A lot (well, more than just my Mum) of people have asked how I spent Christmas this year, so I thought this post was a good opportunity to describe it for you. To set your expectations, not that different from any other day here – but very different from my usual Christmas!
When I left the UK it was -1 and snowing, and on Christmas Day in Chiang Mai, it was a steady 30degrees. Surrey feels very far away. 94.6% of Thais are Buddhist, with only 0.7% describing themselves as Christians, so Christmas doesn’t figure very heavily here, apart from in some of the tourist areas, where some desultory tinsel might be displayed to draw in nostalgic westerners. Normally, I do enjoy Christmas – I love choosing the right present for the right person, doing my Christmas shopping in advance (all my gifts were bought, wrapped and given before I left at the beginning of December, which is just one of my many annoying traits), comfort food and spending time with family in the warm – but this year, I was comfortable that my trip would mean I was away from home for Christmas for the first time in my life.
…found me, after a lie in and a bowl of cereal at home, walking down to the old city to eat a relaxed lunch in a popular (with western tourists and travellers this time) veggie café called the Blue Diamond, and enjoying one of my new all time favourite things, a banana and coconut smoothie. They sell some great granola there, so I picked up some more of that. I know, pretty wild right?
I spent the afternoon getting in touch with my sadly undernourished right brain, roaming round the city and taking photos of any interesting visual detail which took my fancy. My long mooch gave me a gentle workout of body and brain, and you can see some of the results in the photos in this post.
After walking round all afternoon I came home via the supermarket – which is one of the most generic places I’ve been in Thailand. You could be anywhere (apart from the very large rice aisle!). They have many products you’d recognise, from Dove to Cadbury’s hot chocolate.
It’s also the place with their AC turned up the highest, brrrr – I had to treat myself to a scarf to keep warm. Perhaps that’s what they wanted. I enjoyed an iced coffee in the supermarket coffee shop, ‘Fang’s’, in order to use their wi-fi to update my kindle – I’ve worked my way through 25+ books now so keeping this stocked is a key priority! I spent what remained of the evening at home, reading and relaxing.
I always go to church on Christmas day so I’d done some research to find an English speaking church here in Chiang Mai. There wasn’t (understandably!) a lot of choice, so leaving a good hour or so in advance and armed with my map I set off for the Chiang Mai Community Church (CMCC). I walked up to the main road, and after a couple of tries, managed to find a song-tau to take me close enough to where I wanted to go. At the other end, walking towards the church, a tuk-tuk driver asked me where I was heading and if I wanted a ride. There really aren’t many people who walk places here, it’s seen as strange – maybe that’s why there aren’t really any pavements or pedestrian crossings – and I’m always getting asked if I want a lift by slightly incredulous (and possibly disapproving) tuk-tuk and song-tau drivers. When I told him I was going to church he asked me why and we had a chat where I tried to explain it to him in the broken English. That conversation really drove home for me how incidental Christmas is here.
For the last few years I’ve often had bittersweet feelings about the Christmas day church service – on the one hand it’s a very upbeat service, and who doesn’t love carols and a good sing-song – but on the other hand, it’s one of the times when I most miss my Dad. He was an Anglican Vicar and local BBC radio producer/presenter, and died 5 years ago (see here for some nice things people said about him when he died – my favourite may be ‘the only god person I would listen to’), and he was such a vital part of my Christmas experience, cooking the Christmas meal for our large extended family, and of course, taking the Christmas service, that being in a church on Christmas day always reminds me of him. This year, the church I went to was so different in style that this association was much fainter than usual. The CMCC is an ‘international’ church, but heavily American, so the carols we sang often had the American tune (I didn’t know ‘Away in a Manager’ had another tune!) and it was a much more relaxed style than the more formal Anglican and Catholic (long story) services I have attended over the years, taken as it was by ‘Pastor Steve’. No organ, but electric guitars. Dad might have liked that, but only if he was lead guitar and had some good effects pedals. Anyway, job done.
Then it was across the road to enjoy an iced coffee by the river given I’d come all the way across town. That was very pleasant indeed, and I then thought I’d start walking back to my area of town. In fact, after half an hour of this, I was melting from the heat (this may actually be the reason why nobody walks here), and tried my luck getting another song-tau. This took a few more tries (if they don’t fancy going where you want to go they just say no), but eventually I managed to get back to my place and have a rest, cool down, and catch up with my Mum on skype.
I then met up with someone my friend had introduced me too before she left at ‘Imm Ain’ (yes, another veggie café – means Happy apparently) and we had a very long leisurely lunch, where a couple of other people he knew also wandered in unplanned and joined us. In case you’re wondering, my Christmas dinner was ‘make your own burritos’, but I did have both a banana chocolate shake at the beginning, and a coconut cinnamon shake to finish. Result.
After that it was back home for another rest, and then I decided to go for a massage. I was feeling lazy, and the nearest massage place to me, would you believe, is the supermarket, so I thought I would try them. What a strange experience. Although, in fact, if I think it through, if you just pulled all the associations that come to mind when I say ‘supermarket massage’ you would probably be spot on. I will save a fuller description for another post given how heavily thai massage is featuring in my visit to Chiang Mai. But it was still relaxing, and I walked back home, by which time it was early evening, and I was able to Skype my sister to catch up with her.
What a very nice Christmas day.
A lot of people have asked me, but how did you feel spending Christmas day on your own in another country? I won’t say I was completely untouched (stone-faced and unfeeling though I am), and I was glad to be able to see and speak to my Mum and sister through the wonders of Skype, but, being an introvert, I enjoy spending time on my own, and it’s so different here that it hasn’t felt like Christmas at all.
This has led me to ponder about associations, and what the things are which make up a special event, holiday, or other activity. Here, all the usual things that I personally associate with Christmas: cold churches with candles; carols; family; sprouts, cranberries and nut roast; cold and damp days; tinsel; giving and receiving presents and the smell of Christmas trees have all pretty much been removed.
In fact, it’s really only watching people’s status updates on Facebook which has given me a taste of Christmas (good and bad!). So, it’s felt like another day here – another very enjoyable, relaxing, smoothie-filled day mind you…
A couple of people have asked about presents. I did bring one small, light present with me so I had something to open on Christmas day, and I have been blessed by some Amazon tokens from some kind people, but no, the traditional present opening wasn’t a big part of Christmas this year. But don’t shed any tears for me – I’m in a beautiful place, in the sun, eating delicious fresh food and doing what I want to do. I gave myself the present of self-indulgence, relaxation and contentment this year, and not many of us are privileged to be able to do that. I’m grateful every day.
Wishing you and your families a sparkling and merry holiday period, and a fulfilling 2013 with many happy associations.