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Educational Escapism in Thailand

Learning and Self-Development Opportunities in Chiang Mai

Caught up in the ever time-conscious and compartmentalized throes of working life—sustained (just barely) by increasingly larger cups of increasingly expensive coffee—I struggled to schedule and balance my professional, social, physical, and metaphysical lives and find the time and space in which to learn and grow. So I took a vacation.

But not the typical scheduled escapism of the typical scheduled life. By making my way to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I was seeking escapism of a different sort. This city of 250,000, sitting aside Thailand’s northern mountains, offers a wide variety of opportunities and guidance for escaping into the self. From instruction in Thai language; Thai massage, cooking, boxing, and jewelry-making; to sessions on Buddhism, meditation, yoga, and healing, much is taught here.

Choosing what (and how much) to learn is a matter of personal interest and time. Since most such self-improvement outlets market their guidance and instruction to foreign travelers whose time in Chiang Mai is limited, many offer a range of options: language lessons by the hour or full-length courses; 1- to 3-day cooking classes; walk-in yoga practice or 5- to 10-day retreats. Those with more time can opt for more extensive study or training with the many resident experts.

Start with the Language

With only a month to stay, knowing where to begin was difficult, given the range of options. Since language lessons will enrich any subsequent learning experiences, they are a good starting point. Various outlets offer lessons at varying prices—although all are inexpensive. Eager to get started and minimize research time, I headed to the long-established American University Language Center in the historic section of the city. A.U.A. provides group and individual instruction in intensive, 60-hour courses in a classroom setting as well as pay-as-you-go private lessons. I choose the latter for maximum flexibility and was impressed by the quality of teaching. You may wish to try out private lessons at several places before deciding where to sign on for a longer course. Alternately, set up a homestay with a Chiang Mai family or organized conversation exchange with a Chiang Mai local. Just ask around at guesthouses, restaurants, and tour offices.

And where better to try out new vocabulary than at one of Chiang Mai’s cooking schools. Courses, which range in length and cost, generally include a tour of a local open-air market, instruction in preparing several dishes, and lots of sampling of the results.

Since I was uncertain how much culinary instruction (or phat thai) I could digest in one sitting, I opted for a 1-day class at Gap’s Thai Culinary Art School (www.gaps-house.com). Traipsing through the rich colors and smells of a nearby market, watching the skilled yet light-hearted cooking demonstrations of the headmaster, giving Thai cuisine a go at my personal wok station—all this left me eager to sign on for “day two.”

With a gratis copy of Gap’s recipe book in hand, I joined 16 other students in cooking five Thai dishes—breaking for lunch mid-way through to taste our results.

Yoga practice, meditation sessions, and Buddhism studies are easy to find, whether on a drop-in basis or as part of longer courses. And while Chiang Mai masters host many visitors with prior training in these areas, it is equally welcoming to curious first-timers.

For an intensive introduction, I enrolled in a 10-day residential retreat in tai chi chuan at the Naisuan House. This meditation-martial arts combo—billed as “metaphysical alchemy”—provided instruction in the essential postures and philosophy of tai chi chuan, sitting and walking mediation, and chi sensitivity development. Students learned the “dance,” delved into the Tao, and left with an understanding of tai chi that integrated body, spirit, and mind.

Those who wish to impart metaphysical calm and bodily awareness to others may study the art of traditional Thai massage, reflexology, or holistic healing. Alternatively, there are options for channeling that inner energy into creative outlets, such as jewelry-making, leatherwork, or photography.

Whichever outlets are explored—and however extensively or intensely—the traveler who escapes into the self is bound to leave Chiang Mai with more than soon-forgotten snapshots. And since educational escapism here is generally much cheaper than comparable sorts at home, it provides an especially attractive option for those traveling and learning on limited budgets.

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