Recalling days gone by, I once visited Vancouver in mid November with an old roommate. Thinking we’d visit some indoor attractions since it was off-season, we brought umbrellas and I remember it rained almost the entire four days. Years later, Diane and I discussed possible places we might want to live besides the Bay Area and I learned she hates the dreary long rainy winters of the Pacific Northwest even more than me. Immediately ruling out places with gray skies, cool fog and continuous precipitation, we eventually wound up spending six years in Alberta. Aside from the obvious advantage of having family nearby, it turns out Alberta is the sunniest province in Canada and Calgary enjoys over 300 days of sunshine per year despite the little inconveniences like snowstorms interrupting the beginning of gardening season in May.
Having never lived in the tropics before, we’d visited places like Ecuador and Costa Rica at the end of rainy season and spent many expeditions drenched to the core. Realizing the trade-off between lots of rain but no snow, weather was one factor playing into our initial decision to live in Penang. Blessed with a strange meteorological phenomenon, Malaysia somehow defies conventional wisdom that states everywhere with tropical climate experiences wet and dry seasons. So for two years we had some rainstorms here and there but in Penang, skies almost always cleared within an hour and if it rains overnight it rarely sticks around. We also can’t recall more than about two days of continuous rain which makes a retired North American overseas expat quite spoiled. And bored since it’s dry but there’s not much to do without transportation when you live far from the main tourist drag and air-conditioned malls. Understanding Thailand has three distinctive seasons and we chose to arrive at the start of what’s normally the wettest time of year, it’s no surprise that it’s raining. But unlike the past few years, this summer is producing deluges and floods all over the nation not seen in many years (according to people we’ve asked, anyway).
Thankfully, there are lots of things to do indoors but unlike Penang, living in the suburban enclaves outside the old city means you either buy a car or sweat to death in an uncomfortable yellow songthaew which substitutes for bus service in Chiang Mai. Having spent a three week exploratory trip here during the glorious high season with its cool nights and cloudless skies, we tried both city life in a comfortable but closet sized condo in semi-trendy Santitham with walking access to most things as well as renting a house in Hang Dong, a 20 minute drive south. Quickly learning the benefits of owning a car, we immediately ruled out motorbikes because we enjoy living and don’t wish to blow our savings in a Thai hospital. Avoiding the toils of driving on the wrong side of the road in Malaysia where traffic rules only exist on paper, it was time to buckle down and hit that dreaded building known as The Provincial Land Transport Office. Yes, it was time to get Thai drivers licences.
Seemingly easy enough, one of the first differences between Malaysia and Penang we noticed was the endless number of Facebook groups offering everything from restaurant experiences to cultural opportunities and everything in between, Unfortunately, when you’re living in the place with the most digital nomads in Asia that also offers the cheapest and easiest ways to live inexpensively by simply obtaining an endless amount of “tourist visas” over and over, the social media crowd tends to be a bit, shall we say, sarcastically cynical? In the months leading up to our move, we scoured dozens of groups and found a relative pattern whereby many regular posters imply everything’s difficult, rant on and on about Thailand’s incompetent policies on everything from immigration to alcohol sales and generally put negative vibes out there where it’s simply uncalled for.
Procedures for drivers licences are no different and we read endless posts of horror stories where people complained about long lines, rules constantly changing and worst of all, having to take any kind of written or physical drivers training course. (Only applying to those not possessing a current and valid foreign driver’s license, it didn’t matter to us since we still have California licenses and we suggest keeping your license current before moving if you intend to drive). Between both grumpy old Europeans forced from their homeland due to financial woes and young generation know-it-alls who think Thailand somehow owes them a middle class lifestyle despite being broke or choosing the Chiang Mai dropout life over real work, it takes a bit of patience to negotiate through all the negativity.
Fortunately, there’s enough good people and a handful of moderators and administrators that keep the peace, occasionally remove abusive trolls or simply end threads that go way off topic. And of course the “girls only” groups usually behave much better because women don’t have time for bullshit when there’s already a disproportionate amount of single guys only interested in meeting Thai women diluting the social pool. (In defense of the region, I will say we’ve noticed less fat old dumpy guys walking around with hotties twenty years younger here than in Bangkok or Hua Hin). So we stick to about eight or nine Facebook groups that often see the same 20 people posting despite memberships upwards of 10,000. Partaking in several meet-ups since arriving, we’ve already made more friends in a few weeks than we did in two years living in Penang as well as discovering new places to eat and learning enormous amounts of information from people who like Thailand enough to stay a long time.
Having been told by many readers of this blog that we’d hate Chiang Mai because nobody stays very long and forming relationships is hard, I’d say so far our experience is exactly the opposite. We think it’s a great area with genuinely warm people (albeit with a very hard language) and the hardest part for us is fighting off tiredness from finally engaging in a somewhat normal social life. Along with muscle fatigue from hitting the gym on a regular basis. With endless amounts of food choices from virtually every ethnicity and style as well as a generous disparity between the cheapest and most costly options, staying here five years probably still wouldn’t be enough time to sample it all.
Laughing at every one we meet that raves about Penang’s food because it’s one of Thailand’s favorite “visa runs”, comparing Georgetown to Chiang Mai is akin to saying Tulsa, Oklahoma has as many food choices as Manhattan or Tokyo. Between the cornucopia of great ribs to deliciously spicy and flavorful Northern Thai options, you certainly won’t run out of food choices in Chiang Mai. Promising I wouldn’t turn the focus of the blog into a “foodie thing”, I’d be remiss not to share at least some of the great food we’ve had so far so here’s a gallery with names and descriptions. PM if you want details on any specific item.
Returning back to the story which was actually meant to be sharing our experience getting a Thai driver’s license, we’re lucky enough to live three minutes from the Provincial land Transport office so we arrived at about 8:45 AM despite reading so many posts advising you to line up before they opened or face an all day trudge. Researching things ahead of time goes a long way in a nation with endless procedures and forms. Understanding there’s a lack of reliable information out there and most government websites are in Thai, here’s a quick primer on exactly what you need to obtain a Thai driver’s license for cars. (Motorbike rules are much more complicated and we know nothing about that so please don’t ask).
1) Residency certificate:
One of Thailand’s silly forms designed to generate revenue, the easiest way to get one is visit a small unnamed office right next to the information counter at Promenada (the current but supposedly temporary location for all immigration matters in Chiang Mai). Bring a copy of your current lease, two passport style photos (must be a blue background), and copies of your latest entry stamp, departure card and photo page of your passport. Most things in Thailand have a shortcut and rumor has it the guy in the small office is a former immigration officer that must have some deal with them. Bypassing the supposed three-week wait, for 500 Baht, the guy collects mounds of cash each day and produces a piece of paper written entirely in Thai with your photo the next day after 2 PM.
2) Copies of current valid foreign driver’s license
3) Passport and copies of latest entry stamp, departure card and main page
4) A copy or some written poof of what class of vehicles is covered by your current license. In California, you’ll find this somewhere on the website
5) Medical Certificate:
Another silly one. Simply visit any one of a number of authorized clinics, show them your passport, tell them it’s for the driver’s license and pay about 40 to 60 Baht. Depending on what clinic you visit, they’ll ask and write down your height and weight and perhaps take your blood pressure. (It won’t be remotely accurate).
6) An application you won’t be able to fill out if you don’t read Thai but it doesn’t matter because the person at the information counter will write the necessary information.
Entering the large building, we followed almost everyone upstairs and stood on a reasonably long queue that only took about ten minutes to get through. Smiling as usual, the woman gave the typical embarrassed look they all give when Diane told her she’s not Thai and only speaks English. Almost always advantageous, she glanced over our paperwork, checked it more carefully than I expected and pointed to a counter. Approaching the clerk, he then checked whatever she wrote on the form and gave us two numbers. Sitting down and not sure what came next, everyone got up about 15 minutes later and walked into an area with color blindness charts. Assuming this was the first group of applicants seeking new licences or renewals, we looked at the guy at the counter and he motioned us to follow.
Like an army drill sergeant, a short elderly Thai woman shouted out some illegible instructions and the group formed four lines although ironically, nobody including Thai speakers knew exactly what was going on. So we squeezed into the far left line because it looked like that was where the color blindness chart was and we’d read that there’s four possible “tests” administered before they issue a license. Not seeing an eye chart anyway, or anything else anyeway, it didn’t really matter. As it turns out, all four lines were all the same and we waited our turn and watched her point to each of the colors from 40 feet away and asked people what color she was pointing at. Given that an incredibly small percentage of the world’s population is affected with color blindness, nobody knows why they test for this but basically, they just do something to give the appearance of safety. Ironically, Thailand has the second largest fatal accident rate in the world but at least they’re comfortable people can differentiate a red from a green light.
After our turn came, we went to a desk to collect our paperwork and followed everyone into a room to watch a safety video which of course is in Thai. Possibly the coldest room in any government office, the woman in the front rambled off a set of long instructions that we obviously didn’t understand and passed out a sign in sheet that we had no idea how to fill out. Politely asking the people behind us if they spoke English, we figured most Thais are always willing to help if you smile and they helped us figure out we should write “Chiang Mai” next to our names as our place of residence.
Then everyone passed their passports and paperwork up front and the clerk began a painfully long five chapter safety video which everyone seemed to watch with relative interest. Although we didn’t know what they were saying, the unusually graphic images of death and destruction kept our attention and before it reached chapter three, the clerk returned with everyone’s paperwork, promptly shut the video and called out each name. As one of only three foreigners, we waited until the end and decided this was probably because our names were hard for them to pronounce. Handing us another number, we sat back down and waited only about 15 minutes for our numbers to be called.
Approaching the counter, we paid our fee and went into another waiting area where they take pictures. By now, a second and smaller group of new applicants were lining up for their color blindness tests and so it appears that arriving in the late morning may actually save some time because they cut off the first group once all the seats in the video room are filled. Taking yet another number, we waited about another 20 minutes and approached one of three available desks. Meticulously pointing the camera and taking three shots, the picture is the best one I’ve ever had on a driver’s license and after about two hours and 20 minutes, we both had a shiny new driver’s licenses valid for two years.
Having now obtained driver’s licenses in four different countries over 38 years, I find it ironic that the last time I ever took a written or driver’s test was in 1980 when I got my first driving permit. But now that we’re legally licensed, we checked off another one of those dreaded expat tasks that many expats simply ignore. But there’s no need to avoid it. It’s Thailand and spending your day at government offices is par for the course. What now? ROAD TRIP. Well, if the rain ever stops that is. Cheers from Chaing Mai.
Comments on the blog’s shift to Chiang Mai life are greatly appreciated.