On January 27, 2016 we packed our bags and left Chiang Mai for the last time. Almost six months after arriving in the city, the scenes that flashed by on the way to the airport still looked as foreign to me as the day we arrived – such is the nature of a taciturn Asian city. I don’t pretend to know Thailand – I’m not an expert on Thai culture or cuisine – but in the 20 weeks that we had our apartment, I did get a good feel for Chiang Mai’s rhythm.
I wasn’t there as a tourist. The past six months haven’t been a holiday, contrary to what some people seem to think. I worked – a lot. I entered into new projects, started new collaborations, and threw myself into making an income online as best I could. I volunteered. I completed a TEFL certificate, and I tried my best to establish this blog. I paid rent. I paid bills. I ate out for almost every meal, but I still did laundry every weekend. While life couldn’t have continued indefinitely in this fashion, I was surprised by how well we managed to make it work – financially, socially, and emotionally.
For someone with a year’s worth of Australian-wage savings up their sleeve, Chiang Mai is an incredibly affordable place to live. I only had to dip into those savings to the tune of about $1,000 – and that includes our month-long trip to Myanmar and a week in Malaysia. Through all of it, Ross was able to continue studying and sitting his exams. Free from many of the pressures of home, I felt settled in Chiang Mai and free to do things I hadn’t done before. We made friends who we were sad to say goodbye to, and created rituals that were hard to break away from. We spoke in broken Thai and communicated through awkward smiles and giggles. We saw things we can’t un-see, and rubbed the surface of a different world, how the ‘other half’ really lives. We ate like kings (and completely repopulated our gut flora with much sturdier strains). We loved our life in Thailand.
But my comfort was always tempered by the knowledge that this was just a temporary arrangement. Originally, Thailand was just the first of many stops on our epic adventure, which was supposed to take us through Asia and Europe to Canada, where working visas and excellent jobs and a sustainable income would be waiting for us. Our plans were loose, but being the list-loving organisational fiend that I am, I did have a rough idea of how I wanted things to go. Japan, Beijing, a jaunt on the Trans-Siberian, Russia, Eastern Europe, Iceland, Montreal… Or something like that.
Then something new came along to throw a spanner in my spreadsheets.
I can’t complain, because it was my own doing. It wasn’t a health crisis or a family emergency, it was something positive – an amazing opportunity, in fact – that threatened to steer us off course. Not long after we arrived in Chiang Mai, I applied for a job. I tend to look for jobs and draft applications when I’m feeling anxious, and the first few months ‘living’ in Thailand certainly brought out the anxiety in me. Was this the right thing to do? What about my ‘career’? I woke up with chest pains a few mornings in a row, then decided to submit the application as a way to abate (or validate) my fears.
It wasn’t just any old job – I had been wanting to apply for this particular program for years. (Ask any of my university friends and they will tell you that I have harped on about it since at least 2013.) I remember sitting at a desk in our Airbnb apartment in Berlin 12 months ago and pining over a position I didn’t feel qualified enough to apply for. This was the first time I had enough courage to hit ‘submit’.
When we were in Myanmar, I found out I got the job. I got the job. But for reasons beyond my control, I couldn’t take the job. That was probably for the best. Disappointed but vindicated, I resigned myself to our original plan – six more months of travelling wasn’t a bad consolation prize. Then in November, I got itchy feet again and applied for another job. This time, it worked out.
When I left Brisbane on a one-way ticket in August last year, returning home a year-and-a-half before planned was pretty much the worst case scenario I could have imagined. But any disappointment that things haven’t quite panned out is more than made up for by the reality now upon us. We are about to embark on a new adventure – a real adventure this time. We are moving to Phnom Penh.
Loving and Leaving Chiang Mai
Digital nomad. Expat. Tourist. Location-independent. There are dozens of labels floating around to describe long-term travellers – most of which I hadn’t heard uttered up until a few months ago. When we first decided to go to Chiang Mai, I had a lot of trouble explaining our decision to other people. I had no yardstick by which to measure my success. I had a lot of expectations, and a lot of anxiety. But as it turned out, 80% of the people we met in Thailand were in the exact same boat – long-term travellers who had taken a sabbatical (or quit their job) to ‘see how things worked out’ on the road. I realised that these feelings were perfectly normal, and I stopped worrying about it so much.
That was the best thing I could have done. The last six months haven’t been perfect, but most of the time, Thailand was terrific. Myanmar was incredible. Malaysia was average. But these are the ups and downs that make travel so exciting. If I wasn’t addicted to travel before, I am now. And Chiang Mai has taught me that there’s nothing wrong with that. If I want to live overseas and travel long-term – to make expat life the norm, not a novelty – then all I have to do is take whatever affirmative actions I need to to make that happen. And if things ever go belly up, there’s always Chiang Mai, our second home, to go back to.
Preparing for Cambodia
I still have to pinch myself every now and then – Phnom Penh, for 12 months! How lucky am I. I have an incredible, worthwhile job lined up with an NGO. I can’t wait to meet my colleagues and start work. I can’t wait to get out and explore Cambodia, to speak broken Khmer and communicate once again in the universal language of awkward smiles and giggles. I can’t wait to get our own apartment and really settle in this time. Our plans might have changed, but I am so grateful to be starting down this new path.
I know that Cambodia will provide me with enough inspiration to meet my blogging goals for Wander Lush this year. I look forward to sharing plenty of stories from Phnom Penh and beyond in 2016!