Living in a country, as opposed to travelling through it, is a form of travel I have long felt missing in my repertoire. My career, after all, has too often involved the ticking off of unique experiences, and then running off to the next destination. After a frenetic 6-month research period in Australia to write my next book, and with my daughter only starting kindergarten at the year-end, it felt like the perfect opportunity to live in a place I've always loved, and in places I've yet to explore. We started with six weeks in Chiang Mai.
I first visited the city 2005, and fell in love with it. Unlike the congested, polluted mess that is Bangkok, Chiang Mai was friendly, peaceful and calm, beaming with golden temples, cheap eats, and guesthouses. I returned a few years later to film an episode of Word Travels, and always thought: “If I had to live anywhere in Asia for a while, this would be the place.” With my family and Amy, our own travelling Mary Poppins-assistant in tow, we found a semi-detached house outside of the Old Town on Air Bnb, and prepared to settle into the neighbourhood. The Thai – at least those outside of heavy tourist zones - are just unbelievably, remarkably, authentically warm and gentle people. They love children. They smile a lot. They are 95% Buddhist. We weren’t off the plane for five minutes and felt reassured by the welcoming nature of the culture. . Our house was at the end of a soi, an alley, off a busy road. Everything was so different, so anything-goes, so jarring, so unlike Australia. Like most Thai houses, ours didn’t have much of a kitchen (a gas burner, a fridge, some basic cutlery and utensils). Like most Thai houses, we wouldn’t be able to flush toilet paper down the toilet. The beds were rock hard, the furniture basic, the shower pressure almost non-existent. A rooster crowed directly across from us all through the night (more on the rooster later). There was blessed air conditioning in the bedrooms, and just a fan downstairs. Mosquitoes and flies patrolled the windows and the wonky screen door. Inside the place was clean, but a little rough around the edges, softened each Monday when the cleaner would come and leave it spotless. When we arrived, my wife looked at me like I was a madman for bringing us here. But at least we wouldn’t have to unpack after a few days, and at least we didn’t have anything in particular to do. We could just be.
It took us about 10 days to get our bearings, to navigate the wild discrepancies between tourist/rich Thai prices, and local/poor Thai prices. After our careful budget in Australia, we leaned heavily towards to the latter. All that beef in Australia disappeared from the menu in Northern Thailand (unless we wanted to pay $50 for a steak in a fancy mall restaurant). Up here, they love pork, pork and smelly fish, rice, pork and rice, and lots of chicken. Prices for food in the big Tesco supermarket were significantly more expensive than Australia. We splurged on olive oil. Cheap plastic toys from China were triple the price.
In fact, everything was more expensive than I anticipated. In the decade since I last visited, Chiang Mai has become a haven for an estimated 3000- 5000 digital nomads – people who can work from anywhere - and Chiang Mai is as good as an anywhere as you’d want to be. A military coup that took place a few years ago in Thailand must be good for business and tourism because the sheer number of visitors and new hotels within Old Town was staggering. Every shop was a guesthouse or tour operator, a massage parlour or restaurant. While we might see one or two westerners wandering about our neighbourhood, once we crossed the old walls into Old Town, gringos were everywhere, still wearing the baggy elephant-imprint pants one can only wear in Thailand without looking ridiculous. At first, we wondered if we made a mistake booking a place so removed from the thick of Old Town, but quickly came to appreciate it. Because we did indeed get to know the community, who embraced us after a couple weeks when they realized we were not the typical transient visitors. We slotted into a lifestyle that was more than just visiting temples, going to overpriced bars and eating pad thai. Although we definitely visited temples and ate pad thai.
Temples and Mobikes
Getting around was affordable and easy, something we really only appreciated when we arrived in Bangkok, where getting around was difficult and comparatively expensive. Mobike, Chiang Mai’s public bicycle system, allowed us to rent bikes with handy baskets in the front, seemingly perfectly designed for the kids to sit up front. Solar powered and blue-tooth operated through a phone app, the bikes could be left anywhere, so we basically just “borrowed” a few to use and permanently kept them outside our heavy sliding green gate. It cost 10 baht (about 50c) for a half hour, although I got a 200 baht ($10) unlimited use for 90 days pass. My fondest memories of Chiang Mai are riding the streets with Raquel or Gali in the basket, stopping at temples, waving to locals. Chiang Mai is mostly flat, and the Mobikes – at least the orange ones we used and not the wonky silver ones – were super comfortable. We never saw any other kids in the baskets, and neither had anyone else, which is why Gali and Raquel were instant rock stars on the Mobikes. Smiles and laughs and waves came from every direction. For further distances, Grab Taxis is the local Uber, and they eliminated the constant haggle and rip off with tuk tuk drivers and taxi drivers. The fare was always fair, and the drivers gave us no nonsense. What a game changer! We took a few tuk tuks, more for the experience, but between the Mobikes and Grab, we could get around wherever we needed to go. On the last week, I hired a scooter, which was super fun, even if we had to wear a helmet primarily to avoid the bribes we’d have to pay at roadblocks (only foreigners get stopped if they don’t have a helmet). Our underpowered bike didn’t make it up every hill, but we had a fun day lunching by a river, feeling the jungle breeze, and braking for elephants. Raquel only fell asleep twice, on the scooter, in heavy traffic. Raquel and I took a bigger bike for a 90-minute ride to the beautiful Sticky Waterfalls. It was quite the adventure I hope she somehow remembers, racing 100 km/hr through the jungles of Northern Thailand, seated between my legs.
One the ladies
“Hi-low Lay-dees!” The local Thai ladies were besotted with the kids, especially Gali. We never got their names and would not be able to remember or pronounce them if we did, so we just called them “the ladies.” On our street, upstairs in an old wooden house was an old lady always sewing. She always smiled and waved, and raced downstairs one day to give the kids handmade Thai clothes. We printed out a picture of her and the kids to say thanks. When we said goodbye, she gave the kids teary hugs and some wooden Buddhas. On our corner was the “chicken fried rice ladies”, working in their gritty local eatery a tourist wouldn’t go near. We must have waved and greeted to them at least six times a day. They made us the fine and tasty chicken fried rice that we ate a couple times a week. Then there was the Thai Ice Tea lady, although we all had our favourite Thai tea lady. The Plastic Lady, who provided us with plastic bins and knick knacks and spoke some English. The Pad Thai ladies, another place tourists wouldn’t blink at but made a great 30 baht ($1.50) pad thai. The Market Ladies, the Fruit Lady, the Temple Lady (above) who always cried when she saw the kids, the Pancake Lady, the Ice Cream Lady. We did cook at home a fair amount and realized how much we miss an oven when we don’t have one. We made do with pasta and deep friend chicken and eggs and toast in the morning, although usually had to watch out for the geckos jumping out of the toaster. My wife took a Thai cooking class and came home to make a fantastic Tom Yum soup. It was often more expensive to buy the ingredients than just grab a pad thai. Without eating pork or stinky fish, it says much about Thai cooking that we ate chicken/rice/noodles in some configuration for 6 weeks without getting tired of it. There was a local vegetable market - more friendly ladies - around the corner, along with a Tesco Express and 7-11 (a mini supermarket), and it all amounted to a situation that became dependably convenient – something we again only appreciated when we left Chiang Mai.
Pity the fool who messes with this 5 year-old
Also around the corner was a gritty local Muay Thai gym – Thai kickboxing. We paid the friendly manager Ratana to give Raquel private lessons on Thursday nights. Ratana and her pretty daughter loved Raquel, who cut the cutest curly-haired figure sparring among sweaty fighters. She learned to keep her fists up, kick, punch and elbow, and survive the massive mosquitoes attacking the gym in the early evening. Ratana took lots of videos, she thought Raquel was just amazing. We hoped the lessons would help burn off some of her energy so there wouldn’t be a prize fight trying to get her to sleep that night.
Although we tried hard not to be tourists, of course we did a few touristy things. Art in Paradise is an interactive art museum that blew us away, putting us in the picture with dinosaurs and masterpieces. The kids loved the Elephant Poo Poo Park, where dung is sustainably converted into paper (it's a lot more interesting than it sounds, and in case you're wondering, doesn't smell at all). We visited a massive waterpark called Tube Trek, the Saturday Night Market, which was so much better than the overcrowded Sunday Night Market. The Ginger Farm, where Gali fell into a muddy trench. He had more luck at the Buak Hard Public Park, which had the only decent playground we could find. Of course there were all the amazing temples, and we had a beautiful moment with an elephant on the road without visiting an expensive and dubiously elephant park. We made friends with wonderful locals and expats (and their kids), celebrated birthdays. Along with the rest of the world, we anxiously watched the dramatic rescue of the schoolboys from a cave located a few hours drive away. We joined hundred of Israelis every Friday night for a Chabad feast, and enjoyed the spectacle of the FIFA World Cup in Russia, washed down with tall bottles of cold Singha beer.
Next door was a Burmese family who prepared rounded fish balls over burning charcoal, the smell of which reliably wafted through the windows each afternoon. Each night, and often during the day, the loud roosters would get started. If they didn’t keep us awake, they invaded our dreams. We spent long nights lying in semi-sleep thinking about how much we’d love to kill those damn birds. I suppose it was revenge for the sheer amount of chicken we ate every day.
Making paper with elephant poo
Art in Paradise
We brake for elephants
The smell of the camphor/citronella mosquito spray. The ants that would snake from the ceiling to the garbage bin in the kitchen. The kids writing with chalk on the patio outside before the daily late afternoon tropical rain would wash their scribbles away. Amy’s ongoing saga with the dodgy dentists of Chiang Mai. The manual washing machine we didn’t use in the back, and the communal washing machines we did down the road. The modern malls and dragon fruit. The homemade ice-lollies with the plastic we bought from the Plastic Lady. To say nothing of Chiang Mai itself, with its bustling markets, and shiny golden Buddhist temples, orange robed monks, crazy traffic, and pungent fish-sauce fragrances. The kids couldn’t enjoy our $15 hour-long massages in the dark but innocent backrooms off the strip next to the Doo Dee Bar, but they sure chomped down the surprisingly good biltong we managed to find, made by a Dutchman, and delivered to our front gate.
We could only appreciate how comfortable we’d become in Chiang Mai when we bid our farewells and arrived in Bangkok for 2 weeks. Our first Air Bnb was such an epic disaster we had to evacuate it after a few hours (with a small refund, thanks Air Bnb). Our second last-minute emergency lodging was called the Paradise Sukhumvit, which was as far from Paradise as you can imagine. Our third attempt was modern and clean and on the 29th floor of a condo in Thonglor, which is where you want to be in sticky, smoggy Bangkok, away from the insane traffic and noise and mayhem. A big city means less smiles, and more issues getting around to do anything. The disparity between expensive “normal” restaurants and cheap street food, between normal Thai and rich Thai/expat, is bewildering and excessive. The traffic can often jam you into a single intersection for 15 minutes. Grab Taxi is double the price here because you’re hardly moving. It’s enough to make you want to lock yourself up in a tower with a swimming pool and air conditioning and hardly venture outside. We did take a couple crazy river boats and visited some of the bigger temples, hooked up an amazing indoor play area in a ritzy mall where a hand bag costs more than several month’s wages. Still, Bangkok offered up some wonderful and vivid moments: riding the loud riverboats up the narrow canals (always preferable to the frustrating gridlock in the back of a taxi). The incredible temples and time well spent in the wonderful condo infinity pool above the snarling traffic on Petchaburi Road; a play date with a family from Vancouver; Raquel conquering the monkey bars for the first time in Lumpini Park, seeing a movie where the audience must stand and sing tribute to the King (I'd say more about the King, but in Thailand that can get you arrested).
Bangkok, oriental city...
We hope Chiang Mai is only the beginning of the amazing experiences to come in Bali and Vietnam (and a side trip to Singapore to see our old dear friends), as opposed to the pinnacle of our Asian adventure. Because if I reminisce about it so fondly after being away from the city for less than a week, memory will likely grow positively and brighter as the months and years pass. My family spent 6 weeks in Thailand. Not travelled in, but lived. It was a culture shock, it was full of big challenges, unforgettable and wonderful moments, lovely people, and everything we hoped it would be. Next up: Bali.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.