With its loose chain and weathered tires, my bicycle doesn’t look that reliable. And the impatient beeps on the street are becoming louder by the minute.
Despite my hesitation, I decide to go on with the ride.
I spent the previous day making the trek from winter-gripped Chicago to warm and sunny streets of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. My arrival in Chiang Mai marks the beginning of a tectonic shift in my life — just a few weeks ago, I quit my corporate job to start a new, nomadic lifestyle. Still groggy from the onset of this journey, I start pedaling.
Shooing away audacious roosters that seem adamant to jump under my bike, I ride slowly toward the Old City gates. For survival reasons, one should only make their first attempt biking the Thai streets in the early morning hours, when traffic is lightest. But Chiang Mai is different. As I learn later when visiting Bangkok, the northern capital is a distinctly sleepier town.
Inside the Old City gates, I meet Sawang, the owner of a mobile coffee cart with a fitting name given the circumstances, “Nomad Coffee.” A ferocious traveler himself, Sawang had just finished a daring bicycle trip from Thailand to Georgia and back. We exchange a few words about places our passion for the world has taken us. Before I continue further, Sawang outfits me with a freshly brewed pour over. “Grows in the mountains not too far from here,” he proudly remarks.
Several blocks later, I pass Akha Ama Coffee, a narrow, railway carriage-like space with a cozy veranda. I make a mental note to return — I am not chasing coffee today. I’ve pedaled to the Old City to visit Wat Chedi Luang, one of the most prominent Buddhist temples in northern Thailand.
The sun hangs high by the time I reach the temple grounds. The imposing ruin of a large stupa occupies the main courtyard and the nearly vertical stairs are guarded by dragons and elephants. A large golden Buddha sits at the top.
Although the courtyard is busy with believers and visitors like me, it is surprisingly quiet. I seek to cool off under the leaves of a sprawling tree and stand still for a moment. But just then, a heavy gong strikes and its low sound reverberates through the air. As the yard quickly fills with young monks-in-training draped into bright orange robes, I realize this chedi is also home to an adjacent Buddhist school.
I meet one of the students on a nearby bench. 16 year old Chian is eager to practice his English. After the obligatory small-talk, we engage in what turns out to be a remarkable exchange.
Chian explains that going to a Buddhist school is often the only choice for many families in northern Thailand. I nod: during a recent trek in the nearby mountains, I saw firsthand the scarcity of resources that he is referring to.
It’s lunch break for the students and Chian invites me to a modest neighboring food stall that serves only one type of dish: thick flat egg noodles served in a hot red broth, a variation of the ubiquitous khao soi. We each order a bowl and the kids observe with amazement as I deftly make use of my chopsticks, delving into the spicy soup.
Over lunch, Chian mentions that he would like to see other countries beside Thailand. I ask him if he has plans to visit the United States, to which he gives me an earnest smile and says, “Life has no guarantees,” before joining into a loud burst of laugh with his peers.
Later, Chian invites me inside to see the school. He shuffles quickly across the thoroughly swept floors of the three-storied building and I follow suit. In one classroom, he shows me his paintings. In another, he pulls out a faded map of the world, face alight again with his open smile.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Just before the gong strikes again to mark the return to classes, Chian brings me to another room. As we go through piles of textbooks, he turns to me, uttering, “Sometimes I stress, because I have so much homework to do. But then I meditate and I become happy.”
The power of travel is not contained to seeing the diversity of this world. It also lies in the stunning realization that two human beings, divided by oceans, lifestyles, and experiences can go through similar struggles and hold kindred aspirations. I smile to Chian and say that I, too, have been stressing a lot lately.
The next day, I decide to visit another important site in Chiang Mai: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Towering above the city at nearly 1,700 meters, the temple perched atop Doi Suthep Mountain is a popular daytime tourist destination. I plan to go up at sunrise. My short-spoken guide who goes by the name “Joe Marley” raises an eyebrow, but nevertheless agrees.
In the dark, Joe Marley’s motorbike zips through Chiang Mai’s silent streets before starting on the long winding road to the top of Doi Suthep. We make the last leg of the ascent on foot, climbing 300 steps to the peak without a single word.
It’s six in the morning and Doi Suthep is quiet save for the barely audible chanting of monks. I catch my breath and wait for the rising sun.
When the first rays start peeking over the horizon, I feel a sudden sense of euphoria. This single long minute, alone on a mountain in northern Thailand, frees me. I let the weight of my past mistakes, expectations, and dead ends slide off my shoulders and watch it tumble into the sleeping town below.
I return to Wat Chedi Luang several days later. A flurry of ochre-robed monks scurries across the courtyard and, though I search the crowd, Chian is nowhere to be found.
As the temple gong strikes and signals the start of classes again, I can’t shake off a curious feeling that I had experienced an encounter with a real life kind of wonder.