I never could have predicted how quickly I would just accept the bizarre things that happen to me every day. I don’t think twice about an entire family traveling on a motorbike together or a monk stopping at a 7-11. I see stray dogs crossing the street and laying down under trucks to escape the heat and think absolutely nothing of it.
This past weekend was my first long weekend after starting my job, and my first chance to really get away and see some of northern Thailand outside of Chiang Mai. A group of three of us set out for Chiang Dao, knowing virtually nothing about it except for one Lonely Planet recommended guesthouse and the Chiang Dao cave. We arrived at the guesthouse and were immediately blown away by how beautiful the mountains were, not to mention the spectacular western food (I finally had a real sandwich and it was everything I thought it would be). The owner of the guesthouse gave us a map and went over it with us, talking about a nice “nature trail,” that leads to the Chiang Dao cave.
We should have known as soon as we saw the entrance to said trail. The fact that a machete would be required to hack through the weeds should have been a dead giveaway. But we carried on like soldiers, doing exactly what all of our friends and family imagine we’re doing in Thailand: trekking through the jungle. This nice “nature trail” involved scaling an entire mountain, and then finding our way out again through an equally steep decent on a dirt path. There were plenty of times we weren’t sure we were even on the path anymore, but what is the fun of nature without the fear of death and starvation?
Once we finally made it to the cave, we were guided by a delightful Thai woman who assumed our Thai language skills were much higher than they are. After our mountain adventure, the last thing I wanted to do was crawl through dimly lit and directionally ambiguous caves. But it was well worth it. Even though I was falling in and out of sleep and thinking only of a shower and soft bed, the caves were enormous and beautiful.
After a lovely Thai dinner (well, 75% lovely, why will I never learn that I cannot handle “medium spicy” food?), we were all settled for bed when it happened–a scratching sound coming from over the door of our cabin. It was loud and unceasing. Thinking the worst (rats, burglars, miscellaneous jungle animals), we alerted the owners of the guesthouse. The entire staff walked over in a mob, talking curiously more than urgently. “Oh yeah,” we heard them say, “I guess we haven’t seen that cat in a few days…” That’s right, there was an actual cat in the wall of our little bungalow, desperately trying to get in.
I can’t even imagine how baffled I would have been if that had been my first day in Thailand. I would have been utterly confused and only slightly entertained by the fact. But, like I said, this is the kind of thing that becomes commonplace for me now. I laughed so hard at their nonchalant attitude about “oh yeah, we did misplace our cat…” but never thought it was anything too unusual. The owner gave the ceiling one hard bang with the handle of the broom and the cat was silent. I can only assume that the cat escaped and lived a full life, but we may never know.
The thing I took away from this weekend is if you have a chance to go to Chiang Dao: go. It was incredibly beautiful and mostly unpopulated by tourists. We kept talking about how the views we were looking at did not even seem real. Which is very true about this entire expat experience. It doesn’t seem real. I look out the window at work and see jungle plants and mountains in the background and it does not feel real at all. Here I am, living this bizarre half life in between a backpacker and a local, looking for my place in this amazing, unusual world.