The Banal + The Adventure: Part I – The Banal

Our lives here are a mix of adventure and the banal. I suppose that is life everywhere, but here it feels more pronounced. Maybe that’s with the expectations of travel life thrown in – what one imagines life to be on the road vs. what actual life turns out to be. That said, I fully get that this post might bore you to tears if our quotidian routines remind you of your everyday life and it’s not the escape you hoped for! Feel free to skip this one or hop to the next post on adventures (coming soon)!  

Part I – The Banal

Our House
We live in a pretty humble two-story house. For those of you Beth-Chris lifers, think of our Mumbai house, but bigger. It has 2.5 bedrooms on top (Obie has his own room, but it’s really an exaggerated closet). We have ACs in the bedrooms, but none on the ground floor. The floors are classically S/SE Asian style white marble, few decorations, curlicue bars and mosquito coverings on windows, and heavy teak furniture. We have a small washer, but line dry the clothes outside. 

Our Neighborhood
We live two blocks from the Ping river in a decidedly middle class Thai neighborhood. We're at the end of a small dead end street with a few townhouses, an auto repair shop, an apartment building, and a plot of banana palms. The streets are narrow with no sidewalks, and it's pretty sleepy except for the occasional motorscooter. 

The shortcut that circumvents the incredibly busy, no-sidewalk street that our small street connects to winds through a wat (temple) and a school. 

This sounds like a great short cut! And sometimes it is, with kids shyly waving to us...but not in the evening when the grounds are empty - save for a lone monk sweeping the floors, the soi (street) dogs in the midst of their dinner, and a family of five unknowingly traipsing through their territory. We have had more than one moderately scary moment of dogs surrounding and barking at us, only to realize that we had inadvertently positioned ourselves between the dogs and their half eaten bowls of rice. That said, we do love that we are surrounded by the local community, near a supermarket, and can walk to restaurants/shops in five minutes or so. And the kids have developed some incredible street smarts – how to watch for cars/motorbikes where there are no sidewalks, when/how to cross the road, and how to assert confidence around the stray dogs. 

Our Weekday Routine
We have finally built up somewhat of a routine when we are not off on a big day/multi-day adventure, and it's been really important to incorporate the Chris-designed, kid-decorated elaborate calendar into our life here so that the boys can have a sense of normalcy.

Here's our weekday routine:

  • 6:00-8:30: Me time (read, journal, meditate, write blog posts)
  • 8:30: Wake the kids up (we found this was important, otherwise our days don’t get started until 11!)
  • 8:30-9:30: Breakfast/clean up/get dressed
  • 9:30 – 11ish: School work
  • 11:30 ish - ?: Leave the house! This might include going to lunch, or finding a new cafe. I can’t even begin to describe café culture here – amazing coffee, smoothies, juices, etc. generally housed in a modern café with gorgeous sprawling backyards/jungles. Or then there are the toy cafes, littered with nostalgic video game/game memorabilia from the 80s/90s. Or we might end up sampling a local, often deserted pool to spend the day in (tourism has really not come back to Chiang Mai yet), feeding animals/riding water buffalo (?) at a café/farm, taking a hike, going to a wat, exploring a market, attending a local soccer game, etc. We might be out all day or we might come back for some iPad time. Sometimes our journey will take us into the night, ending up at a night market or cool restaurant. It all depends on how we feel. 

So let’s start with the real. I do not enjoy being a ‘formal’ teacher to my kids. We are doing the bare minimum here, but I suppose it’s not the bare minimum since it still involves 1-1.5 hours of parental teaching a day. If you’re interested, here’s how we’ve finally settled into a school routine:

  • Throughout the week ongoing: general expectation of everyone reading all week (for the littles who sometimes need some more challenging reading direction, we download specific chapter books for them to read weekly)
  • Throughout the week ongoing: near-daily journal writing as a family
  • Alternate days: math (Khan academy or workbook)
  • Alternate days: writing - this varies from researching a place we are going to and writing about it, to Obie writing a book or Emmet writing a graphic novel, to Emmet reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and responding to essay questions about the text, to Asa writing stories inspired by Hindu myths. We try to allow the kids to tell us what they are interested in so they can be authors/designers of the task itself, but that doesn’t always work! Sometimes they translate this writing into blog posts!
  • Obie specific: Obie is obviously at a different place in his learning and has different needs. In addition to the basic educational infrastructure we have created for the kids, he also takes a Thai course with me twice a week (so fun to be his learning peer! Also slightly demoralizing that his sprightly 12-year-old brain absorbs Thai language faster than me), has developed an interest in meditation so may do a course on that, and does a weekly Outschool class on analyzing text (various fiction pieces) and writing. 
  • Fridays: we need to report into our learning platform/coordinator (SelfDesign) to tell them what we have accomplished that week, so that generally takes some time, and is authored by the kids.

So that’s school. It can be a SLOG. Some days the kids are running with their own stuff and independent and happily learning. Other days, it’s like pulling teeth. This is particularly true when they have to absorb a new concept without their peers around them to help them remember that sometimes learning is slow and steady rather than lightning speed revelations. Then they get frustrated and generally take it out on us. As Chris tells me when I am wanting to pull my hair out, this is an investment in them. And the pain points are not daily and sometimes there are even moments of elation, as we watch their writing evolve or their creativity emerge in new ways. 

We try to have the weekends feel different than the weekdays. This has proved important for everyone’s sanity. If we are not embarking on a big adventure, the kids can sleep in and Emmet (soccer) and Obie (drama) do outside classes so they can meet other kids and have a life outside of us. Obie is also dabbling in Muay Thai. While Asa wanted to do gymnastics, one of the features of this trip is that he seems just not developmentally ready to attend a class in Thailand. We tried gymnastics (his choice), but he refused to go. So, we have opted to give it a rest. As he said to us, ‘don’t pressure me.’ And instead of that being an ongoing argument, we have decided to let it go for now.

Food is incredibly affordable here and there is an enormous restaurant culture, so we generally eat out. We barely cook, which is weird, but we are rolling with it. That seems to be pretty common with Thais as well. The ubiquitous night markets full of food stalls are packed every evening! Our kids have always been somewhat open to foods (depending on the kid and their respective stages of development), but here's a learning: if you are fed up with your picky eater, just go live in another country. Our kids in just a month in Thailand have become incredibly adventurous and open eaters. They are now into spicy foods and generally eat and will try everything (with the exception of Obie and seafood – that is still a work in progress). They will now often opt for Thai food over Western food. We all love eating at night markets. 

It’s pretty cool to watch that evolution! That said, only one of our kids would eat crickets (see the video for who!). 

Whew, that was a lot - very impressive if you managed to stay with me! Stay tuned for the coming adventure post! 

Wat Pha Lat [Obie]

Two days ago, my family and I went to Wat Pha Lat. It is a temple high in the mountains with only one road and trail leading to the peak. The temple is nestled in the forest beside a beautiful waterfall overlooking the city. Ancient Buddhist statues dot the cliff, making you feel like you are in a forgotten place. The temple has been standing for more than 500 years. It was built during the reign of King Kuena from 1355 to 1385. The story begins with the royal party journeying to the top of Doi Suthep while the king rode on his white elephant. One of Buddha’s bones was placed on the elephant with the king. Once they arrived at the top, the elephant trumpeted three times and then died in exhaustion. That was declared an omen and the king immediately ordered Wat Phra That Doi Suthep to be built. Later, he declared the erection of three temples on the mountain, all places where his elephant had rested. 

We began our journey in a Grab taxi that dropped us off at the Basecamp Trail Cafe. After gobbling down a few bites and buying a drink to keep us energized, we started walking up the road to the Monks Trail. Ascending the tiring uphill, we eventually reached the opening of the trail. We hiked along the winding beaten dirt path to the temple. 

I'm not going to name names, but there were some complaints because of all the humidity in the air. Halfway through the hike, raindrops began to fall. In Thailand, if you feel a few drops, you know that a downpour is in your near future. Miraculously, the rain did not worsen and eventually stopped. We reached the temple and marvelled at the rock statues scattered around it. 

We walked up a few steps and reached a meditation site with an amazing view of the city. Passing statues of Buddha, we wandered through the temple and found an ancient wat, covered in moss. 

This temple holds different kinds of architecture. In 1934, the temple fell into disrepair and a prosperous Burmese businessman worked on reconstructing it. The Burmese influence can be seen in the architecture of the newer buildings through symbols and design used in Burma. Another design in Thai architecture modelled heaven which created a sense of peace, lightness, and floating. Lightness was usually symbolized by curves. This technique wove Buddhist philosophy into traditional Thai architecture.  

The curving design appeared in several spots of a temple, such as an arched roof and the base design. Steep roofs or multi-tiered roofs symbolize the achievement of wisdom or nirvana. This is the symbol of peace and lightness. Peace can also be represented in the symmetry of a temple, which is often visible in Thai temples regardless of the shape. 

Suddenly, we heard an electrical whine which refused to stop. By that time we had already explored most of the temple so we decided that it was time to leave. We negotiated the songthaew's price in our broken Thai, piled into the taxi bus, and watched the ancient wat fade into the distance. 

We Asked For An Adventure

We asked for it. It’s definitely been an adventure.

It feels like there are moments in life where if you pause, you can see that disentangling the strands will make sense and eventually fit into the complex mosaic of a story. But right now, a muddled mess of new experiences, celebrations, gratitude, and natural disasters. 

Obie’s 12th Birthday

Rewind to October 2, Obie’s 12th birthday. It was a pretty epic day.  Order of celebrations:

  • 8:30 am. Wake up to home-like breakfast of corn pancakes and bacon. Slightly burnt and unsightly because we made the bacon in a wok and the gas stove doesn’t go to low. But still, like home.
  • 9:00-10:30 am. Play video games with friends from home. Read texts and get calls from afar. Obie feels loved and remembered.
  • 11:30 am-1:00 pm. Try out new drama class. A success! Discover a 3D printing cafe and eat a celebratory coconut dessert with Obie's picture on it. 

  • 1:30 pm. Head to the biggest mall in Chiang Mai. Go to a Chinese hot pot restaurant that offers so many surprises!
    • Free manicures while you are waiting for your table.
    • Kids get light-up wands.
    • Food delivered by robots on wheels.
    • Noodle guy does burning man-like dance in front of the table.
    • Human-size stuffies placed at every table where someone doesn’t have a date so they won’t feel lonely.
    • Birthday song by staff with flashing lights
    • Dessert.

  • 3:00 pm. Next to the restaurant is a huge arcade. Marvel at parents’ inner competitive streaks in Air Hockey. 
  • 5:00 pm. Home for birthday cake.

  • 7:00 pm. Obie and Chris special time at the Sunday night market, where Obie gets to choose his present: a little elephant personalized with his name and the number ’12.’

Now if that wasn’t an adventure of a day…

The Floods

We had read enough translated articles from a Chiang Mai news site to know there was a chance the Ping River was going to flood, but I suppose we just didn’t believe it. Even though our house is a block from the river. Even as we obsessively watched the numbers of the river height steadily rising.

It started after we fell asleep following Obie's birthday celebration. At 1am, Chris and I wake up to a text from our AirBnB hosts and thus began the never-ending night into morning. We may have to evacuate. 3am – Chris goes out to check the river level. Definitely still rising. 4am – We definitely have to evacuate. Chris and I start packing. 5am – wake up the kids and the AirBnB hosts come over. Kids exhausted, lying on the couches, Chris helping our hosts move furniture to the second floor, turn off breakers, get the house ready for the coming flood.

The plan was that we would have an extended breakfast at a fancy hotel buffet (one where we could sit for 4+ hours) and then the AirBnb hosts would take us to another of their properties where we could wait out the flood and the post-flood maintenance. Arrive at 6 am. We sit. Eat first course, second course, so many courses – drawing out time, side eyes from waiters wondering when these disheveled farangs will leave.

As we wait, we watch reports in on flooding, and suddenly, we see that the road to our fancy hotel has also flooded. I walk out to the front and see this.

Now up until now, we hadn’t really felt much. It all seemed rather orderly and scientific. At this point, the faint jangles of alarm bells in my head.  We cannot get stuck at this hotel. We call our Air BnB hosts to pick us up NOW.

They arrive. And proceed to tell us they got it wrong and that their tenants at the other house are not leaving until the next day. So now we have to find a hotel. Mind you, it is teeming rain. Onlookers line the streets, watching the water levels rising. Thankfully, we exit the flood zone and arrive in the old city and hop from one hotel to another in a downpour to find one with space for a family of 5 (not easy to find!). We stay there for the night. It has a pool and a lady who serves mango with sticky rice stationed in front. Everyone is tired, grumpy, relieved, and some of us would best be described as delirious.  

I am writing now a day later from our new temporary home. It feels like we are starting over – getting to know a new neighborhood, where the markets are, how to get filtered water, etc. But that’s ok. 

It’s Yom Kippur morning. I paused, meditated, thought about how far from home we are and what life would be like during these holy days in a place more familiar.

I’ve been sitting with this thought of the nature of knowing. How the kids – for the first time in their lives – get to see that we (Chris and I) really don’t know what we are doing. They witness us navigate neighborhoods, transport, cultural mis/communications, unfamiliar sites, and natural disasters, observing their parents’ previously held omniscience slowly dissipate. We of course try to provide a safely held space for this emerging realization. And yet, the realization seems a universal one, not relegated to the kids among us. Of slowly disentangling the illusion of knowing and wondering what the fallen facades might lead to.

My Experiences in a Wat [Emmet]

You walk in the wat. You take your shoes off. If you look straight, you see an old glass shrine, sometimes with things monks have touched. To your left and right, you see paintings on the walls. If you look closely you see a statue, or a Buddha, with gold foil on it. Finally, you walk out and see people with orange robes on. Those are monks. Some are fully grown, and some are only ten. They train and train to be monks.  It is not easy. Have you realized that everywhere is so old and beautiful? If you look on the trees you might see Indian plums. They are very bitter and sour. I took a bite and regretted it. You walk out of the place and you see an old little shrine covered in vines. You walk back to your house smiling.

A New Year - First Days in Chiang Mai

Standing barefoot in front of the golden reclining Buddha, two Thai women prostrate in silence, Asa whispered to me, “I would pray too if I knew how.”

It was our first full day in Chiang Mai. Jetlagged, hot, disoriented, the spicy khao soi still fire on our lips, and yet he wanted to enter into every room in every crevice of that wat. Asa, who had been devouring any Hindu book he could get his hands on before our trip, began to pick up the influence of Hinduism on the development of Thai Buddhism. Today, it all became alive.

And that was the day. It was not without whining and moments of unsteadiness in our new surroundings. 

Case in point: Chris trying/failing to figure out how to buy filtered water in a machine around the corner from our new house.

But it was as if I watched each kid evolve in one day. From the profound to the banal, from the discussion with the young monk studying AI on the nature of the mind, to riding in our first songthaew (prompting a discussion on ‘danger’ and how much a society ‘protects’ one from danger vs. one’s own autonomy to protect oneself), to our kids learning how to use the ‘bum gun’ instead of toilet paper (with just one mishap!), everything was new.

The first of many coconuts for Emmet

Obie rocking spicy food

First songthaew ride

We are not yet in our routines. We still fall asleep reading to our kids each night. We are starting exercise/Thai classes next week. I haven’t had a moment alone in days. And despite all of that, this new year feels pretty awesome.

Arrival at the airport in Chiang Mai!