Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a foreign country? One where you can’t read, write, or speak the language? I thought I would write about our experiences in Chiang Mai so far to give you a taste of what it is like.
We have been here almost a month already; time flies when you are having fun! We flew from Seattle to Seoul to Bangkok on Asiana Airlines. The flights were smooth, the food was good (we flew in business class) and the service was excellent. We arrived at about 10:30 pm so spent the night at the Novotel hotel at Suvarnabhumi Airport, then flew to Chiang Mai the following morning. We are once again staying at the Smith Suites, in an apartment across the hall from where we stayed last year. We were a bit disappointed to find that the unit we had reserved had been given to someone else, but it has turned out for the best. We have a garden view apartment, and the deck stays in the shade all day so that we can enjoy sitting out whenever we get the urge. Our apartment last year was on the “rooster” side of the building and had full sun from 7 am until sundown. The roosters made sure we didn’t sleep in!
The people here are so friendly! We were warmly greeted by the people we had met last year – our favorite barista, the banana guy, the servers at our favorite restaurants, as well as random people that had noticed us last year, but we had not actually spoken to. Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles”; it is a reputation well-earned.
Much of our first weeks have been spent on the little daily tasks of living – getting groceries, buying water, getting our laundry done, getting scooters rented, etc. Each of those tasks are very mundane at home, but here, things are a bit different! We have a mini-mart close by as well as being only a few blocks from the fruit and vegetable market. Most of our groceries can be purchased at one or the other of these places. However, for certain items, a trip to a full supermarket is in order. The odd thing here is that the supermarkets don’t open until 10 or 11 am! And parking is an issue. You won’t find parking lots like you would in the United States; you either must pay to park in a garage or find street parking. We really like to do our errands early in the day before it gets too hot, so have decided to take a songthaew rather than riding our scooters when we need to shop. It just simplifies matters for us.
The water here is not drinkable, so we buy a big jug at 7-11 and then refill it as needed. There are water refill stations nearby. For 4 baht (11 cents), we can refill a large jug. There are laundromats everywhere, but we choose to have someone do our laundry for us. For a few dollars per week, we drop off the dirty clothes and pick them up a day later, nicely folded.
We start our day with breakfast on the deck. Whatever else we eat, we always have tropical fruits. Fresh fruits and vegetables are so inexpensive at the local market. We definitely eat a healthier diet than at home. After breakfast, we head to NuNu NiNi’s for coffee and one of their tasty little almond cookies. The coffee shop is located across from the old city walls and the fruit and vegetable market. It is a prime people-watching spot! We love watching the crazy drivers on their way to work in the morning (more about that later). There is a small park between the coffee shop and the market; in the morning, vendors set up stalls selling clothing and other items. Most items seem to go for 100 baht (around $3). These stalls get taken down by mid-morning, and in the late afternoon are replaced with food vendors. We are a little hesitant to purchase street food due to the lack of refrigeration of meat but do partake of fruit smoothies occasionally (around 50 cents each).
After coffee, we go for a walk along the old city walls and the moat that surrounds them. There is not much left of the original walls, but there are several gates that have been left intact. We live near the Chiang Mai gate. The Tha Pae Gate is the most popular with tourists. They love to take videos of themselves with the pigeons that live there. A few enterprising locals feed the pigeons and then make noises to get them to fly up in front of the tourists so that they can get their pictures and videos to post on Instagram!
Several days a week, we stop by the fruit and vegetable market to stock up. We have our favorite vendors. One of them always throws in some extra vegetables at no cost. As I said, people here are very friendly. Most have a calculator to display the cost of the items since most that work at the market do not speak English.
On all our past visits, we have rented scooters. This year, there was a scooter shortage! Tourism has returned to Thailand in a big way and so the scooter rental shops do not have sufficient bikes to rent. We went back to the place we have rented from in the past and they were able to get Clayton a scooter but did not have one for me. Later that same day, they contacted me to let me know that they now had a scooter in stock. However, the price from the previous year had doubled! We needed wheels, so went ahead and paid for a month’s rental. The scooter rental places make more money from daily rentals; it was difficult to find one that would rent for a longer period. Unfortunately, Clayton’s bike did not have functioning back brakes. We took it back to the shop and they did something to it…but whatever that something was, it did not fix the problem. We think that since there is such high demand for rentals, they are not keeping up with the maintenance of the bikes. As soon as a bike gets returned, it gets immediately rented out. So, we decided to purchase scooters! Since we were spending such a large amount of money renting bikes that were not in great shape, and since we plan on returning yearly, it made sense to buy our own. That way, we get bikes in great shape with new tires and can ride more safely. We found a Honda dealer where the employees spoke some English and ordered what we wanted. To purchase bikes, we needed to present a residence certificate and our passports. The residence certificate meant a trip to immigration; something we really wanted to avoid. So, we paid a small fee to a visa company that would get the certificate for us. We had to leave our passports with them, which we absolutely hate to do, but it is how things are done here. Two days later, they had secured our certificates and we got our passports back. When we picked up the scooters, we had to leave our passports with the dealer for them to complete the proper documents for the government. They also kept the resident certificate so we will need to get new ones when we get our Thai driver’s licenses. We love our new bikes and feel so much more secure riding.
I may have mentioned before that Thai’s love their paperwork! Everything requires some type of official document (usually several). I needed to update my phone number with the bank here. It took a half hour and about 8 forms being filled out. Then, another two weeks for the information to be updated in their system. It’s a different world here, for sure.
Transportation here is a whole topic unto itself! I know that I have mentioned the crazy driving in prior year’s posts. I thought I would show some examples of how people get around here. Though there are traffic laws, they are rarely followed and never enforced. The only traffic police you see are those that are setting up checkpoints for tourists that have rented scooters. Rental places are happy to rent bikes to anyone; even those that have never ridden before. It is the law here that you have an International Driver’s Permit (or a Thai driver’s license) and a motorcycle endorsement from your country of origin. The police wave you over and if you don’t have the proper documents, fine you anywhere from 500 baht to 2000 baht (commonly known as “tea money” for the police). I have been stopped a few times; they are always quite disappointed that I have the necessary documents! This year, I just held up my International Driver’s Permit and they just waved me through.
Though helmets are mandatory here, very few wear them. The locals do, however, wear masks everywhere. They may be risking getting their heads bashed in if in an accident, but they won’t catch Covid!
Last year when we visited, masks were mandatory in Thailand, both indoors and out (no logic there!). Though masks are no longer mandatory, almost all Thai continue to always wear them. Very few tourists do.
Despite our precautions, both Clayton and I got sick after attending an expat meeting where no one masked up. I got sick first, then passed it along to him. We learned that a prescription is not necessary to get prescription drugs here. You just go to the local pharmacy and tell them your symptoms; they give you what you need (including antibiotics). We hope to not need to have any serious medical care but have Thai health insurance if we do. The health care here is very inexpensive, at least compared to the United States. We read about some poor guy from the UK that had purchased travel insurance and then fell off the scooter he had rented and broke his leg quite severely. He was taken to the hospital and had surgery; he was told he needed one or two more surgeries to fix the leg. He learned the hard way that when he rented his scooter, he did not have a motorcycle endorsement or an International Driver’s Permit and so his travel insurance would not cover the cost of the surgery! He owed over $6,000 for his hospital stay and initial surgery and needed more money for further surgeries and his trip home. Apparently, a friend started a Go Fund Me and managed to get enough money to pay for his bill, but he learned a hard lesson in life from the experience.
Though Thailand is a Buddhist country, Christmas is a big deal here. There are Christmas trees and decorations in practically every shop and restaurant. Market stalls are filled with Christmas décor and costumes. And there are so many tourists! Last year, the Saturday Walking Market was closed due to Covid. This year, you can barely move through the stalls. Great for the local economy; not great if you hate crowds! Traffic backs up in all directions every Saturday night; this is one of the best markets to visit here. There are plenty of food stalls to tempt a person as well as lots of items made by local hill tribes. You can get a 30-minute massage for less than $2.50! At the end of the walking street is Wat Sri Suphan; the silver temple. It’s well worth a visit because it has very unique artwork on it – where else can you find UFOs embedded in silver on a Buddhist temple?
We have learned so much and have so much yet to learn. We have found our favorite restaurants, favorite massage place, favorite barber for Clayton and favorite salon for Heather (15-minute scalp massage/shampoo with your haircut, anyone? Shampoo, haircut and two lovely ladies styling my hair, all for less than $15). We have found the Amazon of Thailand; Lazada! Very inexpensive goods – I got a $2 hairdryer and Clayton got prescription sunglasses for less than $5. We learned how to get food delivered when we were sick. We have a few Thai phrases but most helpfully, we use Google Lens to translate the written word. If all else fails when trying to talk to a local, Google translate helps. Thanks to technology, we can both stream shows (using a VPN) and watch shows from our dvr at home. We are forming friendships with some of our fellow expats – quite an international crowd. We are adapting to the heat. As a matter of fact, it was 70 degrees this morning and I needed a light jacket – just like a local! In case you couldn’t tell, we love it here. Where better to escape the cold of winter?