Chiang Dao… City of Stars or Stairs?

I’m currently holed up in the mountains in a small town about an hour out of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I decided it was time to get away from the noise both outside and inside my head. They say Chiang Mai has a much slower pace of life and I suppose if you compare it to Bangkok with which I am more accustomed, that is true. But compared to Perth, it can still get a little much for me.

I chose Nature Home Guesthouse as my hideout for the next few days or so. A dirt road leads you to their property, which is filled with palm trees and fruit trees like papaya, coconut, durian and lemon and anything else you could possibly want. There is an onsite restaurant where the food is made straight from the garden. There’s something satisfying about having to wait longer than you normally would because you see them duck out the back door to pick herbs. The bungalows are nestled in amongst the trees, with the mountains as your backdrop. You can even camp if you want, but it does get pretty chilly at night being so close to the mountains. There’s a nice homey vibe about the place that just feels like you’re part of the family. After the past month of lonely apartment life, it’s definitely a welcome relief.

The bungalows have a little sitting area out front. And with a restaurant down the driveway, you really don’t need to leave. You can definitely tell you’re in the country by the roosters that are there to greet you in the morning, and the sounds of the birds chirping without any traffic hum in the background. I even discovered a gecko in my fridge and a snakeskin hanging from the tree in front of my bungalow. I’ve begun to get used to the rustle in the bushes when I go sit out front, not quite knowing if it’s the resident puppy or some other creature.

 

 

I tried to pick a place where I could shut off from the world and have a chance for a bit of a mental catch up with all the happenings of late. A nice bonus of being nestled in amongst the trees is that the wifi doesn’t reach my room. The lack of distractions was a little unsettling in itself at first but it wasn’t too long before I started to enjoy my patch of paradise. After a morning of mediation and yoga though, it didn’t take me long to decide to go exploring. I’ve realised being outdoors in nature is better for inner work anyways and helps get rid of the mental chatter. I ended up at Pong Arng Hot Springs and Sri Sangwan Waterfall in the Pha Daeng National Park. Afterwards I had a bit of time to kill so I went to the main temple in Chiang Dao, Wat Thum Pha Plong. To be honest, I’m a bit templed out since coming to Thailand. In Chiang Mai, there’s a wat around every corner. I went in openminded, but not terribly enthusiastic. I ended up being completely blown away. Temples really aren’t all the same.

 

 

 

It took 500 steps to get up to the top. I didn’t think this sounded like much, but I was wrong. So very wrong. Especially given how steep the first 201 were. I welcomed the little sayings posted on trees on the way up that served both as motivation and an excuse to stop and take a breath.

 

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As I journeyed up the steps, I began to see it alongside my life, and how the way I approached them reflected on how I was in life. It’s the same as what they say with yoga. How you are on the mat is how you are in life. When you cling to certain default positions and where you hold your tensions. The body-mind connection becomes even clearer.

I know it was only 500 steps, not some massive trek across country, but it served its purpose all the same. There was one sign that jumped out at me in particular.

 ”We practice the Dhamma to achieve lasting happiness, not to suffer more. Don’t be discouraged if the practice is difficult and painful at times. It is not unusual for struggling to occur along the way when we seek something of such great value.”

 

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And sure enough, as I began to get tired, I wanted to give up and feel like it wasn’t worth it. Sometimes it feels like all I do is struggle since Mike died, and I had enough of it.   There’s some times when I’m just over it, want to crack the shits and just not even try anymore. But I don’t know how anymore. I couldn’t revert back to my old ways if I tried. I’ve begun to carve out a new, unfamiliar path, of which I’m not particularly liking or feeling comfortable with lately, but whenever I think back to settling back down in Perth, I shudder. I’ve never felt a true connection there. It’s kind of like a bad relationship. You stay because you’re comfortable and aren’t quite sure how to leave, but it can bring out the worst in you and drain your very essence. I might feel differently in time, but for right now, I know I’m exactly where I need to be.

Going back to the quote, I realise all I seek now is of great value. I’m here in another country, trying to sort out my life purpose and heal at the same time. And it’s been incredibly difficult. I haven’t been sleeping properly, and since I moved into my new apartment, I’ve fell into a bit of a slump. It was nice living in the city, with so much to see and having such wonderfully supportive guesthouse owners. I was starting to get comfortable and finally familiar with somewhere, I felt a bit crazy for leaving. But I needed to switch out of holiday mode and have more of a space to work in, and settle in a bit more. But having done that, it hasn’t really helped me feel settled at all. And again, I’m at that crossroads where I want to settle to feel safe and comfortable, but I can’t commit to that because I’m still exploring and trying to figure out what it is exactly that I want. Some days I want to settle into just anything to feel secure. And this is where the struggle lies with work…

Once I realised I wasn’t able to start teaching like I had been told (and this is the part where the relaxed Thai culture begins to get frustrating), I’ve been floating in some limbo state, trying to figure out what to do. I’ve been hurriedly trying to get my face painting business set up here, as well as advertise my classes to generate some income so I’m not always just eating into my savings. But with that comes a whole adjustment phase where I’m trying to figure out the system here. There’s a lot of misinformation and going around in circles. And as I’m trying ever so hard to figure out how they do things here and get the proper information, I realise that alongside that headfuck is one simple thing that I hadn’t yet considered. That these things take time. And money. And I start to panic when I realise that for the past four months, I’ve been mostly volunteering.

My natural reflex when things aren’t going to plan is to think I’m just not cut out for it and to switch course. That used to work in the past. When I would just think I was a failure and give up on life. But not anymore. I’ve finally found what I want and I know not to trick myself into losing interest anymore. The thoughts that tell me I was wrong, that I don’t want this after all and I have to try something new that will work better for me… That’s just fear. And when you’re caught in fear and in a pattern of distracting yourself from it, it can be very hard to pull yourself out. And this is where my road trip came in. Because I knew that’s what I was doing. And I’ve been making excuses not to get away. But it was time.

I’ve also started teaching privately. This is another example of the uncanny ways the universe works. My first student is not actually a cute lil four year old I’m making arts and crafts with. He’s the same age as me. He got into a car accident when he was younger and was in a coma for months. It’s not the same as MND, but working with him has given me a lot of reminders about what it was like caring for Mike.

I remember when he first died, it felt like the rest of the world was going at some crazy fast pace. I had had to learn how to slow down a lot with Mike as the simple little things people take for granted like getting out of bed or taking a shower had become a whole process. And after he passed, it didn’t take long for me to realise I could move at my own pace again. It was really strange at first. I even felt guilty. There was a lot of things I refused to do if he couldn’t, like going to see bands and really, just going out in general. I’d always be worrying about him anyway. And so going back to that slower pace has been really challenging and brought up a lot for me. Not to mention getting familiar with a whole new person, their capabilities, and how to best teach them in a style that works for you both. Taking all that into consideration, amongst all the anniversaries I’ve been hit with lately… Well, it’s becoming even clearer now why I needed to get away.

Anyway, as I continue to head up, another sign says

‘There’s a chance to get refreshed when you are tired. But there’s no chance to re-live your life, once you are dead.”

 

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This pretty much sums it up for me. Why I put so much pressure on myself to move forward in life, and mostly too quickly to the point where I am impatient and want to give up. I’ve learnt the importance of living my life now, when in the past, I had given up before I barely started. And I think a large part of me thinks that if I slow down, I won’t want to keep going. Because it’s all hard. All the time lately it feels like. And so I keep pushing on. Trying not to look at where I’m going. Because that’s what I did when I was with Mike during his illness. We just had to keep going with whatever moment arose. But it was only towards the end that I learnt the importance of taking a pitstop when I was tired, and going at my own pace. Before I didn’t think it mattered. All that mattered to me at the time was putting him first. Because his needs seemed so much greater than mine. To me that is, by choice. I’m not saying that to make myself seem selfless. He was the most important thing in my life. But I’m slowly relearning how to make myself the most important thing again.

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When I got to the top of the stairs, I felt instant calm. It felt like the whole world just stopped. The only other time I’ve felt that was lying beside Mike. When we could pretend we were a normal couple for five minutes, not surrounded by medical staff in a hospital with buzzers going off. This is the calm I felt at the top of this mountain. The magical stillness that you just want to bottle and take home with you. The only people up there were a couple monks and a woman praying inside the cave. So I sat at the top of the stairs and took it all in. I looked down to the trees below, the 201 step viewing platform which was now really tiny, and to the surrounding mountains. There’s definitely a special vibe at the top. It was definitely of “great value” to me. After meditating for a while, I descended the steps and read all the signs again on my way down, interpreting them with added meaning.

 

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Just in case I forgot the impact that day had on me, the same message came through again the following day. I hired the same yellow truck to take me around to some more temples. The driver was a really lovely, gentle and kind-spirited woman who took me off the more touristy path, to some spots even the locals hadn’t been to. I had a little trouble understanding her as I don’t speak the northern dialect, so I can’t remember most of the names of the places we went to.

We went further into the mountains and drove amongst the different villages. Including one with the most delicious Giew noodles I have ever tasted in the village equivalent of Chinatown. The first stop was up to a chedi so high that the truck couldn’t get up. We had to park further down and walk up. To give you an indication of how steep it was, we were stuffed at about 100 metres haha. And then we finally got to the top of the path, only to find a whole bunch of other steps to climb. It was hazy that morning but I was pretty grateful we had left early before the 36 degree weather kicked in.

 

 

The next place we went to was my favourite. Again, a ridiculous amount of stairs. But the view was even more stunning than the last place. Chiang Dao translates to ‘City of Stars’ and I can see why since each spot is so high up it really does feel like we are up amongst them. The stairs here were particularly brutal though. I kind of laughed to myself when I thought yesterday was difficult. I was hanging onto the railing for dear life. The steps were really narrow and you barely had room to step on each step, and nearing towards the top they became uneven and incredibly steep. With each set I would just try to gun it and push through the pain, huffing and puffing. My driver on the other hand, despite remarking how quickly I was able to go up, was calmly taking each step slowly and purposefully, not breaking a sweat and inadvertently teaching me a thing or two about life Mr. Miyagi style. And I suppose for me, if I stop half way I want to give up, that’s why I push on and just keep going. But in doing so, I’m not really present in each moment. And if you compare the two of us once we got to the top, well… She was the clear winner…. At life :P

 

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There was a point were we had passed a few flights or stairs, and I thought we were at the top. I was crestfallen once I realised there were more. Especially since it was warming up. A LOT. My driver just smiled sweetly at me and told me that the best things are always the hardest to get to. And there happened to be a bench there so she said we weren’t in a rush, we can just take our time and have a break when needed. When we got to the top, there was a welcome breeze. There was a little makeshift home where the monks must stay. I always see the saffron robes at the top of these mountains and think how freaking fit these monks must be. At the last place, I was knackered going back down the steps and a monk just glided by as if on water.

 

 

Next we went across to another temple in a cave. I don’t know how I have gone so long without knowing such an incredible combination existed. Seriously, where have you been all my life? On Saturdays, they chant all day so I took a moment to still myself again and sat in, zenning out to the chanting. It was several levels up. There were tents on each level where people would stay to solely pray for days. There was a little shop that sold amulets, beads and statues that had been blessed by the monks. Across the road was a beautiful little café with views of the mountains and fields below.

 

 

Actually, I lied, this other place was my favourite. Believe it or not, there were no stairs. But that wasn’t why I liked it so much! It had that same instant spiritual calm feeling about it like Wat Thum Pha Plong. Some places I go to just have a really special energy about them. It really is indescribable. You need to be there to feel it for yourself. I don’t find it often, but when I do, I lap it up. This cave was really cool, which was a welcome respite from the heat. Inside it was tiled, which kept it even cooler, but it was also quite open and inviting. There were a bunch of mats for people to sit and pray on, with a large golden reclining Buddha. I grabbed a mat and chose a spot to meditate. I can usually only do guided meditations as my mind usually wanders too frequently, but this place made it much easier. It was so serene and quiet, that as I was meditating, I could literally only hear a fly buzzing around and a bat flapping it’s wings as it flew overhead. And the stalagmites were really low so it was a pretty cosy and confined space to share with these beautiful creatures. It was so peaceful and comfortable in there that I just decided to corpse pose for as long as possible.

 

 

We went to yet another place high up in the mountains afterwards, (the heat now at migraine level), then headed back. I got a well earnt massage as I was already starting to ache after a monster day, and hopefully stave off my headache and even that wasn’t without a lesson. I’m pretty reluctant to try just anywhere with massages as they can be pretty brutal. I’m not really a fan of them trying to bend your limbs in all different directions when they have no idea of the capabilities of your body. And whilst I don’t agree with the amount of force they use since they are unfamiliar with your body and could do a lot of damage, when I told the woman to ease off, she said something that made me think… That sometimes you have to endure the pain temporarily to achieve the benefits, because if you just do it softly, it might feel good but it’s not really addressing the problem and can even hurt more later. Something I’ve heard before actually.

Anyway, I’ve only been here for two and a half days and made several other revelations about my life. This place is clearly working its magic. The pictures don’t really do justice to all the magnificent views and the general vibes of the places so you’ll just have to trust me on it.  I’m now hobbling around, I’m that pathetically sore. Think it’s time to recharge and digest my life thus far and get in some drawing time.

It’s now 7am. There’s been a funeral going on at the temple down the road so I can hear a monk over the loud speaker. Time to go grab a home cooked breakfast fresh from the garden and pat the resident puppies I think!

 

 

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