----------------------------------------------- Google Site Map ----------------------------------------------- Cindy in ...: January 2007

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Chiang Mai: Things Fall Apart

My things keep falling apart. Today it was my mouse. And a hole in one of my bathing suits. I noticed a tiny rip in a skirt the other day. My 'new' purse needs some mending - well that's what I get when I buy something made of the nice, soft fabric that was once part of some tribal outfit that has long since worn out. And I got that purse because my travel purse died.

Maybe all my things are somehow reflecting the places I take them, places where routine maintenance is not the norm, where for some reason manhole covers are always missing, and the broken sidewalks are never mended. My clothes do, indeed, look quite at home in such environments.

They don't look at home next to the local people, though. Sometimes it seems the poorer and dirtier a country is, the more important it is to the people there to be clean and presentable. See schoolchildren emerge from mud huts, absolutely immaculate in pure white shirts and navy blue skirts and shorts, hair neatly parted and combed, is amazing. The effort and care that must go into such an achievement!

And there I am. I doubt even these mothers could have turned me out all sparkling and neat every morning. If I dress as neatly as possible in a skirt and a firmly tucked in blouse, hair freshly brushed, and then stand perfectly still, this is what happens. My blouse slowly creeps out from my waistband, a little here, a little more there, a lot in the back. Strands of my hair start wandering on my own. My three cowlicks assert themselves by elevating small clumps of hair. If I am wearing fingernail polish, a small chip will appear.

My mother used to feel so sorry for me when I was going out, because I'd try so hard and look so sloppy. Unfortunately I spent my vainest years, the teens, in the teased and glued in place backcombed dome era, the Jackie Kennedy never-a-hair-out-of-place era.

Thus my very short haircut. No fuss,no bother, and as neat as I am ever going to get. And still, sometimes, it manages to stand straight up. I've got an inch of hair, and I still have bed hair in the morning.

So I fit in with the physical environment, but not the people environment.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Chiang Mai: More from Royal Flora

There were lots of interesting things at the flower festival. Sculptures, serpent topiary, me.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Myanmar: A Mini-Tour

My visa was expiring on January 23rd, and I did a one day visa run. Five hours on the bus up to the border, and another five hours to get back to Chiang Mai. This time, once I got into Myanmar I hired a tuktuk and took a mini tour to a couple of temples.

They were quite different from the temples I see here in Chiang Mai. Concrete and rather crude, painted rather than glittery.

After my tour I walked around for a while, finding some things in shops that surprised me. A satellite dish? In such a repressive country? I started to wonder if it had been placed in the shop to make an impression, since I didn't see any actually installed anywhere.

The next time I might go to a different border crossing. I'm told Mae Sot is quite different, and that the Burmese town across the border would give me a look at the abject poverty and repression that is more the norm. What I see when I go to Mae Sai is sort of like the artificial restricted area set up in Belize so the cruise ship passengers won't actually see the ugly dirty dangerous pit of a city that is Belize City.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Chiang Mai: Royal Flora

After telling myself, "I'll go tomorrow," for nearly three months, I finally went to the big international flower show here in Chiang Mai. That's where I took the pictures in the previous post. As you can tell, I liked the orchid exhibition.

I took a bus out to the show, and I was sitting next to a young Asian woman with excellent English and only a slight accent. Before I could get a chance to ask her where she was from, the conductor asked. "Vietnam. Hanoi." She went to an international school there, then attended an Australian university. She's working on her master's degree now in Melbourne.

International schools are not what I always thought they were, schools for ex-pat children. Well, they are, but not always. More commonly they are English-medium schools for local students. The existence of an English-medium school in Hanoi is to me an indication of how much Vietnam has changed since I visited in 1991. Then, I learned about 100 Vietanmese words so that I could travel, get a room, and eat.

While I was at the show, I took two rides on the trams that run around the grounds. Once seated in the tram, it was difficult to read signs and tell where I was. This was especially annoying as there were no English announcements on the trams, not even the stop number and name. Now, the conductor on a city bus spoke enough English to ask where someone was from. Surely they could have hired tram drivers that could announce stop numbers.

I've read that the organizers were disappointed that they didn't get more international visitors. A lot of exhibits had signs and handouts in Thai only, they had brand new restrooms that only had squat toilets, and they couldn't be bothered to say some simple numbers on the trams. It very much seemed like a show designed only for Thais. That's fine, as long as you don't expect a lot of international traffic. I've seen some bad reviews on various web sites. Could this be why?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Chiang Mai: Time Flies

Time flies when you are doing nothing! It seems I just posted, but when I look, it has been a week since I last updated this blog. I apologize to anyone whose day is ruined if they don't see a new post. No, that's as good as not apologizing, since no one falls into that category. I apologize to anyone who occasionally drops in here.
Where did the time go? I had a couple of days at the pool. I ate something that didn't agree with me, and spent most of a day in bed. I finally went to the Royal Flora exhibit and wore myself out walking around and looking at flowers and gardens. I made another visa run, and spent another couple of hours in Myanamar. I traded in books and read books and took pictures. I was on the internet, but somehow never posted.
And I talked. To a Canadian artist who has breakfast at my favorite place. To an American who finished a TEFL course and just can't bring himself to look for a job. To a Swedish English teacher who burned out and now makes draperies for a living.

So the time went by. Time flies.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Chiang Mia: Thai English

I'm sitting in a coffee shop that has a National Geographic among its stack of magazines. I have to look at it as a picture book, since it is in Thai, and I can't even read the letters. The titles of the magazines are always in English, as are the names of the different sections. So I can read 'House & Garden' and see that there is a section on 'New Shapes for Lampshades' or some such thing, and I can look at the pictures, but I can't read anything.

Even Thai magazines follow that pattern. Tropical Home has catch phrases and titles in English, except they are a little off. From the issue in front of me:

- Chiang Mai, a simply city

- Give the new life to the old house

- Exhibition in the house for the art lover

Thai has no tenses, no articles, and no comparatives or superlatives. Where we would say, "I went to the mall", a Thai would say something like, "I go mall before". Adding all that superfluous stuff that makes Western languages flow is quite a challenge. Add to that the problems everyone has with English, such as wild variations in pronunciation and spelling, the huge number of words (twice that of any other language), and the subtle differences between similar words, it's really rather amazing that anyone learns English at all. Maybe that's part of the reason that so many schools here are starting English in kindergarten.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Chiang Mai: Three Months

I've been in Chiang Mai since October 28th. That's three months into a new endeavor, staying in one place instead of moving around, and three months is always the pits. Our reaction and adjustment to new things runs on a fairly predictable schedule, so reliable that new teachers in Japan's Jet program are given a week by week outline of how they will feel. And no matter how confidant they are that they are well-prepared and they won't follow the pattern, everyone I talked to told me the same thing. They do. I guess adjusting is adjusting, and you can ease the process only so much.

And I'm following the same pattern. The traffic that was mildly annoying now seems nearly intolerable. I'm getting a bit impatient with slow service. My craving for western food has increased as my tolerance for its inevitable straying from the 'real thing' wanes.

At least I know that this is just the pattern, the period when I am most aware of problems, yet not quite able to cope enough to feel I belong.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Chiang Mai: Traffic

Chiang Mai is a hard place to get around on the weekends. The walking streets are blocked off, requiring long detours and creating massive traffic jams. One weekend a member of the royal family was here, so even more streets were closed. Cars are pretty much immobilized in the evenings. Motorbikes and scooters weave through the traffic.

If you are a stranger, there are other problems. One-way streets don't have signs. During Bike Week I waved a Thai biker away from the left turn he was waiting to make. He looked surprised, until a car came out of the street right at him. That was the only way he could tell that he was entering a one-way street the wrong way.

Then there are the peculiar red light rules, which didn't apply up in Chiang Mai. Motorcycles don't stop for pedestrian-only lights, and cars don't stop for them unless they see that someone is about to cross. The lights at intersections are treated as optional, or at best like stop signs. Many intersections have no traffic control signs at all, no stop signs, no yield signs, no one-way signs, no street signs. Yet there are some where everybody stops anyway. I think a notorious accident must have occurred there, and the drivers are spooked.

The other day, I swear a car accelerated as I was crossing at a light, trying to run me down, it seemed. It was a big car, with dark-tinted windows. Money. So why should the driver care. Bribery will take care of any problems that might occur.

On holiday weekends and during special events the traffic is worse, but the drivers seem more cautious. Maybe it's because the traffic police are very much in evidence. Or maybe it's because they can't move anyway. Anyway, I'm happy to be on foot. I just don't cross any busy streets.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Chiang Mai: An Expensive Day

I was working off-line on my laptop, and since I was only going spend a few minutes on the computer, I didn't plug it in. Of course I got all wrapped up in something, and suddenly, boom, my machine shut down. I assumed the worst. The work was lost. So I decided to ignore the problem and do some errands.

I traded my book, and then, full of self-pity, bought another. Then I noticed a skirt on sale at a small shop. It looked big enough. I tried it on. It fit. Following worldwide shopping laws, I bought it. Then I picked up some medication that I needed. While I was exerting all this effort I worked up an appetite, a big one, a couple of times. So I further indulged myself in expensive meals.

Now, before you think I have totally lost my mind, let me go over these extravagances. Not counting the medication, of course.

First, the books. On the face of it, used paperbacks cost as much here as new paperbacks at home. That is a result of the shops setting prices at about half of their original cost. Most of the books here are published in the UK, where a regular paperback costs about twice what it would in the US. Half of the UK price turns out to be the same as the US price for a new book. However, if I trade the book on a new book at the same store, I will get half of what I paid back as a credit on the new book.

Today I traded in a book and got 100 baht in credit. I then bought one that cost 200 baht, for a cash outlay of 100 baht. When I return that book, I'll get another 100 baht credit. It is certainly a system that builds customer loyalty. The second book also cost 200 baht, but at a different store. When I trade it in, I will again get a 100 baht credit. I guess the profit comes from the tourists who move on quickly, never collecting their half, and from that first puchase.

My total book cash outlay today was 300 baht, and I will get 200 baht credit, so I really only spent 100 baht, or about $2.88.

Second, the skirt purchase. I liked it, it fit, and it was on sale, so I was compelled to buy it. I paid 150 baht, or $4.89, for it.

And finally, food extravaganzas. My huge lunch was 180 baht, and my glass of wine and gnocchi at dinner cost 210 baht. So the two extravagant meals cost 390 baht, or about $11.14.

On top of all of this, my travel pocketbook died a dreadful death last week, and I bought a new bag. Of course this wasn't exactly an extravagance, but it still feels as if I have been spending a lot.

No wonder I feel guilty! And it turns out that I didn't lose anything I had been working on, so I had no real reason for such over-the-top outlays.

Obviously, I have mentally adjusted to the Thai cost-of-living.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Chiang Mai: Doggy T's

Now that winter is over, maybe the dogs can escape from their T-shirts. To protect them from the cold, many dogs are dressed in human T-shirts. It seems a little odd, but being animals with hair, they don't need much protection, it isn't that cold, and T-shirts are cheap. Sensible, really, and the dogs don't seem to mind.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Chiang Mai: Winter is Over

Chiang Mai's three weeks of winter is over. I no longer need a sweater at night. In fact, unless there is a breeze, I don't even need long sleeves. The change in the temperature is apparent nearly every day. I wake up and realize I never used my second blanket. I sit in the sun at lunch and decide it is too hot. The water in the pool is not as cold, because the night before wasn't cold.

Thais are happy to be coming out from behind their quilted jackets, hats, and gloves. A long-sleeved shirt or a shawl now suffice during the day and even into the evening. There will be no more incongruous scenes, where I say 'Sawadee' to a Thai shivering in his quilted, imitation-fur-collared jacket while I'm on the way to the pool dressed in my bathing suit and a sarong. Soon I will be dripping in sweat, sitting in the shade, while a Thai doing physical labor won't even 'glisten'.

To put all this in perspective, the coldest temperature ever recorded here was around 4C, or about 40F.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Chiang Mai: The Simple Life

Nothing is simple any more. Jellybean says that all the time. Everything has become complicated. While cell phones and cheap long distance is nice, they are a lot more hassle than when you took the simple black phone that AT&T rented to you and were grateful to get it.

You can't just buy anything anymore. Now you must research the product and company on-line, to make sure you are getting the best product for your needs at a good price. This used to involve twently minutes in the library reading Consumer Reports, and then only for major purchases like dishwashers.

Now it's hours on-line to check out everything. The cheapest blank DVDs for backing up your photos. Find the best deal on pots and pans, or paper towels. Check out twenty destinations and ten hotels in each one before that long weekend away.

Backpacking used to be different. Of course the backpacker wanted the best deal. But by definition, there were only so many deals a backpacker could make in any given time period. These deals were: accommodation, food, drink, transportation, tours, and book exchanges. There literally was nothing else.

Now we have become flashpackers, not backpackers. In addition to the above, we now have to choose the best communications deal instead of being grateful to have any communication options at all. E-mail or phone? Which internet shop? Or do we need wi-fi for our laptop? Paid or free? Do we want to get a sim card for our cell phone? If so, which one? If we don't have a phone, are we going to use Skype? Or do it the old-fashioned way from a storefront telephone center?

For backpacker rooms, the choices were: private or shared dormitory style, with or without fan, with or without bathroom, which would have either a hot or cold shower. Soap and towels were never provided. Now there's A/C or no, TV or no, with or without cable, free internet or no, pool or no. I guess all these things were there before, but not in the backpacker budget. Getting them meant spending relatively serious money. Now they are options in many hostels, at least on a shared basis, and the cost differential is considerably less. Not only do backpackers have more money than they used to, but the cost of comfort isn't that much more than the cost of deprivation.

A few things have become simpler. Exchanging books is one. Usually the used book places have set rules on what credit you will get for a book, and the prices for the used books are fixed. Another is taxis. More and more places have metered taxis or fixed rates for standard routes. A taxi from the airport in Chiang Mai is 120 baht. Fixed. No negotiation, no discussion.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Chiang Rai: A Thai Town with Some Tourists

A belated post about Chiang Rai. I was there from the 25th to the 27th of December, but between posting about Myanmar, and a need to spend a couple of days by the pool to restore my tan, I never got around to writing about it.

I liked Chiang Rai. Unlike Chiang Mai, which is a tourist town where Thais live, Chiang Rai is a Thai town that gets some tourists. There are wats, but not so many, and guesthouses, but not so many. There are no restaurants that seem to cater mostly to westerners, at least that I saw.

People obey traffic laws there. They don't cruise through red lights as if they weren't there. They don't go the wrong way down one-way streets, or, as my taxi driver did on the way back to the Top North, drive down the wrong side of the street to save time, nevermind that there was a curve ahead and he had no clue what was coming around it. Motorcycle and motorbike and motorscooter riders know that they are riding vehicles and are not exempt from red lights. There are a few wats, not a few wats every block.

I visited the wat where the Emerald Buddha had been hidden inside a chedi, only to be found when lightning struck it. Unlike most of the wats I have visited in Chiang Mai, the couple I went to in Chiang Rai were in good repair. I think with hundreds of temples in Chiang Mai, there is a lot of competition for funds.

It was noticeably colder up in the hills, but everyone has assured me that this lasts for only a few weeks, and that this year has been exceptionally cold. The days are beautiful for walking around, although I get chilled if I sit in the shade. But then, I've adapted, I guess.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Chiang Mai: Happy 2007!

New Year's is not my favorite holiday. When I look back on the previous year, I start thinking of all the places I didn't go, and things I didn't do. I subconsciously make resolutions, even though I don't intend to. This year I'll go to Angkor Wat, lose weight, write more letters, whatever. And then my year turns out totally differently, of course. If there are enough new and interesting things in it, then I don't care whether I did those things my subconscious chose. But when the year was dull, then I mind.

New Year Celebrations, both of them, are big holidays here. The Thai New Year is in April, when they have the water festival. But the worldwide one is important, too. Once again Chiang Mai was flooded with Thai tourists. I hid out at the pool.

I did treat myself to some nice meals, ribs at the Sizzler, and penne with eggplant and olives at my favorite Italian place. I even had a glass of wine. But now it is back to curries and noodle soups.