A second week in Chiangmai and environs


There is a deep pall over Chiangmai the last few days, a smoke so pervasive you can't see the mountain that towers over the city. If you go up the mountain, you'll reach a "view spot," the sign for which should read, "Another place you can't see anything."

Maybe photographers have taken photographs of Chiangmai in the past—it's a fascinating city, once the seat of the Lanna Kingdom, one of the three kingdoms that joined to make Siam. But shutter-demons beware: much of what's beautiful in Chiangmai is covered in a shroud of particulate matter so dense that I'm suffering from what I call "Chiangmai cough."

I'm not alone in that. Many expats have been leaving in the last couple of weeks for less polluted venues, taking their foreign exchange with thsem.

(Those two paragraphs were written a couple of days ago—the air has cleared slightly since.)

The banner events of the last few days have been:

  • A party thrown at "The Orchard," a restaurant/bar/event setting owned by expat Nicky (formerly, and perhaps still "Guitarman," which was also the name of a bar he owned, one of Chiangmai's more popular expat venues, now gone). The occasion was the birthday of Nicky's wife Nok, a native Thai.

  • A trip to Pai, a charming town in the mountains 160km northwest of Chiangmai.

  • Dinner and drinks with Tom Fawthrop, a special correspondent, Southeast Asia, for the Economist and filmmaker of some important, if not so far very well-known, recent documentaries. Then a trip to one of his watering holes, a local wine bar the name of which I forget.

  • Helped MF with some renovation projects for his condo.

  • Listened to some good music.

On Sunday, February 12th, MF and I drove out to Mae Rim, a few kms north of Chiangmai proper, to "the Orchard." The Orchard was throwing a party in celebration of the birthday of Nok, a terrific, age-inspecific, full-of-personality woman with lots of blond mixed in with her black hair.

The Orchard is a restaurant/pub/music venue in a rural area north of Chiangmai. Nok and Spouse Nicky, a UK expat, known variously as "Nicky" and "Guitarman," the name of the pub he used to run in Chiangmai ("Guitarman," not "Nicky"), run the place.

Most of the guests were from the expat community and relatives/friends of Nok, it would appear.

The Orchard seems largely an expat place, serving those who live in Thailand for the inexpensive lifestyle; cheap, terrific food; gorgeous women; and other opportunities. The food is great, and on Sundays it's a venue for entertainment as well.

Attending at Nok's birthday party were, not surprisingly, expats and Thais. So imagine my surprise when some dunderhead walks in wearing a black t-shirt that reads, in large white letters, "Find it Fuck it Forget it." Now this is clearly a reference to male expats' preference for Thai sexual partners, even if only temporary ones. So imagine showing up with his Thai partner wearing something that is clearly insulting (including, perhaps especially, the use of "it") to every Thai woman there, and all others as well. Nobody said anything (and, as a non-member of the community, I didn't feel it was my place to do so). I'd like to think if I were a member of that community I'd have sent him home to change.

Now it's well-known among the expat community that there are large numbers of Thais who resent the presence of large numbers of farangs, most with more spending power than most Thais can dream of, in their midst. Imagine how Mr. T-shirt is contributing to that resentment.

The entertainment consisted of a Thai guy with a guitar who didn't sing very well, and, later, "Downtown Johnny," a bunch of older white guys who can still really play and sing.

MF and I have been working on his apartment in Chiangmai, which besides being his domicile also serves as a pilates studio. It has large mirrors in the studio room, and I helped him install and anchor grooved frames to hold the mirrors securely to the walls. There were other things done with trim, involving lots of measuring, sawing, sanding, drilling, and other sweaty guy stuff. We agreed that it was entirely worthwhile, and his place looks much better as a result.

On Tuesday, I got on my motorcycle and drove to Pai, a town in the mountains northwest of Chiangmai well-known as a backpacker hangout. Many Canadians will know Pai as the town where Canadian Leo Del Pinto was shot dead by a drunken off-duty police officer in 2008. At the time, there had been many complaints of excessive police presence and arbitrary police actions, to the point where many in Pai—Thais and farangs alike—were afraid to walk the streets.

I went because there are apparently 762 curves in the road between Chiangmai and Pai, and it was definitely good motorcycle practice.

Today there are hardly any police in Pai, at least that I could see. It's a small town heavily influenced by Burmese (specifically Shan) culture; for instance, I had Khao soi for lunch. Described in the menu as a "local" dish, it's also called "Burmese noodles." Much of the town is a market, with the two main streets giving themselves over to stalls every night. (I took a photo of a shopkeeper who's channelling Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, and channelling him well!) It's not as frenetic as Khao San Road in Bangkok; hence, its reputation for being "laid back." There are quite a few bars and guesthouses.

Not very easy to get around, though. I called one of the guesthouses in Lonely Planet Thailand to see if they had room. They did, so I said I'd be there as soon as I found them. Well, I never found them, despite having their address and a map in Lonely Planet that showed where their road was. It seems the Town Council ran out of money before they got street signs installed. (Thai tourists will have the same problem; it's not that the street signs are only in Thai, there just are none.) So I found a place on one of the main roads, and got my own bungalow for the night for 360 baht (about $11).

It was a nice little place, a funky little bungalow on stilts, the front porch covered by an extended roof, and a hammock on that same front porch. A few minutes in the hammock convinced me I could stay there for several days with no complaints. And, wonder of wonders, the wifi was excellent, the best I've experienced so far in Thailand! I complimented the owner on his internet, and he said, "Lots bandwidth!" Well put.

I had dinner in a large, open-air restaurant I was attracted to because I could hear a guitar and a guy singing. Had sausage salad, which wasn't particularly memorable—should have been called bland sausage salad, thank goodness for the little jar of chilis that sits on every Thai restaurant table—but the guy with the guitar was great. He had a beautiful voice which carried him through many songs even as he struggled with the English. Yes, his songs were from the book, "Songs for Farangs," about which I've speculated in previous postings. Then went to a pub with another guy with a guitar, a farang this time, then to bed.

Breakfast was at a Muslim Thai restaurant, tables on the street with a very large TV on with silly Thai programs blaring. Boiled chicken on oily rice with a wonderful chili salsa. And two mugs of the sweetest tea ever, and, even though super-sweet things usually make my mouth pucker in disgust, I found it delicious. Talked to a Russian guy who'd been in Pai for two months, renting a bungalow and motorcycling all about. At first I thought he must be easily entertained, but I've since found out you can visit several non-Thai ethnic groups from Pai.

Then back to Chiangmai, re-tracing the 762 curves I'd navigated the day before. Ordinarily I would have stopped many times to take photos, because the scenery really is gorgeous—except the pall that envelops Chiangmai also envelops everywhere else, the farang need for tourist photos notwithstanding. Will have to look in the travel books for good photos of this place.

Managed to get back to the North Gate Jazz Coop a couple times this week, and MF and I visited a rock bar just off the moat around Tha Phae Gate (the eastern gate to the old city). Wish the music would start sooner—I'm usually pooped by the time it does!

On Saturday I visited the big market on Rattanakosin Road, just over the Mae Ping River. Met Tom Fawthrop there for a coffee at a particularly good stall. I was looking for the guy who sells hammocks made of recycled materials (having tested one in Pai a few days before), but he wasn't there. Though I gave it a good shot, my mood that day was one of not being able to imagine needing to acquire even more stuff than I already have, so not very much appealed to me.


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