Walk With Me in Chiang Mai
In the front row of economy, I pulled my inflight entertainment system out from between the armrests, swiveled the screen so that it faced me, and then decided to walk with a Vietnamese monk. Moments after the film started, Thich Nhat Hahn and his monastics ambled through a forest, glowing on the screen because the cabin lights went off moments earlier, readying us for the long nighttime haul across the Pacific. Immersed in the glow, I almost forgot that I was 35,000 feet above the ocean.
Thich Nhat Hahn, perhaps the most famous Buddhist monk after the Dalai Lama, opened a monastery in France decades ago, but it was not until recently that he allowed filmmakers to show up and make a documentary. They called it Walk With Me. During the 15-hour flight, I watched it twice, with a pair of black headphones muffling out the engine’s dull roar.
I didn’t know ahead of time that Cathay Pacific would offer Walk With Me as part of its catalog of inflight movies. The serendipity made me feel blessed because years earlier Buddhist perspectives had helped me deal with the isolation, dissatisfaction and endless rejection that came along with the freelance journalist’s existence. Those same Buddhist perspectives had also helped me get sober and stay sober. I could always return to them for help.
Even while grateful for an opportunity to revisit Southeast Asia and spend future rent money, I was still angry about my miserable life back home, still living like a college student, making no money and perpetually jealous of every other writer’s success, so Walk With Me came at just the right time. I’d long since come to understand that even the most inconsequential moments of serendipity could indicate I was in the right place.
Parts of the film featured syrupy narration from Benedict Cumberbatch whose phenomenal job at reading passages of Hahn’s 1960s-era diaries helped make the film a meditative experience. Plus, the louder-than-normal Foley work amplified and foregrounded the sounds of crickets in the forest, leaves rustling in the trees, tofu sizzling in the frying pan, or nuns slicing up Brussels Sprouts on a cutting board. In each of those scenes, everything else remained silent.
In terms of a plot, thankfully there wasn’t one, perhaps irritating for those who demanded linear narratives with a distinct beginning, middle and end. For me, it worked wonders. Throughout my trans-Pacific flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand, the monks helped dissolve my discontentment. Mindfulness helped filter out the static.
As soon as I arrived, the over-amped Foley work remained in my head, giving me all the hyper-awareness I needed to ingest the multisensory matrix of Chiang Mai. I was better equipped to focus on the details of my surroundings.
From the start, my hotel threw me head-first into Chiang Mai’s night market, a sprawling maze of street vendors occupying the sidewalks for a mile in every possible direction, stocking everything cheap travelers could want, from socks and underwear to trinkets and gaudy Buddhist ephemera, from bootleg English soccer jerseys to hair supplies. Despite the surface chaos, a simplicity pervaded, one I didn’t see back home in Silicon Valley.
Freshly inspired by the monks to pay attention, I wandered aimlessly through a congested river of market-hopping pedestrians to experience a cacophony of traffic, food carts, taxi touts and tour guides waving maps in my face. Rail-thin, chain-smoking drivers of tuk-tuks — auto rickshaws — either sat in their vehicles or accosted me for their business. Aromas of motor oil and stir-fried egg from street vendors floated around me. In various drinking establishments, giggling bar girls of all shapes and sizes lurched over graying Western businessmen and septuagenarian golfers with alcohol-red faces. Each block seemed to feature a tailor shop, a scooter rental business or a tour company offering eco-adventures. Sometimes it was all three in the same storefront.
Chiang Mai overflowed with low-budget travelers from all over the world. Signs for cheap hostels and rooms for rent popped out from crumbling facades in side alleys. Homemade wooden “laundry” signs jutted out from every crack or crevice in the built environment. Natives seemed to ply their trades all day long while also doing other peoples’ laundry. You’d drop off a bag of dirty clothes, maybe to some woman sitting on a tree stump, and then return later in the day to pick it up. Often the same facility doubled as a makeshift soda shack, a hostel, a fan belt retailer, cabinetmaker, or any number of things. I could do my laundry here for a fraction of what it cost back home — both my literal laundry and my psychological laundry.
Chiang Mai’s indie mom ‘n’ pop washing infrastructure triggered me to think about my hometown of San Jose, where the writer’s life had placed me in a slummy downtown apartment for several years, a building where crackheads often broke into the laundry room. Maybe twice a year, an intruder smashed the coin dispenser on the washing machine with a crowbar just to score a few extra dollars in quarters, yet I remained living in the building. As an independent writer, I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else in my hometown, a place obsessed with giddy feel-good projects to make the city look safer for nuclear families and tech bros. Life still seemed like a perpetual state of perpetuating. I was so messed up that I once wrote a newspaper column about “post-travel-I-hate-San-Jose disorder,” a condition afflicting me whenever I traveled to somewhere much more interesting and then returned back to downtown San Jose — with cockroaches and nightclubber vomit all over the sidewalk and combustible street people screaming at me every day.
In Chiang Mai, I saw no such thing. With the monks and the Foley effects still in my head, I walked all over town as if the monks were accompanying me, expanding my awareness of detail. I visited a mishmash of temples, in various states of repair. The structures became metaphors for my own self-repair. At the Wat Buppharam complex, I gazed at dusty old scrolls inside an altar building while an entire convoy of tuk-tuks carrying senior-aged people circled the premises. An old lady operating a makeshift outdoor cooking area made me Pad Thai for the equivalent of one US dollar. At Doi Suthep, I scaled hundreds of steps to speak with a monk in a saffron robe, trying not to interrupt all the tourists interrogating him about enlightenment. I also visited Wat Loi Kroh, on the road of the same name, steering past a block of Thai message joints, tattoo parlors and tourist bars.
Then, on the night before I was scheduled to fly back, yet another high-flying moment of serendipity unfolded right before me. I was now in another neighborhood, the trendy hipster Niman Road, in a building that catered entirely to Japanese tourists. No English channels existed on the television, so I perused Facebook for about two minutes before seeing that an old friend from the US had showed up right down the street.
Years ago, Jason was trained in mindfulness-based recovery back home in California. He was among those who originally showed me that Buddhist perspectives could help me overcome the nature of addiction. He had likewise explained how those perspectives could help me understand the dissatisfaction, envy and rejection of the freelance journalist’s life. By pure serendipity, he arrived in Chiang Mai the night before I left, staying at an accommodation around the corner, yet neither of us knew in advance of each other’s plans. The very next morning, Jason and I hit up yet another temple, Wat Phra Singh, one of the most famous in the whole city.
Even the most random dose of serendipity can help rewire the psyche, improve one’s feelings of isolation, or at least help strengthen a sense of life-trajectory. And it flooded my brain with gratitude. No matter how much my life seemed worse in San Jose than here in Chiang Mai, at least I was still writing. I hadn’t given up. Otherwise, I’d be hopeless and drunk and probably working in a coffee shop, not traveling anywhere, not writing, and even more violently envious of every other writer’s success. I wouldn’t be here in Chiang Mai, the Foley design of Walk With Me wouldn’t be driving my awareness, and I wouldn’t be stitching all of these thoughts together. Every phenomenon arose due to the coming together of previous phenomena. I was here on the glorious streets of Chiang Mai because I never stopped writing, plain and simple.
Jason’s serendipitous appearance did not signify a grand-scale cosmic shift in the World Order, but it was enough. I had found, or become reacquainted with, my calling in life: to travel and write and serve the muses of synchronicity. I could now go back home without getting depressed about having to go back home.
And upon returning, I went for a nighttime walk along San Fernando Street in downtown San Jose, glancing at my feet to see the large cockroaches scampering across the sidewalk, as they’d done for decades and would continue to do for decades, long after I left. Even if my landlord continued to raise the rent every year, and even if dope fiends kept breaking into the laundry room and smashing the coin receptacle just to steal 50 quarters, I was content in the present moment and prepared to improve my situation. Maybe I should watch Walk With Me on every flight from now on.