My Second Home - This Time Tomorrow - CycleBlaze

January 18, 2017

My Second Home

January 18, 2017

My Second Home

As we rode the night bus to Chiang Mai last night I thought about my long association with the city. Many important events of my life have happened in Chiang Mai. Such as: I attended a program at Chiang Mai University in 1974-75 and lived with a Thai family. I got married on Doi Suthep mountain overlooking Chiang Mai in 1974. I nearly died of dengue fever at Je t’aime Guest House in 1979. I had a good friend die in Thailand and I learned of it in Chiang Mai. I also learned of my best friend’s death in 1978 while I was living in Chiang Mai. I’ve had good friends in Chiang Mai - Thai, Burmese, Lahu and American. I’ve spent quite a portion of my life in Chiang Mai and had countless interesting experiences here. In my many trips exploring S.E. Asia, Chiang Mai was always my ‘base camp’. I always referred to it as my second home.

But the city had grown tremendously and it wasn’t the quaint little town it once was. About ten years ago I made the hard decision that I should be spending more time in other places. I didn’t feel the need to make Chiang Mai my base camp each time I visited S.E. Asia.

Now we find ourselves back in Chiang Mai not because it was our destination but because it was the easiest bus to catch going north. We are seeking cooler weather and Chiang Mai is a good starting point to continue riding north. It has been 8 years since we were last in Chiang Mai and entering the city this time was quite unique. Suddenly we found ourselves riding bikes on absolutely deserted streets at 3AM. It was quieter than I had ever known the city and maybe because of that it felt more the way I remembered it from the 1970’s. It felt as familiar as an old friend. And when one thinks of an old friend a lot of memories come pouring back.


When I was in Chiang Mai in 1998 I hadn’t been there in many years. I was excited to be there and I was even staying in the same guest house, Je t’aime Guest House, with the same owners. They felt like family. It was the beginning of what I thought would be a several months' long trip.

There were a lot of dogs in the guest house compound and one of them took a great liking to me. He had a different personality than the others and even looked different. He slept at night right outside my bungalow door as if to protect me. He always escorted me through the pack of other dogs who I never really trusted. This one was my pal.

One night, in the wee hours, I heard a rapid knocking on my door. I jumped out of bed and swung open the door only to find the dog looking up at me wondering what was going on and why I had removed his back rest. He had had an itch that he was scratching furiously and his elbow had done the knocking. I went back to bed, heart racing.

The next night in the wee hours I heard knocking on my door again. I wasn’t going to get up but then I heard a voice calling my name as the knocking continued. “Boot, Boot, phone call.” I jumped out of bed and swung open the door. Bea, the guest house owner, was standing there in her bathrobe with a worried look on her face. “Hurry, phone for you. Your mother.”

The phone was a pay phone in the reception area. My wife, at the time, was on the other end in Portland, Oregon. She informed me that my mother had been diagnosed with acute leukemia and the doctor thought she maybe had two months to live. Then the line went dead. I mean real silence. It was silent outdoors at that hour but the silence on the phone was like none I had ever heard, or not heard.

Bea came rushing in to tell me that I would need to occasionally put baht coins into the phone. She pushed a few into my hand. I slipped one of them through the slot and heard it simply drop into a metal box and roll around - a very hollow sound. A few seconds later my wife’s voice returned. It was amazing she was still there. How had the connection remained?

Several times during our conversation the line went completely dead and several times after inserting a five baht coin the connection returned.

My wife told me she was sorry to be telling me the sad news and that she understood how I had waited years to have this return trip to S.E. Asia to do my photography. She told me I needed to do what I thought was best. I replied, “I’m coming home as soon as I can.” The line went to silence. I had no more coins.

Of course I didn’t get back to sleep. I got up and wandered the deserted, dark streets of Chiang Mai in the cold. I was sort of in shock. I had great sadness for my mother. I decided that I would go from temple to temple that day and light a stick of incense or a candle in each in her honor. It was all I could think of doing, besides changing my airline ticket.

The ancient little temples inside the old city walls are quiet, peaceful and beautiful. They are also personal. It had been a good idea; a peaceful exercise that made me feel a little better.

Around mid-day I had an overwhelming desire to be home with my mother immediately. I then thought that in lieu of that impossibility I could find the house I lived in with a Thai family 24 years earlier. I walked up and down street after street each time absolutely certain I was on the right street but I couldn’t find the house. Everything had changed so much but I thought for sure I’d be able to find the huge tree on the corner at the end of the street. I spent the afternoon trying to find my former Thai home but it and the big tree remained elusive. My failure to locate the house added to my sadness and made me feel even farther from home.

About 5PM, while walking back to my guest house, I passed another old temple. I decided I’d go in and light one last candle and call it a day. I didn’t get ten feet inside the temple gate when I saw a dog running full speed at me baring his teeth and growling. It happened too quickly for me to avoid him. He latched onto my leg tearing my pants. Monks came running and shooed the dog away but the damage had been done. Blood was soaking through my pant leg.

Now, my next immediate mission was to get myself to a hospital and start a series of rabies shots. It had been a long day, suddenly made longer.

That night I slept restlessly. My leg throbbed and I had strange mercurial dreams of my mother and they melted into dreams of dogs and through it all I kept hearing the word ‘ma’. But I never called my mother ‘ma’. It was confusing and I stumbled out of bed foggy and out of focus. I opened the door and my companion and protector looked up at me. Then it dawned on me. I dug through my stuff and found my Thai dictionary. Sure enough, the word for dog in Thai is ‘ma’. Somewhere in my brain I knew that but what an odd set of circumstances all fitting together in the weirdest way. My mother loved animals but always seemed to have special connections with dogs. I don’t understand the way anything works, I’m just here to report.


When Andrea and I arrived in Chiang Mai in the middle of last night we chose to ride the quiet streets until dawn because we thought that was the safest thing to do. We couldn’t bring ourselves to wake anyone up at a guest house. It was too late, or early! If it hadn’t been for the wonderful sound of frogs and crickets as we rode Chiang Mai was almost as silent as when that phone line went dead many years ago. It was magical. There weren’t even any dogs barking or chasing. We were having a great time riding up and down streets, admiring the beauty of the ancient temples. We hadn’t been in Chiang Mai in 8 years and we would say, “That’s new,” or, “I’m glad that’s still here.” I would call out names of temples to Andrea or stop to tell her some little thing I remembered that happened right there. I’d point out where this old friend had lived or that favorite restaurant was and where my good friend Tommy’s store had been and, “The moat has all been cleaned up. I’ve never seen it so beautiful.”

Sometimes I was silent. During those times I was thinking of all the temples I had gone into that day long ago to light incense or candles for my mother. I was thinking of that time with my mother in Minnesota as she died and of dogs and home and the concept of ‘home’ and how Chiang Mai felt like home again.

Then suddenly something big was looming out of the dark overhead. I looked up and instantly I knew that was the tree! I called back to Andrea, “This is it.” She didn’t know what I was talking about. I said, “This is the street!” Then she knew what I had found. Slowly we rode down the street, me peering into yards. And there it was back behind a house that had been built right in front of it! My Thai family’s house in which I had lived for several months a long time ago. Finally I had found my old home.


Maya (which means 'illusion') having just given birth to the baby who will become The Buddha.
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Jen GrumbyThanks for sharing this powerful experience. So glad the guest house dog was there for you when you received the news about your mom. And that years after her death you and Andrea were together to find the big tree and the house where your connection to Chiang Mai began.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the concept of home. And after reading this entry, it seems that parts of 'home' might lie in the circumstances that allow us to experience a sense of mysterious interconnectedness when we're in a particular place (??)

How incredible that you and Andrea arrived in Chiang Mai at just the right time to take a carefree bike ride. And that your joyful exploration led you to your former home, which may have remained hidden had you arrived in the middle of a busy day.
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1 year ago
Bruce LellmanTo Jen GrumbyYou totally get it, Jen. Yes, 'home' is interconnectedness for sure and of course one must have experienced many important moments there. I guess I would describe the concept of 'home' as having an overwhelming feeling of belonging to a place - a place that comforts you to your core. I think we all share this feeling at least some time in our lives and for the lucky ones there are more than one places we call 'home'.
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1 year ago