Life in Chiang Mai

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Tourist Season in Chiang Mai

High season in Chiang Mai brings a whole different feel to the otherwise lazy and laid back atmosphere the rest of the year. The traffic on the roads is more ubiquitous, changing the ratio of motorbikes to cars. Parades of tuk tuks filled with tourists like clown cars sputter down the streets. Large lumbering tour buses attempt to navigate the sometimes narrow streets and blocking traffic as they make the u-turns from the inside moat road to the outside moat road. The Thai that work the shops and markets in this area have taken on an air of exasperation with the constant stream of foreigners. Rare is the greeting of a genuine smile and heartfelt “sawad dee ka” in this area of the old town, especially from the workers the 7-11 at the heart of the backpacker area.

Taking detours down small sois (alleys) to avoid the hordes of tourists and the exhaust from the traffic reminds me that the area around CM Blue House is more than just a collection of coffee shops, massage shops and guest houses. Well before this area become the hot destination for so many young people backpacking their way across Southeast Asia, this neighborhood was and is home to many Thai people. Even on the more popular sois, looking closely you can see the homes. Some of the inhabitants have used the boom in tourism to their advantage turning part of their homes into restaurants, laundry shops, bicycle rental places and other types of shops. The rest come and go, carrying on with their daily lives. I often wonder what they think of all these farang (foreigners) roaming about the sois.

Shopping, Football and Herbal Steams

One of the advantages of being on my ninth journey to Thailand is that I can pick and choose what I want to do with my days without having to feel like I need to fill every available moment with tourist activities. Almost every day involved a trip to Fitness Thailand for a workout and venturing out for food, usually to the Chiang Mai Gate night market. Also managed a trip to Worowot Market for some shopping, a couple of Monday morning Denver Broncos games and an herbal steam.

Worowot market is a bustling hive of shops, generally consisting of two buildings and a plethora of additional shops. The streets around Worowot market are crammed with cars, motorbikes, songtheaws and people. Both buildings offer opportunities to purchase pretty much anything you might need. The only real difference is that building 2 feels like you are trapped in an MC Escher painting. Staircases leading to ramps and more ramps leading to stairs that lead to ramps, all of them lined with stalls selling everything from clothing to housewares to food. I bought a couple of shirts and some peanut yummy goodness (a sticky mixture of puffed rice, dried coconut and peanuts) and decided to save my energy for being in a crowd until the Sunday Night Walking Street.

My Monday mornings were spent at Thai 1 On Bar and Grill eating breakfast and watching the Denver Broncos play their Sunday Night Football games. The first Monday I was pretty much by myself, other than Tony (the owner) and Chien (his right hand man). Felt a little funny to be the only one yelling at the TV about bad plays and cheering for touchdowns, and I’m pretty sure Chien thinks I’m a crazy farang (as did the group of young European tourists that had arrived to eat and play pool). When the broadcast would show views of Denver on the return from commercial, I would show Chien and tell him that is where I am from. Made him very excited to see it and he doesn’t believe that Denver and Chiang Mai are the same size.

The next Monday, Tony had the game on the TV before I even got there. That Monday I was joined by 3 guys from Chicago who were just rooting for a good football game, and 2 guys from Boston that were rooting for the wrong team. Definitely a fun way to watch the game. Guess I should have actually packed my jersey (although I’m not sure I would have had room for it in my already near full suitcase).

After two days of intense training, Jo (the other student) and I headed to Spa Mantra for an herbal steam to detoxify everything that had been stirred up by the massage work. Spa Mantra is a beautiful spa located just outside of the old town. The warm and soothing interior is dressed in lush fabrics and plenty of places to relax. Upon arrival, an ice-cold, slightly sweet tea garnished with rose petals to prepare the body for the steam is served in traditional metal cups that look like small bowls. After drinking our tea and checking in, we were led up the stairs where we were given lockers for our purses and a tray containing a sarong and a hair cover. After changing, it was time for the steam.

The 8′ x 8′ room was filled with luscious smelling steam infused with beneficial herbs so thick you could barely see across the room. After awhile, maybe 15 minutes, the helper opened the door and told us it was time to come out for a few minutes. During our break we were served a room temperature brown tea with a delicious taste that I couldn’t quite recognize. The tea helps to bring the impurities out of the body. After giving our bodies a few minutes to cool, it was back into the steam. We repeated this process two more times, each time the cool tile benches became a more welcoming contrast to the hot steam. Once we could take the heat no longer, we emerged from the steam room slightly light-headed and sweat oozing from every pore combined with the moisture from the steam. A cool shower finished the process. The treatment was rounded out with hot Butterfly Pea Tea, a delicious blue hot tea that helps to improve circulation and cleanse the blood, and a plate of watermelon.

Of Keys and Motorbikes

Keys and I have a real issue in Thailand. Last trip, I blamed the number of times I left my keys in my motorbike or my guesthouse room door on the wrong dosage of a medicine I was on. This trip, I’m lacking that excuse. And while the frequency of leaving the keys in my motorbike has decreased, I’m still finding it to be a problem. Especially when I leave the ignition in the “On” position, which is a new twist to this habit. Even more problematic is when I leave it that way for 2.5 hours, as that tends to drain the battery. Fortunately, the automatic motorbikes have a kick-starter for just such instances, so long as they are on the big kickstand. The tricky part is getting the motorbike up on that stand when you only weigh half as much as the motorbike. The unfortunate part is that I actually got good at it after I left the keys in the ignition and on for another 45 minutes the next day, again draining the battery, just not as completely.

Riding a motorbike in Chiang Mai is still an experience that I relish. The weaving amongst the cars to the head of the line at traffic lights, the crosswalk taking its role as a motorbike waiting zone. The surge forward as the light turns green. Or actually, just slightly before the light turns green in that pause after the opposing traffic light turns red. The happy smiles from other motorbike drivers. The wide-eyed stares by young children squished between parents or riding standing in front of the driver. The school girls piled 3 to a motorbike with their matching uniforms of navy blue pants, orange shirts and navy blue bows tied in their thick black hair.

Of course, the opportunity to have a small mishap is always present. Fortunately, my second incident in 9 trips to Thailand was just a minor one. I was heading home after a 35 minute ride around Chiang Mai to charge the battery in the motorbike and was turning onto the moat road. Following the motorbike in front of me, I attempted to squish by the line of cars waiting to turn. By squish, I mean that there was just a very narrow strip of asphalt to precariously steer along without scraping the car next to me. Unfortunately, my motorbike skills are not quite good enough to do that, and I ended up tumbling off the pavement. The kind gentleman on the bike behind me helped to right my bike, get it back on the asphalt and generally put the mirrors back in their more appropriate positions. The motorbike and my body both sustained a few scratches but generally stayed in fine working order.

Long Road to India

About 2 years ago, I was invited to India to visit a family that I had met at the Elephant Nature Park (2 years in a row). Each time since then that I would send one of my email blogs, I would get a short message reminding me that Delhi is only a short flight from Bangkok. So this year, I decided to go visit. While it may be a short flight, the process for getting a visa to get in the country has been long, long road for me.

Shortly after booking my flights for India in September, I started the rather confusing India visa application process through the designated visa provider in the US, BLS International. Starting mid-October I began worrying about the fact that I had not heard any word on the status of my visa. As my November 14 departure date drew ever closer, my anxiety and panic rose. My attempts to contact the helpline proved futile. Finally, 6 days (3 business days) before my departure, without a visa or my passport, I had no other option but to report my passport as stolen and procure a new one so I could at least get to Thailand.

Once in Chiang Mai, I started the visa application process again. At the same time, my initial application was approved and a multi-entry visa was issued to my now invalid passport. Apparently, invalidating the old visa and just assigning a new one to my new passport is not an option. The in-person visa application requires an interview with the Consul General, an abrupt man who uses his power to make applicants feel insignificant and seems to lack any sense of compassion. After a 30-minute berating that left me in tears about the concerns of reporting a passport as stolen (yes, I know that a terrorist could steal my identity), how I was accusing India of this situation (I wasn’t, I accused BLS International), that obviously my passport wasn’t stolen (since I had a picture of my visa) and how there was no room for emotion in this situation (once I lost any sense of composure I was trying to maintain), I was sent away to get additional proof he required for the application. I found myself thinking that it was hard to believe that a country that honors Gandhi, one of the most compassionate men ever to have lived, would choose this person to represent their country.

On November 20th, I finally managed to get my application submitted, and at that time I was informed that it would take a week to get the visa processed. My flight to India was mid-day on the 27th and I still needed to fly to Bangkok to catch my flight. The cloud of anxiety still loomed over me as I began to formulate back up plans for getting to India.

After trying to not obsessively check the India visa website (the 8 times I did between the 25th and 26th, all it said was that my application was in process), I decided to make a trip in person to the consulate on the morning of the 26th. I am still convinced that the Visa Processor gentleman is the only person with compassion at the Chiang Mai India Consulate (with the exception of the door sentry, who on the second day of attempting to submit my application said “happy, happy, no tears” on my way in.) His kind smile and gentle demeanor was a welcome contrast to the Consul General. When the processor gentleman saw me, he went to get my file, and asked me when I was planning to fly. When I responded with that evening, he asked me to come back that afternoon.

Thanks to his kindness and compassion, at 2 PM (well outside the designated hours for picking up a passport) I am now in possession of a single-entry visa and will make my flight for India. And thankfully airlines do not charge extra for same-day flight arrangements.

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Festival Time in Chiang Mai

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Festival of Lights

Since starting my adventures to Thailand in 2008, the Loy Krathong Festival has been on my bucket list of Thai experiences I needed to have. The amazing beauty of postcard images of hundreds of sky lanterns glowing orange floating up into the dark night sky was something I wanted to see with my own eyes.

Held on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, this festival is celebrated by lighting and releasing khom loy (paper sky lanters) into the sky, hanging colorful fabric or paper lanterns and setting krathong (offerings made of banana leaves, flowers, incense and a candle (krathong has no actual translation)) off down the river. The paper sky lanterns that are launched into the sky and the krathongs that are floated down the rivers are meant to symbolise the drifting away of bad luck and misfortune and provide the opportunity to say prayers asking that wishes and hopes for the future be fulfilled.

Northern Thailand combines the Yee Peng Festival with Loy Krathong. Yee Peng is the Lanna festival of lights. And in true Thai fashion, the whole festival lasts for 3 days and is filled with events and people lighting off fireworks and firecrackers. Hotels and guest houses fill up early. In fact, having forgot to make my reservations when I booked my trip in September, I actually found myself staying at a new place for the first two days of my trip. The Western House Hotel was pleasant, but not the same as coming home to the CM Blue House.

The highlight of the celebration for me was going with my friend Lek to the mass launch of khom loy at Mae Jo University. Designed primarily as a photographic event, thousands of people turn out to participate. Many are tourists and all the anouncements are made in Thai, English and Chinese. Lek picked me up around 4 PM to give us ample time to wind our way through the heavy traffic in the hopes of claiming some piece of turf before the whole massive expanse of green was covered in people, lighting torches and khom loy. Definitely glad Lek was driving the 13 kilometers to Mae Jo. As she expertly wove her way through the heavy traffic, I was able to truly appreciate the variety of smells and sounds of the city and countryside. The sweet smell of flowers wafting on the light breeze competing with the sour smell of exhaust from the cars.

Entering the compound, we were given plastic sheeting to sit on and greeted by the chorouses of young Thai girls welcoming us to the festival. The field was layed out with rows and rows of torches containing candles that would be lit at the right moment in the ceremony and used for lighting the khom loy, most of them surrounded by early comers. We staked out a spot, I by a torch, Lek in a spot not too far from me where she would hopefully have a good vantage point for snapping photographs. After claiming my spot, off I went in search of a khom loy to purchase. A never ending monologue (in all three languages) was broadcast over the loud speakers, explaining the purpose and meaning behind the ceremony. The grey skies threatened rain. While it didn’t actually rain, it did provide a dramatic backdrop for the first early khom loy that were released while waiting for the event to begin.

The ceremony began around 6:30 PM with a demonstration how to properly light and let the khom loy fill with warm air to carry it off into the heavens. Following was a demonstration on how to pray and bow according to Thai tradition, including a couple of practice bows by the entire audience. Finally, a very long sermon was given, the gist of which was about stilling the heart and allowing for inner peace and happiness in your heart, your friend’s hearts and the hearts of all people everywhere. Maintaining focus on a long sermon given all in Thai is not easy and it was often that I would find my attention drifting to the steady stream of khom loy that were being launched into the dark sky.

After the sermon and the circumambulating with candles, it was time for the big moment. The spotlights lighting the field were turned off. People were instructed to light the torches and their khom loy and then to wait for the cue to release the lanterns.

Lighting a khom loy is definitely a two or more person process. A girl from Australlia helped me with mine. Once the parafin ring is lit, the lantern fills with hot air and slowly begins to rise. The heat from all of the khom loy becomes a bit intense with that many people so close together. The orange glow is truly magnificent. While holding the lantern, prayers and wishes are said in preparation of relase. On cue, all the lanterns are relased, floating up into the night sky carrying wishes and prayers and honoring Buddha. As the lanterns reach altidue and are caught by the wind they make a road of wishes drifting off into the distance.

Just like the postcards and images I had seen, it was truly a beautiful and amazing spectical to behold!

Holistic Navigation

Usually one of my first orders of business upon arrival in Chiang Mai is to get a motorbike. The freedom a motorbike provides is unparalleled. I’m not tied to finding a tuk tuk or a songtheaw (shared taxi) to get to where I want to go, especially when I have a whim to go to Tesco Lotus (department store) for this or that or need to actually get to somewhere specific since street pronunciations are not among my strength in speaking Thai yet.

The trade off though is that it is easy to miss out on the details of being in Chiang Mai. Or the chance encounters that can occur. Since I figured traffic would be miserable with the festival, I opted to not get a motorbike right away. Which made for a lot of time in my shoes, with many benefits. The biggest benefit has been running into people that I would have otherwised missed if I was zipping here and there.

So after two days on the back of a motorbike or on foot, I got my motorbike. And for the first trip since 2008, I have found myself without my trusty Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai with its cheerful, colorful maps and tips for things to see and do. Being without my trusty friend feels a little sad. We have been together through many Chiang Mai (and surrounding areas) motorbike adventures. To be fair, my map is being held together by a lot of tape and doesn’t fold very well anymore. Perhaps it is time for a new map. In the meantime, I am making due with the free tourist maps that are definitely lacking in detail (like streets and a consistent scale).

After so many kilometers on a motorbike during my past trips, I have a pretty good feel for most of the roads around Chiang Mai. Still don’t know them quite as well as the back of my hand, but I’m working on that. The combination of no map and a vague sense of the streets makes for a bit of what I call holistic navigation. Using holistic navigation methods, I follow the other motorbikes and cars that generally look like they know where they are going and hope I end up where I want to be. For the most part this type of navigation has been successful. When it fails, I find myself exploring parts of Chiang Mai that I haven’t seen before, which is not a bad thing.

Being a Non-tourist

One of my aims for this trip is to just exist in Chiang Mai. To not fill my time to the brim with tourist activities and motorcycle adventures. Some days are dedicated to training. Outside of those days, I have no set schedule. So far this approach has been fruitful, both mentally and in having experiences I might have otherwised missed.

On Sunday night, as I was making my way along the inside moat road admiring the little candles being placed along the sidewalk as part of the Loy Krathong festival, I ran into two of my friends Aek and Mix. They were on their way to meet friends to go to Amooga, a Thai barbeque restaurant, for dinner and invited me along. And by invited, I mean they told me I was coming along. I never made it to where the main festival activities were taking place. Instead, I had a much more satisfying evening spent with friends and experiencing a meal I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience otherwise.

Thai barbeque is a type of hot pot meal, although instead of boiling the food in the water, the steam and heat are used to grill the food on the top of the plate. The cooking plate is placed over a burner on the table and the trough around the edge is filled with water. To start, everyone fills a plate (or two or three) with whatever types of meats and vegetables they want to eat. The meat options ranged from steak and chicken to squid, and everything in between. Still not sure what half of the options were. Then the cooking and eating begins. My eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach. Not to worry though, the boys took care of finishing all the food on the table (much to my astonishment) and two bottles of SangSom The whole meal, including non-alcoholic beverages and coconut ice cream for dessert, cost 199 baht (or just under $7).

On the way back to the old town, we stopped to launch a krathong. My krathong had banana leaves folded into intricate points, giant yellow marigolds and purple orchids. I lit my joss stick (incense) and the candle. Keeping the candle lit proved to be a futile task in the light breeze that had started blowing. Placing a few strands of hair on the krathong, I made my wish and let it go in the Mae Ping (river). Sadly, I don’t think my krathong made it very far as it had trouble catching the current and ended up bunched against a branch with several other krathong. Still, just maybe my misfortunes will be floated away and my wish will be granted.

Rain, Rain Go Away…

November is a transition from rainy season to cool season in Chiang Mai. The warm daily rains of the wet season are replaced with sporatic cooler evening storms. Many days the clouds just threaten. The last two nights though we have been graced with torrential rains. The first night I was caught on the other side of the old town with my motorbike. I had forgot how cold riding a motorbike in the rain can truly be. Even on the short journet back to the Blue House, I found myself trying to take as much advantage of the heat of the other cars as possible.

One of the Loy Krathong events is a parade showcasing brightly lit, highly ornate floats bearing the winners and contestants in the Noppamas Queen beauty contest. All of the floats and participants were staging when the rain started falling. All the beautiful women, dressed in their finest were rescued from their floats as fast as possible and all the parade participants went scurrying for cover. I headed home as quickly as possible, lacking either a rain poncho or an umbrella, assuming the parade was cancelled given the torrential rain that we had all night.

The other downside to the rains is the number of mosquitoes. The voracious mosquitoes take any opportunity to grab a drink of blood. Finally resorted to buying some mosquito repellent. I think the mosquitoes are just laughing at it though as I’ve managed to continue to amass welts from bites.

I am also now the proud owner of an adorable blue umbrella with a polka dot trim. Hopefully I don’t have to use it too much, especially while riding my motorbike.

Stepping off…

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Welcome to the Adventures of Gypsy Gal!

The Gypsy Gal (me) likes to travel and likes to write, so this blog site is a melding of those two passions. Here you will find the tales of the Gypsy Gal on her travels throughout the world.

I have posted some of my tales from previous trips and look forward to posting more very soon.

Read, imagine the sights and smells, and enjoy!