Chiang Mai – Way Down Upon the Ping River
February 1, 2014
Vieng Ping – Original name of Chiang Mai “City on the Ping River”
Well, it finally happened. After all the chaos down in the capital Bangkok some people have begun talking about moving the capital of the country to Chiang Mai, or, if things get too crazy down there, maybe even going their own separate ways. From The Nation.
I am hoping this is all hyperbole, but historically a separate Chiang Mai it wouldn’t be anything new. It wasn’t that long ago that Lanna Thai (the northern regions of present day Thailand, literally “Land of a million rice fields”) was a separate vassal state of Bangkok, in reality, a Siamese colony. And before that it was its own kingdom. The people of Lanna speak their own dialect of Thai (many dialects in fact), closer to Lao than what is spoken in Central Thailand. When I first arrived here in Chiang Mai, about 4 ½ decades ago, it took me months to find out why I was having so much trouble understanding what the people here were saying. Turns out that I was trying to speak Central Thai when everyone else here was speaking “Kham Muang”, or the Lanna Thai dialect.
I was just talking to an elderly Chiang Mai native and he told me that when he was a boy no one here said “Sawadee” when they met, the typical Thai greeting. That is a Central Thai convention, introduced only much later here. Instead they would greet each other with “Sabai dee, ga?”, similar to the Lao greeting being a question about one’s health.
Lanna has its own art, music and dance and the people here work hard to preserve their cultural heritage. The traditional dress of the Lanna women has its own distinctive design and the northern Thai farmers wear the traditional blue “seua mo hom” shirt and pants, quite different from what is worn down south. By the way, these are very popular “indigenous” items sold in many of the tourist shops.
Because of the distance and the feeling of distinction from what goes on to the south, the bedlam of the current anti-government protests seems to just whiz on over the people’s heads here. If we didn’t turn on the TV news we would have no idea what was going on down there. The “man on the street” here doesn’t seem to care much. And lately the huge influx of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and other tourists here shows that even outsiders know where to go for a peaceful Thai holiday. They also make for long waits at the first tee on my home golf course.
Many people thinking of retiring to Thailand are considering Chiang Mai, not only for the above mentioned peacefulness in comparison to Bangkok, but because of the weather, the friendliness of the people, the culture, the large Expat community, and the laid-back atmosphere.
I have been writing this blog now for a couple of years and except for a few mentions that I live here in Chiang Mai I seemed to have overlooked writing any specifics about life here in my adopted city. I thought it was time to change that.
This is for those who may have Chiang Mai on their short list of retirement destinations.
Chiang Mai is still “up-country” Thailand. I can remember when the road from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was still partly unpaved. When I first came the only way to reliably get here was on the overnight train. But things are beginning to change. Until just a few years ago the Canal Road, now a major four-lane thoroughfare, was still a dirt road. And the many new ring-roads and highway underpasses around the city make getting from “a” to “b” quick and easy. Chiang Mai is only an 8 hour bus ride, or a 1 hour 10 minute plane ride to the capital. The train still takes overnight though, that is when it doesn’t get derailed somewhere along the old run-down rail lines. Seems only tourists take the train now.
Today Chiang Mai has an international airport with flights to all parts of Thailand, and to other countries including China, Malaysia, Burma, Korea, and Hong Kong, and the number of countries continues to grow.
Chiang Mai has 4 world-class shopping malls. Two just opened in the last year. Some people feel this is a bit overkill, but on those long hot-season afternoons and evenings, these are just the places to be. I once sat cooling off on a bench looking at the people coming into the mall. Except for the fact they were usually smiling, a fairly high percentage of the women walking through those doors could have just as easily been super models gracing the catwalks of the haut couture world. At one time it was believed that Chiang Mai had the most beautiful women in all of Asia. And for those of other persuasions, the guys are pretty good looking too.
All the malls have clean and modern food courts and first-run movie houses, spacious, plush, and cool, which make the theaters back home seem tiny and quaint.
There are many of the large-chain supermarkets here, Big C. Tesco Lotus, and Macro. And lots and lots of 7-Elevens. There is also a chain of supermarkets here, Rimping, that carry lots of items that are in high demand from the Expat community. My favorite, being a former New Yorker, are bagels, cream cheese, and smoked salmon.
But I rather enjoy going to the many traditional outdoor markets, of which Chiang Mai has plenty. If you like crowds then you’d love the Walking Street Markets here. There is a Saturday one but the one on Sundays attracts tens of thousands.
I don’t go out to eat at the foreign restaurants often but they tell me Chiang Mai has lots of good ones. There are any number of French, Italian, Middle Eastern, and Indian restaurants and even a couple of authentic English pubs. But I do like a good Mexican burrito once in a while though. Pizza, probably the most ubiquitous of the foreign restaurants, I usually avoid. We make a great pizza right at home as we have a good friend who always brings us some nice pepperoni when he returns from his travels.
Chiang Mai has a number of really good hospitals. I have written about health care in Thailand before and my opinion is, even with the Affordable Care Act back home, I still prefer the care I get here in Thailand than anything available back in the States.
Chiang Mai, although being a fairly small place, has a couple of dozen nice golf courses, some world class, and some with world class green fees. There is even a course right downtown, just between the old city moat and the airport. I play at the least expensive course around – about $10 a round, including caddies. The winters are a little crowded though, with loads of Asian tourists; and for good reason. Many Japanese and Koreans come here to play because for the cost of a few rounds of golf back home you could fly here, escape the winter weather, have a great vacation, play golf every day, and still have enough money left over to get into lots of trouble in the many karaoke bars.
When one first gets here they probably go do all the touristy stuff, like ride elephants, and fly along jungle zip lines, and river rafting, and the Chiang Mai Zoo, and temple visiting. Now that I’ve lived here for a while the only times I visit these places is when we have house guests from abroad and we want to show them around. But that gives me a chance at least once a year to get the opportunity to visit the elephants whom I really love.
But I don’t want this to be one of those “Come retire to Paradise” pieces. It isn’t easy living in a foreign country and on these blog pages I have discussed the many difficulties of living abroad. Chiang Mai has a number of drawbacks that one should consider before thinking of living here.
It is probably best to be somewhere else during the hot season.
Then there is the smog problem. It seems that every March or April the smog begins to roll in from the west, exacerbated by the burning of the forests (sometimes on purpose) and the ancient tradition of burning the rice fields. I discussed this in my post Smog – Chiang Mai’s Angel of Death. It’s not just Chiang Mai though. Mae Hongson and Chiang Rai can be much worse. One year our family was driven out of Chiang Mai by the smog, bad enough so that visibility was only a few hundred meters and the eyes stung and the throats were sore. We drove to Sukothai, no break in the smog, then on to Pitsanuloke, and over the mountains to Khon Khen. No improvement. It wasn’t until we made it almost to Korat before things cleared up.
Some years the smog is really bad and other years it is almost no problem. Last year the smog lasted for about 2 weeks. A few years ago there was no smog as the rains came really early. If the smog comes again this year our plans are to hop on the next direct flight south to Karbi and hang out on the beach until things clear up. I know, what a hardship. But I am sure that we are strong enough to endure it.
Traffic and Overcrowding
And now there is a traffic problem. I long for the days when Chiang Mai had almost no privately own vehicles and you got around on bicycles and scooters. Those times are gone. Luckily it is nothing as bad as Bangkok, few places are, and it’s only bad for a few hours each day. But there are times to avoid going down to the old city. Chiang Mai, being Thailand’s main tourist destination for Thai people, can have huge influxes or visitors – all with their own cars and an unfamiliarity of Chiang Mai’s 700+ year old twisting streets and alleys.
Times to avoid going into town:
New Years, about 10 days before and a few days after. This year as I drove down the road on New years Eve to a doctor’s appointment it seemed that every other license plate I read was from Bangkok. A drive that normally takes 15 minutes took almost an hour.
University Graduations, especially Chiang Mai University. The celebrations last almost an entire week and traffic near the university and other parts of the city can back you up for hours with vehicles from all over the country packed with the proud families of the graduates.
Chinese New Year’s. The traffic isn’t too bad because most of the shops downtown are closed. But I would avoid the shopping malls.
Songkran, supposedly 3 days of celebrating the Thai New Year but it seems like people come up here from all parts of Thailand for a drunken, wet, week-long revelry. I stock up on provisions, lock my front gate, and hunker down until everyone has gone home.
Loy Kratong, once a beautiful peaceful celebration of lights. I would go down to the Ping River and float a little kratong carrying my sins for the year away. Now it is so crowded that it is almost impossible to get anywhere near the river. I stay at home and float my sins in the little pond behind my house.
And last but not least – whenever there is political turmoil down in the capital. People now tend to run away from that craziness and end up here. That may be one reason so many of the new houses and condos in Chiang Mai are being bought up by Bangkokians.
So my final take on living here in Chiang Mai: I till love this place. If you live a really good life, do lots of good things, building good karma, you may be lucky enough to be reborn here. In my last life I must have been a really good guy. But be careful. If you live the opposite lifestyle, building lots of bad karma, you just might be reborn in Bangkok.