Friday, February 26, 2016

Impressions of Chiang Mai

Our hotel room at the Boonthavon hotel was simple and clean. Every day the maids cleaned, changed the sheets, gave us new towels and two bottles of water. Our only complaint was the bed. It was big, but hard as a board. The pillows were big and hard as well. After the first night, Katie and I felt like we had spent the night on the rack. The next night we put the top blanket and the spare blanket from the closet under the bottom sheet and it helped, but wasn’t enough. We figured we needed more blankets so we asked a maid for another one which she kindly gave us.  After the third night we decided, one more blanket would do the trick.  A different hotel employee told us they had no more blankets to spare and gave us a look like we were the wimpiest people alive to need all those blankets. It did cool off in the evening, into the seventies, but a sheet on top was enough.  On the fifth day another blanket showed up in our room and we stuffed it under the sheet. I assume, one of the maids felt sorry for us.

 Motor scooters are everywhere in Chiang Mai. They are an affordable type of transportation, cars being too expensive for most Thais. Fathers and mothers take their children to school two or three at a time and old and young, women and men, carry all sorts of merchandise on these small Japanese motor scooters. There is no helmet law, so most people, including children, wear no protective gear. Katie and I toyed with the idea of renting one. They cost only six or seven dollars a day and all you needed to rent one is a physical body and a credit card. I'm an experienced motorcyclist and would have had no problem riding around on one, but in Thailand they drive on the left side of the road.

This posed a significant problem for Katie and me when crossing the busy streets. There are very few traffic lights and crosswalks. Pedestrians are on their own and drivers don't cut them any slack, so crossing the street is a challenging and risky activity. Invariably Katie or I would look the wrong way, step out into the road, and nearly get killed by a car or motorbike coming from the opposite direction. Old habits are hard to break. I feared that if we were riding on a motorbike and I needed to make a quick decision, I may instinctively swerve the bike into oncoming traffic, and that would be the end of us. So we walked a lot, or hailed a "red truck"(rod dang) or a "tuk tuk", those three wheeled vehicles that look like a motorcycle pulling a rickshaw.

Chiang Mai is filled with young travelers from all over the world. As I watched them, I knew they were having the time of their lives. I still feel that way about the trip I took with my friend Paul, backpacking through Europe when we were in our twenties. At times I felt envious of these young good looking travelers, with strong bodies and sharp minds. During the day they'd take off on motorbikes to bathe elephants or zip-line over the treetops and in the evening they'd gather at one of the many small cafes and talk and laugh with other young travelers. Usually I was thankful to be half of an older couple. I even started a list in my notebook under the title, "Advantages of Being Old". I had a lot of things in mind to put down, but when I finally got around to creating the list, I couldn't think of a thing.  Maybe one or two advantages will come to me in time.

Katie and I filled our days walking around town, touring temples, shopping,  going to museums and eating a lot of good, cheap and delicious Thai food. For dinner one evening at a small restaurant, we had Pad Si-iew and Pad Thai and each had a strawberry/banana smoothie, all for less than three American dollars. 
I don't think we missed a day without logging some time at one of the numerous coffee houses around town. Chiang Mai could rival Seattle or Portland for number of coffee shops. Many roast their own beans. For that late morning or early afternoon pick me up, we'd duck into one for a Thai iced coffee or Thai iced tea made with strong coffee or tea and sweetened condensed milk. 

Pictures of the King of Thailand are everywhere, in shops, in temples, on the outside of buildings and even on the money. I couldn't help but think, put a mustache on him and he’s the spitting image of Dickey Smothers.

I saw very few American made cars in Chiang Mai, several small Fords and a couple Chevys. Almost all the cars are Japanese. This little Nissan wins the cutest car in Thailand award 
Adequate napkins are hard to come by in southeast Asia. Many places have none at all or they are extremely small and frail, falling apart with one wipe. But this particular restaurant not only had good food, but wonderfully large napkins.

Thailand has the distinction of being the only southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by Europeans.  I know this has many advantages to the country and its people, but as they emerge into the modern era, some of their infrastructure is a little shaky, like no potable water, air and water pollution, electronic glitches etc.
Our visit to Thailand was overall a positive experience. The people were friendly, the food delicious and the country was beautiful. What I loved most was seeing the Thai culture, alive and well. Western influence has definitely happened, but it is being integrated in a uniquely Thai way.  

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