My Trip North
Recently I took a trip north from Bangkok all the way to the Mae Sai, which borders Myanmar and Thailand. It was a fun trip with the primary goal of taking a break and having fun and a secondary goal of checking out the cities between here and there suitable for living. I enjoy Bangkok, but at least once a week I ask myself why I stay in the city when my work can be done from anywhere and Bangkok has all the obvious distracters such as traffic, pollution, high prices, and hot weather. I’ve already traveled most of Thailand from the very south to the very north, and have always kept my eye out for interesting places to move, but with my lease coming up for renewal in October I’ve got to decide if I want to sign for another year (or three as my landlord would love).
What would be my personal criteria for a place in Thailand to live other than Bangkok? Simple, easy access to transportation hubs (for flights, trains, buses), a quality place to stay (large, clean, superb security), and adequate shopping when it comes to the western basics. If I had a wish list I’d add cooler weather, less traffic, great infrastructure, clean small town, access to malls/shopping/movies/entertainment, fresh air, friendly people, and better looking women. Better looking women? Yep, and I might as well fess up right here and now. Thai women don’t do it for me, with very few exceptions. Perhaps I’ve lived in Asia too long, but the white skin, finer features, and diets (which affects smell) of Japanese women are more to my taste, Korean women next, and then women from some provinces in China. The dark skin, sharp features, and diet/smell of Thai women just aren’t my thing. I’m one of the few that originally came to Thailand for a reason other than the sex industry which I’ll touch on in the next paragraph. As you venture further north the skin of the women lightens and their features relax, and for my tastes they’re a lot nicer on the eyes. Their diets are also different, especially from the Isaan and street vendor food my wife often likes to indulge in. On those nights I make sure the bedroom windows are open and a cross breeze blowing because the smells that come from her gut are very strong and last well into the next day. I figure if she can accept my occasional “Mexican Fiesta Night” then I can accept her Isaan food binges. And no, she’s not from Isaan but for some reason she likes the food from there.
People assume I came here for the normal reasons, sex tourism, low prices and my first taste of Asia. The answer to that would be no. I spent my first few years in Thailand pursuing my MBA. Salty’s submission and mention of Chulalongkorn’s Sasin MBA program brought on this paragraph as I’d like to talk a bit about my experiences with them, and Sticks response wondering what such a degree would be worth. Frankly, because it has the Wharton School of Business and JL Kellogg “seal of approval” (the top two business programs in America depending on who’s voting and what year they’re voting) and affiliation the degree is very well respected. Getting into the program for a farang is problematic at best and during my interviews I was told it doesn’t happen often at all, more foreigners from Asian countries are accepted however. With a 3.96 undergrad GPA and a 4.0 graduate GPA and another masters in Sociology ( another time in my life) I had the grades, the GMAT wasn’t an issue as I scored high on that as well. I flew out for several interviews, had several recommendations from Asian corporations I’d worked for and one Japanese University where I taught, and after several “one on one” private talks with potential faculty mentors was accepted into their program.
I quit, well walked out, less than six months into the program. Why? Because I wasn’t learning anything. The students were all sons and daughters of prominent Thai and ‘other’ Asian businessmen and politicians, the “who’s who” of Thai society for sure. I laugh though when someone actually thinks they’re going to ‘network’ their way into a position from this crowd, way too closed and way too closed minded these people are. When I say I wasn’t learning anything I meant it. The students were all privileged and knew it, didn’t show up for class with any regularity, didn’t do much when they did, and the high price of the tuition (and more I later learned to individual teachers for grades) and membership in their exclusive “good ol’ boys club” assured them of graduation, and because grades affect the international rating of the program they of course all received great scores. These “children’ had nothing to offer in the way of experience unless it was how to live off the family teat. I was disgusted and left much to the dismay of those ‘mentors’ who “allowed” me into the program. Within a few weeks I was enrolled in a U.K. program out of Scotland which held classes on weekends for “working professionals” and the classes were full of active CEO’s, CFO’s, and other working staff from some very big corporations. The teachers were flown in from all over Asia and some from Europe, and I learned more from my classmates than I did the program itself which was very good. No, I didn’t end up with the prestigious name on my degree, but I did receive an education. I also received some great job offers, one of which I had accepted and then had to turn down when two different family emergencies required my return to the states. Five years later those fires were put out and here I am once more.
Back to the trip north. Having a guide is essential. Sure, you can go by yourself but you’ll get far more from the trip if you go with someone who has lived there and really knows the area, especially if the goal is to find a place to live. As luck would have it my housekeeper comes from the north and she was willing to travel with me and be my guide. I should mention, that in past trips all over Thailand I’d also travel with a guide, young women working in the department stores are often more than willing to be your guide for the chance to travel, learn English, see their families, and while none ever asked I would make sure to replace their salary for whatever period they were gone from work.
The weather looked grim that week, lots of thunderstorms and rain in the north, especially in the mountain areas. My mai noi (Jill, my GPS) set a route and we were off. I should mention (yet again) how easy it is to travel in Thailand with a properly set up GPS with Thailand maps and databases. We never missed a turn, always knew where we were, and could always find a hotel, gas station, or restaurant just by asking. It beats the heck out of paper maps, especially if you don’t read Thai. Jill led us to the Expressway and soon we were out of town and heading north. What a great feeling it is to leave the busy city of Bangkok behind and hit the open country side. Within 90 minutes Bangkok was way behind us and we were making time.
This day however was tiring. It rained the entire day (and most of the trip) and all along the road it was one accident after the other. Here’s the thing, at least my opinion. Cars sold in Thailand, at least cars built for “ordinary” folks have some real compromises when it comes to the suspension, brakes, and tires. Car makers know most cars either spend most of their time in traffic or are driven slowly in the country. High speed interstate use just isn’t considered. The brakes are smaller than you’ll find on the same size USA equipped car, the tires are made from a very hard rubber (DOT in the states rates the hardness of rubber with a number you can use to reference, but not here) to withstand the very rough road surfaces and this in turn makes them very slippery on rain soaked Thai roads which aren’t crowned (usually) and provide little drainage. Suspensions are pretty soft and they corner like pigs as well. No, I don’t drive a POS, but a brand new Toyota Fortuner, a baht 1.2m vehicle. Combine the poorly designed roads, the weather, cars with these tires/brakes/suspensions, and top it off with the typically “skilled” Thai driver.. and you have all the ingredients for accident after accident all damn day long. Watch a Thai driver start to slide, and then watch them try to steer against the slide.. and slide right off the road, into another car, over some pretty steep embankments, whatever. Note to self: Before next trip in rain get new quality tires with a soft rubber compound installed. I lived over ten years in Oregon where it rained almost every day of the week, and these conditions made me fatigued rather quickly, dodging out of control cars at 120-150kph+ in the rain is just plain tiring.
By late afternoon it was apparent we weren’t going to make it into Chiang Mai before dark, and the mountain stretch of the way in was still left to travel and you could tell by the clouds that some serious storms were in progress. So, consulting Jill we found the only “hotel” within 50km’s and decided to hole up for the night. We got the “deluxe” room which was deluxe because it had AC, but was really just a big broom closet with a 9” television, small refrigerator, a double bed with a 2” thick straw mattress, a bathroom where we both refused to set down our toothbrushes as we later laughed about, all for baht 300 for the evening. The only food within 50km’s was a gas station down the road, so we got some chips, some bread, yogurt, a few snickers bars, and closed ourselves in just as it really started to come down. It felt like the thunder was right over our heads and I’m sure the lightening struck a few times nearby. We ate our ‘meal’, quickly learned that without an antenna the television wasn’t going to work, and that the “mattress” was about as comfortable as the floor, maybe a bit cleaner though. I entertained myself by connecting my cell phone to the laptop and checking my email. The next morning couldn’t come soon enough.
But morning did come, and our tired stiff and sore bodies from laying on the “bed” felt some relief as we sunk into the leather seats of the SUV and headed into Chiang Mai. We quickly found a hotel near the night bazaar area, checked in, and then found a place to eat. The next few days were spent visiting different parts of Chiang Mai, collecting housing brochures, visiting real estate agents, and of course enjoying great food and the night bazaar and other places during our off time. I should mention that Chiang Mai isn’t a small city. I think if I was going to live in Chiang Mai I’d move into a serviced apartment for 3-4 months and really learn the city before signing a long term lease or buying anything.
After the first night living on a night bazaar street we decided to get a room at the Sheraton because I had work to send and needed broadband speeds. By going to the Sheraton on-line site and paying in US dollars with a US credit card you pay about 40% less than the best walk in prices in baht. Remembering this I did the same thing for reserving a room for us at Hue Hin this next week (shooting a new resort there) at the Marriott Resort and saved almost 50%. I highly recommend checking the on-line sites for the major western hotels.
The Sheraton was nice. It makes me more than a bit annoyed that they charge extra for wireless broadband though. You can choose X amount of connection hours for Y amount of baht. At these prices it should be included but TIT! The bathroom was huge and with its separate bath and shower and dual sinks very nice. We made use of the gym, pool, free breakfast buffets and very much enjoyed our stay. It’s right on the river and from the 22nd floor we could view some spectacular lightening storms and see quite a ways.
After a few days of housing research and checking out some newly developed neighborhoods we headed north to Chiang Rai. I must admit I like Chiang Rai a lot more. Smaller, cleaner, nicer in almost every way. There was still enough fast food and western shopping places to keep me satisfied but what really caught my attention was the “suburbs” if you can call them that. About 12km’s south of Chiang Rai I pulled over to take some pictures of rice field maintenance while the clouds and sun and sky were just perfect. (I was going to include some scenic photos but my workstation died and all my images are on it’s RAID arrays so I’m stuck on my laptop for now. Later I’ll submit the images because it’s truly a nice scenic area) I drove down a few roads to get past the power wires and structures that get in the way of good images from the main road side, and noticed that the houses were all newer and most were very nice. I’d pulled onto a nice newer street and the homes were new also. Talking with some residents they gave us a tour of their home (very generous) and it was a 5 bath 4 bedroom, inside and outside kitchens, very nice two story with all the western amenities on 2 rai of land for between baht 2-3m, or so they told me. I asked a few roads over and was given the same price range. Imagine a winding road of new construction running it’s way through very scenic rice fields and farms with new homes on both sides of the road, that’s what this was like. To me it was an idea place to live, I could actually see settling down in a place like this.
Ten minutes of driving later we were in Chiang Rai, no traffic, no stress, nice roads. To put my finger on it I think Chiang Rai reminded me a lot of Medford Oregon, the size, cleanliness, newness, weather (at least this time of year), and even the mountains and green stuff while not the same were at least familiar. We spent an afternoon in Chiang Rai that day and then made the hour drive to Mae Sai which is a border crossing town where you can visit Myanmar and renew your visa, or used to be able to renew your visa… Mae Sai reminded me of Bangkok around the Sukhumvit and Khao-san Road areas. Lots of tourists, nightlife, pubs, bars, and open markets. I would have liked to spend more time there but soon it was time to leave and we made it back into Chiang Rai right after dark.
I’m glad we got there when we did, because as soon as we’d carried our stuff to the room and put the SUV to bed the heavens opened up and man did it pour rain and storm! It hadn’t let up by morning and it made enjoying Chiang Rai any further out of the question so back through the mountain pass to Chiang Mai which should have taken us 2.5 hours but because of the storms and car wrecks took about 6 hours. Many scenic areas for great landscape photography are available through this one route and we took advantage of them despite the constant rain. Thank you Canon for making sealed bodies and lenses.
As we hit the Chiang Mai outskirts we noticed meter high walls of sandbags almost everywhere. Hotels and restaurants were flooded and as we crossed over the river the water was so high it was lapping at the bottom of the bridge. I had this feeling.. and immediately went to get a room at the Sheraton again and I’m glad I did. Even though the Sheraton is built right on the river banks it was properly engineered and was one of the only “dry” hotels in town and the place had gotten so busy I wasn’t sure we were going to get a room (it was only 1500 by now) but we did. Soon after we checked in we sat in the lobby coffee area and watched scores of weary travelers coming in to get a room only to be turned away. It pays to secure a room when the weather is like this.
From the 20th floor this time we could see the river was very high. Homes along it’s banks were partly underwater and the rain had stirred up the mud on the bottom until the entire river was a dark muddy brown. We stayed there two more days until the rain had stopped and we had a clear shot back into Bangkok. It really was a great trip with lots of lovely scenery, great company, wonderful meals and rooms (if you forget about the first night), and productive work. The road back into Bangkok was relatively free from traffic until we got without 40kms of Bangkok and I’ll admit to feeling sad as I entered the polluted and smelly air, smokey skies, and heavy traffic of Bangkok.
The north is truly beautiful. I’ve shot a great deal for travel books and stock agencies in the past up north and never tire of it. Being on the road this week was relaxing, fun, and productive. I highly recommend the drive if you have the time not to rush, stop and enjoy the towns and people (and food), and are careful with the weather. Perhaps the worst part of the trip, and I hesitate to say there was a worst part at all, was the numerous traffic accidents mostly due to the weather, but also to the roads, ill equipped vehicles, and even many motorsais out there on the highway.
Arriving back at my condo I could feel a slight “darkening” of my spirit as I entered the car park and we moved our luggage and gear over to the elevators. Many floors up and we’re walking through the doors of my unit where my parrot was excited to see us home. My “parrot sitter” is a nice young girl who took good care of my home while we were gone and doesn’t mind at all coming over to enjoy the unit and the buildings facilities when I must travel. The parrot would rather I not go anywhere and in the states I was used to taking her with.. but a call to the agriculture department confirmed the bird flu check points were still active, so taking her north would be no problem, but she might get confiscated coming back home. Better to stay a few nights with a pretty young girl for company than end up in a big warehouse with a brazillion chickens waiting to be gassed or whatever they do with them.
Later after showers, starting laundry, and cleaning and stowing gear I walked out on the balcony and observed the new shanty town I wrote about a few weeks ago. I like living here, and living in Bangkok. Getting back home and in my unit reminded me of how comfortable I have it and how much I enjoyed the view and the close proximity to the downtown area and all that Bangkok has to offer. I’m sure I could do without it, and the north is certainly a strong draw, but.. Bangkok is a very unique and high energy place to live and there really is nothing else like it anywhere in the world. I know why I’m here, yet I know I could be happy elsewhere in Thailand. Thailand truly has a lot to offer. Once I get some new computer parts from the states I’ll process the images from up north and either submit them or link you to my webpage on my next submission.
Nursing a splitting headache so no comments on submissions today. Sorry.