First Impressions: Chiang Mai and Volunteer Life

I arrived in Chiang Mai on a Saturday afternoon in January to a sweltering, tropical climate. My pasty skin was in shock coming from frigid New York! The assistant director and the driver from my volunteer program picked me up from the airport and told me all about Chiang Mai and what to expect in the next few days as we headed toward the volunteer home.  Exhausted from my journey, I tried to ask good questions and show my enthusiasm, but I couldn’t help getting lost staring out the program van’s window and absorbing my first sights of THAILAND.  I made it!

My first thought was that Chiang Mai was really green.  It felt like part jungle, part city! I don’t have that green impression in my mind after the trip, but Chiang Mai is a city unlike any other I’ve seen.  I saw my first Thai Tuk-Tuks, more motorbikes than I ever imagined, and learned about red trucks – Songthaews in Thai – which are like an open air cross between a taxi, bus, and truck.  I was so nervous about all these kinds of new transportation! Little did I know what a breeze it would become.

tuk tuk chiang mai photo

Tuk-Tuk In Chiang Mai – Photo by oldandsolo

songthaew chiang mai photo

Red Songthaew in Chiang Mai – Photo by David McKelvey

We pulled up to the volunteer house where I met my housemates – all girls!  They all went off on their rented motorbikes(!), and I went upstairs to unpack.  After all that travel I felt drained, shy, and gross from the plane ride and humidity – ready to collapse after nearly 48 hours of being awake.  The house itself was nice, clean, and totally modern – exceeding my expectations. Naturally, I had the only top bunk bed in the house and it was hard as a rock. The giant mosquito net over the bed made me feel like I was in some movie in the tropics! After a shower and getting my stuff unpacked though, I was feeling much better.  Most of all I needed some quiet alone time to get my bearings and settle in – traveling halfway around the world takes a lot out of you!  The house felt safe and welcoming and I somehow knew that I was going to be OK.

Cultural Canvas Thailand Volunteer House

Cultural Canvas Thailand Volunteer House Entrance

When the girls came back from their ride we all indulged in our nightly “Family Dinner” cooked by the house chef and caretaker.  It was amazing to have fresh, homemade Pad Thai on my first night in Thailand!! That delicious food and the return of my housemates made it feel like a new day.  A new girl arrived from Brazil whose flight lost all her luggage – I couldn’t imagine handling that, but she took it well. A kind 65-year-old German volunteer staying at a nearby guesthouse also joined us for dinner.  At 24 years old, I was surprised that I was the second oldest of the volunteers I’d met so far!

After dinner, the long-term volunteers, who were Chiang Mai experts by this point, led us to their favorite spots. We started with Bus Bar, where I learned my new favorite drinking game (Cheers, Governors!) and had my first taste of Chang beer.  I also experienced the effects of Chang Roulette (Chang is notorious for an unreliable alcohol percentage) mixed with jet lag. We then climbed into my first Red Truck and went to Loco Elvis to sing along to a great live band, and then danced at the Reggae Bar near Zoe’s down the street – a touristy complex packed with bars. It wasn’t a super late or crazy night, but it was a lot of fun and a great introduction to the volunteer program experience.

Bus Bar in Chiang Mai

Bus Bar in Chiang Mai

Loco Elvis in Chiang Mai

Loco Elvis in Chiang Mai

I loved getting to see Chiang Mai at night-time. My mood had such a complete turnaround from the afternoon – and I was glad to spend it with a great new group of people who would be my friends and coworkers for the next three weeks.  One of the best parts of going out that first night was jumping headfirst into the experience – I had barely any jet lag after that first day and felt immersed and ready to take on Chiang Mai!