Overcoming the Disappointing Part of Travel at Chiang Mai BJJ

Dust Mop Jiu Jitsu: The Expat Files: Chapter Three: Chiang Mai BJJ-Chiang Mai, Thailand

-On the disappointing nature of traveling without a purpose, the connection between BJJ and Trekking and the ways that Jiu Jitsu lets you borrow another life for a day.

This is Chapter 3 of what I’m calling the Expat Files. If you want to know more about what this project is, you can read more about it in the first article here.

Imagine you take a trip to Berlin. You’re there for three or four days. You see the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, a number of museums and eat as many pretzels and brats as you can handle. By the time you leave, you ask yourself, “Did I really see Berlin?” You likely haven’t even scratched the surface. There’s always a sense that you could have done, seen or experienced more. It’s the disappointing part of travel that I rarely see mentioned.

 It’s one of the reasons I love trekking. You always have a goal: get to the next campsite. On trail, you meet amazing people and gain an intimate relationship with the landscape. As long as you made it, every other experience is a bonus.

Rachel and I had no real direction in Bangkok. It had been less than a week since we left Korea so we had no plans or goals. It was hard to see a purpose for us really being there except to say we had been in a new location. We felt aimless as we headed to our next location. 


We took a night train north to Chiang Mai. It’s one of those awesome romantic things that you hope to be able to do at least once in your life. You walk through your carriage and everyone gets their own bunk bed with curtains. To help us sleep, we took the most powerful drowsy pills the Korean medical system can give you. “If you’re flying,” Rachel’s doctor said, “only take them once you’re on the plane! People take them in terminals and miss their flights.” They hit us like bricks. We slept like babies. But we really didn’t know what they were. Prescriptions in Korea often just came in plastic bags. You would walk away from a pharmacy feeling like you’ve collected your fix from a drug dealer. It was only a month after leaving Thailand that we realized they were probably opiates.

Bangkok is loud, overwhelming and fairly polluted. Chiang Mai, on the other hand, is this beautiful, small city centered around a number of Buddhist temples. Definitely a more relaxed atmosphere. We tried to be as chill as possible. We saw the sites, went to a Muay Thai fight, got a couples massage and took a day trip to an elephant sanctuary.

These experiences were fun but there was still the Berlin problem. How could I have a goal that would allow me to “accomplish” the city? It’s harder in urban settings, there’s too many options.

Being from New England, I’ve been to New York City several times.  My favorite time going there was for a job interview. I woke up early like a New Yorkers, hit the subway and felt like I blended into the rhythm of the city. In Bangkok, I realized I had felt that way training at Q23. Figuring out the transport, adhering to the Thai schedule and doing the same drills as everyone else gave me the impression that I was borrowing another life instead of simply being a tourist. 

I used the BJJ Globetrotters network again to find Chiang Mai BJJ. Even before arriving at the studio, I could feel my new tourism strategy working. Getting there by foot allowed me to orient myself to the city. Also, I felt like I had a reason to be there.

Unlike the gym in Bangkok that was in a five star hotel, this one was on the second story of an apartment building. I went to two classes and both times felt a specific sensation: a rented, clean jiu jitsu gi hitting a body that’s already sticky with sweat. The humidity in Thailand is something else.  

Everybody there was so chill! I had more time there to meet people and talk with them. That’s something that didn’t happen much in Korea. Most people in the gym were expats. Both times I rolled with this nice British dude, I think his name was Daniel (second from the right on the top row). I remember he was planning on trekking in Nepal,  where Rachel and I were headed next. We rolled and I almost put him in a triangle choke, but it would honestly be another year before I made that work on anyone. Another guy was also from the UK but competed a lot in Israel. Hearing him talk about it, I was intrigued and intimidated. I remember thinking of the competition I pulled out of in Korea.

The guy to the left of Daniel, Kia (I think), was trying Jiu Jitsu for the first time. Bryan, the instructor, surprised me by pairing me up with Kia and asking me to explain some basics. I was thrilled! I had never taught anybody anything in BJJ before. 

He made it very clear that he was just trying and didn’t want to commit to anything. But as I explained the difference between being in guard and passing it, his eyes widened in amazement. I’ve explained the same concept several times over the years, it never gets old seeing the gears turn in people’s heads. I sometimes wonder where Kia is now and if he continued.

The expats in Chiang Mai were different. In Bangkok, the jiu-jitsu folks I met had been there for a long time. They had stable jobs and were married. But most people in Chiang Mai were just passing through on their way to mountains and other adventures. This was another important thing for me to see on my jiu jitsu journey. 

Previously, I had the impression that if you want to train, you really need to have a nine-to-five and carve out your schedule. But these folks trained in between, and sometimes as a part, of their adventures. Because of that you heard about places that they had trained before, either in their home country or other places. 

I had only previously experienced that on trekking trails. You share fires, campsites and beers with fellow hikers. There’s a natural comradery in everyone working toward a common goal. You know the trail will be over in a few days. You want more experiences and friendships like this and you ask your fellow travelers where else have they been or where they want to go. The imagination goes wild and you see the world as one big trail. Leaving Chiang Mai BJJ, I saw the opportunity to learn grappling, experience culture and share the journey with folks all over the world. 

I had never connected my love for trekking with my love for Jiu Jitsu. There’s a clear goal, a feeling of slow but constant progress and an affinity for people that are on the same journey. I once met a Rabbi who defined love as just that: people working toward a common goal.  


The Dust mop Takeaway: 

Getting the opportunity to teach Oren was what I’ll remember the most. It was the first time I taught anybody else in BJJ. 

For techniques, I remember my roll with Daniel. Bryan saw us and casually said, “you’re not going to get a triangle choke going that direction.” My body had pivoted the wrong way. I remember him as I watch newer folks struggle to configure themselves.

My goal is to visit 100 gyms! If you ever want me to visit yours and write about what it’s like to learn from you, feel free to reach out at [email protected]

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