A few months ago, a friend and I were discussing how long you need to be in a place before it feels like you’ve really experienced it. She was in the midst of planning a year abroad, and I was about to leave for my six months overseas, and we were mulling over how long we’d be in our respective destinations. Could you feel like you belonged in just a few weeks? Was two months enough? Did you need a full year before you could say it felt like home?
I know with every place it’s different: some cities can just suck you in so quick you feel like you must have lived there in a past life. While some places just always feel out of grasp – you may be comfortable, but you always still feel like you’re an outsider. But I’ve learned that when it happens, when that moment of total ease comes, it comes without you even realizing the shift.
When I first arrived in Chiang Mai, I questioned what I had done. I had been to southern Thailand the previous year and knew I liked it enough, but I had never had that falling in love experience that so many people say they feel for Thailand. I came back because I had friends who were also moving here, and because I wanted to experience the digital nomad culture I had heard so much about. Chiang Mai is a wildly popular hub for freelancers and remote employees, thanks to cheap living, fast internet, cool co-working spaces, an abundance of delicious food, and a hipster vibe that makes it easy to pursue artistic passion projects.
All of that intrigued me enough to pack up and move there for three months, but I was skeptical whether I’d be one of those people who declares that Thailand will change your life. And after I arrived and was thrust into that overwhelming sensation of being somewhere where I couldn’t speak the language or read the script, where crossing the street felt like a life-or-death mission, and where I knew no one, I doubted I’d ever love Thailand the way that so many people do.
I realize for a savvy traveller that sounds melodramatic. Thailand is one of the easiest countries to navigate, and Chiang Mai one of the easiest cities in the country. It is a charming, delightful, chilled-out place. But the sudden change from my life in Toronto was still enough to unnerve me for a few days and weeks. I’ve travelled a lot, including to various corners of Southeast Asia, but it’s one thing to know that you’ll be uncomfortable and in an unfamiliar culture for a few weeks on a trip — it’s a whole other feeling to wonder if this uncomfortableness can actually become a part of your day-to-day life.
It all started small — walking a bit further each day, testing out a new food stall each time, checking out local events and hanging out at corner pubs. Because I’m still working full-time while I’m here, I joined a co-working space, or I would spend afternoons typing in cafés. And my evenings would be drinks out with new friends or a quick street stall takeaway dinner to eat on my couch. I dated a bit. My days became so… normal.
And then, I don’t know when it happened, but suddenly one day I realized how easy it all felt. How I could suddenly feel my way around the sois without looking at a map, how suddenly riding a songthaew felt more natural than taking a taxi, how suddenly I could dart through traffic with total confidence, how suddenly I knew people and they knew me. How suddenly I felt like I belonged.
I remember one of my early days here. I was living in a condo out at the west end of Suthep Road, right at the base of Suthep Mountain and near a café where cyclists would gather early on weekend mornings to ride up the trails. Chiang Mai University was just beyond my driveway, and in the evenings, the road would be packed with cars and motorbikes coming out of the university grounds, as dozens upon dozens of food vendors popped up along every stretch of available sidewalk. It was a busy district, and the crowds and sounds overwhelmed me those first few days. I’m a person who craves quiet time and quiet space — back in Toronto, I live near High Park and the Humber Bay waterfront, and I regularly run along the trails in both places as a way to mentally escape. But on Suthep, I didn’t know where to find quiet, unless I wanted to head up the mountain with the cyclists (trust me, I’m not that skilled on a bike).
Two new friends I had met told me about Wat Umong, known as ‘the forest temple’ and located not far from my condo. Unlike most of the temples in Chiang Mai, it wasn’t covered in glittering gold, but was a simple stone stupa with forest paths marked with Buddhist mantras. I walked to it a few days later and wandered the grounds and found what I had been craving: silence. In hindsight, that might have been when it started to shift, even just microscopically. That mini adventure was enough to give me the space to breathe, to relax, and to realize maybe it wasn’t so hard to find your way.
It’s now been over three months since that walk to Wat Umong and it both feels like it was just yesterday and like it was forever ago. It makes me laugh to think how nervous I was in those early days, and how unsure of myself I felt here, when now so much of it feels so normal. When now the city feels like a place where I’m at home.
And now, the time has come to say goodbye to Chiang Mai. I leave tomorrow for two months on Crete — a place where I again can’t speak the language or read the script. And I’ll be forced to start all over, no doubt feeling a bit of that self-doubt once again.
I’ve always been a shy, self-conscious person. I used to be frightened by things I couldn’t control and always hated asking for help or admitting I didn’t know how to do something. And yet now, that’s one of the things I love the most about travel: learning to let go of the control and to see what happens, and being forced to ask strangers for answers because you can’t know everything. Travel has taught me that vulnerability isn’t a bad thing. I’ve learned that lesson in fits and starts over my years of travelling, but today, as I pack up to start fresh in a new destination, I feel like this time, the lesson hit a bit deeper.
I might have had the exact same experience had I gone to live in any other city, but I will say there is something about Chiang Mai’s charm, and now I have a better understanding of why so many people fall in love with Thailand. So many times, I’ve fallen in love with cities and towns almost immediately: Reykjavik, Melbourne, Cusco, and Suchitoto come to mind as places I’ve declared ‘I could live here’ after just a mere few hours. But Chiang Mai was a slow build. I had my doubts that we were compatible, but then it caught me by surprise. And now I feel like I’m leaving this place as a different, better person than I was when I arrived.
I’m still not one of those people who will tell you that Thailand will change your life. But I will say that I think Chiang Mai changed mine.