In November 2015 my family moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to work with a small, nimble NGO, Partners Relief & Development, to help bring free, full lives to children affected by conflict and oppression, particularly people in and from Myanmar/Burma.
Soon after we got here, I wrote a bit about the state of life in Myanmar after the election, what Partners is up to at the moment, and how individuals can be involved in supporting the people of Myanmar.
Two months in, and here’s the first of a short series of snapshots of what life is like here for us, in a mostly personal-not-professional-NGO-staffer capacity. Thank you for your interest and encouragement!
[Update: The second post, Festivals and Feasts in the Tropics, is now up, too.]
We were eating a Thai vegetarian feast with a table of tourists at an elephant sanctuary. Our four-year-old looked at the man next to him and said with horror, ‘Mama! He’s putting his FORK in his MOUTH!’
Eating, as Thais do, with a fork and a spoon, and only putting the spoon in your mouth, is one of the things that have become part of the new normal for us – so much so that it’s already hard to remember what was weird to us to start with.
But while I can still dredge these things up, here are some more things we didn’t do routinely in New Zealand, but do almost automatically now:
- taking our shoes off at the door and leaving them outside, not only at homes but even when entering small shops
- greeting people with a wai (a small bow with hands together)
- adding ‘kha’ or ‘krup’ to the end of as many sentences as possible (in English or Thai) to sprinkle politeness through our interactions.
We are basically a whole lot more polite than we used to be.
Following on from this post on our plans for the next few years, I’m working now on a short series with news on how things are going so far, now that we have actually made the move to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to work with Partners Relief & Development.
Today, a mix of geography and culture. Please feel free to ask questions, contribute your own observations, or just say hi, in the comments below.
Introducing Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is laid out a bit like Palmerston North (a flat town with a square in the middle) but the size of Auckland or London.
I realise that’s a pretty unromantic way of introducing a city that’s an extremely popular tourist destination, but I live in the burbs, so I’ll leave Lonely Planet to rave about its wonders and stick to what it’s actually like to live here.
But of course we do enjoy the stuff that makes it so popular with visitors, too. The very centre, the ‘old city’, is a large square of narrow streets surrounded by a moat – yes, a moat! – and impressive, ancient fortifications. Nearby is the River Ping, opposite which we were lucky enough to live for the first two weeks.
Chiang Mai is a driving city, with a network of big arterial roads, four lanes or more. The only public transport is tuk-tuks (motorbike taxis) in the middle of town, or songthaews (half-covered utes/trucks where you sit in the back) further out.
The big roads are busy, but almost none of them are motorways, so you have to be alert for parked cars blocking the slow lane, and pedestrians and animals walking along the roads.
Between the major roads are labyrinths of lanes connecting ancient villages that the city has overtaken but not changed. Our mu baan is about twenty minutes’ drive from the moat, and a long way from the edge of the city (think Otahuhu, or maybe Brixton, for proportion), but it is surrounded by old houses, hidden rice paddies and narrow, swerving country roads.
The front entrance of the mu baan is on a six-lane road, but last week, only a few metres behind the shops lining it, I came upon a paddock of white cattle.
I snapped these pics with my phone today and yesterday, all within a couple of minutes’ drive from our house:
A cow, just hanging out in the middle of a million-person city, twenty minutes’ drive from the centre of town. Next to some rice paddies.
It’s a lovely mix.
It’s the furthest any of us islanders have ever lived from the sea, but at least there are hills. The city is surrounded by jagged mountain ranges, so we always know where we are if we look up.
We now have a two-year lease on a house in ‘Koolpunt Ville 9’, a large subdivision or ‘mu baan’ of something like 1000 houses. I’ve dropped a pin at our house here if you want to see it on a map. Some houses here are about 15 years old and others are still being built. There are building projects in several different parts of the mu baan and lots of open space that is probably earmarked for more houses. It feels like it may never stop expanding and in-filling.
There are lots of great things about our new place:
- It came with an outdoor cupboard of delights containing a paddling pool, a bike with training wheels and an adult bike, all of which have been put to use.
- It has three bedrooms and an extra room adjoining ours that we will use as a study, but can put James in when we have guests (so do please come and stay!)
- Three bedrooms also means we are able to have a flatmate, so the lovely AM has moved in with us. She’s from Indiana, and is also working at Partners. She’s SBJ’s favourite reader of bedtime stories already.
- It backs onto a golf course and is relatively peaceful except for the karaoke bar somewhere in the distance.
- It has more of a garden than most places, with plenty of room for the paddling pool and hopefully some other play equipment when we track some down. It’s also well-shaded, which is not something I ever thought I’d value so much!
- It has an indoor kitchen – most Thai houses don’t. Instead, they have outdoor kitchen areas so you can do the hot and spicy work in the fresh air, which of course makes a lot of sense, but is another big adjustment I’m grateful we don’t have to make just now.
- It’s walking distance to three other families we are friends with (hopefully more to come as we meet the neighbours!)
- It’s only a 10-minute drive to the Partners office.
- It came partly furnished so we could move in straight away and sort of camp while we navigate the enormous shopping centres and markets and slowly acquire things for the house. It’s amazing what we have got used to living without in the meantime. (Do you really need pillowcases or chests of drawers!?)
Chiang Mai is pretty different from New Zealand or the United Kingdom, it’s safe to say. There’s all that Thai being spoken, for one thing.
More about language learning another day (short version: it’s going well + Thai is both difficult and quick to get started on).
As expected, we have found people in Chiang Mai to be universally kind, patient (with our halting Thai and general ignorance) and welcoming. Cultural differences abound, but as with the other places we’ve been in the world, people are really just people, and ordinary friendliness bridges most barriers. A smile and a wai have paved the way for good conversations anywhere we’ve been. Having small children helps, too, of course, in building relationships and making connections in the street.
There are plenty of distinctive things about how people live here that we couldn’t have guessed at before coming here, so I thought I’d list a few to give you a sense of things.
The royal family is so revered that (for just one example) babies are sometimes scheduled to be born by elective caesarean section on the birthdays of the King and Queen. Every building has pictures of the King on display, often with a shrine in front. The street we lived on for a few weeks early on had a different portrait of the king on every lamp post, and an ornate archway over the road.
When the national anthem plays (before movies, and at 6pm every day in public places), everyone stands still, out of respect for the King.
One of my favourite things in Chiang Mai is the Sunday Walking Street market, where hundreds of vendors take over a road in the old city for the evening. Seeing a market-full of people pause when the music starts is quite something.
Elephants – or sculptures and pictures of them – are everywhere. There are elephants in fountains, statues, T-shirts, key-rings and carved bases of lamps. I don’t think you could find a spot in town where your view would be free of elephant imagery.
This is a fountain at our local supermarket:
And a fence of a house around the corner from a place we stayed early on:
The first Thai song we have learned is this nursery rhyme about elephants.
Sadly, they real things are often mistreated, here and around the world. There are lots of places around Chiang Mai where you can ride elephants – which I’ve recently discovered is inherently cruel given their spinal structure, which is different from that of, say, horses – and at many of those places, their keepers beat them and they are chained up.
Thanks to Lucy’s research, we went to visit an elephant sanctuary where you can interact with elephants within strict protocols, and learn about them, but not ride them or crowd them. We’ll take you there when you come to visit, okay? It’s on this very short list of sanctuaries around the world recommended by Elephant Aid International.
The sanctuary also takes volunteers for a week or more at a time, so look into that if you’re keen to really get to know some of these wondrous creatures.
Vet friends, you’ll be especially welcome! This is the volunteer accommodation (I took the pic to entice you all to come). Each house is named after one of the resident elephants.
Vets could also spend entire careers doing voluntary catch-desex-release work here on dogs, I reckon. Stray dogs are everywhere, and in packs, both in the city and around suburban neighbourhoods. That didn’t surprise me, but this did: heaps of them are poodles! Also huskies, pugs and fluffy little slipper dogs. I’m always a bit startled that they’re not more mongrelly looking.
Cats don’t seem nearly as common, except in our house, which came with several dozen cutiepie knick-knacks, many of them cats. I removed most of them before the kids could get attached, but I was too late with these two. Our baby adores them.
She has become very excited about all animals, using a ‘d’ sound to exclaim about any of them: cat, dog, bird, even small children. Imagine how her mind was blown when I pulled out a Slinky Malinki book. A cat on every page! Thanks, Lynley Dodd!
Our 4-year-old’s bedroom was decorated for the landlords’ daughter, complete with an African animal frieze. He is enormously proud of it. Tonight I tried to get the baby to sleep in his room (long story), and failed for thirty minutes because she kept jumping up and squawking to the giraffes and lions.
On the subject of wildlife, I feel most like a stranger in a strange land when the dawn chorus starts up in the morning. What are all those alien birds? There are plenty of familiar mynah birds and pigeons, but also lots I’ve never seen before. We have a Thai wildlife book that I guess we’ll get started on soon.
Driving in Chiang Mai: motorbikes, whistles and ‘jai yen’
The traffic in CM is gently chaotic, and apparently heavier every year, but I would say considerably less congested than Auckland or London. And they have those handy countdowns on the red and green lights – yay!
It’s not like what I’ve experienced in big cities in China or India, where roads are jammed, loud and frenetic. Here, the prevailing ethos is to drive and park as is convenient to you (staying in your lane and indicating are both optional), with the proviso that you don’t want to hit anyone, and with the cool-headed, relaxed Thai attitude of ‘jai yen‘, having a cool heart.
If you value jai yen, then you won’t really be in a hurry to your destination, and you won’t be easily offended or angered by someone else’s driving behaviour. The combination of chaos and patience means that I’m finding driving here quite liberating and enjoyable.
Most people travel by small motorbike (around 125cc), so there are more motorbikes than cars on the road by far. Mall carparks have vast motorbike parks (though how anyone can find their bike in them is beyond my ken.)
Anyone who has visited Asia will be familiar with the sight of a family of three or four on a bike, and it’s certainly normal here. We’ve seen, travelling by motorbike: dogs on the back; pillion passengers and drivers smoking, texting (common) or drinking a smoothie through a straw; and schoolkids sleeping while holding onto their parents (also common) on the way home from school.
Women commonly ride side-saddle on the back, often not even holding onto the driver. Their balance is astonishing.
I am almost used to the men with whistles and white gloves who direct parking at many carparks, micromanaging when to turn your steering wheel and exactly where to stop. It would feel very patronising if it weren’t so universally applied. They are often very cheerful and kind, and also take your trolley back, so that’s a plus.
Now my favourite sight while driving: there are thousands of small businesses that run from motorbikes and sidecars. Often a food stall at a market will be a kitchen built onto a sidecar, so it’s common to see what are essentially shops driving down the road. My highlight so far was one of these sidecar shops hooning past on a six-lane road with the passenger seated at the kitchen bench peeling vegetables while her companion drove.
What else are you interested in hearing about? Let me know and I’ll be keen to chat! The next post is about tropical life and the procession of festivals and celebrations we’ve been part of here.
You can read more about Partners and our work with them here:
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