About that time I moved to Chiang Mai (or, On being creative and hangry)

bowl of Thai noodles and sausage

This is a bowl of khao soi. This blog post is not about khao soi, but it is about the power of food.

Once upon a time, I used to write long, sweeping emails about my trips for friends and family. This was in the days before social media (that’s right, kiddos, I’m old), so instead of posting daily commentaries and photos of my lunch whenever I was far from home, I would write out lengthy stories about, well, nothing really at all. The people I met. Something cool I had seen. A new cultural tidbit I had learned. It was those emails that led me into travel writing as a career, because the friends and family I wrote to told me they enjoyed seeing those long-winded emails land in their inboxes. I realized I actually had a skill for turning the inane moments of travel into something funny or sad or insightful.

Part of the reason I decided to pack up and move abroad was because I was feeling like my creativity was caught in a death spiral. Writing — something I had always loved and found solace in — felt more like a chore than joy. I found myself rehashing the same phrases again and again, recycling paragraphs until everything I wrote felt like something I had written the day before and the day before that. I needed something to shock me out of my routine, and figured if my daily life routine was different, my writing just might become different, too.

And so, I’m bringing those emails back, but this time in blog form. This blog has been sitting empty for months because I never know what to do with it. I’m not a travel blogger, nor will I ever be one — pitching myself to sponsors is something I suck too much at to ever turn into a profession. I had launched this blog as a place to post the stories that didn’t have a home in another publication, but I I haven’t been inspired of late to write ‘proper’ travel journalism. And yet, right now I’m travelling and I have thoughts in my head, and I’m reminding myself that I own this space to write whatever the hell I want, even if it’s nothing more than how scared I was to cross the street today (seriously, no matter how many times I travel in Asia, I can’t seem to get used to the free-for-all scrambles of trying to cross a major artery). So, welcome to old-school-style blogging, when blogs were places to be yourself, not to be a brand ambassador. If you stick around, you’ll be treated to my self-indulgent, diary-style ramblings that used to be limited to the eyes of those on my email contact list.

view of mountains and houses in Chiang Mai

The not-too-awful view from my new home sweet home

I arrived in Chiang Mai late yesterday afternoon. I wasn’t excited. People have been asking me for weeks, for months, if I’ve been excited about the fact that I’m moving abroad for six months. And every time, I said the same thing: no, because it doesn’t seem real yet. Even as my plane touched down yesterday, I wasn’t giddy with anticipation about living as a (be warned, I’m going to use the cliché phrase) digital nomad; I was giddy about the fact that I could finally stretch after 22 hours in an airplane. (I was also giddy about the fact that the lithium camera battery I forgot I had left in my checked luggage hadn’t caught fire in the cargo hold, because those are the panicked thoughts that hit you when you’re 35,000 feet in the air.)

Even as my Airbnb host, Tong, drove me from the airport to my rented condo at the base of Doi Suthep, it still didn’t feel real. I was simultaneously hyper aware of my surroundings and completely fuzzy-headed — kinda like how you feel when you’ve taken too much cold medication.

I had a moment of déjà vu when I discovered the condo looks exactly like its photos on Airbnb (just like with Tinder, you can never be totally sure what you’re going to get in real life), and so it instantly felt a bit like the home I had imagined it to be. I unpacked. I walked down to the 7/11 and picked up a few essentials (‘essentials’ being juice, yogurt, beer and an assortment of questionably flavoured snacks — I’ll report back on the verdict of my lasagna-flavoured Sun Chips). It felt good, easy even. I could do this.

As evening descended, I headed out again in search of dinner. Tong had told me that just a short walk away there’d be rows of street food vendors every night, catering to the students at the university nearby. I love me some food on sticks, so I went to see what goodies I could find.

The street was rammed. Rush hour traffic stretched on and on along this far-west section of Suthep Road that I’ve since learned is a ghost town the rest of the day. Students packed the sidewalks, and smells of fried chicken, omelets, sushi, dumplings and more assaulted from every direction. Because my condo is out of the way of expat-heavy Nimmanhaemin and the tourist-heavy old town, most of the carts along Suthep don’t offer English translations on their signs — and while I know a few pleasantries in Thai, my understanding of their alphabet equals my understanding of high school chemistry (hint: I dropped out of chem class two weeks in).

I picked my way through the crowd, peering over shoulders at sizzling fryers and bubbling pots, to see what was on offer — sometimes recognizing the dishes, but most often not. And as I wandered from stall to stall to stall, doing a loop and mentally noting the orders I’d make once I had perused it all, I suddenly couldn’t decide on anything. I wanted all of it and none of it. I wanted to embrace the crowded, noisy sidewalks and also hide on a quiet side street. I wanted to sit down on a tiny stool next to some local kids and eat mystery meat on a stick, and I also wanted to retreat back to my cozy condo and eat the familiar Oreos I had bought at 7/11. And in a flash, as I stood there a bit shell-shocked, I started thinking WTF was I doing, moving to Thailand?

In the end, I found a middle ground; I turned my back on the night market and wandered back toward my apartment. Right at the foot of my street, I stopped into an outdoor café where a mix of locals and farang sat, eating promising-looking plates of various curries. I ordered up some red curry chicken and started stuffing my face, ignoring the burning on my lips so I could reach for more bites, and realizing for the first time how much I was starving after smelling the odours of those Suthep stalls and being awake for some 36 hours.

I noticed as I ate that the air was cooling off, the heavy humidity of the day’s sunshine being replaced by a chilled breeze that blew away some off the anxiety I hadn’t even realized I was holding in. Maybe it was due to the simple fact that I was no longer hungry that the anxious haze lifted a bit. In Thailand, it’s customary not to ask “how are you?” as a greeting, but rather to ask “have you eaten yet?” Maybe that’s all my mini moment of panic and uncertainty really was. Thailand just wanted me to eat something.

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