Still sounding strange, it’s good to be back “home” in Penang after three weeks of being Experimental Tourists. Utilizing the train and bus as non-wealthy expats with no current income should, it felt great to brave the airport crowds and fly back home. Remembering the rest of planet earth somehow manages airport security without paranoid TSA agents screening, delaying, racially profiling and otherwise simply making a trip to the airport a three-hour pain in the ass, we breezed through Chiang Mai’s airport after a passport check or two and flew back to Malaysia via Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, reality kicked in quickly when it took almost 90 minutes for the Uber guy to negotiate the bumper to bumper parking lot that is Penang Island on a weekend. (Weekdays are only slightly better and that’s if you avoid factory shift change hours). Note to self: Although Chiang Mai has its share of traffic, it flows better than Penang’s locally populated areas even at peak times. Score one point on the “pro” side of moving to Thailand after our lease expires.
Thoroughly enjoying the comforts of our mattress topper and personalized soft pillows (shipped from home) and our “rarely found in Asia” king size bed, we settled back into life after a successful, fun and eye-opening trip to Thailand. Changing enormously since our last visit as tourists six years ago, Chiang Mai’s growth rate surprised us a bit and we’re told Bangkok people had enough chaos and have begun moving up in drones. Now supporting two enormously large weekend night markets besides the original one at Anusam Market and covering a span of almost 3 kilometers each, they added the name “walking streets” and it literally takes hours to cover all the merchants. Unlike other places, (such as all Chinese tourist markets that sell only crap), Chiang Mai’s markets have so much interesting stuff we never get bored and patronized both markets two weekends in a row.
Having successfully stayed at two Airbnb locations, we’ve pretty much already decided we’ll be living in Chiang Mai by the summer of 2017 and only wish Thailand had better government stability, especially when it comes to visas and the banking system. Adding to the “con” side is the language issue but since many other westerners negotiate their way through contracts, leases and other necessary issues like phone bills written in Thai, we assume that’s not enough to keep us away. Citing an example, buying a SIM card and topping off with enough megabytes to keep us wired for three weeks seemed futile at a cell phone store in Hua Hin, where it took three people to find someone who muttered more than two words of English. But that’s part of Thailand’s beauty. Possibly the only country left that reveres a king and supports what’s basically democracy based on thirteenth century European Feudalism, Thailand keeps up with the modern world on certain things like western infrastructure, modern suburban strip malls, gated condos and 4G internet service but bears no resemblance to the Malaysian government’s goal of “fully developed status”. Strolling the shops and neighborhoods just outside the Old City reveals a society still operating like the (almost) late 20th century like printing shops using machinery I haven’t seen since my childhood.
Remembering one of Thailand’s best features, Diane and I are always impressed with the amazing array of fresh fruit and vegetables. Visiting one of the city’s modern supermarkets like Rimping or Top’s immediately reminded me of everything I’ve sacrificed by living in Malaysia. Complete with a real deli department, dozens more western brands of everything, daily baked artisan breads and a huge assortment of take away foods including real salad, spicy and non-spicy Thai favorites, it reminded me why Thailand remains my first choice for expat living, gastronomically speaking. Then there’s the fresh markets. Usually sleeping during the hubbub period, Diane and I decided to stroll through Kad Luang, the city’s leading fresh market, at 7 AM when it’s still thriving with merchants, restaurant owners, locals and a few other curious tourists. Unable to describe the amazing variety of fresh veggies and fruit, it opens at 4 AM and for a society that eats out every meal, getting here early is essential.
Never running out of interesting things to see, we marveled at the variety and realized Thailand is one of the world’s most self-sufficient nations. Usually enjoying salad and fresh greens for dinner, Penang’s supermarket choices limits us to veggies mostly imported from Australia and fruit that’s disappointed both of us since arriving. Surprised that an Southeast Asian nation wouldn’t have awesome fresh fruit and veggies, Thailand stands as a huge contrast to its southern neighbor and left me wondering how Penang obtained its reputation as “food capital of Southeast Asia” given the small amount of protein and veggies they use in almost all Malaysian specialty dishes. Given Malaysia’s stronger economy, I wish they’d develop an appetite for markets resembling anything in Thailand. Although Malaysia wins the retirement visa battle with its MM2H offering, Thailand’s incredibly fresh assortment of meat, quality seafood, amazing array of fresh veggies and diversity of flavors easily wins the food class in my book. They even have little 5 Baht Tom-Yum kits (seen below) for when you want fresh pre-packaged flavoring.
Unable to spend all our time comparison shopping, we also spent some time enjoying one of the best features of Northern Thailand. Geographically blessed in a mountainous region, Chiang Mai’s late fall weather spoiled us with wonderfully cool and comfortable evenings although afternoon sun is blazing hot and it’s not even the “hot season” yet. Only an hour away, Doi Inthanon National Park has Thailand’s highest mountain and offers hours of leisurely entertainment with trails, waterfalls and local attractions. Sadly, I’m still too wimpy to rent motorbikes (although owning one will clearly be on the “to-do” list if we move).
Wishing I’d researched more inexpensive day trip companies, we had actually planned to wing it in Chiang Mai, mostly using this part of our trip as an exploratory quest to see what it’s like living in Chiang Mai with no transportation.
Quick answer: It’s easy if you like walking and can accept living in miniscule 20 square meter condos. Otherwise, it’s hard to impossible if you prefer stand alone houses and more livings space like we do unless breathing exhaust fumes on songtheaws every day doesn’t bother you.
Knowing I wanted to see Thailand’s highest mountain and looking forward to feeling some amazingly low temperatures (anything under 25 Celsius), we thought about how to do this without walking in blind to the cornucopia of companies in Old Town that mostly offer very average excursions for high prices (by Thai standards). Fortunately, Chiang Mai has more tour companies than you’d ever need and for that reason they’ll usually pick you up almost anywhere. Spending the first week in a three bedroom house in Hang Dong that was already in the way to the park, we took advantage of a 10% coupon offered by BeMyGuest.com. Having used this Singapore based company in Hua Hin for a very enjoyable trip to see wild elephants, we expected a similar private tour but instead they met Diane and I at Kad farang, a local strip mall, and placed us in the back of a small van on 12 person tour, where we spent the ride cramped next to two Russians with unbearable body odor. Thankfully the ride to Wachirathan Waterfall, the first stop on the way on the way up to the summit, was short. Given only 30 minutes to explore and knowing most tourists always pass on anything involving exercise, we hiked quickly up a trail and climbed a few hundred feet higher for a better view.
With temperatures often reaching below zero (Celsius), the cool air felt better than anything we’ve experienced outside in the last six months and it felt like a perfect Canadian summer day with bright sunshine and the mercury hovering near 18. The summit itself doesn’t really offer the views we expected until we realized it’s intentionally designed. Uniquely different, they built two spectacular shrines to honor the King and Queen’s 60th birthday near the summit at a point offering spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding valley. Although nowhere as high, it felt like a view of the Himalayas minus the impressive peaks and snow, perhaps due to the unlimited visibility and clear skies. Highly recommended, we saw lots of expats on bikes enjoying the day and see ourselves spending lots of time in this beautifully maintained national park.
Without even trying I snapped the best bird picture I’ve ever taken and it wasn’t even on a real camera. Almost like being in a zoo, this colorful little songbird likes to hang out near the summit and although he sounds like a hummingbird when he flutters, he sits still long enough for great photos.
Speaking of animals, the Chiang Mai Zoo is often overlooked and not rated very highly on TripAdvisor’s “things to do” section. Disagreeing totally, we think it’s one of the undiscovered gems of the city. Aside from having lots of shade, the zoo is inexpensive and since it’s in the “developing world” there’s no huge plastic enclosures, massive million dollar structures designed to “mimic their natural environment” and you can’t even tell who’s on the staff since they don’t wear uniforms. Normally not ideal conditions for a zoo, this one defies logic and the animals are all active, healthy and more interesting than most Western zoos we’ve visited. With few patrons and not really well-organized as far as the zoo’s organization goes, the downside is the enormous size of the hilly property with way too much walking for most visitors. So of course we walked the entire zoo and it took six hours. Perhaps one of the best bird enclosures we’ve seen, all the birds seemed to be in heat, making some of the craziest animal sounds you’ve ever heard and they even have an air-conditioned penguin exhibit. Not to be confused with the Night Safari, the zoo is right next to Chiang Mai University on the way towards Doi Suthep and it’s worth a look.
Ready to return by the third week, we realize traveling is very tiring, especially when you’re not a 25-year-old backpacker. Our first holiday season away from North America will no doubt be relatively uneventful since we’re off to Australia on January 8th for our first work exchange experience. Knowing the developed world is much more expensive than we’re used to these days, we’re glad to have room and board included for most of the trip but don’t want to skimp on the touristy part in Melbourne so we’ll stick to catching seasons 7 and 8 of Dexter on Malaysia’s version of Netflix (IFlix) most nights. (Can you believe we will have watched all 96 episodes in three months?). Never having done much on Christmas anyway with families far away, it really feels like any other month anyway with sunshine, heat and humidity every day.
Plans for 2016
Upcoming events for us next year include another work exchange assignment that we just secured for September helping out at a Southern Cambodia lodge on an island in Southern Cambodia. With no other lodges on the island and accessible only by boat, it sounds like a great chance to catch up on the books we brought from home and have yet to start. We’ve also opened a dialog with another host at a newly opened hotel in Myanmar and we hope to plan a two-week stay in May with an extra week to explore. Never having done any work exchange projects before, we’re not sure if we’ll love it or hate it but with the plunging stock market, it’s clear we need to stretch our house proceeds as many years as possible or at least until our small pensions begin, so work exchange projects are hypothetically a very practical way to travel all over the region on a shoestring budget. Yes, we could “backpack” but that’s not really our cup of tea and we worked hard at living a debt free life in America’s most costly region so we can travel at will so a few hours of “fun work” seems reasonably
Wishing everyone a Happy Holiday Season, thanks for supporting the blog over the last year. Recently passing 42,000 page views I assume someone thinks it’s interesting so we appreciate your support and welcome your suggestions and comments. Cheers !!