Chiang Mai is For Lovers

First of all, a few pictures in the body of this but mostly they will go up on my Flicker page when I score some good upload, in the next few days . . .

So far Chiang Mai is a nice soft easing into this trip. Friends were right: it’s an easy town to love.  I can see why people come here and end up staying.   My Saturday yoga teacher said he came to Chiang Mai for one week and now it’s eight years later. I’ve been here 8 days with 7 days to go.  Rest assured, nothing will keep me from getting back to Bangkok in time for the Tron premiere in this country (3D, Imax, couches and hot towels FTW!).

The Chiang Mai populace is basically divided into 7 types of people:

  • Thai Students
  • Asian Tourists
  • Western Tourists
  • Backpackers
  • Hospitality Industry Locals
  • Regular Locals
  • Expats

I’d like to think of myself as hanging with the Expats and the cool Regular Locals, but so far I’ve spent most of my time with the Asian Tourists, the Western Tourists and the Hospitality Industry Locals.  I think I’m somewhere halfway between a Western Tourist and a Backpacker, myself.

There are two amazing things about Chiang Mai: first that it wears its beauty so casually and second that it is so human scaled.

On every other block there is a beautiful temple flowing over with extravagantly ornate larger-than-life gold leafed Buddhas.  You peak in the door and you see this giant Buddha staring back out at you in gold.  Or you see just a hand and a torso, the rest extending way above the line of your sight into the high inner reaches of the temple.  All these teenage boys in bright saffron robes sweep dust off cool marble floors or chant or just lounge around the grounds looking bored.   Every Wat door is open to the public, like a museum with no guard and no entrance fees, works of art on easy display. My hostel/hotel is around the corner from one, and down an alley we share with another.   Stray dogs, a little bit of garbage, and an amazing several hundred year old relic.

I find myself alone in Wats alot. Western tourists come in, walk around, snap a few pictures, leave in five minutes.  Backpackers really don’t come in much.  Asian tourists come in, kneel and bow, and meditate or pray.  They stay awhile.  Then they surreptitiously take pictures of themselves with the alters in the background, not exactly posing in front of them but not exactly *not* posing either; as if ashamed to be doing so but unable to resist.  I’ve been sitting in them trying not to point my feet at anything holy, trying to copy the Asian Tourists meditation motions without being too obvious about it.

But these are not museum pieces, these Wat(s?) are active places. If you hang out long enough, eventually the young monks will come in and participate in a service/meditation session. Doors are open all day and there is a schedule of worship and activity that tourists are not tuned into (I haven’t hung around one particular Wat long enough to figure it out), but that hums all around these places.

The old part of town is small, contained in a square mile inside the walls of the old square moat; with light sprawl to the four directions outside of it.  Most buildings are 1 or 2 storeys.  The blocks are short.  The roads are two lane.  A lot of business and living is done in alleys.  Thais whip by on motorbikes that are much more ubiquitous than cars.  Only Western tourists ride bicycles.  The air is heavy with exhaust fume and second hand smoke from French tourists.  Australian youth pack loudly into rundown sports bars with dollar beers.  Tuk-tuk drivers hawk endlessly at anyone carrying a map or a brochure.

Turn a blind alley and you run into a fresh market.  There is food just everywhere.  Sidewalks end and people walk in the street like the cars are the interlopers.  There are so many schools, and the schoolchildren are all in uniform.  Every street has a restaurant and a massage parlor and a 7/11. And there are always people out walking and eating, eating and walking.

You get the sense that this place is about the size and density that any human settlement should probably be. You can walk from one end of it to the other in about 30 minutes. Anything you need you can get (schooling, worship, entertainment, food) in ten minutes.  People move slow like they aren’t in any hurry; only the Western tourists are in a rush.  This is Jane Jacobs’ urban village and it has a feel in common with other places I love: the West Village, Abbot Kinney, the Mission, Rockridge, Fort Greene.

There is wifi everywhere. Too much wifi, in fact. So much for putting the screen down. In my hostel dorm room, in coffee bars, in massage parlors, in restaurants, in juice joints. I have not disciplined myself at all to unplug.  Just too hard not to follow the lame duck congress session.  Go Obama!  Oh well. I signed up for a 21 day Buddhist retreat in the mountains outside town, so I guess I’ll get my unplugged thing on there.  Internet rehab for sure.

I’m a bit uncomfortable with how cheap everything is on the one hand, and with how much variety there is in prices on the other.  It is easy to have a vague feeling of being an exploiter and of being ripped off all at the same time.  I get the impression that 20 Baht is about the local equivalent of $5.  You can get a medium sized bag of noodles or curry for 20 Baht.  Like in NYC you could probably get falafel or two slices of pizza for about $5.  So the places where the locals mostly eat will charge 20 to 40 Baht for a dish. Then you get to the Western tourist places.   Suddenly prices are double.  80 Baht for a plate of noodles!  I’m outraged until I remember that 80 Baht is about $2.50.

So I’m paying 250 Baht a night to sleep, which is about $9 but would be the Thai equivalent of $60.  And in quality it feels like a $60 a night place too, even though part of it is a dorm.  So that now makes me raise an eyebrow in town when some folks want to charge 500 Baht for something similar.   And it makes me understand why a massage can be had for 200 Baht (local equivalent: $50).   So I walk instead of take Tuk-Tuk’s when they quote the ridiculous price of 100 Baht ($3 American!) to go 2 miles.  I understand why hotel clerks kinda smirk at me when I’m thinking of paying 3800 Baht to go on the one day ‘environmental’ version of the Elephant trek.  And it makes me cringe to think of paying $100 American a night for a hotel room on the beach (although that was the good price per person for a double on the beach during NYE weekend).

So if 20 Baht functions like $5, but is actually equal to $0.66 in exchange rates, then just by living Americans are de facto 7.5 times “richer” than Thais.   Something’s not right about that.  Why is this so? I speculate it’s related to use of resources.  Take paper and carbon, for example.   I could see how we use about 7x more resources per person than a Thai does.  There are about 1/7 the cars in Chiang Mai that you would see in Abbott Kinney. (But the same amount/more air pollution according to the internet!)

And they use toilet paper in restaurants instead of napkins.  Actual rolls of it in little bamboo baskets.  Or individual sheets of it in a napkin holder at the places that cater to Western tourists, sheets thin as hell.   Or no “napkins” at all.    At first I was perturbed, but I can see why one would do this. We use luxuriously full bodied and large pieces of paper in America to wipe food off our faces once, and then the paper goes in the trash. Toilet paper is thinner, cheaper and works just as well.

Placing too low a value on their natural heritage/resources is probably another reason we seem 7x richer in the U.S. (by which I mean we use 7x the resources to do the exact same things).  In America everything we buy contains the hidden cost of our infrastructure which makes sure the waste from our purchases is “cleaned up”. Here, liter is everywhere. Street corners don’t have municipal garbage cans.  No attempt to carefully hide it like we do.  Went to squat in the toilet on the train up to Chiang Mai and when I looked down I could see the train tracks.  So much for the natural beauty of the countryside.

We’re eating this place up by being here.  Even Thais are eating their country up too, and they still have a long way to go before they are as gluttonously consumptive of natural resources as we are. God help us.

Toilet paper, liberal guilt and air pollution notwithstanding, I like Chiang Mai a lot.  You would think that there would be lots of rough edges when Western Tourists, Hospitality Workers, Backpackers, Thai Students, Regular Local People, Asian Tourists and Expats mix so much together, but so far after a week I haven’t observed much.  I traipsed right into my Asian/Western Tourist mid-market hotel in all my dirty backpacker glory and everyone was quite nice to me.  A local basketball team staying there took me under their wing, fed me, and invited me to a game.  Two fellow female Backpacker types in their 30s – one from Korea, the other from the Netherlands – have been great company.  An Expat Canadian on the train who looked down on Lonely Planet (“Lonely Planet is for lonely people”) showed me around town for a half day.  My Expat hippy yoga class (filled with farang and given in English) was the bomb.

The downright friendly interactions go on and on.  I cross the street with the Students, as they are the best at negotiating traffic.  My Hospitality Local restaurant hostess showed me at length on the map how to get to the Saturday Night Market, looking happy to speak English to my ignorant ass even though I only spent 50 Baht in her restaurant.  One Asian Tourist and I shared a look and snickered together when his companion’s cell phone went off in the Wat, right in the middle of the monks chanting.  And I even had a good time with a couple of Backpackers watching a UFC match at the Irish Pub.  In fact the introvert in me is struggling just to find enough time alone!

No doubt there are resentments between these groups on all sides, but on the whole this place is taking any drama in stride and doing peaceful coexistence really well.

Later posts: walking markets, high stakes massages, stray dogs, day trips. Lots to share on Chiang Mai!

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