northern thailand / by Shelby Robinson

The few weeks leading up to summer break, I researched and planned and sent pictures and links to my traveling crew. I was restless. I was being pulled by this great desire to get out and experience again. I was ready to dive into something I am so drawn to. So passionate about. I was ready to go.  

The night before my flight, I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned, feeling frustrated that my mind wouldn’t quiet to allow me to get at least a few hours of rest. I’m not sure if it was my mind that was overwhelmed with excitement or if it was the soy latte I had to keep myself awake to pack, regardless, I felt like a first grader again. Too excited to sleep the night before field day or the last day of school.

Fast forward to an early commute to Incheon, a layover in Bangkok and hours and hours, and I’m riding in the backseat of a cab in Chiang Mai, admiring the palm trees and the ornate temples glittered throughout the lively, lit-up city. With Britney at my side. Talking to the cab driver who’s in love with his city and with his country and with his life. It’s so clearly shown in his smile. In his eyes.

I remember the humidity was thick, moving across our skin like a dense fog. But I felt light. Despite little sleep and flights and lines and immigration and airplane food, I felt free.

And it was only going to get better.

Our first few encounters with Thai people was one of the greatest reasons I fell in love with the country. Their smiles and generosity and warmth made my heart sing. I knew I was in a good place. I knew I would be experiencing bliss for week. I knew I had made the right decision to travel here.

Months back, Essa and Johnson came to me with their plans to backpack throughout Thailand. It just so happened that my vacation overlapped with theirs ~ which was such a blessing. They were my first little taste of home in seven months and damn, it was so good to see their faces. So good to experience a beautiful country with people I know and love.

We spent just two days in Chiang Mai, so we made sure to fill them with as many motorbike rides throughout the city as possible. We ventured around temples and along the channels, on the outskirts of town, up through the mountains to waterfalls, on the weaving roads lush with palm trees and banana trees and stray dogs, and even on the highway, just ‘cause. (Actually, I think we were lost.) We learned how to meander through traffic and to get up to the very front with the rest of the locals. I swear I could always feel a big grin on my face as the wind whipped through my hair and the sun caressed my skin. I felt light. Infinitely free.

We made friends with people in our hostel, including a few girls from Canada, who had just finished studying abroad. We instantly clicked with them. I feel as though that happens a lot with other travelers. You all just seem to be on the same wavelength. The same vibe. Conversations flow seamlessly as you talk about the places you’ve seen and the places you have yet to see. The people you’ve met.  The tattoo you got in Berlin. The city that made you feel more alive than you’ve ever felt in your life. Where you fell in love. Why you’ll go back.

We also ate some of the most amazing food I’ve had in my life together. I was in veggie-heaven. The morning glories, the veggie stir-fries, the noodles and soups and salads and Thai iced teas.... all those herbs! Spices! Sauces! I'm telling you, the food is worth a visit to this country alone. After eating, we’d venture back to the hostel with our Chang beers. Some of my favorite moments were staying up late on the roof deck with our friends and good music. Slipping away into the warm, summer evening abyss.... Sitting on bamboo, the sound of the city below us. The clouds and the moon above us. The muggy air. I remember being so full. Of laughter, of conversation, of love, good food, inspiration.

After our adventure in Chiang Mai came to a close, we took a bus up to a smaller city in the mountains called Pai. We had no idea what to expect. We had just heard it would be one of the best places we would visit in Northern Thailand. And boy, were they right.

We stayed at The Countryside Resort, on the outskirts of main town, in these traditional huts surrounded by rice paddies and mountains. There were small ponds and cats that would roam freely. Also, cockroaches and lizards and ants in our room, but hey... that comes with being in a country so rich and lush and full of life. Things are just bigger. And more abundant.

My mornings were some of the most sacred times. Almost always solo, I would wake and ride and explore the land, searching for a good place to enjoy breakfast. And to write. To soak in the bliss. I made FatCat one of my go-to spaces (complete with kombucha and smoothie bowls and veggie breakfasts) thanks to a recommendation from my friend Kaylie. My mornings would lead me around the city, the temple in the mountains, the fruit market, the natural water slide, the coffee shops scattered throughout...

It was good too, together. The four of us all seemed to have our own thing going. We were totally content with separating throughout the day and then meeting back up again at random times.... without phones, it wasn't easy to find each other, so we either had to make plans prior to separating or just rely on chance to meet up again. Which somehow always seemed to happen in the best way.  Some of my favorite memories were our walks on the walking street together, indulging in fruit shakes and street food or Thai massages, a little bit of shopping (which oh my god, it was so beautifully cheap, I loaded UP on Christmas presents for the people in my life).

I can't even begin to describe how grateful I am for the experience I had here. Grateful for being on this side of the world, for the ease in traveling and for the low cost, grateful for the friends I know and love who I got to spend a week with, grateful for the insanely good vegetarian food and the mountains and the hot springs and for the rejuvenating, soul-quenching adventure we experienced. Grateful to feel these content, happy, blissful moments. To break from the mundane. To live freely.

If you find yourself drawn to this country, go, go, go. It's life-changing.