formed as we sang and snacked on baguettes. (Everything worked out in the end and we caught our original bus, an hour later than it was supposed to leave. Unreliable Southeast Asian travel can be good for something!)
4. China welcomed me through the windows on the plane, the first time I had flown since I arrived in Thailand. I was flying alone – also my first time traveling alone (although I was meeting friends once I landed). When I arrived, I didn’t see my friends, so I walked around the airport attempting to call the one phone number I had. Of course, her phone didn’t have money on it so I couldn’t reach them. I even went to the extent of purchasing water at Burger King in order to use their wifi, but I couldn’t use Facebook (because it is blocked). My next solution was to buy a Chinese SIM card for my own phone, at least to let my family know I had landed. After a couple hours spent walking around. I decided to sit outside the International Arrivals gate. My friends were just rounding the corner, running to me with apologies, as their train had been late! It was an exhausting, nerve-wracking evening that turned into laughter, smiles, and hugs. We hopped on the subway, which took us into the city center of Shanghai, and I was a little disappointed, as these windows only welcomed me with scenes of the dark walls rushing by.
5. First semester was over and it was officially “Christmas” Break. My next destination was Hanoi, Vietnam. Right out of the airport we met a young, Malaysian man named Victor. He was looking to share a taxi into town, and we were happy to oblige. I requested a window seat in the taxi, not revealing my personal love of watching the city roll by. We got to know Victor, and I came to know Hanoi. The buildings were tall and skinny, stacked right up next to each other. Motorbikes drove by carrying unbelievable things on the back (live chickens, couches, duct-taped boxes of merchandise), and traffic was terrifying. The narrow roads were filled with more motorbikes than in Chiang Mai (which I thought was impossible), and the constant blare of honking horns. Intersections were a free-for-all, but surprisingly I didn’t witness one accident the entire time. Vietnam graced me with some great window-watching, so I have to give it two stories…
Our boat trip on Halong Bay started with a delicious lunch. Through bites of food I snuck peeks out the small, circular window to my left. The grey sky met the dark water with a thin layer of fog between. Rocky mountains jutted out of the water every which-way. We were moving slow, and the water was smooth. Although it was cold, the weather was fitting for the laid back trip where hours lingered on and the concept of time was forgotten, due to the lack of an ever-changing orange glow. Local fishing boats coasted by, their flags tattered from the wind, but flying high. An empty plate ended my daydream and I was whisked away to go kayaking.
6. My excitement couldn’t be contained as I sat next to my friend in our first taxi into the middle of Yangon, Burma. We shared smiles that stretched the corners of our mouths, anxious to explore, but happy to have a short introduction to the city before being let loose. We were nervous. We asked the driver how to say a few key phrases, but our eyes were glued to our windows, observing and collecting every detail we could. Buses chugged by, dusty and old, packed with as many people as could squeeze inside. Locals walked along, under the shade of their umbrellas, wearing traditional longyis (the men, too) and smiling bright red Betel-chew smiles. Thanaka, a golden shimmery paste made from tree bark, was smeared on girls’ faces, young and old, for beauty and protection from the sun. Streets were busy, and buildings were tall. Everything seemed to have a layer of dust on it, and nothing was updated or influenced by Western culture. That was the thing that inspired me the most. Although controversial sanctions have been put on trade with Myanmar, I believe that is one of the reasons Burma has maintained its culture and its tradition so well, and one of the reasons I fell in love with this beautiful country.
7. Malaysia was a major change of pace, coming from Burma only a day before. After landing in Penang, Fou and I took a taxi into the heart of Georgetown. The contrasts between the two countries were startling – from a country with little to no Western influence, to Malaysia, where every song on the radio was American and almost every sign had an English translation. We were spending a few days in lovely Penang before a music festival in Kuala Lumpur, where we would meet up with Victor, from Vietnam. Here, on the coast of Malaysia, it was sunny, with bright, beautiful colors. The roads were paved and painted, the buildings tall and new. Malaysia was harder for me to enjoy because it was so similar to a big city in America. I would love to return, however, and see Borneo.
I know I will take these memories with me everywhere I go, and it’ll remind me to pay attention to what is passing me by. To pay attention to those small details that occur, even in our own country. Something is always happening on the other side of that glass pane, and it could be something worth remembering.