After a long flight and a night of rest in Chiang Mai, I take the bus to Chiang Rai, a town I didn’t visit on my first visit to Thailand in 2011. My first three days in the city are the three days boys are rescued from the depths of a dark, watery cave; the hospital where they are taken to heal is only a block from my guest house.
The Clock Tower is the center of Chiang Rai. The golden, intricately sculpted tower sparkles in the middle of a traffic circle, where motorbikes rush by and spicy cooking smells from street stalls linger, hitting me in the back of my throat and making me cough while waiting to cross the street. In the evening, locals and tourists gather on the sidewalk to watch the clock tower light up; bathed in magenta, turquoise, green, and red lights, the tower glitters while music plays and the clock strikes the hour.
Only a few blocks down the street is the Old Clock Tower, a small white tower with chipped paint. It marks the entrance to the market, which is loud and colorful and crowded and full of smells. There are stalls of bright yellow shirts, gold jewelry shops sparkling on corners, motorbikes squeezing by throngs of people, sellers under umbrellas beside tables stocked with meat or produce or smelly fish or other goods. Cockroaches run around on the streets.
I visit the primary school where my students will volunteer, teaching English to students in grades one through six. The school has blue walls and tiled walkways, a lunch hall with low tables and plastic chairs, and classrooms that open to a courtyard, volleyball court, and grassy field. Shoes are lined up in pairs outside the classroom doors, and sock-footed kids in uniforms are excited to see a foreigner. Some come up in shy groups of three to practice: “Hello, how are you, what is your name?”
Before my students arrive, I visit the touristy night market. The smells of incense, street food, and mosquito coils, the colorful stands of clothing, bags, and jewelry, bring back memories of my first visit to Thailand.
I take the bus back to Chiang Mai to meet my coleader, Jay, and my students at the airport. We drive back across the mountains, through the rain, to Chiang Rai, where we start orientation. We get to know each other, complete a scavenger hunt in the market, buy yellow shirts for teaching (it’s the month of the king’s birthday, so we must wear his color to celebrate), plan our lessons for the week, buy school supplies, and eat pad Thai.
Before school starts, we spend a day visiting sites around town. The Black House (Baan Dam) consists of a shady green courtyard filled with tall traditional Thai buildings, all black, some dark and foreboding in size and presence. Animal artifacts and sculptures fill the yard and children play traditional music inside the main building.
A giant dark cloud hovers over the White Temple as we enter, and it is pouring by the time we come out the other end. Inside is gold; outside is silver. We brave the rain and run to a sheltered walkway, where lucky leaves clink as they hang from the ceiling, dangling like rain drops. The sky, white now, forms a pretty backdrop to the temple, which glitters like sunlight on snow. When the rain clears, it is hot, the humidity golden and thick.
We begin our week of teaching. My students help the Thai children make nametags, sing songs about animals, count or learn the names of days or months, play games. During the break after lunch, they play tag and children climb on top of my students for piggyback rides. We leave happy and sweaty every day. When we get back to our guest house, we learn to cook Thai food (green curry, Thai tofu basil, and pad see ew); or we are given a Thai dance lesson (bending our fingers back as far as they go); or we learn Muay Thai (punching, kicking against big foam pads); or we learn about the Hill Tribes at a local museum; or we get Thai massages and buy elephant pants at the night market. On the last day of school, we cancel our lessons to visit a meditation center, then back at the school, we have a dance party in the lunch room. When it’s time to leave, everyone is crying—girls, boys, the Thai children, my students—I cry too, watching them all cry, and our van driver laughs at me.
On the weekend, we head out of the city. This is the Thailand I remember: clean air, trees and rain and butterflies; rice paddies and mountains and green. We read and journal and draw and relax and the students stay up late, giggling.
We pair up with local high school students on our final day in Chiang Rai and visit more temples around town. At Wat Phra Kaew, gardeners take care of blooming orchids. The Blue Temple is a million indescribable shades of sky and water and the first hours of night. We eat coconut ice cream with rice, both dyed blue to match the temple and the indigo flower perched atop the dessert. At Wat Huay Pla Kang, we take an elevator to look out the window of the Buddha’s third eye.
We take the vans back over the mountains to Chiang Mai. We spend a day at Elephant Nature Park, where we feed elephants bananas, placing the fruit at the tips of their thick, moist trunks, or peeling them for the babies who drop the bananas in the mud. We watch the elephants forage, the mother trumpeting so her baby doesn’t stray too far, then walk with them to the river, where we splash them and each other with buckets of water, everyone soaked and laughing.