Amy and I have had this plan for mental health on our trip. Every week or so (every seventh day?), we would plunk down somewhere happy and fun for recovery and rest. Maybe find a place with a swimming pool. But in Chiang Mai, our budget was limiting us to small rooms without much space to lounge. With a need to slow down, but no appealing place to be slow in, we compromised to a short outing – just a small wander to the Chiang Mai University gift shop. That was the plan. But I think I was feeling claustrophobic, a little stir-crazy, like Josie two days after her last run. That’s my excuse anyway for why I hijacked our family’s weekly Sabbath.
I Google-found a blogpost about a trail leaving from near the university, called the Monk’s Trail. The blogger suggested an hour-long walk up to one temple, followed by a second, steeper journey up to the “spectacular” mountain-top temple of Doi Suthep. Perfect, I thought. We’ll stretch our legs, get a tich of exercise, breath-in some nature, then return to the guest house to lounge the afternoon away. I proposed the idea to the kids, “Come on, it’s just a one hour walk, it will feel good!” They both responded with squinty eyes and raised hackles, sensing an intruder into their peaceful domain.
Mistake #1. I bull-dogged my agenda.
We got a late start, around noon, and we flagged a tuk-tuk from our guest house. I insisted we eat a proper lunch to prevent hangry kids and mom. Turns out that was about my only correct decision of the day. We explored the university; it was open and green, filled with enthusiastic and chatty college students. Mia asked a couple helpful Thai girls for directions, and we soon found her shopping spot. The birds were chirping and the sun was shining, a lovely day.
Then, as the afternoon wore on, I veered us towards the Monk’s Trail. After about 1 km walking in the afternoon heat, we were on a nearly deserted road, and I first realized my second mistake of the day.
Mistake #2. We had no more water.
Porter, never a fan of a boring walk without bike, scooter or skis, started dragging.
He lamented, “Uh, it’s so hot. I’m so tired. I’m so thirsty. How far do we have to go? This is a terrible day…”
I retorted with a perky carrot, “Just think how delicious the ice cream will be after we’ve had a bit of exercise!”
Amy sensed the precariousness of our situation, and brandished the stick, “You always hate hiking at the outset, then you have fun. If you walk the whole way without complaining, we will get ice cream. If you complain, tomorrow you and I are going to tour museums all day long.”
Laughter from Mia. Porter retreated, and marched on in silence.
Correct decision # -5,285. I married Amy.
We reached the trailhead after nearly an hour walking, both kids moving well. The trail was quite nice, in the shade. We reached a trail junction: one route offered a few more points of interest than the other. The kids did not waver in their campaign to recapture the day, “Which one is shorter??”
We pushed on, reached a false summit, kept going.
Mistake #3. I read every sign. I explored the crumbled remains of an ancient temple. I lingered in jungle cricket noises.
We reached the first temple. Actually, it was a meditation center, set on a hillside, in the forest. It was lovely and serene. The kids must have been relieved. They had basically agreed to the hijacker’s terms. We enjoyed the view over Chiangmai and found a stall selling thai ice tea and water. Amy and I asked the vendor about further route options. She suggested there no easy way to flag a taxi, the mountain-top temple was still 45 minutes to an hour further, the way was steep, but the view at the end was spectacular. The blogpost I had read also suggested that the second part of the hike would be 70 to 80 minutes.
Mistake #4. I said to Amy something like, “Probably just Thai time, they don’t realize that we are hikers. I’ll bet it’s fifteen minutes, tops.”
Mistake #5. I repeated the thought to the kids, verbatim.
In the air between my mouth and their ears, my words took shape, hardening from malleable conjecture into the hard promise of parent to child. Mia and Porter leaned in, recognizing the day for what it was – a coup. Like good soldiers captured by General Sherman, they just plodded on.
After 15 minutes following steep stairs chopped into the hard soil, we admitted the meditation center lady’s route description was probably correct. By this time, the afternoon Sun was low. Maybe not quite as low as Mia’s attitude, but close. To her credit, Mia doggedly climbed on, losing water through sweat and tears. A sobbing, frustrated, tired kid. I dared not say anything, but Amy hung back.
“What’s wrong sweetie?” Usually those kind of words are the kiss of death, especially the sweetie part. But, I think Mia was too worn out to be mad.
“I’m hot, I’m tired, I’m thirsty, there’s a bug in my water, I miss Josie, this has not been a good Valentine’s Day.” She sobbed. But she kept walking, such a trooper.
Porter, was scampering up the hill, embodying his inner Josie. He was tired, but mostly mad. He just stared at me and said flat out, “You lied to us.”
Correct decision #2. I kept my mouth shut.
We finally reached the top of the trail around the late afternoon, but unfortunately the end was just a bend in the very steep paved road. The final half-kilometer of walking was on road. A Thai traveler from Bangkok was taking a smoke break, and kindly offered our kids some fragrant oil to rejuvenate them. After looking at their faces a bit closer, he just gave us the entire bottle.
We trudged up further, getting passed by fossil-fueled ease of modern transport – tuk-tuks and busses filled with sedated tourists. Finally, we reached the parking lots and accompanying gawkers and hawkers. I bought some water and offered to buy the kids any drink they wished. Both kids refused to be bought off so easily; they would not allow me to buy forgiveness. Finally, I just bought a couple Sprites and stuck them in their hands, this was survival now. The final climb to the temple was a mockery – a steep, 100+ stairs of dragon staircase, crawling with tourists, like a ripe piece of mango made inedible by a swarm of ants.
Porter tried to wrest some control back, “Ok, let’s catch a bus and go down. They are probably going to charge us to go in, and there are like a million tourists. I don’t want to go up there.” Porter was using a subtle art of persuasion – appealing to Amy’s thriftiness, and our dislike of overly popular tourist destinations. I must admit to feeling some solidarity, both kids by now recognize the difference between meaningful moments and touristy visits. But, I was going to see the damn temple.
“Seriously?” I protested. “After all that effort, with the end nearly in sight, you are just going to turn back?”
Unfortunately for Porter, at my words, Mia resigned any remaining protest, and she just charged up the steps, powered by huff. Porter moaned, but followed.
The temple was nice, but we were templed out. However, the sugar from the Sprite was kicking into our blood and the tourists crowds were thinning out. We admired the many gold-enshrouded Buddhas and other spiritual symbols. To me, the more ornate a temple is, the less interested I become. I sort of like the old, crumbly structures more. Doi Suthep is elegant, but very gold. Mia and Porter fell into a laughing fit about lighting some candles and trying to take pictures of the flame.
Then, at 6 pm, a row of monks appeared. They asked all tourists to be silent, and to kneel with them before the great steeple in the center of the temple. The sun was low, the light was soft and all grew quiet. An older monk lit incense, then led the others in bowing and chanting. Mia and Porter had transitioned into tired hysterical mode, and couldn’t stop cracking each other up. They finally clamped hands over mouths and scampered out of the area to enjoy their chuckles in peace. The monks rose and moved into another chamber for more chanting. We were invited to participate. We kneeled until my body’s perseverance ran out – foot cramps, the bane of my spirituality. I’d make a lousy monk.
We reunited with Mia and Porter, it was nearly dark by this point. They had somehow flipped their attitudes from revolt to reveling, and we caught a tuk-tuk back down the mountain. We had a great shopping experience with a woman selling meditation bowls. Despite being the physics teacher, I am the worst at producing a resonant sound in the metal dish. We met a very interesting couple from the US, Rob and Cailey, traveling for a bit before heading to Nepal for a 3-month research project into high altitude sickness. We ate expensive pizza for dinner, and Thai pancake for dessert. Yum.
A second goal in our trip was to be challenged out of our comfort zones. This day certainly accomplished that. We will see if there are lasting effects over the next couple weeks.