Chiang Mai 1

January 31st, 2015

What was intended as being a productive morning qualified to some extent, but when noon rolls around I am still rushed to pack and vacate the room without overstaying my welcome. Nevertheless, my plans for the day are fairly modest, inasmuch as I want to get some writing done, and at some point in the afternoon move on to Chiang Mai, with no bigger plans for the city other than arriving and checking into my hotel. I have little interest in seeing much more of Lampang, as it would get too stressed with the little time available, and there really aren’t specific sites or areas remaining to be seen. Then the hotel I have booked in Chiang Mai is so far away from the centre, and also possibly quite far from the bus station.

The soup place on Thanon Sri Chum is adequate, as any other marginally clean place of that nature would be, although the Indo-English teacher seated next to me and reaching the end of his tenure in town is wistful about returning to London; as much as he resents the city when he is there, he misses it when he is gone. Yes, the paradox of being a world traveler. We share a short and excited conversation, and then I continue to the Cheewa coffee shop around the corner, a place he has grown very fond of from what I can surmise, but then he does live upstairs and visits every day.

My ultimate destination is the gym in the small plaza near Wat Sri Chum, actually one of two small gyms located next to each other, although the other one is closed today, but can’t possibly be as deplorable as this one with its broken equipment, lack of variety and general state of disrepair. But it is close and presents a possibility of staying in reasonable shape while traveling for a low price, despite risking one of the cables snapping on the spindly apparatuses, having to screw individual plates laboriously onto each dumbbell, and the terrible commercial Thai rock music playing at full volume.

I can’t imagine much hope for gaining calories in any kind of healthy fashion browsing the dross displayed at the corner establishment at the bus station, the young Italian couple from Forli on the usual trip through Thailand very much in agreement. Our conversation naturally turns to the delights of their own country and the regional variants of the people. Well, what the people of various regions of Italy are like and the general attractions of each area is a very large subject, and my Italian is far from what it used to be.

As ubiquitous as the sleek, modern double-decker buses in Thailand are, I always seem to get stuck taking some older model bus, and the one the Italians and I are assigned to is no exception, the chassis rattling violently as we proceed along the local roads and the highway heading north. Normally I am quite resilient when it comes to being knocked around on decrepit vehicles, but I am simply not prepared for how terrible this ride is. The rotund sprawled figure in the seat next to me allows me less room to get comfortable, and the oncoming dusk and general haze doesn’t obstruct the grim industrial  landscape materializing well to the south of Lamphun, massive factories, warehouses, commercial operations, automotive services and big box retail locking their vice grip on the land. Whatever reputation Chiang Mai may try living up to and whatever it may have offered to visitors generations ago, the vast sprawl riding into town is on par with Mississauga or Markham.

The Ake bus station itself is a moderately busy affair, apparently northeast of the city centre by some distance, set next to a glittering shopping mall, which may be a good place to visit if the innumerable other attractions in town get exhausted. My bigger problem will be the fact that the hotel I booked almost erroneously, thanks to Agoda’s completely incorrect mapping, is located far outside of the centre of town. And my aversion to taxi and tuktuk drivers will only make matters worse, although the 150 baht taxi fare to the hotel miles away from the bus station seems embarrassingly cheap. Maybe the Thais working in transport are just fundamentally more honest than their counterparts in the rest of southeast and south Asia.

The hotel is hard to believe, right out of Disneyland, and then some, spread out over an extensive lot from what I can see, with some rather airy albeit generic-looking restaurant and cafe in tow, located at the junction of a major intersection. Even though the road front is quite loud, I can imagine that the rooms would be set back far enough from the road to be quiet. The young man at the reception desk tells me in broken English to wait, for 10 minutes,  then longer, and I can see that it may drag out longer than I would find tolerable. I should just check out some of the area, not that I am expecting much, and my suspicions are confirmed as I trudge with my fully laden daypack what turns out to be southwards, past largely shuttered workshops and retail, some incidental roadside eateries, the Tesco mini-mart and the shining lights in its vicinity beckoning up ahead.

The calm middle-aged Caucasian man who crosses my path can’t provide much reassurance as to the culinary possibilities of the area, and definitely would not encourage me to visit the Tex-Mex restaurant, as it is pretty awful. I could always grab a songthaew and head up to Duke’s, next to the footbridge, and walk into the centre if I wish. Originally from Oklahoma, he is visiting here for a while, and based on his recommendations for getting into town seems to have gotten some lay of the land. ‘Do I know about Jesus’ says more about what matters to him then talking about sunny Oklahoma or the transport connections into central Chang Mai. The G-Long establishment should be decent, he continues, although when I subsequently enter and wait, perusing the mish-mash of Thai and American favorites, no staff appears from the back room and I am thinking that the roadside soup stalls may be the best option in the area.

I should elaborate somewhat on the process involved in preparing the soups typically composed along the lines of the one I enjoy on the roadside near the Adventure hotel. The soup consists of a mix of fine rice and egg noodles, bean sprouts, some chopped cilantro, fish balls, small surimi donuts, pieces of cooked white fish, and some dried fish flakes. The fish balls, surimi and fish are cooked momentarily in one of the three compartments of the vat maintained hot on a burner, then set aside into their respective containers. Another compartment of the vat is used to boil the noodles that are filled into a mesh scoop and lowered briefly into the boiling liquid, and once boiled tossed into a bowl, to which the other ingredients are added and topped off with a ladle of the broth used to cook the fish.

I have two bowls, and not because I am that hungry or the street-side drama is that riveting. Even though I only walked in one direction from the hotel, I would not assume that there is little availability of eating establishments in the general area, but given the approaching nightfall need to eat proactively.

The receptionist has made it to the front counter when I return to the Adventure hotel, a mature lady boy somewhat distressed by my complaints about being deceived by the hotel presentation on Agoda, but it’s all water under the bridge at this point, since the room has already been paid for. I am just stuck in the area and have to make the most of it. And the Adventure hotel is definitely one of the stranger places I will find myself staying in, straight out of Disney or Las Vegas, with its corny themed rooms, Harem, Underwater, Jurassic, Casino, Valentines, and so on. I am driven in an electric cart by the young assistant to the long row of habitations featureless on the outside but the identically sized patios already give a sense of what may be coming when the door is opened and the light turned on.

Window frames in the Harem-themed room are Moorish, featuring painted desert scenes and a low-lying bed. The Jurassic theme, on the other, features rough-hewn, cave-like walls painted in terracotta with paintings of various prehistoric scenes featuring dinosaurs, framed in wooden logs styled out of plaster. At the centre of the room a wide mattress set out on a platform of logs, again made of plaster, with a grid of switches controlling the host of ambient lighting that underlines the unique sense of atmosphere to the place. I am not happy about the fact that there are no windows in any of the themed rooms, but then the concept behind them, particularly in a budget hotel, is fantastical. And I think the Jurassic theme will be it – it seems the most outlandish of the lot!

February 1st, 2015

I am so tired this morning I just don’t want to get up, although I am compelled to take in the complimentary breakfast, actually a somewhat genuine American-style affair featuring bacon, sausages and eggs with salad doused in salad dressing and all the toast and jam you want. Back in the room, I write for a while, but my brain feels just too fuzzy to function adequately without coffee. The exceedingly friendly receptionist points out that there is a little cafe in the direction of the Tesco, and she is right: trudging along the broken pavement lining the incessant thread of traffic I find the small establishment happy to serve me some potent brew, upon which I return to the hotel to continue writing.

I view some of the other themed rooms in the hotel, including the 70s futurism of Mirrors and the somewhat less impressive Outer Space. Perhaps I could entertain myself somewhat by changing rooms here every few days, the other themes at least featuring thinner walls and hence better wifi reception. I continue writing, hunched over my laptop set up on a fake upturned segment of a log, and seated on a now fairly imploded gigantic beanbag. Again, the place gets high marks for originality, although I am not sure I could say the same for practicality. Time goes by and it is now the mid afternoon, the day getting late to even think about sightseeing. But I should nonetheless do something constructive today …

The receptionist assures me that the blue songthaews do regular runs to a market just east of the centre of town, and from the market I could just walk to any destination in the centre of town. Barring that, the red songthaews follow custom routes, sooner operating like taxis. Fine, that sounds very promising, all I now need to do is stand by the roadside and wait. Except that I wait and wait, and absolutely no blue songthaews appear. Not particularly impressed, I return to the reception and ask the woman again if she is sure about the blue songthaews. Well, maybe not, as it is Sunday afternoon, and given that there are less students traveling, there will be less of the shared taxis on the road. And yes, perhaps there will be next to none.

On the other hand, I could always walk into town – it’s only five kilometres. I snort in contempt and leave the reception area, realizing that I actually have to climb over the hedge to get to the roadside, as the exit onto the street is half a block away. Out of sheer frustration I simply revert to my usual bottom line for getting around – my two feet. I trudge along the Lamphun road largely bereft of any useful sidewalk – even when it is present, it is cluttered by merchandise or street vendors – taking in the predictable mix of commercial, retail and street life, and occasionally turning my head in the hopes of sighting a blue songthaew before it passes.

My efforts are largely futile, as the few that pass on my entire walk are loaded to the gills, in addition to a handful of passengers hanging off the back. Red songthaews abound, but as they are empty upon passing I imagine them as full-fare taxis, which is what I want to avoid. Interestingly, even this far from the city there are innumerable young and old farang whizzing by on motorcycles, either making their lives easier by renting the bikes while visiting or perhaps part of the extensive population of expatriates living here.

Onwards I trudge, enjoying the momentary vistas, the appearance of the occasional coffee bar and inviting eatery, when the ribbon of dull green appears to my left across from the military base. I must already be close to the bridge which takes me to the centre of town, then – and while the map indicates that I still have some distance to cover, it is manageable, and nowhere near the five kilometres the hotel receptionist warned me of.

The last stretch of the Lamphun road features interesting cafes and bars catering to a Thai audience (given their lack of English signage), but once crossing the second bridge, the beginnings of the foreign tourist onslaught confronts me, the narrow road home to a smattering of boutique hotels , tourist shops, restaurants, a few massage parlours, and some gorgeous exemplars of northern Thai temples. I imagine once I reach the Tha Phae gate that delineates the eastern boundary of the old city, things will really spring to life, and they do as I enter the biggest and baddest market I have ever visited, at least in terms of the vast numbers of people in attendance.

The entire street is lined with stalls situated neck at neck all the way through to the far end of town, and along the major arteries that radiate north and south from Thanon Rachadamnoen. The market offers the same food stuffs as would be found in any regular Thai market, but with more variety, cleaner and more presentable, and with abundant English signage to engage the vast hordes of tourists present. The prices are astonishingly the same as elsewhere, the degree to which overcharging doesn’t take place in these venues surprising. Small food vendors prepare fried chicken, grilled squid, omelets, martabak, pancakes, fresh juices, spicy curries, fried noodles and rices, and fresh fruit on the grounds of the magnificent golden temples that line this road, something I have not seen elsewhere. But the initial appeal of all these food stalls woven through the tapestry of the temples gradually dissipates as the sprawl just continues without end – I couldn’t possibly even look at more of these stalls, never mind eat more food.

The experience becomes a people watching event, the small dark Thais set against the strapping young European couples and the geriatric Caucasians. I would hazard a guess that the makeup of visitors to the market would very roughly break down into even thirds locals, Japanese and Chinese, and western Europeans and North Americans.  Despite their apparently terrible economic plight, western Europeans still are a big force in world tourism, as is evidenced at this market.

I can’t say I see any confirmation of the rumblings regarding the reprehensible behavior of visitors from the Peoples’ Republic of China, but then considering how incredibly polite and well-behaved the Thai are, anyone would stand out. Many young European backpackers are here to check the perceived must-sees off their list, while on the other end of the spectrum there are mostly quite old Anglo-Saxon men literally on their last stand, their wizened, hunched and barely mobile bodies in stark contrast to their Thai female consorts some 30 to 40 years their juniors, the men probably single-handedly accounting for the region’s Viagra consumption.

But this market really is not ending, the relentless hordes just keep on coming, and the size of the market getting bigger and bigger as I try walking faster and weaving though the crowd at an increased speed. There are simply too many people here, and there is no way out.

I finally manage to escape down a side road running south from Rachadamnoen, then walk westward towards the canal segment that delimits the western boundary of the inner city. A few luxury and boutique hotels, travel services and massage parlours as well as restaurants are set against a backdrop of uninspired weatherworn urban architecture, most businesses closed, and the air thick with smog, few people now visible as dusk approaches. Outside of the admittedly stunning temples, the city seems largely characterless and has little authentic character other than the occasional traditional wooden bungalow that disappears amidst the morass of mouldering cement. There don’t seem to be interesting businesses, either, although it is Sunday, and most businesses would be shuttered for the day.

On the road running along the west side of the canal, small Thai businesses are located which seem to resonate with some degree of authenticity, rather than the overkill of the gigantic market. Precisely the reason I have avoided coming to Thailand for so long is the memory of visiting Ko Samui 20 years ago and finding an utterly nauseating level of overdevelopment and crass commercialism. It’s inconceivable to me that anyone would find this place appealing, and yet I see more tourists in a single spot than I can recall having seen anywhere in a single place in Southeast Asia, not that I am surprised. I think the incongruity of the experience here is both instructive and fascinating.

As repelled as I am by what I see, I find it compelling to see how such an ultimately nondescript place lacking in genuine ambience can be such a draw for so many people across the planet. What’s more, it is just beyond me to think that anyone would find this place attractive to retire in. Chiang Mai is like Las Vegas with the casinos exchanged with temples. On the other hand, however authentic and appealing as the city may be to tourists, it would represent an entirely different vision and concept to locals who derive economic sustenance from the giant economic engine driven by tourism.

Returning east along the Bumrung Buri road that runs the length of the southern channel of the canal and acts as the southern boundary of the inner city, there is a picturesque and well-lit park replete with flower gardens and ball courts, where groups of young men play variants on rattan ball, followed by several street-side eateries. Beyond the park, the architecture visible from the street is largely characterless, and in fact the canal itself lends nothing in terms of atmosphere. A few locals sit along the pavement holding fishing rods or simply chatting while facing the still water. At least strands of bright white lights have been hung between the small trees that line the channel.

At some point I decide to pursue the lights that beckon on the street running to the north, what I later take to be Thanon Prapokkloa, passing small backpacker hostels and businesses catering to the corresponding clientele, inexpensive local eateries, the facades of the usual dramatic temples glowing in the faint light of the street lamps, the rest of the street bathed in darkness, until at some distance from Thanon Rachadamnoen, the torrent of market stalls reappears with the incredible wave of humanity, the locals content to trundle through, the taller and fairer Europeans with a sense of searching, trying to determine what it is exactly they are supposed to be doing here.

I just don’t want to be stuck in this morass though, and patiently wend my way forward, trying not to knock anyone over or step on any feet – but I have long since lost any interest in this market, the merchandise for sale, or the vast herd of people inexplicable driven to be here. The market finally thins out in the vicinity of Thanon Rajvithi, which I follow eastward with the intention of continuing along until the river. A tamer version of Khao San road emerges before me, replete with artsy backpacker hostels, farang-oriented restaurants and bars, next to no massage parlours or lady boys thankfully in evidence, ironically a welcome change from the grimy commercial tourism and ambivalence the city evokes otherwise.

I am now not sure if I am walking in the right direction, seeing nothing but darkness ahead of me where I would be expecting a bridge to appear. Instead, I follow the alley to the south, where I see bright lights, which quickly morph into huge and utterly gaudy plazas anchored with the likes of McDonalds and Pizza Hut, housing level upon level of craft stores selling for the most part painfully redundant and uninteresting crafts, although from my brief foray into one, the silverwork looks beautifully made.

Not that I would be remotely motivated to spend the anticipated prices for this kind of merchandise, and even if I was, I would never buy crafts in an environment so crassly commercial where very little on offer features much uniqueness. And yet I feel sorry for the innumerable merchants throughout the city who are trying to make a living, and simply in virtue of being present in such vast numbers have little chance of anything other than bare survival, irrespective of the total numbers of tourists that may pass through this town.

I am subjected to some curious looks when I take my sandals off, my feet feeling the anguish of being squeezed into inappropriate footwear yet again for too long; the few moments of walking barefoot on the pavement are such a relief though!

Just to the south of the brightly-lit plazas I find Thanon Rachadamnoen again, recognizing some of the shops and boutiques I passed earlier on, tellingly the most alluring of any I saw in the entire centre, and then proceed across the bridge to the Lamphun road. Now walking south in the direction of the hotel, I turn my head occasionally to see if there may be any of the blue songthaews passing, but no such luck. The occasional red one passes, but precisely when I am not turning to look at the vehicles about to pass.

And soon it becomes irrelevant, as I am probably getting relatively close to the hotel. The walk back is almost a relief, although the sandals I have been relying on leave boils on my feet and cuts between some of my toes. Nevertheless, it has a bit of a feeling of a country walk, many of the leafy compounds lining the road shuttered, with small enclaves of the usual Thai street food, but at least not in the claustrophobic setting of the city centre. Strange as it seems, I am thinking of eating again …