Despite having five days in between our real beach vacation in Koh Lanta and our one month escape from the unhealthy shitty air that defines Chiang Mai every year like clockwork, I’ve been very remiss with my posts so please accept my apologies. Having just arrived in a small sleepy beach town called Bangsaphan that’s literally three hours from the nearest big tourist area, we’re settling into our two huge bedroom 1,700 square foot house that we’ll call home for a month. Astoundingly priced on AirBnbat about $20.41 USD a day and deeply discounted if you stay 30 days, the house is large, airy and comfortable. Having taken two days to drive 1,150 kilometers, it’s time to chill out in an area with lots of places they call “beach resorts”but realistically most of them are very mediocre two or three star at best. A perfect place to really relax without the crowds, this town isn’t exactly a place you’ll see on any Travel Channeldocumentary that features Thailand’s beach destinations. And that’s just fine by us.
So given my degree of laziness at the moment, I’ll break from the usual story telling format after making a few key points about Northern Thailand during “burning season” and telling you a bit about Koh Lanta. Not yet high on the list of top beach destinations in Thailand, it’s an island that still maintains a bit of rustic charm and simplicity while offering countless less expensive accommodation options for all budgets. Known for a hosting a huge number of Swedes (mostly in the north), the island has about six distinct regions each with different vibes and suited for different groups of visitors. Staying during the mid-season, we saw mostly strangely quiet French and German tourists both young and old, families and a smattering young couples. Most importantly, the skies were blue, there’s no agricultural burning and during dry season, every sunset looks like this.
One of my favorite song lyrics during the dreaded working years was from the Canadian band Loverboy; “Everybody’s working for the weekend”. Unfortunately, this is even more true in the developing world where many people work six days a week and leisure time is highly coveted. While Northern Thailand offers a cornucopia of beautiful scenic spots for relaxing, hiking and enjoying nature, the local population likes these beautiful spots as much as expats and tourists. Thankfully, Monday mornings change from crappy to glorious when you no longer need to jump out of bed at 4:20 AM to catch a 5:15 commuter train and everyone else’s work day becomes your quiet time. Having so far lived through four months of heavy rain, dreaded heat and humidity and a strange month of dead sky overcast that looked ominously similar to our disastrous experience with Penang’s worst haze in twenty years, the beginning of this year was a glorious month of perfect weather in Chiang Mai.
Typical Thai motorbikers
Looking and feeling more like Canadian summer days, it’s hard to believe the difference and with temperatures moderating to a comfortable range of 16 to 27 Celsius, January presents a perfect opportunity for day tripping. So we always wait for the least crowded weekday and hop in our 2011 grey Nissan Tiida that we bought from ExpatAuto.com for under $10,000 USD. Unwilling to risk our lives with an entire population of motorbike riders that do stupid stunts often worthy of an extreme sports competition, we highly recommend sticking to four wheels, especially if you’re unfamiliar with That traffic laws. Yes, that was sarcasm. The only rules on Thailand’s roads are do whatever’s most convenient (like riding against traffic on major four lane roads to avoid driving an extra half mile to the U-turn), make sure you put the entire family on one motorbike (including infants and don’t bother with helmets) and most importantly, make sure any accidents you cause involve farangs because it’s always their fault in the eyes of the Thai law.
Late last year, Diane and I took some basic Thai lessons form a private tutor. Unlike an actual classroom environment with anyone resembling a real teacher, we paid 400 Baht per session and sat with three others at a table in a crowded mall once a week for a series of 20 lessons. Providing us with syllabus binders and a small supplemental quiz book, she titled it “Conversational Thai” and each chapter contained some vocabulary in no particular order, a dialog that was anything but conversational in a real life setting and a few sentence examples with basic phrases. Rarely mastered even by long-term expats that spend time and money on real educational endeavors, Thai is a highly untranslatable tonal language and making it worse, the Chiang Mai region has its own rural version of phrases that sophisticated city people wouldn’t understand if their lives depended on it.
While pleasant enough, our teacher’s patience clearly ran thin towards the end due to my overly inquisitive questions about sentence structure, grammar and even cultural questions. Never one for straight forward memorization, learning foreign languages doesn’t t rank high on my list of strengths and I’m terrible at reciting back what was just taught to me. Often trying to keep it light, our group tried joking with the teacher but almost every humorous comment we made was so culturally unknown to her it literally went in one ear and out the other. Concentrating on a chapter about stuff unique to developing nations like ordering gas (as common here as using online shopping services back home) and dozens of phrases for obsolete post office services, I came across a word that translated into “city water”. Assuming this meant “tap water”, we wasted ten minutes looking for synonyms or other English expressions the teacher might understand but in the end, we left it unsolved. Which brings me to the point. Clearly one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a western expat in the developing world is figuring out what to do when stumbling onto the most common piece of advice in every tourism book; “Don’t drink the water”.
OK, so it’s not really a miracle or a White Christmas. (More on the miracle part shortly). But it is so cold in Chiang Mai today that I hit the spare bedroom where the winter clothing box sits like a prisoner in solitary confinement. Unlike last year when my crazy decision to spend Christmas in Canadawith Diane’s family meant spending the entire four weeks hunkered down inside to avoid the frigid temperatures, sanity prevailed this year and we stayed in the tropics. But someone forgot to tell the weather gods. Anxiously awaiting this “cool season” they all promised us would arrive, November brought thirty days of gray on gray and torrid humidity. Then December arrived and magically gave us a few days of comfortably livable almost sub-tropical like days. And then it quickly went back to hot, humid and hazy. Rumors of an early “burning season”began popping up as the sun remained visibly absent and the air outside reminded me of that ever-present stink of Malaysians burning everything from garbage to plastic (despite their insistence that they don’t do that because it’s supposedly illegal).
Lowest reading since arriving in Asia
And then out of nowhere, we got an early Christmas present. Shifting winds brought a wave of high pressure down from China, skies brightened into a brilliant cloud free sky with nothing but sunshine and it got cool again. But it didn’t stop with cool. Like an ignorant tweet from Trump, it kept coming and coming until it got downright chilly. And that turned into downright cold. Forcing us to close every window in the house, crank the shower heater up to 80% and break out the sweatpants and socks, last night was colder than Walnut Creek, California where we used to live. (I checked). Clocking in at an astoundingly low 9 Degrees Celsius, (48 Fahrenheit), we both woke up cold and slept with the blanket pulled all the way up. Never one to complain about cool spells in the tropics, breaking through the single digits when you’ve lived with daily high temperatures of 30 Celsius or more for two years proved quite interesting. Always thinking our living room wall thermometer doesn’t really work because it’s been permanently fixed on 30 and we never use the air con except to sleep, it jumped an amazing 8 degrees last night and now it looks like any typically beautiful Canadian summer day.
And so our third year of tropical holidays arrived. About a year ago we prepared for Christmas in the cold Canadian North and hit the malls of Malaysia looking for anything with warmth. Unlike in Thailand where they break out heavy down coats, scarves and gloves during the “annual freeze” where overnight temperatures drop all the way to 20 Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) (shudder), Penang’s version of winter clothes includes mostly miniscule sized Japanese products in stores like Uniqlothat even most Malaysians can’t squeeze into. Picking up a nasty Malaysian flu bug two days before the long journey back home, I quickly regretted my crazy decision since the weather didn’t climb above minus 20 for three weeks. Even our old friends didn’t want to hang out because it was too cold and snowy and I proceeded to infect Diane’s family with an unfamiliar Southeast Asian bug that wouldn’t leave my body until a month after we returned.
Outside a Thai department store
Having learned my lesson about thinking I miss the cold, this year we’re staying here in Chiang Mai where the malls are awash with huge Christmas trees, cars drive around carrying tress and a flood of restaurants and hotels offer holiday dinners and serve everything from ham to local seafood. But let’s talk turkey. As some readers may recall, two years ago we suffered through the worst ecological disaster in Southeast Asian history perpetuated by Indonesia’s annual irresponsible andsenseless illegal agricultural burns. Creating a stench that permeated the air in four countries for over three months, the haze season was the worst on record since they began burning everything to satisfy the west’s insatiable desire for palm oil. Needing to escape, we hit Chiang Mai for a few weeks and enjoyed our first Thanksgiving dinner away from home in a restaurant called Art Cafe. Featuring a real turkey dinner with all the trimmings for about 800 Baht, it wasn’t the best we’ve ever had but it was real turkey which is probably the thing I miss the most living away from North America. Despite a government protectionist policy on foreign turkeys, we still considered doing something like that again and although there’s not nearly as many Thanksgiving dinners as Christmas in Chiang Mai, there’s still a bunch of respectably decent choices. Anything seemed better than last year’s “mock Thanksgiving dinner” cooked by an interesting character and former chef that followed our blog to the letter and literally duplicated everything we did to get our MM2H Visa.
Yes I know. Sadly neglectful is the best narrative available for my posting habits. And now that Thanksgiving Day is just about here (well, not really here since the Pilgrims never landed on the shores of Phuket), it’s high time to catch up a bit. Hosting our first visitor to Thailand kept us busy for a week and although I planned more activities than my friend did (I’d hoped it would be the other way around), playing tour guide got us out and about and we searched for some good food, went north to the beautiful Queen Sikrit Botanical Gardens and hiked to a waterfall the long way. Remembering what a pain in the ass it is to vacate the spare bedroom when it actually acts as the place where I often sleep, keep all my clothes and even have my own bathroom, the first task was housecleaning. Scrubbing the bathroom to an adequate level for female guests proved sweatier than anticipated but I did receive a thumbs up seal of approval. Leaving it cleaner than when she got there, it reminded me why Diane prefers me staying out of the master bathroom.
Children always make my day in Asia
Unlike Penang and for the first time in our marriage, we live a stone’s throw from the airport. Given our lifestyle discrepancies where I’m asleep by 11 and Diane stays up almost two and a half hours longer, we clearly learned our lesson in Malaysia where getting to the airport ranked up there with root canal surgery and tax audits. Not bothering to ask seven months ago when my friend booked her plane ticket, I shuddered when I saw her 10:40 PM arrival time. Unaware there was any other practical way to Chiang Mai from the west coast of North America, I learned that Korean Air flies a non stop to Seoul from Seattle and allows a quick 50 minute turnaround for their daily four-hour jaunt to our backyard. Given how few Koreans we’ve come across in five months, I’m unclear how they justify that route but it’s almost $800 less than the only other practical option with two non stop flights (Cathy Pacific to Hong Kong and DragonAir to Chiang Mai which departs from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver). With its dirt cheap economy fares and less than stellar reputation, I’d never choose that option but then again we live quite cheaply compared to Seattle residents and in fact, we’re even splurging for Premium Economy next year for our Seven Year Itch trip back to see my neurotic parents in Brooklyn.
Although it’s been over three months living in Chiang Mai, the stark difference between Malaysia’s stubborn indifference and Thailand’s Land of Smiles attitude still haunts us. About a month ago we registered our Thai bank account for automatic monthly direct debits to pay both the electric and water bills. Having read countless horror stories and complaints all over the internet about what happens if you miss a payment, we decided that using direct debit is the only practical way to ease all concerns. Granted it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do and it does involve a trip to the provincial offices of each municipality but it’s a one time thing and I’m realizing now that some local expats are just downright lazy. As the larger company, the electric company was easier and only required showing our bankbook and a passport. Despite limited English skills, the friendly clerk went out of her way to help because that’s what they do in Thailand. (especially when your wife looks Thai despite being a Canadian of Chinese descent).
The special slot for utility bills
Sure enough, when the little 4 X 4 bill arrived in the special mail slot the following month, it had no due date or bar code so we knew they set it up and a week after that we even received a paper receipt in Thai and English asking us to please make ample funds available for the amount due on a specified date. And the funds came out as expected with none of those pesky fees they charge at 7Eleven where almost everyone pays their bill. So later that first month we repeated the process and drove to the provincial water office hoping to accomplish the same thing. Unfortunately, they also speak very little English but determined we needed to take a form written in Thai down to our bank, have them fill it out and return back to the office. With little fanfare, a customer service agent at our bank filled it out using perfectly scripted little miniature characters (Thai people have the best handwriting the world). Returning to the water office later that day, we approached a well dressed woman at the information counter, made enough motions for her to understand, and she pointed at an in-box for us to leave the completed form. Figuring that wasn’t so bad, we decided on the quickest way home and went on with our day.