BY BIANCA-OLIVIA NITA
That night when the storm broke I was walking back to my room. The narrow shopping street in the Thai border town of Chiang Khan runs parallel to the Mekong, with its food stalls and small clothing shops, restaurants and a few massage parlors in the open. The Mekong, a winding wide ribbon of muddy water, is the natural border between Thailand and Laos. In the daytime, you can look across it into Laos, the shore covered in lush jungle, a land that opens right across the water yet remains covered in mystery. The few Buddha statues sticking out high above the waves of vegetation, the sounds you hear like echoes in the distance, and the towers of smoke coming up from in between the trees are proof that there is human life there too.
It was pitch-dark that night, except for the dim lights along the shopping street. Nightfall in Chiang Khan is like a stage effect that makes Laos disappear completely. It infiltrates the lushness, turning the bright daylight green into a faded shade of brown, absorbing each leaf and branch in silence, until everything is hidden so deep in the darkness, that you are left wondering—until the next sunrise —if that world you thought you saw across the water was truly there. But that night, as the storm took over the world, the lightning would illuminate the sky at intervals if only for a moment, like a light bulb flickering its last breath, and through the stalls and buildings I caught a glimpse of the Mekong and its hidden shore—it was pouring in Laos too.
Travel is a way for me to stop. Stop to look around, stop to observe and feel, and to allow things to be. But as the sky was closing in, this time I couldn’t stop. I walked faster and faster, as fast as my wet flip-flops would allow me. After a while, I found myself all alone, the street completely deserted ahead of me. But I kept speeding through the empty street, until the raindrops got so heavy they turned into a curtain of water that kept my eyes from opening.
Where am I running to? I asked myself. Where do I really have to be? I could hardly see anything now, so on an impulse, I took shelter under a roof covering a narrow strip of ground. It was an improvised little terrace where others had taken shelter long before, four locals about my age and a black dog, none of them in a rush—eating, smoking and gazing idly at the rain. They all stared at me as if a stranger suddenly showed up in their living room. I stared back, the water pouring from the sky behind me, and they all broke into a smile, casually signaling me to come closer and have a seat on the bench.
I patted my wet face with my wet hands. The other people were all completely dry. They haven’t been defying the rain, and as I cuddled in, everyone resumed eating and gazing while this soaked stranger squeezed in between them.
I had almost forgotten how good surrender feels, when no matter what the moment brings, you embrace it, and the only thing you do is watch the curtain of water fall down from the sky and splash in small rivers along the street.
Back home I am always chasing time, but in Thailand, time seems to be kinder. It dissipates into just here—just this moment, just this place; it’s all we have. Am I the only one who has ever wondered how the freedom of a trip could be turned into their daily life? I surely thought of it in some of the best moments of my trips. But now, as none of my hosts were paying attention to me, I sat down and looked around me and thought: What if I got stuck here? What if I couldn’t leave and had to stay, and had to start a new life right now together with these strangers? What walls would I have to tear down to make this life happen? Who would I be?
Language would be a wall between us, one I had struggled to climb during the previous weeks of travelling a less charted route in Northern Thailand’s Isan region, through Udon Thani and Loei and then to here. Chiang Khan is the most touristic of the three, but even here there are almost only Thai tourists, so any attempt to communicate a more sophisticated feeling or desire—other than how many espressos I wanted in one cup or where I wanted to go—proved more difficult than one could have foreseen. I love the new, the unrecognizable. I love navigating new human landscapes, discovering their logic and new meanings. And even though 7-Eleven became our most trusted stop throughout this journey, it’s still the search in unfamiliar places that I remember most from these past few weeks. Although people are friendly and always willing to help, I learned that when there is a lack of words, life is still possible—yet always from an invisible distance, removed from the true complexities of life, only scratching the surface of what living in this country is truly like.
I’m not new to Thailand. I have so many visas in my passport from previous years entering the country that I’d expect at one point to be asked why I am here so often. The answer is that I have a love for scratching the surface to understand this place, and I have love for its people, the jungle and the Mekong. And I am here, because over here I can stop chasing time and be who I am in this anonymity.
I love the north especially. In all my travels here, I never went south of Bangkok, always north. Each time I return home, I long for the smell of spices and fermented fruit, the tormenting heat of middays, the illusory taste of taking part in this life and a feeling of this country’s past which I’ve read about but never witnessed. I look around, sewing together the pieces from my knowledge, longing to understand the present through the lens of what I know and feel. And even though my books explain the social norms and the complicated history and beliefs that have shaped these places, I am most likely chasing ghosts. Without the language, there’s only so much I can truly grasp and see.
But I keep coming back to the Mekong. The night before the storm, I joined the Thais who gathered to watch the sun setting over it, the calmness and beauty of the view leaving us all speechless. The Mekong carries a mystery—part of it because it crosses the entire South-East Asia, and part of it because of its history. I know it’s here, right behind the street. But as the storm floods the world with light from time to time, and with the rain falling incessantly, catching glimpses of it still brought a sense of wonder. It feels like privilege, like something magical is happening to me.
So when does someone cross the invisible layer of the outside, in order to belong? How many times should I return before this place truly becomes home? What if I stayed?
No matter what I do, I carry a tag with me that I feel but cannot see. I am a farang, a westerner, and to be honest, that is not a tough thing to be. My tag opens doors and smiles, and it allows me to do as I please. I can be clumsy and lost, and occasionally weird, all under everyone’s permissive eyes. No one expects anything from me, and freed from the burden of expectations, I can find a version of myself I need here. Yet can I truly be myself? I have no name here; I am fully noticeable yet sheltered by a coat of invisibility. I am excused from social expectations, and this very freedom is what keeps me on the outside of the life I long to see.
Yet now, under the same roof, we share this rainy night in silence, stripped of our social selves to be just people taking shelter, and that is the closest thing to a normal life that I can ever have. I am right here and time has stopped. We do not speak but we are one, a group of humans hiding from the rain by the Mekong, with one black dog somewhere in between. And I am happy, soaking wet, but fully present and my heart is here. So I belong, because what does belonging mean other than feeling at ease among peers, right where you need to be? When life comes towards you, we’re just there to witness it, all sheltered and close together, since this never-ending curtain of rainfall is the only thing that we can all see.
Bianca-Olivia Nita fell in love with the North Sea, so she left her native Romania for The Netherlands 10 years ago. Her articles, essays and reviews are mainly focused on documentaries, photography, people and places. She is a regular contributor to Feature Shoot and ModernTimes.review, and her writing has appeared in numerous other journals and magazines, such as Guernica, Coldnoon and The Holland Times.
Bianca Olivia 愛上了北海，於是十年前離開故鄉羅馬尼亞，來到荷蘭。她的文章、隨筆和評論主要是關於紀錄片、攝影、人與場所。Bianca 供稿於《Feature Shoot》和《ModernTimes.review》雜誌，她的文章也在很多其他期刊雜誌上出現，比如《Guernica》、《Coldnoon》和《The Holland Times》。