Phrao District, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Those feelings of nostalgia, sadness and excitement are all setting in as I finish my last week as a Warm Heart volunteer in Phrao, Thailand. When I first set out to be a public relations and fundraising volunteer for WH, I remember thinking it would be a good transition from working random jobs in Australia to getting back into the PR scene in the U.S., while having the chance to serve others and discover a completely new, culturally different place. I was right. But it has meant so much more to me than that.
It really is true that the people you meet ends up being one of the most impactful parts of traveling. The other western volunteers and staff I got to know of course added an enormous amount of fun, comfort and knowledge to my experience but it was the locals who I am most devastated to say goodbye to. They are the ones who will feel worlds away from me when I’m back in America and the ones who also broadened my mind and challenged me the most. Even without being able to have a fluent conversation, I formed bonds with the Thai staff and children at WH as well as the people around Phrao. After two and a half months, James and I find ourselves at a point where we run into many familiar faces at public gatherings and greet our Thai friends with hugs and smiles, just as I would with an old friend at home. Some have sold us coffee enough times that we became friends, some are neighbors in Pradu village and others have driven us through the mountains in their 4x4s. There’s not a lot of conversation we can make with any of them but enough that we have an understanding we enjoy seeing each other and learning from each other.
On Saturday morning, nearly everyone in Phrao District gathered in an open lot in town to listen to government officials from Bangkok speak during a kick-off for a day of planting trees in celebration of the Queen’s birthday coming up. That was when I realized how many friendships and local people we had spent time with during our time here and I was so proud to realize that. It’s a great feeling to feel so part of and welcome in a place that was once so completely foreign. There were famers, village people, business owners, government officials and even hill-tribes present at the gathering. Even Thai people, especially those from Bangkok, were taking pictures with the hill-tribe people since it is not often they come down from the mountain and away from their own cultures and languages. I found it fascinating how drastically different they seemed from the average Thai citizen, although they live only a couple hours away.
After the speakers, we headed up Doi Mon Lan (the mountain James and I got flat tires on previously) with our buddy PJ, one of the Thai staff at WH who has brought us on our best adventures here. People from Phrao were planting along the road up to this mountain and at the peak since the Queen had a summer home at the top. It was a cloudy day so the closer up we got, the harder it was to see below but it was really enjoyable being up in the mountains and feeling the cool air for a change anyway. When we reached the top, there was a crowd of people from Phrao hanging out and enjoying the day together. It was so fun to see how this whole town of people drove up a mountain together to celebrate a special occasion.
The next day we got back out there and continued exploring the region we’ve gotten to know so well. Just when I didn’t think there’d be anything else for us to see in Phrao, we ended up having an adventurous day with a few new sights under our belts. While riding north of Phrao toward the mountains, we saw a sign for a resort owned by a Phrao woman we had met and promised a visit to. She was ecstatic to see us drive up on our motorbikes and immediately brought us out fresh juice and fruits she had grown in her garden. Khoom Kam Kaew Farm & Resort is a lovely place, situated right between the mountains of Si Lanna National Park in a beautiful and peaceful area. The owner has her own farm animals and garden, where she grows completely organic ingredients. We enjoyed a nice lunch with her chatting about Phrao and learning about her garden. She told us about a temple up the hill so we ventured that way as soon as we were done. What we found seemed to be a pretty over-run temple but a monk caught us roaming around and pointed us down a path in the direction of a beautiful viewpoint over Phrao farm land.
Our last stop of the day was the Mae Kon Dam. We weren’t looking for it but a man we passed pointed us in the direction of it when he saw us riding around. It was really beautiful and such a contrast to the scenery we normally see in Thailand. Staring at the view, I felt like I was somewhere in the middle U.S. with rolling hills and lakes. Then some buffalo appeared and made the scene even more picturesque than it already was. We explored the area for a while before we started another lovely ride back to Pradu village.
I feel so fortunate to have had the unique and cultural experiences I’ve had here in Phrao. With hardly any other foreigners and a truly beautiful landscape, Phrao and Warm Heart provided a completely raw and authentic Northern Thailand experience for James and I. Not to mention, the kindness and the eagerness of the people to show us around made it surprisingly easy to discover new things and keep busy in such a rural, quiet place. I hope as I make the journey home, I can keep the calmness of this place inside me and remember often the lessons I learned and people who made it so special. I hope I was at least half as beneficial to the Thai villagers and children as they were to me. Thank you, Thailand.