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Diary of a Globetrotting Family: Illusion, night market challenge, what anxiety hates, and the fruit that makes the devil drool… or retreat
6 rooms of illusion, a night market challenge, what anxieties hate, and trying the dreaded durian for the first time: As our family travel Chiang Mai turned toward Chiang Rai, we had quite a few small adventures before us… and one bus ride that we were slightly dreading.
Night market 200 baht challenge
Mango sticky rice. A chicken wrap, slightly spicy. Pad thai. Fried prawn cakes. Little fried quail eggs about the size of a quarter (or a 10-baht coin). And some very tasty smoothies that could also turn your tongue different colors. Sure, it’s always fun to buy street food in Thailand. But it’s a little extra fun to make a challenge out of it.
After being in Thailand for nearly a month, our two weeks in Chiang Mai were coming to a close. As the sun went down on our last Sunday in Thailand’s second city, we got out of a Grab hired car at the edge of the Sunday Walking Street. Similar to the Saturday Walking Street but in another part of the Old City, the Sunday bazaar is a mix of tourists and locals. Vendors line the streets, with tables and tents offering clothing, crafts, and above all, food.
Since souvenirs aren’t our thing, though, before leaving our rental we talked over an idea for a wee challenge.
“Tonight,” Jodie explained, “each of us is going to get two hundred baht. We’re going to see if we can spend no more than that.”
“How much is two hundred baht in dollars?” asked Aster.
“About five bucks,” I answered.
“This is going to be fun,” said Connor.
We set out two pink 100-baht notes for each of us. The kids tucked theirs into the pockets on their shoulder-sling water bottle holders.
Napoleon might have said that an army marches on its stomach, but I swear, Thailand smiles on its stomach. Food vendors pack events like the Walking Streets, and as people eat, the laughter grows and so do the feelings of joy, cheer, and the pleasure of being in the moment. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the booths were cooking and serving food. Across the square moat and occasional brick ruins of the Old City’s perimeter wall, we wandered among the low buildings and wide streets, which had been closed to traffic for the night.
From booth after booth, steam rose, smoke wafted, blenders whirred, grills sizzled, and pestles pounded in mortars. Skewered squid lay out along the front of one table, ready for a grilling before being served up. From one vendor offering various ground meats in skewered disc or tube form, Connor chose two white discs that reminded us of large lollipops. The four of us snagged low little chairs at a low long table. While Connor liked the flavor, he said, he found the meat too peppery.
Sliced, breaded fried chicken breast lay succulent and juicy in its little tray, and we each snapped up pieces. Aster chose a chicken wrap, with crunchy greens. She ate about half of it before deciding it was too spicy. I gladly took on the challenge of eating the rest. Too spicy? Not for me. But for a newly minted 8-year-old becoming cautiously more adventurous in her eating, it was a big leap forward.
I made a circuit of the food booths, seeking som tam, or green papaya salad. After a wonderful plate of it the preceding week, I craved the bright, sour flavors of lime juice and fish sauce, and the fresh crunch of the grated papaya and carrot. I found sugarcane juice, sushi, various soups, and skewers whose meats and cooking styles I would need an entire book chapter to describe. But I did not find the green papaya salad.
Making another circuit of the market, I found the kids at a stall in a back corner. They had told Jodie they were going to get smoothies. Since I had yet to find my green papaya salad, I figured I should drown my sorrows in a bright yellow mango smoothie. Jodie later got a smoothie too, with kiwi, like Connor’s. Aster’s strawberry smoothie turned her tongue bright red. The kiwi made Jodie and Connor look like they had green zombie tongues.
And, in my laughter, full from my consolation prize of a plate of decent but too mild pad thai, I happened to turn my head and noticed a sign off to one side.
Green papaya salad.
Next time, som tam, next time. At least I’d always have our Thanksgiving Thai cooking class, and the amazing som tam I’d made myself.
Adding a laugh at myself for missing what was pretty much right in front of me, I helped Jodie and the kids clear away our dishes.
Back at the rental, we tallied up our remaining baht:
Anthony: I spent ฿140, and had ฿60 left.
Jodie also spent ฿140, and had ฿60 left.
Connor spent the most. He shelled out ฿190 baht, leaving him with ฿10.
And Aster, it turned out, spent the least! Aster spent ฿125, leaving her with ฿75 in her pocket..
We all came in under our ฿200—and we all had pleasantly full bellies, and laughter galore, from our last evening at a Chiang Mai Walking Street.
Art in Paradise
It is one thing to stand in the corner of a room. It is quite another to stand in the corner of a room, and look like you are trying to pull Thor’s hammer out of a rock while a massive volcanic erupts behind you.
Yet throughout the floor-to-ceiling 130 paintings across six rooms of Chiang Mai’s Art in Paradise, the artists had created hyperreal scenes that came fully, 3D alive in photos and videos. When I think back to my memory of seeing us on surf boards riding big waves, being trapped inside an hourglass, hugging an elephant’s trunk, or standing above a bottomless crack in the floor, I know what my eye could perceive. I could see the flatness of the floor. Or the converging corner lines of floors and walls.
But in the eye of the camera, reality shifted. The lines fell away. The flat floor suddenly did have a huge, abyssal rip in it—and anyone could be forgiven both for being there, yet having a touch of vertigo when they saw the photos.
From its beginnings in Pattaya, Thailand, in 2012, today Art in Paradise has a location in Bangkok in addition to the Chiang Mai installation, which opened in 2013. The interactive illusion art is made not only to wow, but to be played with. Creative scenerunner Jang Kyu Suk works with around 14 other artists to create each painting and its illusory perspective effect—but not just with paint.
We dashed from scene to scene, giggling and marveling as we looked at each setup both with our eyes and in the camera. In a room devoted to cityscapes, we would stand in front of London Bridge on one wall, then at another seem like we were ready to go up the Eiffel Tower in Paris. A room riffing on classical paintings might have, say, a teacup out of frame, there for you to hold and be part of the scene.
Connor perched on the high branches of a tree in a fantastical forest, where a pair of wings waited for him. Aster caught a fish in her mouth, as if she were a wee penguin being fed by the parent standing above her. We hid behind the beanstalk so a cracked-tooth giant could find the Jack he was looking for. We opened portals to other worlds, stood with Egyptian gods and goddesses, and wandered the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia (a bit of foreshadowing, as it turns out, but we’ll get to that in a couple of weeks).
Passing into another room, it wasn’t just the perspective that changed. In a row of rooms with a fourth wall cut away, upside-down furniture hung from the ceiling, designed for some rather fun poses once you turned the image right side up.
In the penultimate room, a long, deep, LEGO cityscape showed everything from a food market on the street, to the Hogwarts Castle from Harry Potter. Made from over 228,000 LEGO pieces, the massive scene took 8 months to build. A train clacked by us, on tracks running parallel to the barrier separating the LEGO world from our world. Suddenly, the room’s lights dimmed—and the city’s lights came on, as the scene changed from day to night.
The train reached Hogwarts in the left rear corner, went through a tunnel, and disappeared. Nearly a minute later, the train emerged in the right rear corner, where it had run along the other side of the back wall.
It’s one thing to talk about how travel gives you fresh perspective But Art in Paradise gave us not only new perspective, but vivid memories of made-up scenes. Bangkok and Pattaya, your 3D wonderlands are next.
Last days in Chiang Mai
And then we packed up.
The last couple of days in a place are funny times. You’re in the same space, yet you are now in between time, space, place. You are physically in a location, but your mind is elsewhere. There are reservations to confirm—and departure times to meet. Packing lists to follow, and rooms, shelves, drawers, crannies, and nooks to check for every single thing you and yours own.
For all the places I’ve traveled, or that Jodie and I have traveled, or that Jodie, the kids, and I have traveled, our last day or two in a place is always a sort of out-of-everything experience. Yet it’s also a space that is defined by contradiction. I feel removed from where I am, yet I am completely present, doing my part, while Jodie and the kids do theirs, to help our packing and prep go smoothly. We talk about anything else we need to do before we leave, or the last things we want to do before we close and lock the door behind us for the last time. Yet we also talk about the transit to get from this place to new place, and try to have some sense of what we might do at least during our first few new hours.
In Chiang Mai, we spent a big chunk of our last day at Biscotti House, a lovely coffee shop, café, and bakery on the outskirts of the city. Jodie had connected with a group of worldschooling families. After a group of us met up the prior week, we decided we all wanted to meet up again. Some families would have already moved on, of course, but new faces were there today too.
While Connor and Aster played chess and card games, and romped with other kids, and made up their own maps, we adults chatted about the ins and outs of schooling, travel, and keeping our lives going well in the midst of the joys and stresses of global travel.
Back at the rental, Jodie worked on some further-out plans for our upcoming time in Vietnam. We folded laundry and packed up snacks. Later that afternoon, we split up to make various snack runs. Jodie and Connor raided the nearby 7-11 for nori snacks and cheesy corn hat chips. Aster and I went a little farther, to the mall, to get more of the amazing Japanese Beard Papa’s creme puffs—again, with a full assortment of yuzu, vanilla, and chocolate fillings—that we had come to adore during our time in Chiang Mai.
During a bedtime walk around the central pool and courtyard, we saw that someone in a nearby building had covered their balcony in multi-colored holiday lights. The joyful glow reminded us that back home, it was winter, and chilly and wet, while we walked around the warm night in short sleeves and sandals.
Our final morning in the city, we had a 1 pm bus to catch. For my and Jodie’s breakfast, I cleared out the fridge, making a fried rice with chicken, wood-ear mushrooms, garlic, and green onion. When I added soy sauce and water to glaze the chicken as it sizzled and sautéed, Connor said, “Oh, that looks like it’s right!”
We packed up the last bits and bobs: charged devices, charging cords, my yoga mat, some clothes. We washed the dishes and set the towels in a pile.
And then we left.
For our last stop in Thailand—this time around, anyway. For a hill city, deep in the north of the country. Chiang Rai. And, we hoped as we boarded the post-lunch bus, that this winding mountain road would be more forgiving than the one we faced in Oaxaca.
Now that’s a bus ride
Can we have a little travel real talk? If you’ve been following our adventures, you may have seen that bus rides have not always been the brightest point in our travels. Getting from Bangkok to Chiang Mai overall went okay, but our all-day Oaxaca to La Crucecita journey was not for the faint of stomach.
So, as we boarded our one o’clock bus to take an afternoon three-and-a-half hour ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, it was with hope, trepidation, and Dramamine ready to deploy.
My own worries for the day had started in the middle of the night. If you too are a parent, business owner, traveler, and/or overall any person involved in day-to-day adulting, you probably also know the feeling. Sometimes worries come out at four o’clock in the morning, and they come with sharp teeth.
Actually, if my anxieties have powered up and found an opening, they usually wide-eye me around four. But not this night. Oh no. Usually I get up around seven. On this night, as we got ready to leave, I woke up around five and just could not get back to sleep. Would we keep managing our money well? When would two payments owed to the business arrive? Was this bus ride going to become a barf fest like Oaxaca?
Of course, when the initial worries come out to play and find an undefended banquet, the bigger anxieties leap into the feast. What if Jodie got sick of me? What if my writing stopped being a good career choice? Would the bus crash? Would one of us get injured so badly—
Nope, nope, nope. Stopping there.
I closed my eyes and took all the deep breaths I could, but this was one of those nights where I had a hard time easing up on the worries. Are any of them rational? Of course not. Our business is in decent shape. Jodie and I talk and connect in all the ways that matter, and we each are grateful to have one another.
As for the bus ride, sure, there’s always the outside chance something catastrophic could happen. But that’s the case whether we’re at home or across the world.
Finally giving up on sleep and getting up around 6:30, my worries soon met the foe they feared:
Checking our mail service, I saw not one of the payments our wee company was waiting for. I saw both of them. Quick side note there: A couple of days earlier, I’d called our mail service to make sure everything was okay with the account, so our contact there knew I’d been concerned. When mail comes in, we receive a scan of the envelope. Before she scanned the payment, she had added a bright orange sticky note, where she had written, “YAY!”
Suddenly, my worries lost their appetite. I thought of my amazing wife, and how I get to travel the world with my three favorite people. I reflected on the places we have been, and the places we are going to go. Now my worries backed away from the table. Something was approaching, and suddenly they didn’t want to be nearby anymore.
I started getting ready, and working through the day’s tasks, the travel, the writing, and all that was to come. The big ole engine of my heart began to pump, turn, and thrive. My anxieties cowered into a corner. Anxiety hates momentum, and now I was getting into the joy and business of the day. We were going to Chiang Rai.
We just had to survive the bus ride first.
Before we left the rental, we got an email update about our e-visa applications for Cambodia, which I had applied for a few days prior. Aster, apparently, was approved to go. The rest of us weren’t.
Turns our the scans of our passport ID pages hadn’t gone through correctly. I uploaded fresh ones.
Minutes later, our inbox refreshed: The whole family was now approved to visit the Kingdom of Cambodia. We fist-pumped the air. One country down. Now we were just waiting to hear about our Vietnam e-visas.
On the bus, the kids drank the last of the massive strawberry whipped creme shake frappe craziness that they had gotten at the station—complete with a thick swirl of whipped cream that I swear was as tall as my head. I snapped a motion sickness pill in half and gave one to each kid, hoping that the sugar hadn’t defeated our anti-nausea mission.
Under low, pale and dark rounded clouds, the bus wound through thick forest and rolling hills. On the left side of the road, we passed a porcelain strawberry, about the size of two five-gallon buckets. Farther along, the rusted rebar skeleton of a small shrine stood on a concrete pedestal that looked like it was becoming soft. If it hadn’t been the for the sloped roofs, golden Buddha statues, open-sided roadside cafes, and Thai script on the signs, I could have believed we were on a highway in western Oregon.
The kids relaxed. Dozed a little. Read on their e-readers. Even moved so they could sit together, and watched a Minecraft video they’d been saving.
And turn after turn, town after town, they felt fine.
Jodie and I then did something we hadn’t done on a bus: We relaxed. And we talked.
We talked about our week in Chiang Rai, and about school plans for the kids. But best of all, we talked about the business we own together, our wee company. We talked about 2023, and places we were going to be—and some big ideas for how we might make some travel plans in North America happen.
Before we knew it, the bus had arrived at the Chiang Rai bus station. Soon we were settled in to our hotel, which Jodie had found an amazing deal on. From our ninth-floor balcony, I stared out at the rolling hills—not dissimilar from the Blue Ridge of my hometown in Virginia, except, of course, for a hills capped with a white, 25-story Buddha statue.
Payments were going to the bank. My amazing wife had found us a beautiful place to stay, a little treat for our last destination in Thailand. The kids handled the bus ride with grace and calm. And Jodie and I were thinking big about our business.
Anxiety hates momentum. That night, I slept soundly, and didn’t wake until my alarm went off at seven.
At the poolside cafe at our hotel in Chiang Rai, Thailand, the kids stared goggle-eyed at a freezer full of ice cream. Naturally, of course, they chose something on a stick: crispy wafer, covered in chocolate.
Then I chose something: A coconut milk ice cream bar on a stick. Durian flavored.
But let’s back up. I should explain. The durian is the fruit that would make the devil either drool or retreat. The massive fruit is a foot long, 6 inches in diameter, and can weigh seven pounds. The inedible skin of the durian is also covered in short spikes, as if a mango and a hedgehog had an armored mace of a baby that could be handy in a bar fight. Inside, yellow, fleshy pods lay nestled amid white pith, as if they’d been packed with loving care in wool.
A friend once described durian to me as “eating a deliciously soft custard while sitting on the toilet.”
Many people in Southeast Asia have a love-hate relationship with durian. The fruit turns up in many products, and is found throughout the region. Yet durian is also possibly the record-holder for fruit most depicted in prohibition signs.
If you go to a subway in Southeast Asia, circle-and-slash signs will remind you that durian is not allowed in subway cars or stations. We rode in hired cars that had “no durian” signs on the back of the seats.
In the elevator in our Chiang Rai hotel, Connor took to saying he was “going to be an unaccompanied smoking durian,” owing to the three signs on the elevator that warned us that unaccompanied children, smoking, and durian were not allowed.
While I’d been to Asia previously, I had not tried durian. So, as Connor and Aster sat back at our poolside table and unwrapped their ice creams, Jodie grinned in surprise as I unwrapped ours.
And then we ate our durian ice cream.
The taste was sweet, with a custard-ish quality, and a tropical note that reminded me of mango. However, it was mango and custard, as if you had also, say in a fit of madness posing as inspiration, dumped in an entire, finely minced red onion.
For the rest of the afternoon, Jodie and I burped up so much sulphur, volcanoes along the Ring of Fire waged a letter-writing campaign demanding that we stop giving them a bad name. One of us would cringe, clutch our heart, and wait for the minor eruption to pass. And pass it did. Yet it would linger, a funk in the mouth that would not be evicted. Then we would grimace, and go find something to drink, desperate to dispel the durian from our mouths, our souls, our memories.
Perhaps, in time, durian is a taste I could acquire. But I don’t know if I will continue my investigations. We travel to try things, to learn and to make, for sure—but sometimes what you learn, is that once is enough.