It could be midnight, 1am, 3am, I wouldn’t know, as the streets of Chiang Mai are still dark. After staring out from the balcony for a while, I’m relieved that my phone shows 5:30am when I finally get around to checking it.
First light starts to break through the haze surrounding the city. I’ve seen some magnificent sunrises here, but today is not clear enough. I check my emails, annoyed with myself that I’m not meditating instead, but I’m too restless, I need a distraction, need to connect.
I read a couple of wonderfully honest posts by Alex, a young travel blogger with a mature voice beyond her years and an exuberance that jumps off the screen. Though her news is sad, I’m inspired by her resilience, and comforted by the emotion she so eloquently conveys.
I think about meditating again, but I can’t bring myself to sit quietly. The restlessness ensues and I need to take action.
I need to move.
The heat of Chiang Mai in the last week has zapped the life out of me, rendering me ‘house bound’ by 2pm most days. Now is the perfect opportunity to take that walk through our neighbourhood that I have been meaning to take, but haven’t, due to the heat.
I get dressed, attempting in vain to be quiet so as not to wake a snoozing Tyrhone. I muse briefly how our differing sleep patterns are causing us irritation, me in the evening, when I nod off to a late movie (oh how I crave to fall asleep in silence!) and him in the mornings when I scurry around like a noisy mouse.
The door closes behind me and I’m off, where exactly I’m not sure. I’ve been starting most days in a park in the south-west corner of the moated old city, but today I take off into the back streets behind our apartment block.
There is an undefinable floral aroma in the air, which I notice due to the lack of motorcycles and vehicles that usually fill the atmosphere with their fumes and their noise. This is definitely the best part of the day. There is a light breeze, which almost fools me into thinking that today might be bringing with it a mild change in weather.
A man takes his small dog out for a toilet stop, a lady offers alms to an old, fat monk.
He must be well fed, I think affectionately as I try to imagine relying on the generosity of others for my daily meals.
I pass a few massage places and local eateries that I try to commit to memory for future reference.
The streets are slowly coming to life now, a few motorbikes whizz past, and shopkeepers raise their shutters.
A man cracks open a coconut in his front yard, spilling the water onto the pavement. It must be an old one, I think, knowing that the juice of the young green coconuts is a nutritious drink. I ask him if I can take his photo, and surprisingly, he obliges.
I loop around to the right, and spy the temple I look out at from my balcony every day. The gleaming gold takes my breath away, and I’m thankful to the Thai people for creating such temples of beauty. Without them, this town would not hold half the charm it does.
A young monk wanders down the road, clutching his alms bowl. There is something about witnessing this act of giving and receiving that I never fail to wonder at. Today I don’t participate, I’m merely an observer, snapping photos with my little Cannon camera, happy (for once) to be a tourist.
I don’t care what people think of me today, or if they wonder why I’m taking photos of the most mundane things. Yes, they might be mundane to them, like discarded offerings at the base of an ancient stupa, but to me they are bizarre objects of beauty, evidence of the important presence of religion and superstition in the lives of the local people.
I think back to Monk Joelee, my meditation teacher, who assured us that the spirit houses and offerings made to the statues of Buddha were not really part of Buddhist belief, but rather a cultural manifestation that has evolved to become part of daily life. A mixture of Animism and Buddhism, the spirit houses hold offerings to ensure protection from evil for all who reside there.
I chuckle to myself as I recall him telling us that sometimes the monks eat the food offerings made to the statues of Buddha, because they know he wouldn’t mind.
I think that’s really cool.
I look down a side street and see the sunlight glinting off the bitumen, creating a pinky, golden glow.
It’s about 630am when our apartment block comes into view. I walk past a tiny bakery I haven’t visited before, noticing the sign that says Open, 8am. That’s still a long way off. I stare through the window at rows of fresh croissants and pastries and suddenly feel hungry. Maybe they will let me buy some pastries to take away if I ask nicely.
The glass door gives in as I test it. I’m in! The sweet waft of bread and the tantalizing sight of rows and rows of french-style pastries greet me.
The owner gives me the okay, and I select three golden treats, two for me and one for Tyrhone: a large croissant and two round, custard-filled pastries. They are still warm.
I sit outside waiting for my coffee, and bite into the custard one. I’m transported to a Parisian side street, my day-dream made more vivid by a small dog waiting patiently in a bicycle basket outside.
The pastry melts in my mouth and I can’t belief the perfection of that bite. The custard is warm and sweet, and I seriously consider devouring Tyrhone’s. He’d never know…
I decide two pastries are enough for breakfast, ripping into the croissant once my coffee arrives. It’s crisp on the outside and rubbery on the inside. Perfect.
A cyclo returns from the market containing an old lady bearing bags of groceries. The ‘driver’ is old, tanned and lean, and I wonder how long he’s been doing this. It seems the cyclo’s primary clientelle are elderly ladies, unable to lug their market purchases home. Who could blame them? I bet the fare is about 10 baht, or 30 cents.
“Sawat dee kup!” a chipper man in a bright blue shirt surprises me with his greeting and excited smile.
“Sawat dee kaa” I reply back timidly, still unsure if he’s talking to me. I follow his smile around the corner, which remains intact the whole way. A happy man, I think to myself, his mood rubbing off on me.
I return to the apartment, sneak into my bathers and head upstairs to the pool. I slide into the water, letting it envelop me. I’m going to be tired today, I think to myself, but then realize it doesn’t really matter. I have nowhere to go, no pressing matters to attend to, or appointments to keep. I’m free to nap, write, swim and nap some more, if that’s what I want to do.
My little jaunt around the neighbourhood has appeased my early morning restlessness. I feel alive, connected and invigorated by simply experiencing a new place, an unexplored street, a tiny bakery, a tasty treat.
I’ve seen the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, Mt Everest, the Taj Mahal, The Colloseum and the Acropolis, but that’s not why I travel. I travel because of the wonder I find in small things, in observing life and pondering my own. I travel because I never know what I’m going to find, or what I’m going to learn, but I know it’s not found on the pages of a guide-book, or the inside of a tour bus, as useful as those things are.
I find it in the early morning walks, or the late night search for ‘something sweet’. I find it when I’m restless and aimless, with no place in particular to be and nothing in particular to do. I find it when I’m asking myself “what am I doing?” or “what’s it all about?” and just doing whatever feels right next. My questions are always answered, if I’m willing to be shown.
So why do I travel? Well… just because.