In November 2015 my family moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to work with the NGO Partners Relief & Development, to help bring free, full lives to children affected by conflict and oppression, particularly people in and from Myanmar/Burma.
At the moment it’s ‘winter’ in Chiang Mai, but my husband’s computer has had several spells cooling down in the freezer because it keeps overheating.
Every so often I see a TV show or a Facebook picture with someone wearing a coat or jersey, and my brain can’t compute why anyone would be dressed so warmly.
The mornings are a little cooler right now, but I’ve still never worn more than one layer. I brought a cardigan with me from New Zealand but it has had no wear at all. I’ll take it to the movies if we finally get to Star Wars (I hear the aircon is fierce).
It gets to above 30 degrees almost every day now and it will only get hotter. No doubt I will find it challenging later on – the locals and veterans say this is the most pleasant weather of the year, before heat and smoke take over – but six weeks in, coming from New Zealand and from my first winter in three years, I’m grateful every single day that I’m not cold. We play outside every day. The kids can get wet as often as they like. When I leave the house, I never take another layer ‘just in case’.
Oh, and did I mention we have an ozone layer here? Unlike under the scorchy New Zealand sun which can burn skin in ten minutes, in Chiang Mai we don’t even wear sunscreen.
The thing that messes with my brain is that despite this joyous summery weather, the sun sets by 6pm. Shouldn’t we be barbecuing into the late, light evenings? We’re so close to the equator here that sunrise and sunset times are not going to vary much with the seasons, which will take some getting used to.
(Also the moon looks different here! It waxes and wanes on a completely different angle!)
Some other minor practical adjustments we are still working on include figuring out footwear (it’s hard to choose substantial, supportive shoes when it’s constantly jandal weather) and mosquito repellant (bugs aren’t too dangerous here or at this time of year, but we will need to get into good habits to avoid malaria and dengue), remembering to take bottles of water with us everywhere we go, and getting the hang of air conditioning.
The weather is delightful. You should come and visit. We have room.
High Days and Holy Days
We arrived in a season of celebration, especially since we straddle several different national cultures, and get to gatecrash all their holidays.
In quick succession we had Loi Krathong and Yi Peng, American Thanksgiving, the Thai King’s birthday, three family birthdays, Christmas and New Year. Phew!
At 4am the other night our four-year-old said, as I was leaving his bedroom, ‘Wake me up if there’s anything exciting, okay Mama? Like fireworks or lanterns.’
That’s the world he lives in. Fireworks or lanterns might be happening any moment now.
Loi Krathong and Yi Peng
The Thai festival of Loi Krathong, where people float little flower boats down rivers, coincides with the Lanna (Northern Thai) festival of Yi Peng, where they let off sky lanterns like miniature hot-air balloons.
Pretty spectacular, right?
We didn’t experience the river-floating this year, but I can tell you the lantern-lighting is quite something to behold.
We didn’t make it to one of the mass lantern launches like in the picture, but even just standing in front of the house was breath-taking. All around us, lanterns were steadily being set alight and floating into the sky, from backyards everywhere. Sometimes we could see one burn up and start falling, but mostly they just bobbed upwards, looking like rising stars.
On the second night of Yi Peng we did have the opportunity to participate. The restaurant we went to for dinner with friends had a couple of lanterns they offered us, so as soon as it was dark, we had the fun of a physics lesson on why heated air rises, while we waited for the balloon to start lifting.
The first one was perfect! Physics lesson: check! Delighted children: check! Safe and uneventful launch: check!
Then we lit the second one. Two out of three ain’t bad, right?
A gust of wind blew the second khom loi straight into a tree. Oops.
Luckily, an enterprising (or just experienced?) waiter came to the rescue, with a long pole to fish it out of the tree, and no real damage was done to what turned out to be the most expensive, precious tree on the property. Sorry, guys.
No, as a Kiwi-British family, we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but most Chiang Mai expats are American, so it was more on the radar than usual.
The Partners staff in the Chiang Mai office is a mix of Thai, Shan (from Myanmar), American, Kiwi and Norwegian. There’s also one Australian and one Brit, if I’m counting correctly.
(You can see many of their faces in this celebration video if you’re curious )
So in Monday staff meetings we take sides in American college football and Commonwealth rugby rivalries, discuss democracy in Myanmar, the New Zealand flag debate and the US primaries, eat local fruits that I haven’t learned to name yet, and have all the discussion in at least two languages (Thai and English), sometimes more. Then we go and sit on the verandah around mats on the floor and eat Thai food for lunch together. It’s a pretty cool cultural mix.
SEED Christmas Party
Our first Christmas celebration was a few days after we arrived, when the SEED staff at Partners organised a Christmas party for the children of Shan migrant families.
Large numbers of Shan people are in Chiang Mai working in fairly insecure employment. Partners supports a community education centre called SEED, which offers trainings and practical help aimed at combatting the social, educational and health concerns of migrant communities in Chiang Mai.
Here’s a short introduction to what SEED does and why migrant workers are in need of support.
(If the video is overlapping with some of the website text, just make it full-screen to get a better view.)
The kids had an absolute ball!
There was a bouncy castle, some high-end face-painting, craft activities including a paint spinner and a delicious lunch cooked by some very talented Thai staff members.
It was all organised and run by a team of volunteer interns who are working at SEED for a few months. If that sounds like fun, check out the volunteer page at the excellent Partners website.
Advent is a big deal in our family.
We light candles at the dinner table every day, read Nativity stories at bedtime, open the doors on the Advent calendar SBJ’s godfather sends each year and generally get ourselves ready to welcome the Christ child.
We still didn’t have a house of our own at the beginning of Advent, but SBJ’s bestie’s mum helped source the right coloured candles for our family tradition and we used SBJ’s painted paper plate from the SEED Christmas party to set them on. I had brought all our Christmas picture books from New Zealand in anticipation of the season.
A few days into Advent we moved into our own home. Our Advent practices have provided an element of continuity straddling two countries and two homes within our first weeks in Chiang Mai.
Birthdays 1 & 2
We have been very lucky to find a few families with children of similar ages very quickly.
SBJ has categorised all the kids as his Friends (he has very clear lines around that category, which is a story for another day), so we enjoyed having them all over for games and snacks to celebrate his fourth birthday.
We borrowed picnic mats and crockery from the generous guests (we’re still getting set up), the kids made their own fruit kebabs, I froze some dinosaurs in ice for an archaeological dig, and we all had a lovely time in the warm air.
It was also very handy that the week of his birthday there were two public holidays. The day off for the King’s Birthday was his actual birthday, and we held his party on Constitution Day, so even in a busy month, most people were available at short notice.
My birthday the next day was a bit quieter but very pleasant.
We were lucky to be invited to two lovely Christmas celebrations on Christmas Day.
We started the day with French toast at home. As in most of Asia, European-style bread is very hard to find, but we have found it! Chiang Mai Bread delivers amazing loaves right to our house, and their bread turned out to make great French toast, too.
SBJ and I were particularly excited that we got to light the Christ candle. We have made up our own liturgy over the years (you can use it too if you like). His Christmas present to me (little did he know it) was this lovely rendition of it on camera:
We opened a couple of presents (we’ve ended up at the minimalist end of things with Christmas gifts these days), skyped the Kiwi whānau, and my husband and son got to work making a solar-powered windmill for the morning. I foresee many father-son projects ahead of us.
Then we headed to the home of the SBJ’s beloved bestie, Ms O, for a feast. We and the hosts were the only foreigners, and the rest of the guests were all Buddhist: half of them Thai, half Shan, from Myanmar.
It was a lovely few hours of eating, playing Jenga (if you knocked the tower over, you had to lead a song from your culture), and more eating. One highlight was playing with the family’s nativity with a little Thai girl, and acting out the Christmas story with her mother translating for onlookers. Hopefully next year I’ll have enough Thai to tell the story myself.
After some UK skyping in the late afternoon (Thailand is well-placed for catching all our loved ones at each end of the globe), we had a Christmas evening with four expat households, and goodness me it was lovely.
Brenden and Becca arrived in Chiang Mai a few months before us to work with Partners, too, and they hosted us all with their kids M and E.
Their family has been lighting candles every night in an Advent log, so we all got to join in lighting the Christ candle, with readings and carols. I think I’ll need to ask Brenden to make us one for next Advent, don’t you?
Look at these angelic children talking about Jesus with Becca!
Then poor SBJ broke his toe by tipping a wooden stool onto his foot. He had a traumatic hour of ice-packs and pain, but then enjoyed more stories, dairy-free pumpkin pie and brownies, and playing with the other kids.
An x-ray the next day confirmed a fracture, but it will heal by itself so there’s nothing else we need to do. Two days later he was rock-climbing, so it’s not too big a deal now, clearly. First broken bone!
New Year/Baby H’s Birthday
New Year is one of the biggest holiday occasions in Thailand, with two public holidays, shops closed, and lots of people travelling.
Baby H turned one on New Year’s Eve, so it was a party day for everyone again. Both kids having their birthdays on or near public holidays is very handy, I must say.
For H’s birthday we took a day-trip to Bua Tong waterfalls. They are AMAZING and if you come and visit us we will take you there, okay?
The falls are covered in limestone, which makes them slightly rough, like fine sandpaper, so you can climb all the way up them like you’re wearing magic, gravity-defying boots. It’s a slightly surreal experience. H had a lovely time in the water, and SBJ and his dad climbed the entire set of falls (broken toe and all), up and down each flight.
It also meant a drive into the hills, through farmland and lush jungle. Thailand is certainly very beautiful. The trees along the road reminded us of Australian eucalyptus forest, particularly in not being that dense, but it got more tropical-feeling as we walked around the waterfall.
We didn’t make it to any evening New Year’s Eve parties. I was asleep well before midnight after a day of celebrating and remembering H’s arrival into the world.
But my husband was so impressed at the burst of festivities that he woke me up.
I have never heard such noise. On the dot of midnight, every household in our neighbourhood let off fireworks. Astonishing. It was actually something worth staying up for (and I speak as a chronically underslept breastfeeding mother!), so next year, I will.
Celebrating the work of Partners in 2015
The clever communications staff (many of them volunteer interns) at Partners put together this fun video chronicling some of the ways people around the world have brought free, full lives to the people of Myanmar in 2015. Maybe we’ll be in next year’s version!
What else are you interested in hearing about? Let me know and I’ll be keen to chat! I’ll regale you with tales of learning Thai soon, I think, and anything else that interests people. Let me know!
You can read more about Partners and our work with them here:
As always, you can connect with Sacraparental conversation in other places too. You can follow the Facebook page, see what I’m squirrelling away on Pinterest (mostly jungle gym ideas right now), and exchange nerdy links and political rants on Twitter. Please say hi