Our visit to Nat’s village was one of the more unique and special experiences we’ve had to date. Many travelers wander their way into remote parts of Thailand, but few have close ties to someone from these rural areas. While our ties were 2 degrees of separation apart, those degrees were very small, and as a result, we experienced something that I believe few travelers encounter – a familial welcome.
A bit of background – Our very good friend Mark and his college buddy Matt lived in northern Thailand teaching English for 8 months back in 2005, right after they finished school. Matt lived in Maetachang, earning the trust of the local community and falling in love with a local girl named Nat. When Mark took off to head back stateside, Matt stuck around and ended up marrying Nat, and the two now live in Hawaii. Nat and Matt regularly visit Nat’s family in Maetachang, and they even built another wing on the family’s house, including a bedroom (that we stayed in) as well as a “modern” kitchen (meaning it has running water, a gas stove, and a refrigerator). Matt has also helped to pay for his nephew’s (Pong, our friend and quasi-translator) college education as well as the scooter he uses to ride back and forth between home and school in the nearby Chiang Rai. Needless to say, Nat’s family is grateful for how much their son-in-law has done for the family, and hosting his friends as they roll through northern Thailand is probably a welcome opportunity.
But, we didn’t know any of that. All we knew was that Matt married Nat, and Matt called the family and told them we were coming. We were both nervous about the whole scenario beforehand. We had put ourselves in challenging situations many times before – some of which turned out great, others that were painfully uncomfortable – but never before with quite so many unknowns: Not sure how rough/dirty it was going to be, not sure anyone would be there to pick us up from the bus stop, not sure what to expect from Nat’s family, not sure what we would do, not sure how much we were going to be able to communicate, not sure how long they expected us to stay, not sure how to arrange onward transport, etc. In some ways, it turned out to be the challenge that we anticipated – hard to communicate, uncertain of how to interact with our hosts, unsure of how to appropriately express our gratitude, etc. However, it was also easier too – the accommodation was significantly less rustic than we expected (after all Matt and Nat built it for their visits!), we had Pong there to help us communicate, the food was great, and we had Matt who communicated with them and paved the way for us (in many ways).
Life in Maetachang is very laid back (by Western standards), living comfortably with what feels like plenty of what you need, but not much more. A slow pace of life, to be sure. Nat’s family has a very interesting mix of modern amenities juxtaposed with some traditional ways of life. In this rural village, they enjoy 24-hour electricity, running water, a refrigerator, a washing machine, a TV with satellite reception (meaning they get 4 channels), and a gas lawn mower. But subsistence farming is everyone’s primary occupation, food is still cooked over an open fire (despite the fact they have a gas stove built by Matt!), and the whole family still sleeps in a single room in a traditional stilted home.
Once Pong left to go back to school (after our first day there), communicating became very difficult. It was a challenge even when Pong was there, as his English is not that good, but at least we could get the point across eventually with the help of his dictionary. Once he left, there wasn’t a lot that needed to be said, but we certainly missed his presence and his ability to convey our gratitude. But despite the communication challenges, there was an additional layer of unspoken comfort here – We didn’t feel too weird about showing up, eating their food, chillin on their deck, playing with their kids, and just taking it all in. The fact that we were friends (or rather, friends of friends) with their son-in-law somehow made it feel like we were truly welcome. It’s this kind of local connection that makes a world of difference when you’re on the road and far from home. Now, just gotta meet Matt and Nat…