Thai new year is joyous, playful, fun and uninhibited. On Koh Pha-Ngan Songkran is celebrated with copious amounts of water thrown at any and every passerby—whether on foot, by car or (most often) on scooter. Some trucks even travel around loaded with watergun-laden revelers hunting for their next target. Eventually I couldn’t help but get in on the action.
The forecasted tropical storm didn’t materialize.
Still, the water kicked and rolled, welcome cool air blasted my face and colours and clouds roiled in the wake of the wind.
Once in awhile, you need to wander to get lost
In Georgetown, former colonial capital of Malaysia for a visa run. Conveniently, the Thai consulate decided to close for a few days which gave me some extra time to wander and explore.
I wish 15-year-old me could see me now. All of the struggle to earn confidence and courage without losing sensitivity and soul… it has all been worth it. I don’t cling to stasis or predictability. I flow, move, change and adapt to new knowledge and understanding. I am capable. I feel capable.
I think the teenage me would be both a little impressed and a little shocked with who I’ve become. I suppose my most-often reminisced regret is not learning so many of these lessons sooner. Ha… I guess hindsight like this is the gift of old age.
For most of my life, saying goodbye has been emotional. It’s filled with wants and needs wrapped in a dramatic parting, or so my heart tells me. And this trip has been full of goodbyes: to friends, to family, to home, new friends and places I’m just beginning to understand. This is one.
At the same time, I’ve never been able to stop moving. More than two months in one place and my feet start to itch.
Island life is calling, and the smoke is hard to take. So, it’s two trains, a bus and a ferry to a new place with fresh air and long sandy beaches.
Off a side alley near Suthep, artists in Chiang Mai slowly carve a monument of traditional Thai art.
Home to the world’s largest wooden Ganesh statue, weighing five tons and carved from a single tree, this artist’s colony is funded by a wealthy patron who sees it as his legacy. The main building is built with thick wooden planks covered top-to-bottom with detailed painted carvings. It’s a beautiful, peaceful, inspiring place.
From the nearby mountain of Suthep to the one-mile-square Old City walls, Chiang Mai is filled with temples.
From the scooter-bustle of Bali, daytime Chiang Mai contrasts as a place of delivery trucks, local shops, temples, and nomads with heads down in their work. And then in the evening, when the cool air settles down from Suthep and the smoke from nearby rice-patty fires fades, the patio lights come on and the parties begin.
Like Canggu, Chiang Mai opened to me with a string of hangouts and events to meet fellow nomads. I’m staying at In The City, a cozy and helpful co-working space and hostel. It’s a great jumping-off point for getting to know the city.
Chiang Mai has been at the top of my must-visit nomad cities for a long time—not because I’ve had a personal hankering for its temple-lined old city, but because everyone I’ve come across who’s visited the place is effusive about it. Consistently at the top of NomadList’s rankings, I can see why. It’s friendly, fun, easy to get around and meet people, walkable and very affordable. There’s a much higher percentage of long-termers here in Thailand, people who have settled and made Chiang Mai home. It’s incredibly cheap to live here (apartment & coworking space for $150/month? Check!) with many events, hikes, and places to visit.
I’ve only been here a week but I’m loving it so far. A great vibe, great people and a productive space for me.
Tucked away in a quiet side street, behind an unassuming café, dozens—and on busy days, more than a hundred—fellow nomads crunch away on their laptops. Some are software developers. Some are marketers. Some are cryptocurrency bros. Many are starting a new business.
For most it’s a lifestyle choice. Life on the road is cheaper, with more freedom and a culture developed to the point that many communities surround newcomers to make the transition easy.
It’s also a sign of something else. It’s empowerment—for a specific kind of individual. It’s an extension of the “do what you love” movement, enabled by the privilege of mobility, education and digital economies.
The upsides are great. Having a group of fellow travelers who are open, interested to learn, ready for connection and already in a place of growth makes for a potent milieu. There’s something here, an energy and a possibility that’s just at the front edges of being explored. But, like many things being primarily explored by people like myself who come from Western privilege and education, I’m cautious and a little skeptical.
There’s a dark-grey underbelly. Local culture is largely ignored. Perhaps it’s a little more healthy than pure consumerist tourism, but still: when hundreds of by-local-standards wealthy remote workers descend on a place, it shifts the cultural dynamics. There’s also a very strong bro culture amongst many men that I find challenging (though there are many awake and aware men as well). And the largest mostly-undiscussed downside: living life as a nomad leaves traditional community structures in tatters. Human mobility requires a completely different approach to lasting relationships, something I’m curious to explore and learn more about as I continue my trip.
What’s here is real and interesting as a cultural phenomenon. Can it be extrapolated beyond the privileged, largely Western and white group who are taking advantage of it now? Philosophically it relates to many things—migration, travel, cultural interaction, privilege, exchange, the value of work and workers, how we calculate wealth. It’s definitely something new, definitely different, and definitely just the beginning.