Lanterns. Sometime in high school, I tore a picture out of a National Geographic and stuck it on the wall above my desk. In the photo, a man stands, arms out, holding the edge of a large paper bag-like structure, inverted with a metal ring holding its mouth open, and a small lit coil held precariously in the center of the opening, just far enough away to keep the bag from bursting into flames. The man and his lantern are positioned in front of a black sky, lit with thousands of these vessels of light making their way out of the frame. I hadn’t thought about it much in recent years until I learned that a placement option for this 2018-2019 Luce experience would be in Thailand - Chiang Mai, specifically. I was hesitant – it wasn’t the country I’d originally thought I’d go to – until I realized I was going to the city known for those flying lanterns and their marvelous display during the Thai Loy Krathong and Lanna (northern Thai) Yi Peng Festival. My nerves weren’t settled entirely, but I was filled with a sense of possibility and hope.
I was also really excited to get to work with my organization, The Life Skills Development Foundation or “Rak Dek,” in Thai, meaning “Protect Children.” Rak Dek provides trainings, support, and educational opportunities to improve the life quality of migrant, vulnerable, or otherwise underserved children all across northern Thailand. The people of Rak Dek have been incredibly welcoming. I particularly enjoyed the strong sense of camaraderie surrounding the evening when our small team stayed late, ordered pizza, and worked to finish a project proposal due at midnight in a time zone a few hours behind us. My coworkers have been the highlight of my experience, teaching me words in the Northern Thai Chiang Mai dialect, helping me properly order at lunch, and welcoming me into their spaces.
On the night of the full moon during the Yi Peng festival, two of the coworkers who live near me, P’Dten and P’Na, took their daughter, Nasa, and me out to celebrate. We made our way down to the informally designated spot along the Ping River on our side of town to take everything in. Our neighborhood’s celebration included carnival rides, trampolines, bumping pop music, and rows upon rows of delicious food vendors. Following P’Na’s instruction and explanation of tradition, we climbed down to the water to ask the river for forgiveness, then floated small, candle-adorned banana-leaf rafts out into the Ping. We also bought three sky lanterns to release as a group, and tried unsuccessfully to get them through a lucky, hula-hoop-sized loop on tall stilts in the air. After wandering up and down the riverside, snacking, playing a carnival game (in which I won a bag of fabric softener), riding the ferris wheel, and admiring the lanterns floating near our feet and above our heads, we loaded into the car and went home.
Like any city, Chiang Mai isn’t perfect, but the people I work with have helped make it feel like less of a tourist destination in the public imagination, and more of a real place.