Lost in Chiang Mai

Last month, on impulse – or what can be vaguely considered impulse given the forethought involved – I booked a ticket to Chiang Mai, Thailand. A Buddhist mountain mecca and an infamous vegetarian haven, the second largest city in Thailand always seems to get more Internet love than the first. Travel bloggers, digital nomads, and Solo Female Travelers compile multiple lists devoted to the cheap food, affordable massages, and plethora of cafes offering both outlets and free wi-fi. The abundance and availability of information on life in Chiang Mai fueled romantic ideas of escape. Of recharging mentally, meeting interesting people, and relaxing shamelessly. At the same time, I dreamed, it would harden me; that becoming a Solo Female Traveler – however briefly – would make me more resilient.

Instead, within 72 hours of arriving, I had a meltdown.

Had I been less optimistic last month, I would have booked myself a flight to somewhere busy, cold, and miserable, like New York City. The primary reason being that, when I am in my right mind, I am well aware that I don’t do relaxation well. It is seemingly always coupled with guilt, only occurs when asleep, or, in the best case scenario, lasts a mere day. Presented with the opportunity to do nothing for the better part of three weeks, alone, I panicked. I had no portrait to obsess and worry over, and any new ideas I came up with were inevitably shelved until December, exacerbating the helplessness. I couldn’t work. Worse, I couldn’t write. The vacation that I was convinced would be empowering was, instead, sapping my sanity.

It wouldn’t have been so bad, maybe, if perpetual indigestion hadn’t followed. For the carnivore, omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan, Chiang Mai is a gastronomic heaven. Cheap, delicious food is available everywhere, from food markets to proper restaurants. There is pad thai that comes wrapped in an omelette, addictive, green papaya salads, and cheap, enormous smoothies. If it weren’t for my roiling stomach, I would have probably gained 20 kgs by now. Somewhat fortunately, my digestive system has put a near moratorium on eating. A difficult task when surrounded by the smells of sizzling, smoking, street food.

When I realized that this unhappy set of circumstances had solidified in my mind into the opinion that I wasn’t really enjoying Chiang Mai as I should, as I was supposed to, the experience became worse. I hate this place, I thought, alone in my air conditioned Airbnb, while simultaneously committing myself to at least go through the motions.

And so I dragged myself, stomach acid lurching, to Tha Pae gate – the main, and easternmost, gate to the Old City of Chiang Mai – and down to the Sunday Walking Street. From just outside the iconic red brick gate, down Rajdamnoen Road, vendors set up stalls offering soap carved into flowers, silver jewelry, tribal handicrafts, and silk scarves. Food stalls cluster into temple courtyards selling both snacks and bigger meals. Between the waves of tourists and Thai couples, I snapped a picture of a man selling omelettes cooked in small banana boats, and made my first friend in Thailand.

“Take a picture,” the omelette vendor demanded, then, “show me!” I laughed, for what seemed to be the first time that week.

“You come here alone?” He asked.

And breaking that rule of the Solo Female Traveler to lie when asked, to make up a phantom husband or boyfriend, I said yes, I did come here alone.

The questions continued, and when I bought a 10 baht omelette from him, hot off the grill, he also dusted burnt shards of banana leaf off the plastic chair next to him. “Sit, sit here,” he said. And suddenly I was behind a Thai food stall, chatting to its middle-aged proprietor while he served customers. Spooning the custardy egg into my mouth, I learned that Ernie – the man steaming the egg boats – was from Bangkok and his favorite city is Phuket. He dumped shards of imitation crab onto my egg boat, and motioned for me to eat up. “Let’s take a picture,” he demanded, and unable to find anyone else, we had a friendly customer take the following slightly ridiculous photo.

“The trip was totally worth it!” A friend said later when I related the story to him. Even if I didn’t make another friend here, it was so true.