It's been 1 year, 9 months and 14 days since we left home. Within the first week of traveling, we knew that this was more than just a "trip" we wanted this to be our life. We've explored so many places and experienced so many things but we decided to slow down for just a bit and came here to Chiang Mai, Thailand with a two-point plan:
- Discover Northern Thailand
We've been working pretty much non-stop and I know that sounds silly because we're not getting paid to do so, but we want to invest all our energy in to our creative projects (i.e. photography, Youtube, this shiny new website, etc.) in the hopes that we can turn these passions into a full-time thing someday. We've tasted the fruits of our labor and it tastes exactly like freedom. Sweet, sweet freedom fruit. So we figured, if we were able to get ourselves out here in the first place, what else are we truly capable of? Can we become our own bosses someday? Become location independent? We have to keep going. We owe it to ourselves, to our loved ones we left back at home, to the people that see something special in us, to life itself to at least try.
This is a business loan to ourselves.
It's a serious risk, but really every business we see here in Thailand (or anywhere for that matter) which is sometimes nothing more than a metal chair in someone's front room with the sign that says "Hair cut" out front is our daily reminder of somebody taking their idea and acting on it. Entrepreneurship is alive and thriving in every country we've visited, in fact it's a way of life and we're completely inspired by it. We salute all the risk takers out there. We want to be like you someday.
We're hungry... but we're also human and therefore struggling with all the doubts and fears that come along with a venture like this. It's not all been rainbows and puppy breath. Far from it. We have many "Oh my God, what are we doing?!! Where is all this going!??" freak-out sessions, but it's in these moments that we need to step back, realign ourselves mentally, and not go down what Noah has lovingly named our "Shame Spiral". So to us, there is only one cure:
Having Noah learn how to ride a motorbike here in Asia has been the gift that keeps on giving. The open road is pure freedom and when we feel stressed out, confused and start up with the "WTF!!?? What are we going to do!?" we know it's time to get on the bike and go.
Here's a recent outing we took so you can remember us for being the "adventurous travel couple" and not the kind of couple that spends all their time working while standing up and freaking out about the future. Though both are completely true.
I once read about a place called Pha Chor, a natural phenomenon that's thought to have been formed by the Ping River. Over time, the river changed course and subsequent erosion left behind soil pillars of strange shapes. As beautiful as it looked, what really caught my attention is that people have described it as "Thailand's miniature Grand Canyon". Well, we've been to the Grand Canyon before and it was incredible and I like things that are cute and miniature so would this trip be a double win!? With a route plugged in, we headed 30km south to Mae Wang National Park, which is where this mini-canyon is located.
Full disclosure, all my photos are from when we arrived at the National Park, since it took us an hour to get here on an extremely dangerous freeway. As magical as these places are, oftentimes getting there means riding on the shoulder of the highway for the entire journey in order to avoid being smashed by work trucks, oncoming traffic and all the other road hazards that are a part of everyday Thai life.
Once we were inside the park, we followed the signs that read "This way for Canyon!" and it didn't take long for the paved roads to become a mixture of dirt and gravel... by now we were all alone in the forest.
I love being out here, no phone service, no map and no real plans. We're thousands of miles away from the U.S. on a Tuesday afternoon and no one knows where we are or what we're doing. I feel alive on these days. We keep following the trail...
We came to a fork in the road where there was an English sign with "Pha Chor" pointing towards the left, and a dusty, unmarked road on the right. Yes, we did come to see Pha Chor, but it's been our experience that it's never the destination, but always the journey that is the most exciting. So, our instincts were to cut right and follow the road with no signs.
We went back to the fork and took a left that lead to the big event. This road was serious business, taking us uphill and over several steep and windy turns before reaching the parking lot. As much as I like to "get off the beaten path" I do so with the knowledge that Asia loves their snacks as much, if not more than me and Noah. So as remote as we always think we are, someone has anticipated our arrival and already set-up shop. For instance, a temple in the jungle after a 5 hour hike? Snack stand. 3000 steps to reach the peaks of Zhangjiajie in China? Snacks. We've come to expect the unexpected out here, but you're never far away from a Snickers bar.
Just as I thought, there was a fully stocked restaurant and snack shop at the top, so we had ourselves a sugar high as we looked out over the viewpoint and wondered, "Where in that Thai forest was the canyon?"
This is considered a brand new attraction for this park (new as in they made it accessible now?) so everything is fresh and the paint still wet in some parts. With no other place to go but down, we took the stairs that led deeper into the valley. Would there be a snacks down there too?
After a 10 minute walk (some girls even decided to do it in heels!) we reached more stairs. This is Asia, so everything worth seeing or doing is up at the other end of a staircase for some reason. They freaking LOVE stairs. It was a little arduous as the humidity sucked all the energy from my body (don't let these photos fool you, it's overcast but it's 88 degrees and 87% humidity and we already sweated out what we drank at the top of the hill) but the older women in platforms shamed me into pushing through it without stopping so we were almost there!
And then we saw it, in all its miniature glory. This is Pha Chor:
What more can I say? It was impressive, but after some filming and goofing off in front of the cliffs, there wasn't much else to do but make our way back home. Turns out, you don't exit Pha Chor the same way you come in, instead, they have you follow a narrow and windy path carved out of earth with towering walls on either side. It’s a good thing neither of us are claustrophobic, since we kept running into other hikers trying to cheat the staircase system by going upstream. (why didn't I think of that?) It was all in good fun and I'm glad we got to see this unique destination in the flesh, or soil, or whatever.
We left the National Park and instead of taking the freeway back home, we decided to veer off course knowing that all roads eventually lead to Chiang Mai "Yay! The scenic route!" I screamed as we now passed rice paddies and water buffalos.
And then we saw it from the road... a Wat (temple) that was huge and sparkling in the setting sun. Like a moth to a flame or a cat to a laser pointer, I had to have it! I forced Noah to make a U-turn and down a small dirt road we went towards the temple.
We've seen hundreds if not thousands of Buddhist temples, but as we walked inside, we could see that this one was different. It was elaborate and impressive and it even had it's own moat! Considering it's over the top architecture, this temple seemed more in line with something we'd see in Bangkok and I half expected to see a ticket stand where they charged an entrance fee. But there were no crowds, no touts, in fact there was no one but me and Noah. Or so I thought...
We turned a corner around the moat and there she was, a tiny woman with a messy black bun. She was from a Hill tribe, one of nearly a million ethnic minorities that live here in Northern Thailand but I'm sad to say that I didn't know which one. She saw us, smiled and came walking over. We said "Hello" and she immediately started telling us a story. She was speaking a language we've never heard before and with our blank stares, she knew she wasn't getting through to us so she switched gears without missing a beat and turned her passionate speech into a mimed performance by using her body and facial expressions instead.
She pointed to the back of the temple grounds and rolled her eyes in the back of her head. Then, she would make an "AHHHH!" noise as if she were in a state of shock and throw her hands up in the air. Finally, she'd put her hands together in prayer and then dance for us as she'd start all over again from the top. She did this five times in total. After the third play through, I knew what part was coming up and had to stop myself from shouting out things like this was a bizarre game of Charades, "OK, two words, rhymes with prayer?"
Her performance was Oscar-worthy as she wordlessly narrated us through what looked like a tale of love, loss and intrigue. I understood that she felt strongly about this story and the emotions were there, but still the message was lost in translation. In the end, all I could do was smile and say "Thank you" in Thai and with that she seemed satisfied and walked away silently to go scoop out a dead fish from the moat.
"What was that about?" Noah asked.
I had no idea.
We were alone again to explore and there was only the sound of wind-chimes hanging off the golden Stupas. All this grandeur and only the three of us to experience it at this very moment in time. I felt so lucky.
Many photos later, I walked towards the main temple that our tiny dancer kept pointing at, and these silly looking Muppet pups woke up from their nap to greet me! I of course made a loud fuss over their cuteness and an old woman who seemingly came out of nowhere, heard me and then ushered me inside.
I took off my shoes and together we walked hand in hand towards the first of two alcoves in this giant room. She sat down to pray and was instantly bathed in gold. There were candles lit all around her and the setting sun had bounced off the Buddha's in the room and reflected it's sparkle on to her face. She had such a kind face. Before she began to chant, she motioned for me to explore the second alcove in the room. "Over there?" I whispered and she nodded. That side was dark, unlit and frankly creepy, but I looked at that little golden face and there was no way she'd ever steer me wrong. So I went... alone.
She started chanting and each step I took towards the darkness was rhythmic with her voice and I could feel my tension rising. When I finally made it across the room, I felt stupid for being so nervous. Like I said before, we've seen hundreds of these temples and their layouts and contents are virtually all the same and when I reached the alcove it was just as I expected: small Buddha statues, incense sticks, and plastic flowers. All pretty standard fare for a Wat. But, then I saw it in all that dusty chaos... human fingers. They were black as charcoal but juicy like a prune. My mind started to race as my eyes started to focus:
"AHHHHH!!! It's a man in a box! A Monk in a box! A dead Monk man in a box! A Dead Box! MONK!"
My mind finally allowed me to fill in all the blanks and I was now face to face with a mummified (or maybe embalmed?) monk in a glass box. His sunken eyes were facing towards the sky with his body draped in a bright yellow cloth. He was covered in a sea of plastic flowers which is why I didn't notice him at first, but now I found myself not being able to look away. Then, it hit me, our story-teller from earlier was trying to explain to me who this was, and what this was. She nailed it, complete with "AHHH!" shocked reaction as that was exactly what I did!
I started to look around the room and saw the same picture of an old man hanging on every wall. This must be the guy. It's times like these that I wish I knew how to read Thai so that I could research it further or talk it over with someone, but my regret was interrupted by a large group of young Monks aged 6 - 12ish that came in to pray in front of the revered monk in the box. I moved aside to watch, something was chanted, and then they all gathered up for a group portrait when the oldest Monk of the group pulled out an iPad from his saffron robe. Oh Thailand, you are lovely and bizarre. Never change.
At the sight of mummified Monk selfies I took that as my cue to leave and go find Noah.
Once reunited, I excitedly told Noah all about my adventures in the temple as we walked back to the bike. Somewhere between putting my hands together to re-enact the old woman's prayer to sharing my shock at discovering the body, I realized that if someone were watching us from afar, it looked as though I were wordlessly narrating him through a tale of love, loss and intrigue.
We drove back home knowing that we had a long week of work ahead of us, but todays roadtrip was a reminder of why we're here, what's at stake, and we were hungry once again.