From the late 1980s until this year I enjoyed many visits to Chiang Mai – the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom in Northern Thailand – for business purposes, and for about a dozen years from 2008 I had a many delightful years living and working in this delightful small city.
Chiang Mai became, in my mind, my home for the rest of my life.
I bought a tumble-down apartment and totally refurbished it to create a comfortable place to watch the sun go down over a glass of G&T glass or two.
But for various reasons I decided to sell everything and to return to Australia. I made my flight bookings not knowing that the world would catch up with me. No – not like a fleeing bandit but like a medical escapee. Covid-19 started slowly in a corner of China and was soon to have an impact on the whole world – and a tiny little individual traveller.
Once I had made the decision to return to Australia things started moving quickly and slowly. Memories piled on memories and regrets on regrets, but the arrow had already left the bow, and the horse its stable, and I was committed.
The Paradox of Chiang Mai
For me Chiang Mai was an ideal destination: easy access to the rest of the world, large enough to offer good shopping and good eating, and small enough to be able to get around reasonably easily. Its Buddhist culture was welcoming, it was relatively inexpensive and offered good food, great massages, warm welcomes and fascinating historical jaunts. Most of the year the city was calm with clear skies and crisp weather – but there were also the three or four dread months of the “smoky season” when Chiang Mai achieved world fame as the most polluted city in the world.
- Thailand is the “Kingdom of Smiles” except when it isn’t
A couple of stories from the Bangkok Post in March 2020 (and there are many more almost every day) will illustrate this.
One headline screamed Cop Found Murdered, Mutilated. The other, no less sensational, read Two Soldiers Wounded in Drug Gang Battle.
The drug battle occurred in my province about an hour and a half north from my home. Two patrolmen tried to intercept a gang of thirty smugglers bringing into the Kingdom 2.9 million speed methamphetamine pills and thirty-two kilograms of heroin. A shoot-out took place, the soldiers were wounded and two women arrested. I guess the others scurried off into the jungle … but will unfortunately be back again another day with another truckload of drugs from Lao or from China or from Myanmar and bound for the Thai and European markets.
In the other case a jealous husband apparently murdered the policeman, stabbing him more than twenty times and chopping off his genitals in retaliation for the cop’s affair with the murderer’s wife.
Hmm … not too many smiles in either of those cases … and while these were not isolated cases perhaps they should be balanced against the many millions of Thais who live contentedly with each other and with visitors to the Kingdom.
Shortly after I came to live in Chiang Mai I came home to my little bungalow in a local village and found that all my washing had been stolen from the clothesline. I immediately suspected the worst and ran over the road to my housekeeper to ask her if she had seen anyone acting suspiciously.
- No Mr Christ – nothing bad happen. Rain was coming so I took all your laundry down It is now folded and in your bedroom.
So many small cases of kindness popped up during my time in Chiang Mai.
I accidentally left my wallet at a shopping centre in Lamphun (about forty kilometres away) but did not discover my loss until I returned to Chiang Mai. Hurriedly I motored back to Lamphun – but my wallet was not where I had left it.
- Blast! So much for nice Thai people!
A security officer kindly took me by the hand and led me to the Duty Manager’s station. The manager took one look at me, picked up my driver’s licence from his desk, compared faces and happily handed over my wallet. Nothing was missing: someone had found it and handed in. A French man who had been watching the “drama” laughed and simply said.
- This is Thailand, monsieur. You need not have worried
I will miss Chiang Mai and I will miss Thailand and I will miss my many Thai and non-Thai friends there.
I will miss the hordes of graduates from Chiang Mai University lugging huge bundles of flowers and cuddly soft toys as they toss their caps into the skies. I will miss the excellent – and cheap – street food, the little woman who sat every day by the side of the road with a pedal sewing machine doing clothing repairs on the spot and selling bananas to munch on while you wait. I will miss seeing the delightful crumbling walls of the Old City where they tumble down into the moat that surrounds the city.
I will miss the sweepers who spend all day every day sweeping piles of leaves from the streets – often piling them in little leafy mounds to be swept away again the next day. I will miss the languid boozy Sunday Brunches at the Four Seasons Hotel where I was once joined by Nigel, friend of a friend from the UK, who insisted on having four indulgent servings of pâté de foie gras – freely available in Thailand but illegal in Australia.
I will not miss the smell of the noisome durian fruit, or the pigeons who squat and squawk outside my bedroom window, and I will not miss Chiang Mai’s notoriously uneven footpaths that made my morning round-city jogs more of an obstacle course than a cross country run. I’ll probably be able to live quite happily without noisy trucks belching black smoke, and you can keep the motorcycle cops who pull over motor scooter riders and occasionally others checking for licence discrepancies and taking “under the counter” payments as “fines”.
I will not miss the horrors of pick-up trucks burdened by twenty or thirty passengers squished into the rear tray, or the swarms of hornet-like motorbikes buzzing and bumping around motorists at traffic lights. I will welcome, however, being able to order a glass of white wine in a restaurant and not being misunderstood (the Thai language remains a considerable mystery to me) except that now I am back in Australia all restaurants are closed and my English-language skills will have to remain as untested as my Thai language skills.
Thailand – usually –accepts people as they are. It is – usually – a welcoming and free country and a relaxed place to live.
In one of my favourite restaurants a short walk from my home is a young waiter who sees himself as a pretty young woman. Fully accepted but ignored by other staff members and most customers, this young man squatted near the service door to reapply his makeup then carried on handing out platters of pizza and spare ribs.
The exquisite powdered young men behind the cosmetics counters in large department stores would make most women go green with envy for their plucked brows … but no one gives a hoot: that is Thailand.
I will miss the pretty Thai women and the handsome Thai men – and the pretty Thai men and the handsome Thai women.
Thailand is famous – infamous? – for its lady boys: men who live as women.
There are lady boys here and there in Chiang Mai but in Phuket and Pattaya and Bangkok are fabulous cabarets featuring some of the most stunning women you will ever see on stage – except they are men.
For several years I worked as Admissions Director at an international school in Chiang Mai and had one indignant Nigerian mother who refused to allow her sons to be enrolled at the school lest they encounter these “terrible” creatures. I tried to reassure her that her sons’ sexual integrity would not be at risk … but her mind was made up. After all, in her country, gays are punished by being stoned to death or perhaps merely being sentenced to fourteen years in jail.
Men or women in Chiang Mai’s many massage parlours will offer you a massage of your selection – and it does not usually matter whether the therapist is man or woman or if the client is male or female – a good and inexpensive massage is usually the result.
One of my favourite local authors is multi-award winning UK/Australian writer Colin Cotterill. His Jimm Juree novels, set in Chiang Mai and the south of Thailand, feature colourful characters including the delightful Police Lieutenant Chompu: a merry moustachioed gender-ambivalent character. Whatever your orientation, in Thailand people are accepted for who they are and for what they do – not for their bedtime activities or the day on which they were born.
Colours of Chiang Mai
In Thailand, every day of the week has a special “lucky” colour. I was born on a Tuesday so my colour is pink – or in Thai language “see chompu” (hence Cotterill’s gay policeman’s name) so I could wear pink every day. The late King’s colour was yellow – so on his birthday (now celebrated as Fathers’ Day) the nation is corner-to-corner yellow.
March and April are terrible times to be in Chiang Mai as the pollution is so bad but Thailand’s national flower, the Cassia Fistula Ratchaphreuk, choses this time of the year to blaze its yellow glories along many roadsides and canals. The drooping yellow blooms look like geishas’ hair adornments and cover the ground in a vibrant yellow carpet.
Vibrant splashes of colour are seen every morning as monks leave their temples and tramp bare-footed along footpaths with their begging bowls and vibrant orange or dusty brown robes. Devout Buddhists kneel in the dirt to offer them food or cash or other offerings in order “to make merit”. The monks chant blessings over the “parishioners” then plod on through the dust to the next offering.
And then there are the splendid historic trees lining the old Chiang Mai – Lamphun road which all have bright orange ribbons tied around their trunks. There are the massed garlands of dusty orange marigolds piled at many religious sites and there are the simple white garlands of aromatic jasmine offered for twenty baht (less than a dollar) at almost every traffic light in town.
Chiang Mai has many festivals where colours run amok and the annual floral festival and Loy Krathong (LEFT) are highlights. The much smaller festival of Poy Sang Long sees Shan boys ordained as Buddhist novitiates. They are brightly dressed and painted and paraded around the temple on their fathers’ shoulders – the boys’ feet must not touch the ground for three days. The son of a Thai friend was due to be ordained this year – but the festival was postponed because of the coronavirus.
A treat for the eyes
Colourful kids are special treats but everyday sights are just as much fun in Chiang Mai.
I was going home one day and had to wait while a lost baby elephant crossed the road in front of me. I have often had to wait while a motor scooter with four or five members of the family – possibly with an additional poodle in the front basket – took an unexpected and un-signalled swerve across the road to turn right RIGHT NOW. Near the fabulous Worowot Market old men still pedal trishaws – mainly used by aged local matrons and rarely by visitors.
At temples, clouds of fragrant incense smoke mingle with the glittering gold temple bells as devout worshippers carrying lotus blossoms circumambulate gleaming gold stupas. Gaudily painted roosters, fresh fruit and rice are placed on spirit houses to be found at every home or business – and the pigeons thoroughly enjoy their holy breakfast.
Funerals and cremations are matter-of-fact events. Giant floral wreaths are piled up or hung on specially constructed walls, and troops of saffron-clad monks and multi-tiered, multi-coloured temple-like funerary structures are hauled along the road from the deceased person’s home to the crematorium, stopping all traffic.
Colourful street parades also stop all traffic as does the arrival in town of a VIP – royal or government or diplomatic. Convoys of ten or twenty or thirty black vans and black cars and police cruisers with blue and white lights flashing and orange side lights blinking scream by at 80 kmh and local cops hold up cars and pedestrians to make sure the VIP does not come in touch with the common hordes.
Goodbye Chiang Mai
One member of the common horde is now a long way from Chiang Mai – but I will remember with great affection the many friends, the many delightful things and even the rather challenging things of Chiang Mai.
- But you can keep the AQI reading of 250 or more PM 2.5
The wonderful Italian revolutionary song Bella Ciao provided my blog title. See:
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall April 2020.
Location map, Cassia Fistula and Poy Sang Long photographs from Internet
Journey May 2008 – March 2020
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship