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.

Travel

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.

Shopping

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.

Restaurants

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.

Hospitals

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.

Golf

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.

Tourists Areas

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.

Weather

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.

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15 Responses to “Chiang Mai – Way Down Upon the Ping River”

  1. Ron ZIMARDI said

    Yes, love reading your stories but you need to clear up a few misconceptions so that we can share your articles with people and businesses we want to come here. Your stories like others can be found on Google so they have to be more perfect, maybe even let me read,them before,you,post as any writer would do.

    My comments to the Post forum say that they would be better off not seceding but having their own elected Governor like USA with some power.

    You can take flights and connect and end up anywhere.

    Three malls just opened.

    The new Tops market at Central is better than Rimping and more friendly and if you go after 8:30 pm weekdays all best bread baked is half off and some food items cooked.

    There is not one good bagel in Chiang Mai, I’m from New York.
    The best,pizza,is Duke’s and the New York pizza near south airport area next to Homepro light.

    No problem that seriously with hot season, we have AC and between that and smog season no one should live here then.
    Hot is all Asia and New York too. I hate heat but cope with it, you don’t mention all the clubs and swimming.pools and waterfalls.

    The smog can start,in Feb, last Year I ended up at Sriphat then for IV’s, they have a great world renowned pulmonologist from UCLA, Dr. Atikun.

    This is the real problem and I should leave for Hua Hin and might but others make do, go to malls, stay inside and read, wear a mask, it’s in China too, don’t single out CM. But that,is CM’s only feature that makes it difficult or it would be paradise. I am trying to set up a stop burning expat organization called the USA Fire Patrol, but was sick for two weeks but have many ideas to spread, I was a USA forest fire fighter.

    Songkran is the greatest time in the world, don’t disparage it, just stay away from Thapae Gate and find some nice shop to throw water away. I’m 71 and love Songkran.

    You also don’t know Loi Kratong, I can tell you one hundred places to float a quiet Kratong.

    I have been here two years, retired from IBM communications in New York, I am no quack, Thai wife, big property, spa business. Consider what I say and edit your article today.

  2. Ron,

    Thanks for all your suggestions. I am sure our readers will benefit from your experiences. I write these posts usually at about 3 am in my birthday suit. You are free to come and look over my shoulder and edit.

    For being here for 2 years I can see why you like Songkran. Maybe the first 5 years were fun for me. You should have been here 45 years ago when it was only Chiang Mai people playing with water. It was a time when boyfriend/girlfriend matches were made, usually when they met at temples where they came to scatter sand to rebuild the land. And they would take a beautiful silver bowl filled with water and reverently pour it over the shoulders of their elders as a blessing. We still have some youngsters, children and grandchildren of our friends, come over to our house each year, pour the water over our hands and shoulders, and wai us on their knees as we return the blessing. That’s the part of Songkran I like – but I still don’t leave the house for at least 5 days.

    I have seen enough Songkrans to be completely satiated with water fights. I won’t disparage it but I’ll leave it to the newbies and tourists have their fun.

    I am not a bagel snob. Rimping Supermarket carries homemade bagels – not as good as Katz’s Delicatessen down on Delancy street on the Lower East Side of New York, around the corner from my high school, but toasted and with a “shmear” of cream cheese they aren’t bad.

    I was married on Loy Kratong Day (44 years ago), and I think that I know every place in CM where a Kratong can be floated. The pond next to my house is the nicest but I do miss going down to the Ping River to float my sins away – they go much further than in the pond behind the house.

    Dukes’s is a good restaurant. Their pizza crust is a bit thin though. I grew up on Canal St and Mott, right next to Little Italy (a block from where they filmed “Mean Streets” and the assassination scene from the Godfather). There they have pizza. I also found some very good pizza at the train station in Rome. Everything else I don’t consider “pizza”.

    Sorry, forgot about Tops Supermarket. They are quite good and have good cuts of meat. 3 am and sometimes we forget things. Maybe an editor would have helped.

    Good luck with trying to stop the fires. I remember the mountains on fire back in the 60s. But I don’t remember any smog problems. Traditions that are thousands of years old are somewhat difficult to change.

    So Ron, here is my suggestion: Why don’t you blog yourself? This is my 76th blog post and I am read by over 2,000 people per month with my sole purpose of sharing a bit of what I know with those thinking of retiring to Thailand. Sounds like you have some good info to share. Want to get started? Go to wordpress.com. Sorry, but I am not available for editing work.

    Thanks and Cheers

  3. Would you allow me to post your lastest post on my blog , you did a great job with this one as you always do.

  4. jimmy said

    from another long term resident. I have lived and taught here for 3 decades and finally i moved to a small village called mae taeng that has all the amenties, and i am just a 3 minute walk to Tesco, 7/11, market and restaurants, and my place is like living in the countryside.
    you might want to add that there must be a million tai yai, burmese and hilltribe girls and guys that work all about. But most of my thai friends dont like the Burmese cause of past bad blood, and poor hilltribe people are usually considered second class citizens as many have no proper papers and thus can be paid less.
    I enjoy my trips to the mountains to visit friends and get away from it all. So many places to ride bicycle and motorcycle around the area.
    years ago the shopping for foreign foods was poor, now at makro and Tops you can find almost anything………from good cheeses to fresh taco shells. So yes living in chiang mai is not much of a struggle.
    yea it helps to speak the language………and know sao baht. 20 baht in local dialect. and dont worry about mixing up r and l. mai pen lai…………..
    i hadd not been to loy graton in town for years, but last year, with the sudden thunderstorm it was easy to get to the river and loy.
    i could go on an on………just some random thoughts. i enjoy the column. jimmy

  5. Jimmy,

    You are a lucky man. Mae Taeng is quite beautiful and if it weren’t so far from CM (about 45 k) I would consider living there. But now that you can get all the amenities you need I am sure it is wonderful out there. The valley between the main road and the Mae Nga Dam is one of the most beautiful places in the area. I have motorcycled all over that area and love it. And there are a number of elephant camps nearby which I love.

  6. steven said

    Hugh
    one question about owning a house in thaiand…if my wife who is thai and i who comes from the US. build or buy a house there …then the house is in the thai wifes name only..correct…
    I cannot own the house or land since i,m not thai….Now the big question…If the wife were to passaway and now your living in the house yourself….WHO owns that house now?????
    Is it someone in the wifes family a brother..sister..her mother..father…Who…because i sure can not own it…and if someone in her family now owns the house can they sell it from under you or even tell you to hit the road…this does not sound like such a great deal after all…the laws there really need to be changed…If thais can come to the US and buy land and houses then farongs should be able to buy them also in thailand
    can you give me some feedback on this question…

    Thanks…..Steven

    • Steven,

      Some good questions. You should check with a lawyer to get legal advice and because the laws seem to change frequently. But here are some of my thoughts.

      1. Check out the book How to Buy Land and Build a House in Thailand (http://retire2thailand.com/retire2-book-reviews.php).
      2. You cannot normally own land here but you can own the house that is on the land.
      3. You can get the sole use of the land for 30 or so years. This is called a usafruct.
      4. Your wife should make out a will indicating her wishes.
      5. There is a very definite hierarchy of who inherits. Look it up on Google.
      6. If you have a child then he/she will be first to inherit. Make sure the the child gets a Thai ID card. If the mother is Thai then they have the right to Thai Citizenship.
      7. If the Thai wife passes away her foreign husband can inherit the land (the will should say this). But he must sell the land within one year. Not sure what happens after that.
      8. If someone owns the land then they can do whatever they want with it – but if you have been given the use of the land through a usafruct then the land, whoever owns it, is yours to use.
      8. Why would you think that Thailand would follow U.S. laws? They have their own way of thinking about land ownership. And remember, Thailand is over 1,000 years old and the U.S. is only a few hundred so they have been at this for a long time.

      Hope this helps.

  7. Ron ZIMARDI said

    If you want good bagels, steamed/boiled, not baked there is a new place in Bangkok popular and maybe some enterprising person will bring it here. I can tell you where to float a Kratong but not for everyone, email me if you want to know.
    Maybe will write blogs or blahs later but have no time now. Chiang Mai will become one of the most powerful spiritual places on the planet soon, it’s not a retirement ‘spot’. Stay tuned, I enjoy your how-to’s.

  8. jimmy said

    I own a house but rent the land on a 30 year lease from a friend. other than forming a company with a thai person is there any way a foreigner can legally own land is hs name? i heard that one can mske a housing compond like a gated community and sell lots outright to foreigners. i know this takes a thai partner too. any ideas or comments welcome

    • You can own up to 49% of a Thai company and the company can own the land (be careful of voting rights in the company). You can also invest 40 Million baht in Thailand and I believe that you can buy up to 1 rai of land. The gated community scheme is simply another type of corporation, again with you owning not more than 49%.

      I have seen where some people who own 49% of a company wrote the bylaws so that they were the only people who could vote and therefore have complete control of the company. You may want to get the book Thai Law for Foreigners from Paiboon Publishing.

      The lease is a pretty good deal and if it is renewable even better. The fact that it is owned by a friend could either be a blessing or a curse – I have seen both.

      Lots of luck

      • jimmy said

        thanks for information. yah i eould never put in gf name. so a good trusted friend is best, but never do busines with friends. 55 so just try to be professional i like the idea of by laws. thanks again. jimmy. yea knew the invrstment rule but who has that much lying around. 55

  9. Phil said

    Hugh,
    I enjoy reading you blogs and appreciate your knowledge on the lay of the land and your out look in general. I visited Chiang Mai this past Oct- Nov and am working toward giving retirment there a shot in a year or so. I know there are many golf courses in the area but I never bothered to rent a bike or car while I was there so I only played golf at Stardome and Lanna. I was wondering where you play regularly for about $10.
    I know some courses have memberships that cut the costs per round but they are more than double that amount even with membership. Would you mind sharing where you play?

    I also understand how you feel about some of the Thai’s celebrations, I feel the same way about Christmas here in the US. I still enjoy it but in my own quiet relaxed way. I guess I do not like being in large crowds as much as I used to.

    Best wishes to you and your family,
    Phil

    • Phil,

      I usually play at the Hong Dong Gold course – 350 baht for 9 holes (I only play nine, especially in the hot season or I am useless for the next 3 days) includes caddie. Gymkhana Golf Club has fairly inexpensive membership and small monthly fee and you and wife can play for free and don’t need to use a caddie; 400 baht otherwise. Star Dome use to be a good bargain but has become popular and the prices has doubled in the last few years. All the prices have gone up, namely because there are so many Japanese and Koreans on golf tours. I have seen 9 tour buses of Koreans lined up at the Lanna course. The Japanese use the red taxis to go to Hang Dong. Best to get there at around 6:30 am. After that there will be long waits in the high season; speaking of which, there doesn’t seem to be a low season anymore up here in Chiang Mai. The Chinese are here. Luckily for us they don’t play golf – YET.

      Luck on your retirement plans.

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