There’s an old expression that says “Good fences make good neighbors”. Whoever wrote that obviously never lived in a middle class moo baan in Thailand where real doors would be better than fences. Having researched housing options in Chiang Mai for about a half-year before we moved here, we decided that a gated suburban community with amenities like a pool and gym suits us best. Unlike Malaysia that mimics most western style countries with agents specializing in housing needs, Thailand requires some more due diligence. With no regulations, anyone can open up shop on the internet and claim to be an “agent” and many people find rentals by simply driving around and looking for signs. Given the limited number of legitimate agents showing houses, we’re happy and lucky that we found a three bedroom house in a beautiful tree-lined community that hardly anyone knows about. Too bad the architects didn’t understand the words peace, quiet and privacy when they designed an entire housing development devoid of front doors. Using screen doors as the main entrance, the idea works fine for those with an end house on small streets. For the everyone else, I suggest researching the neighbors and not taking the word of your landlord who told us “they’re not usually around”.
Astoundingly similar to our neighborhood in Walnut Creek, California or our first crack at suburbia in a West Calgary, our gated community features modern three and four bedroom houses ranging from moderate sized to large. Coming in at about 1,800 square feet, our corner lot is way in the back on the last street. Other than the occasional airplane noise that subsides by midnight, you’d normally be able to hear a pin drop. Strangely quiet at night, it’s easy to forget it’s a developing nation and most residents are elderly upper class retired Thai people, Chinese nationals that somehow don’t speak a word of Thai or English (more on that later), some working farangs and scores of well to do families whose kids sound more American than Asian. Inclusive in our very reasonable rent of 20,500 Thai Baht, we get unlimited use of an infinity pool and a rather crappy gym (We pay for a better one outside the community). Despite paying 30% less than our old condo in Penang, many fellow expats on the Chiang Mai social media groups think we’re high-class because we own a car and pay triple what they do so they think we’re living the good life. Unfortunately, there’s one real pain in the ass family in the entire community and they live directly across the street.
Elaborating a bit on life in a higher end Chiang Mai moo baan, there’s some major differences from life back home you might want to keep in mind if you’re considering a move. Literally the opposite of North America where almost all homeowners in expensive towns spend most of their lives working to afford what they have, in the developing world, nobody living in big houses seems to work. Putting aside the retired folks and professionals (our landlord is a dentist that bought the house as an investment), I’m clueless how everyone is either in and out of their houses fifteen times a day or always at home. After I got laid off and spent 18 long months as a House Husband, I spent many weekdays on suburban side streets that were as empty as a promise from Donald Trump. Hearing only the sounds of mostly Latino gardeners, caretakers and occasionally a long-term contractor, nobody in North American houses stays home. But here in the moo baan, there’s no commute hour, school buses are nonexistent (I have no idea how education works here) and you don’t have to wait for rush hour traffic to subside before going anywhere.
Making up for the lack of western style morning and evening noise is a never ending stream of rickety looking trucks doing all kinds of construction projects, delivery guys on old motorbikes with sidecars bringing things like old gas canisters and packages and neighbors that drive their vehicles in and out as much as twenty times a day. Even stranger is our garbage pickup which comes twice a week somewhere between 1 and 3 AM and the electric company guy that reads our meter in the darkness at around 5:15 AM and then leaves the bill in a special little box they have everywhere in Thailand. Unlike Malaysia, online bill payments are for the one percent who all live in Bangkok. While some daytime noises do tend to interfere with things that need concentration like blogging (and I assume “digital nomading” whatever that means), the plethora of nighttime service activity is somehow so quiet nobody ever knows they were here. And Thai people are generally very soft-spoken so once you get used to nobody having conventional jobs, the daytime stuff generally becomes white noise. And there’s always something funny to keep us entertained on days when we simply feel like chilling out like a vehicle packed so high it’s obviously a dangerous hazard to the driver and everyone driving next to him. Except in Thailand where it’s not.
Recently, we watched an episode of Lisa Ling’s This is Life on CNN where she highlighted the recent rash of billionaire kids from mainland China living in wealthy California towns. Sent to be educated in the USA by a new generation of extremely wealthy mainland Chinese, they’re allowed to simply jump any immigration barriers by virtue of their wealth. Often living by themselves in enormous mansions, they drive luxury cars, spend weekends on yachts and given their immaturity and lack of American cultural skills, they sometimes get into legal trouble. Naturally, their high-priced lawyers get them off with slaps on the wrist which garners negative publicity in the press. Ironically, this practice is not only legal, it’s been stepped up since a billionaire lunatic that constantly mocks China as being “unfair to America” ascended to the White House. Unaware that the very practices their leader rails against are screwing them over every day, hardly any Trump supporters ever pick up on this and the road to American citizenship remains closed for most with Muslim bans but wide open for Chinese billionaires.
Then there’s Thailand. Displaying extreme nationalism and a reverence for their King not found anywhere else in today’s modern world of crony capitalism, it’s refreshingly nice to live among citizens living a culture uniquely their own. Living next door to the worlds’ newest superpower, however, presents an interesting challenge on how to keep Thai culture in Thailand. Unlike neighboring Malaysia, whose citizens jump at any chance for an overseas education ultimately resulting in a huge brain drain, Thailand does a great job keeping most its citizens at home despite a questionable economy and a sadly low minimum wage. In our moo baan, Chinese is readily spoken more than Thai. As one married to a Canadian of Chinese descent, I’m both partial to and very familiar with Chinese culture. But I wasn’t really expecting to say “Nee How” to most of our neighbors when we pass them on the street or see them at the pool. Clearly dominating the upper middle class in the Chiang Mai area, China is so important to the Thai government they have special forms, and exclusive visas for the Chinese at the local immigration office.
Which leads me to the annoying neighbors. Lacking any type of conventional job, the family includes two young boys and the younger one is possibly the biggest screaming brat in the history of Asian kids. Screaming the second he wakes up, the mother ignores him and his tantrums last upwards of forty minutes to an hour and sometime number as many as eight or nine in one day. Each day, the overweight father who sports a European style man-bun parades back and forth shirtless in the middle of the street (which is directly in front of our house) on a cell phone babbling in obnoxiously loud Chinese from sunrise to sunset. Occasionally taking breaks to go wherever he goes, they somehow own not one but two luxury cars and a large commuter style van. Taking the bratty kids somewhere about two or three days a week provides a brief respite but the mother comes back, usually with bags of shit from shopping sprees. And on their non “school days”, the two kids come out at about 7 AM and play, scream, throw frisbees, ride their electric toys and make lots of noise in the street despite having a beautiful park around the corner. And of course the little one wales loudly every few minutes for no clear reason. Thankfully I’m an early riser but Diane likes to sleep in which is basically impossible.
One day last year a truck pulled up in front of their house and dumped over 500 boxes of something in the back yard. Closer investigation showed the boxes were some Bird’s Nest concoction from China. Once telling me she “sells cosmetics”, I’ve never seen the mother do anything but shop. And of course, a grandmother lives with them. Primarily the head laundry person, she does about six loads a week although she is relatively quiet and of course speaks no Thai or English. As for how the kids learned their minimal English, some loud European guy comes over twice a week and calls them “his favorite students”. Obviously contributing practically nothing to the local Thai culture other than spending gas money, I not sure I understand the logic behind such a proud nation allowing thousands of extended Chinese families to live in luxury houses with complete and total disregard of anything Thai while the minimum wage hovers around 300 Baht a day. Strangely similar to the USA’s policy of “country first; except for the uber rich Chinese”, I’m a bit disappointed but not really surprised. Most importantly, however, I’m the first one to tell others never to judge the nation that’s hosting you so I’ll make it clear that this is merely my personal observation and is by no means a critique of Thai immigration policy.
After realizing there was little recourse for us since we signed a one year lease and otherwise love our house and community, another relative arrived out of nowhere in November. Appearing to be the father’s brother, this guy is absolutely useless, way too young to be retired and is clearly bored out of his mind. Spending all day sitting in the front yard, he meticulously tends the garden for an hour or two despite not being the homeowner. (They rent the house from a Thai owner according to the moo-baan’s management representative). He doesn’t drive, work or go anywhere except the rare cases when they all go out together and spends most of the day staring into space. Never playing with the screaming kids or helping the grandmother with laundry or chores, he smokes the occasional cigarette, watches Chinese TV shows and goes to bed early. Given that it’s a small three bedroom house, it seemed awfully crowded which might be one reason they all choose to disturb the neighbors by never staying inside. Thankfully, they went away for two weeks during the holidays and we approached the management to ask how long their lease was. With limited English skill, they offered that they’re “long-term stay” so we decided to have them call the owner and complain about the noise.
And then we confronted them one night. Blowing us off, the obnoxious father kept pacing back and forth at 10 PM on the phone in front of our yard and he sent the mother to deal with it. As the only partial English speaker, she told us they’re moving to another house because it’s too crowded for them anyway. Confused about her reply given what the management told us, we asked the moo-baan people the next day and they knew nothing about them moving or even any other available houses for rent. But sure enough, about two weeks ago they began slowly moving things in the van. Following them one day, we saw their new house and figured perhaps they made some “behind the scenes“ deal with another Chinese family as they did seem to be moving. But of course, they left the laundry rack and the grandmother cycles over four times a week to do the laundry in the now empty house and continues to hang it across from our driveway. Giving no sign they’ve actually surrendered the old house or even bothered to tell the owner, I’m guessing they’ll probably sublet to some other relatives from China or something shady like that. Unclear what the rules are about that, we figured it’s time to enjoy a temporary blessing and just enjoy the quiet unless the situation changes.
Taking three full days, some Thai cleaners came by to clean and clear the house this week. Emptying an enormous amount of filth, garbage, boxes, old toys, planters, animal cages and who knows what else, they left it all outside which violates community garbage collection rules but left the brother’s bicycle, watering can and of course the laundry rack. And later that day, six Thai workers removed the fridge and hauled it on to a shanty truck. So for now, it’s once again so quiet that I may write about 30 posts simultaneously but be I’m cautiously mindful of what might come next. I will also offer the following advice if you’re thinking about moving to a gated community in suburban Chiang Mai. Unless you enjoy bolting yourself indoors with the air con all day all year-long. I’d suggest looking for a front door before signing on the dotted line. And now that I’m done ranting, I’ll begin another post about day trips and the beautiful winter weather so please excuse me. Cheers from our now quiet Soi Number 22.