Chiang Rai, Thailand

We left Athens feeling like it was the most appropriate way to end our European adventure. Athens was like a summary of all that had been done in our hearts in Europe as a whole, through meeting so many incredible people and seeing so many brilliant places, reading an abundance of Scripture, and living through countless tremendous experiences. We had been in Europe three full months. It was time to move on, but not without feeling the weight of bittersweet emotions over the incredible ninety days we shared touring a stunning and vast continent from North to South.

We flew out of Greece at 6pm, arrived in Dubai at midnight (we were shocked at how busy and alive the Dubai airport was at one and two in the morning– a multitude of people eating at shake shack or some other Western fast food place like it was one or two in the afternoon), hopped on board a flight at 3am, and got to Bangkok by noon. We were exhausted. Everything up until this point was already a blur. We raced all the way across the Bangkok airport, following the signs for domestic transfers. We breezed through customs and got a 30-day Thailand visa with zero issues. We boarded our flight to Chiang Rai and I slept the whole hour and a half. It wasn’t until Robbie woke me and said, “Sweetie, look out your window!” with such eagerness, that the fact that we were in Asia started to soak in. In my sleepy haze, I saw that we were below the clouds, completely surrounded by palm trees and jungle, with a lush and hilly countryside all around us with a muddy river in view. Robbie and I definitely weren’t in Europe anymore, and we couldn’t have been more excited when it all hit us. We’d traveled about 14 hours and this was a pretty exciting moment.

After several interactions with Thai airport staff (our luggage got lost, and we weren’t even in the least bit worried. Honestly, I couldn’t believe how relaxed we both were about this. It didn’t matter at all to us.) and the taxi guys, we were already humbled by the people’s kindness here. Their smiles, the way they bow their heads to you with their hands in prayer position as you greet and say goodbye, their truest and most sincere attempts at English (I know, I know, I talk about this constantly, but I’ll never stop appreciating and acknowledging the beautiful kindness of people accommodating me in my language when we are so far from home). It was about 4pm when we arrived at the Nak Nakara hotel a few blocks from the heart of the city.  (If you’re wondering, our luggage conveniently landed with the next flight in from Bangkok and they delivered it to us that night. Such great service!)

A few things we found out quickly from locals is that Chiang Rai is a “small town” of almost 70,000. Apparently Thai people from bigger cities view Chiang Rai as “podunk” and “way out” in the country. It’s also not a common tourist destination. All of these qualities only made us all the more pumped to spend six days running around an authentic Thai city that had way more locals than foreigners, getting glimpses into normal life for a certain population of this special country.

Right away on our first evening, we walked from our hotel down to this daily street market our precious hotel staff told us about (If you could only meet these people, you’d understand why I call them precious. Robbie and I were just in awe of how sincere, genuine, and sweet they all were). Every day it’s open from seven in the morning until seven in the evening, serving up the freshest fish (some on the grill, some totally raw with the scales still on), vegetables, fruits, meats, spring rolls, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, heaping pots of steaming pad thai style dishes and other foods I don’t know the name of. It was only three blocks away but the heat and humidity combined had me dripping in sweat. It was ninety degrees at 5pm, and I wish I could bottle the smell of the streets– hot with the aroma of heavenly thai spices. Robbie and I were hand in hand when we arrived on the market street, sweating and giddy. We had suddenly been transported onto a movie set, surely, we thought. The mess and tangle of a thousand power lines strewn amidst the old and rusted buildings, the rumble of hundreds of motorbikes scrambling past us, the array of colorful umbrellas and canvases covering the market booths, the Thai language symbols big and bold in every direction. It sort of took my breath away. I truly saw every bit of beauty in this quintessential Asian city street. Robbie and I both did. We took a big breath in, dodged motorbikes going both ways, and jumped into the crowd of Thais purchasing goods for that night’s meal.

We spent more than an hour wandering, observing, and picking out a few items for ourselves. We ended up with a weird grilled sausage thing (that we aren’t sure whether it was a sausage after all, but Robbie still ate it), sliced pineapple, an avocado and eight mini spring rolls. Pretty random foods, but we weren’t very hungry after the plane flight had actually fed us. The pineapple was exactly how Mu Poe Loe explained to me back home. Mu Poe Loe is my best Karen friend who spent most of her life in a Thai refugee camp. It’s one of the things she misses the most about Thailand: the fresh-from-the-jungle fruits. (I’ve been in touch with her this whole trip, and she couldn’t wait to receive our photos of Thailand, so I’ve been texting her some throughout our time! Technology is really neat.) This bag loaded with sliced pineapple was nearly finished on the walk home. It was SO full of flavor and juiciness that it almost had a different taste than pineapple in Omaha. The avocado we bought was nearly as big as my head and the guy who sold it to me sliced it in slices the way Americans slice their watermelon to eat, if that tells you anything about its size. The spring rolls were beyond delightful, certain ones a little burnt from the oven, adding the perfect crisp to them. Everything is in Thai Baht, and 100 Thai Baht is about the equivalent of 3 US dollars. Everything we bought was 20 or 40 Baht. Yeah– like a little under or a little over 1 US dollar. So nuts!

We walked back after dark and Robbie started his nightly tradition of hunting for geckos. They come out at night and climb all over the exterior walls of the hotel. I hate and am scared of all “critters” in the world, but for Robbie, lizards and geckos, frogs and toads are some of his favorite things to scope out, chase after, and pick up. We ended up finding the Tokay gecko (Google them. They’re so gross and so big—for a gecko. In fact they’re the second biggest gecko in the world). Robbie tried to pick him up, but they escape quite quickly. After reading more about them, I’m very glad he was unsuccessful at catching the gecko because their bite, although not deadly by any means, is still pretty darn strong and many times the only was to detach them from your skin is to fully submerge them in water. Glad that didn’t happen. Although I am disgusted by stuff like this, I honestly find Robbie’s lizard curiosity adorable. He loves those little guys and I tried hard to put a smile on a few times to come outside and hunt for them with him. ❤

The hotel breakfast was amazing and free. We took advantage of this and planned to fill up on breakfast and then only purchase one meal per day. We’d walk down to breakfast, grab a plate of pancakes (We found out a traditional Thai breakfast actually consists of pancakes–really exactly like we eat back home) or an omelette or even stir fry (hahaha I know it was breakfast, but they offered it and it was so yummy. We couldn’t help ourselves), take a seat on their open-air patio space and eat face to face in the shade, accompanied by the morning breeze, and chilled guava juice. Breakfast together each day along a very quiet street of Chiang Rai was much anticipated for us every morning. None of this gets old to us. We are still so very much in love with each other’s company, and love excuses to just be us in new places.

We spent two full hours just walking the city streets of Chiang Rai, exploring down more populous roads and down empty ones too. This was beautifully fun but unbearably sweaty. Every turn held something exciting and we kept mentioning how lovely it was to be there. I don’t think there’s such thing as a “chain” there, except like 7-eleven, with local shops for food and other goods lining nearly every street, with their doors wide open– or oftentimes just missing whole walls, allowing the heat and the air to invade the space. All the smells enticed us but was even more amazing was the people in all the local shops sweetly smiling, waving and head-bowing to us as we passed, never ever once bombarding us with requests for us to come inside and buy their goods. We appreciated how different this was from multiple European countries like what we found across Italy, Greece, and France. We happened upon an enormous fruit market in our exploration. The market was entirely covered, as it was an open air space with no walls but was actually the bottom floor of some building. We were one of the only customers there, walking the many long aisles of mostly fruits (but also flowers and fish and clothes). We even watched as one woman grabbed still-living fish out of a bucket of water at her feet and knocked a gavel-looking piece of wood against the fish a few times to kill it (and presumably sell it??). Robbie and I just looked at each other and giggled. I mean, we’d just never seen anything like it.

We grabbed lunch with Daniel and Marcia Yu. This mid-thirties couple from California left everything they had in the States (along with 18 others–yes, 18!) to plant One Light church right in the heart of Chiang Rai. Their California church is pastored by a man who has discipled our head pastor in Omaha for many years. That’s how we got this connection. We sat down in a Thai restaurant (called Pho Chai), still sweaty from our two-hour walk that morning with no end of sweat in sight, as the restaurant had no front wall to it with only fans operating on two corners of the space circulating the thick hot air. And then we ordered spicy chicken khoa soy, an absolutely incredible traditional Northern Thailand dish (we are so thankful the Yu’s took us here for this dish). I say all this about the heat only to draw home a particular fact about our time, but not to complain. In fact, even Robbie who truly hates heat, didn’t complain at all the whole week. It’s to be expected, and it certainly adds to the magic of the experience of being in Southeast Asia. To be in Thailand in early November and sweating like it was a Nebraska August is pretty awesome, actually.

Daniel and Marcia were intentional and dove right into encouraging and giving words of wisdom to us. They mentioned how much they respect our pastors back home, as they’ve gotten to know them pretty well over the years. They told us that they had had a very serious conversation with our head pastor Jd about whether he believed we were pursuing travel for the right reasons. You could tell it was Dan’s honor to relay the report that our pastors firmly believe in what Robbie and I are doing, that they have zero doubts about where our hearts are or how strong our relationships with the Lord are. It made us a little teary, as we love our church leaders oh so much. A couple of things they told us really stand out to me. Marcia was saying how much just in the time we’d been talking that she could recognize my extreme excitement for Jesus radiating off of me. She said the energy I had explaining my desperation for others to know the love of Christ was exhilarating and uncommon. With that being said, she reminded me of the story of Abraham. A man, like me, eager to do God’s will, eager to say yes to all that God had for him. Many of us know how this story plays out. He was promised a son, even though his wife was barren. He was promised that through this son, he’d be the father of many nations. (The promises I feel like God has given me are: Chase, I will use you and Robbie to lead others to Christ. I will allow your lives to be a ministry.) Abraham, although longing to be faithful, impatiently ran ahead of God and tried to fulfill the promise God made him in his own way, on his own terms, in his own timing. Marcia reminded me that even though I’m eager to do God’s will, and I’m pursuing the Lord daily, there’s still a way I could run ahead of God and not end up in God’s will for my life (even if what I ended up doing was technically good, and even Gospel-centered). This was a wonderful piece of wisdom for me to reflect on. I don’t want to be so overly zealous to figure out the “next step” God has for us that I rush it and don’t wait on God’s perfect timing and perfect plan. And then Dan encouraged Robbie– “I can see you two are an unbelievable team for the Lord. It’s incredibly obvious God knit the two of you together as a perfect match for a specific purpose. Chase, you are a flame– a fire. You light up when you talk about Jesus and you want to talk about Him all the time. Robbie, you may sometimes feel inadequate spiritually when you compare yourself to Chase because this same outward expression doesn’t come as naturally to you. But let me tell you what I feel like the Lord wants me to tell you today. Just like with electricity, the flame or the light is obviously so essential– but without an electrical grounding, without a partner who is patient, less rushed, consistent, stable and faithful, the flame can actually be dangerous. But when the two are combined, both a flame and a grounding, they become one of the greatest inventions of our time. The two combined are essential for light to be used properly and with the biggest benefit. Your marriage is not an accident. God knew you needed Robbie, Chase, and you needed Chase, Robbie. We received a promise from God that we would plant a church abroad, and then prayed for more than two and a half years before we knew where that would be. At times, that length of time was so painful and confusing. We continually told God we would go anywhere and do anything. Yet He continued to tell us to wait. Now that we’ve been in Chiang Rai more than a year, I can honestly say I’m ridiculously grateful we didn’t arrive even one day earlier than we did. Because in the timing God had, we received our building we meet in and an unexpected extra property for doing ministry on and it would have never happened had we been here years earlier or even days earlier. Trust God and love each other well in the process.” There was even more to this, but I think this is a good summary of what was said. We were grateful and finished our meal thoroughly encouraged and filled. (Oh and Robbie and I bought everyone’s meal and I only say this to mention that we only paid 8 dollars for four adults to eat a huge meal. haha)

We got to spend part of the afternoon at their extra property, meeting some Thais that live on the property who are being discipled by them. They have a mushroom farm they’re starting that they hope will be a means of gaining access to some impoverished areas of Myanmar to train up some women in the mushroom farming business which could lead to jobs for people without one. Pretty neat and so fun to drive into the more rural area of Chiang Rai, passing traditional Thai villages.

Robbie and I got dropped off back in the city and spent our evening going to a cat cafe (such a hilarious highlight for us. Robbie hates cats and is allergic but his love for me helped him to put aside his disgust for these animals and go inside. In fact, he actually really enjoyed the experience) and the Saturday night Walking Street Market. The cat cafe was very clean and modern, with huge windows that allowed for a zillion sidewalk on-lookers (brilliant marketing tactic! haha). The cats were extremely well behaved, clean and well groomed. The majority of them were these fluffy cats with squished-in noses. AH! Even Robbie thought lots of them were adorable and that’s saying so so much. Again, can’t say enough about the sweet staff here. Robbie and I couldn’t stop saying, “We’ve found our people. The Thais are our people.” Would come back just simply because of the kindness of the staff. The coffee was also excellent– in fact we ended up with these banana coffee blenders called “Banoffees” and they were everything I’ve ever wanted in a blended coffee drink. We had four of these over the course of our week there (we only visited the cats twice, but two other days just grabbed banoffees and sat outside to enjoy conversation and the bustle of a main street in downtown Chiang Rai).

The Saturday Walking Street Market only happens on Saturdays, as you may have told by the name. I’m so glad we were told to go because it was massive and spanned several perpendicular blocks in all directions and on both sides of the streets, with strung lantern lights illuminating all the wonderful street vendors. We felt like the entire city of Chiang Rai had to be out there that night. It was hectic and fun. There was an unreal amount of stuff to look at and take in. It was difficult to make sure we saw everything. People were selling everything from food to clothing to jewelry to blankets to cell phone cases to fried crickets. We grabbed a mango strawberry smoothie and amazing noodles with a peanut sauce that had been whipped up in front of us in a giant wok, then walked the market for hours. This was the best night. We loved seemingly being the only Americans there, doing what the locals were all choosing to do on a Saturday night. I ended up buying three homemade earrings from the (did you guess it?) SWEETEST girl my age who told me she made the earrings herself from her mango tree. Ah! So wonderful. They’re gorgeous too. I had a blast picking out my favorites from her basket of so many options. We paid 150 Baht for three beautiful unique earrings. That’s something less than 5 dollars. Robbie bought a pair of $6 shorts from a guy since his only pair of shorts he bought on the trip were left behind accidentally in Copenhagen (we think). This was a relief to find these because Robbie had spent the brutally hot day in heavy denim jeans. So the night market was a success! It was 10pm by the time we got back to the hotel and we went to sleep loving this city already.

Sunday we attended One Light church service and were thankful to attend a service that felt like going to church back home. We got there early for set up and then got to pray with the team before the service. Afterwards, we ate fresh papaya and dragonfruit with anyone who wanted to stay after church for fellowship. This opened the door to a wonderful conversation with one of the staff members. His name is Bart (and his wife is Adele and we got to talk to her a lot too) and he got to tell us some amazing details about the job God got him there in Chiang Rai. I’m honestly not sure how many details I’m allowed to write about, so just to be safe, I won’t share, but he told us he was a spy for a living. It’s insane. Bart and Adele asked us to get lunch with them (and their three kids), so we drove over to a local Pakistani restaurant and had tikka masala and naan bread and talked for a couple hours. These guys felt like friends and it was so nice of them to have us.

Since the church service there doesn’t start until 1pm, we weren’t done with “lunch” until 5:30, so it was mostly dark by the time we got back to the hotel. We decided to walk over to the Chiang Rai night bazaar that goes on every night of the week. We stopped by the ATM right next to the bazaar before heading in (this is important to remember for later). There was live music and a ton of vendors. This is where we saw the most tourists all week. We don’t know where they came from. haha Funny enough, we noticed how there is seriously no one walking the streets of Chiang Rai. Everyone is in a car, a Tuk-tuk (a three wheeled motorized taxi vehicle with no doors or windows), a song-tau (a truck taxi that the bed is turned into a covered seating area with two bench seats on either side), or of course a motorcycle or moped. We read online later that the people of this city will look at you like you’re crazy if you’re walking everywhere and it’s sort of true. When it only costs 5 to 8 dollars to rent a moped for a full day and it costs a couple of bucks to get anywhere in the city on a tuk-tuk, then why would you walk in the heat? But for Robbie and me, it’s truly second nature at this point. If something is 2 kilometers or less away, we will walk. We’ve been walking around cities or hiking trails all day every day for months. And walking home every evening in Chiang Rai is such a great memory for us. It’s when the heat was bearable, the streets were quiet, but the city still glowed with lights, and we would reflect the whole walk home on how much we loved Northern Thailand.

Monday morning we got picked up by a song-tau and drove thirty minutes South of town to an elephant sanctuary riding past a multitude of sidewalk fruit stands and food stands, farmers in the thick of their fields working away under their big-brimmed hats, a man literally chest-deep in a ditch full of mucky water dragging a net along with him, and lots of neighbors out and about communing together in the sunshine. Elephant Valley is an elephant sanctuary that doesn’t allow riding, swimming with, or bathing with the elephants. They’re completely committed to taking these elephants out of the tourism and logging industry and rehabilitating them in order to put them back into the wild. Wow, what a sight it was when we sat down at a little table outdoors to get an introduction for our time there and we looked to our right and there was an elephant with only her hind legs on the ground climbing up a tree. We knew after that moment this day was going to be awesome. Omaha has the best zoo in the country, and has amazing exhibits, but even still, the elephants (or any animal, really) sadly just sit there and there’s never much “action”. Robbie and I aren’t like big animal people, but it actually is sad to us that after learning that elephants naturally walk up to 20 kilometers per day grazing and eating (and seeing that in action in front of us) that all the elephants in Omaha just sort of stand around. I feel like they’re being stripped away from their very nature, the thing they most organically do. And Omaha is a zoo with a ton of space to roam, seemingly, but it’s not like being in the wild.

We found out there’s only currently 3,500 wild elephants left in Thailand, but the number is growing. Asian elephants have much smaller ears than African elephants. Asian elephants are simply smaller in overall size than African elephants too. They flap their ears to indicate happiness, while African elephants flap their ears to cool off. Elephants, in general, eat 19 hours of the day and only sleep on average 4 or 5. There were tons of interesting facts beyond these that I should have been writing down. Robbie sweetly spent most of the five hours there just asking the tour guide a thousand questions. He asked so many questions that Ning, one of our guides, said, “Wow! You really know so much about elephants!” I think she must have meant, “You want to know so much about elephants!” or something, but either way it was adorable. You could tell she loved answering everything and sharing her knowledge and I love Robbie’s curiosity about everything in this world and the way he makes people feel special by asking questions and listening so intently.

They brought us back into the wild area, walking the trails slowly and then parking ourselves a couple hundred feet away from the elephants to observe in awe. We did this for about three hours, wandering the forty acres of forested land, getting close up views ( a couple times we asked, “Can we get even closer?” and they let us– these were the scariest and most amazing moments of our time), watching all six of them get bathed, and then feeding them bananas for lunch. There was a Thai man assigned to each elephant that essentially hung out within a few feet of their animal the whole day. These men were obviously well-trained, and it was clear the elephants really trusted them. It was incredible to watch. When the elephants would start to tear bark they weren’t supposed to off of trees with their trunks, the men would individually speak to their respective elephant in Thai and the elephants would listen and comply. Likewise, when maybe we got too close to the elephants and one would get curious about us, beginning a quick-paced walk straight toward our group of 5 people, the men would speak to their elephants and they’d willingly obey, turning around and walking in a different direction, leaving us alone. But there were a few times that were too close for comfort where the elephants would get so close to us and it was that realization like, “We’re not in a zoo right now. There’s no wall or giant ditch between us and this 6,000 pound mammal walking toward me.” It was exhilarating and frightening and fun. Seeing these elephants in their natural habitat, so up close, really had us in awe. They really are fascinating and enormous and beautiful. At one point a couple of them got in a tussle and they sounded their trunk trumpets loudly and it was the coolest to hear.

Feeding them was a blast. The staff put out a huge pile of bananas with the peel still on and one by one we each held out a banana to the elephants (this time behind a wooden gate) for them to grab with their trunks. We got gross with “snot” from their trunks dripping on us and sometimes in their excitement for the food, they’d knock the banana out of our hands and onto the ground, or two or three trunks would come at you at once trying to steal their way in for one extra banana, but boy was it fun and laughter-filled. They really are majestic and you feel so small next to them.

Our experience ended with the staff at Elephant Valley serving us four tourists a big northern Thai meal outside near the elephants complete with warm sticky rice and some four different spicy chicken dishes to place over it. Our noses were running by the end, but our tummies were full and our hearts were happy. While we waited for our song-tau to get us and take us home, Robbie and I explored the grounds for forty minutes after lunch, gazing at the animals and watching them get into a giant pond to cool off.

We came home and Robbie swam at the hotel pool while I sat on the edge and talked to him with my feet in the water. We walked over to the daily market for some snacks, then had a very sweaty walk to the golden clock tower and around some side streets we wanted to explore. We ended the night with our favorite ice-cold banana coffee blender from the cat cafe, but sitting outside, people watching, and getting excited to rent a moped the next day.

Tuesday we got up and walked around until we found a motorcycle rental place that looked respectable and safe. haha The woman who ran the place knew excellent English (she is married to a British man who we also met) and she made it really clear to us that she doesn’t rent to anyone without riding experience or who has a motorcycle license. If you know me, you know I have a license, but I never plan to ride a motorcycle again. It’s just so darn dangerous, and I don’t have the desire to ride fast or fuss over manual transmissions (The two things I believe most motorcycle riders love most about the riding experience). BUT my sister and I have always loved the idea of a moped. First of all it’s automatic, and second of all, they’re meant more for leisure, riding slow down neighborhood streets and such. So I was pumped to ride a moped in a city that seriously no one is driving faster than 40 Kilometers per hour in. Plus, I cannot say enough how forgiving the drivers are in Chiang Rai. In 6 days of wandering the city, not a single time did we hear a horn honk. They drive slow and safe and they’re not in a hurry. I was also told that having my blonde hair sticking out of my helmet would be an advantage, as I’d be even more likely to be given grace for my driving. haha My biggest fear was driving on the left side of the road and hoping I wouldn’t forget it and go back to my habitual ways. Leading up to every turn Robbie would say, “Don’t forget to get to the left, honey!” and I was so grateful because my mind had a million things rushing through it.

So here we were, being told had to drive and that Robbie couldn’t because he had no riding experience. In all of our travel together (in the last four months but also in the last five years), I have never driven any vehicle we’ve rented. I don’t know where I get my driving anxiety from because I don’t believe anyone in my family has it, but I have it nonetheless. I’d much prefer Robbie to drive, and he’s good at it too. He’s cautious and we make a great team of me co-piloting from the passenger seat and giving google-maps directions. This experience was really different. For one, Google wouldn’t let us download the map for Chiang Rai (like we’ve done to get around every other city we’ve been to up until this point) and secondly, here I was having to drive on the left side of the road with Robbie attempting to navigate from behind me assuming the next directions– that is if Google would decide to update our location on the map in real time. I made my first mistake pretty quickly. Robbie said, “I think we should turn left soon, so just turn left whenever you can.” There was a left turn right away, so even though it looked like there were fancy gates on either side of the road, it seemed fine to turn there. I didn’t have us more than fifty feet onto the road before we heard whistles, clapping and yelling by a dozen different Thai military police on either side of the road. Oh my!!! What had we done?? I slammed on the brakes and immediately started apologizing to the one man who walked out onto the street and was motioning for us to pull off onto the sidewalk. Robbie immediately dismounted, I shut off the engine and walked to moped to the sidewalk. The police man, clearly seeing how we were foreigners and giving us so much grace, quickly toned down the aggressiveness of their original alarm, and kindly told us we were on private government grounds but he’d be happy to tell us how to get to where we needed to go if we showed him our map. We gave him my phone and showed him an area of Chiang Rai we thought we wanted to get near. He sweetly handed us off without any more trouble and I was beyond grateful but a little shaken up!

We spent the next four and some odd hours driving around down to Chiang Rai Beach (which is more just like a mucky river bank with some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains), and then down some very unknown roads through and around green mountains, lush jungles, gorgeous tiered rice fields, farmers working the lands and locals selling items off the streets. These were some of the most brilliantly fun hours for us. There was a constant stream of, “Oh my goodness, look at that!” and “Wow! Isn’t it beautiful?!” going on between the two of us. We loved every second together, hot air blowing past our sweaty foreheads, smelling every scent that billowed through the fields and farms and food stands, soaking in this special area of Thailand and imagining what it must be like to live this life every day amidst so much beauty. God is so undeniably creative, how He made every country so different. I wonder how passionately God feels about Thailand, His magnificence so astoundingly on display.

Robbie and I happened upon a park near the Kok river during our moped journey. It was completely empty and honestly kind of eerie. It was so quiet. As we rode in, we noticed a gigantic Buddha and then a stairwell to a cave built into a cliff wall that said “the Buddha Cave.” We got off the motorbike, took our shoes off like the sign asked, and randomly decided we’d check it out. It was the weirdest thing. We got to the top of the stairs to find a monk, half dressed in traditional bright orange drapery attire, laying on his side against the cave wall smoking marijuana with incense burning next to him. Like, what?? We were seemingly in the middle of nowhere and here was this monk spending his days in a cave filled with several enormous Buddha shrines and alters with bats flying above him. We spoke with him briefly, made a really quick trip through the cave, realized we were stepping on bat poop everywhere with our bare feet and just wanted to get out of there. Check that off our list of bucket-list items… not.

That night we went for drinks at an open air cafe, and just talked and laughed and struggled with the fact that the next day was our last day there. Afterwards we grabbed amazing pad thai at a street vendor next to the golden clock tower and it was just the most fun day ever. The pad thai was delicious and made fresh. It filled us with pride that our favorite thai restaurant in Omaha, Salween Thai, that is run by Karen people who lived in Thailand most of their lives, make a pad thai that tastes incredibly similar (if not better) than the one we had fresh from the country. We walked to a 7-eleven afterwards, laughed at all the weird Asian candies and chips and other things, marveled at the 40 cent pop bottles, and purchased some much-needed bug spray.

The next day, our last full day, we took a tuk-tuk to the White Temple. The White Temple is sort of THE thing to go see in Chiang Rai. It’s about a 20 minute drive (that’s going as slow as these people drive) in the direction of the elephant sanctuary. Even though it, too, is a Buddhist temple, it’s an all-white, stunning temple with incredibly intricacy. I wore shorts there and hilariously wasn’t let inside without “covering up” first. haha So we literally rented a skirt from a vendor nearby for 20 baht. So great! It was an interesting experience and it sure is strange being in a country with a national religion so vastly different from our own. I couldn’t help but long to tell the people bowing and throwing money to Buddha of the hope they have in Jesus. I wanted to pick them up off their knees and tell them there’s One God that made them, that knows everything about them, loves them and rejoices over them, has a plan for them, and is jealous for them.

We spent an hour wandering the temple grounds before being taken back by our same tuk-tuk driver who waited for us (this is customary). He purposefully took us home on back roads so we would have the opportunity to see more of the countryside and the mountains. We loved every minute of it and would find ourselves laughing from pure joy, enjoying the warm breeze on our faces, holding hands, and seeing it all. When we got home, we grabbed the moped again (we rented it for two days for a total of 8 dollars) and rode aimlessly around Chiang Rai’s city center. This was amazingly fun– driving with no map and no location in mind. Simply riding to see the streets, the people, the sights. There were a couple of stressful moments where I realized my turn signal had been on for ten minutes straight and I confused other drivers, or when I would struggle to stay to the left, or I was clearly going too slow yet the sweet Thai drivers still never honked at me even once. But I was so much more comfortable in the driver’s seat this day than the day prior and I felt confident if I lived there, I could totally get the hang of it all rather quickly. I’m not sure how long we drove before we ended up on the street where we rented from and just decided to go ahead and drop it back off to them. We were so thankful for the experience and would do it again in a heartbeat.

Late that afternoon, right after we returned the moped, we walked to a pharmacy where I could buy lotion and saline solution and some girly products (this is pretty common overseas–from our experience– to go to a pharmacy for these items that we’d go to Walmart or Target for in the States). The total amount was the equivalent to 30 US dollars and it was the most we’d spent at once in Chiang Rai since arriving in Asia almost a week ago. We had the cash for it, but Robbie asked if he could put this on his card (again, the first time we’d used a card either. Pretty much everything we bought was from street vendors that only took cash). When he went to pay with his card, he recognized that his debit card was gone. We pay for everything overseas with a Barclay travel mastercard that earns us travel points, so thankfully that was still there and we used it to pay for our items. We walked out of the store and started trying to remember the last time we used the debit card and where it could possibly be. A little frantic, we knew we only use the debit card for ATM’s. Remember how I said our ATM visit the evening of the night bazaar was important? Well, incredibly enough we were two doors down from that ATM at this very moment that we had our realization that our card was missing and we must have never collected it from that ATM. We walk the few feet over to it, and thankfully there were two currency exchange tellers at a desk behind glass right next to the outdoor machine. We explain our situation and how it’s been three days since we lost it but we just realized it now. The lady almost seemed to not understand us, so Robbie hands her his i.d. and another credit card for reference. She quickly opens up a drawer next to her computer and retrieves his debit card. A miracle! If this isn’t a God thing, I don’t know what is! I mean, here we were, less than 15 hours from leaving Chiang Rai for good, having made a spontaneous decision to grab some supplies from a random pharmacy and for whatever reason also decided to use a card to purchase it for the first card purchase in a week, figured out we lost our card and were exactly fifteen feet from the ATM we lost it at when we found out it was gone. And then the icing on top was that it was there still, safe and sound. What an enormous blessing to us!! We thanked the ladies behind the counter what seemed like a hundred times.

We ended the night with one more banoffee at the cat cafe and it was great.

Chiang Rai, you were the very best introduction to Asia we could have asked for. You are beautiful, humble, colorful, and hot. You are filled with the kindest people, the most hospitable culture. We will miss everything about you.

notice the translation for water above. 😂